Tests have revealed that Houghton Library’s copy of Arsène Houssaye’s Des destinées de l’ame (FC8.H8177.879dc) is without a doubt bound in human skin.
Harvard conservators and scientists tested the binding using several different methods. According to Senior Rare Book Conservator Alan Puglia, they are 99% confident that the binding is of human origin.
Microscopic samples were taken from various locations on the binding, and were analyzed by peptide mass fingerprinting, which identifies proteins to create a “peptide mass fingerprint” (PMF) allowing analysts to identify the source.
Bill Lane, the director of the Harvard Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics Resource Laboratory, and Daniel Kirby of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies described the results:
“The PMF from Des destinées de l’ame matched the human reference, and clearly eliminated other common parchment sources, such as sheep, cattle and goat. However, although the PMF was consistent with human, other closely related primates, such as the great apes and gibbons, could not be eliminated because of the lack of necessary references.”
Although unlikely that the binding was made from a primate source, the samples were further analyzed using Liquid Chromatography-Tandem Mass Spectrometry (LCMSMS) to determine the order of amino acids, the building blocks of each peptide, which can be different in each species.
“The analytical data, taken together with the provenance of Des destinées de l’ame, make it very unlikely that the source could be other than human,” said Lane.
Houghton’s book is now the only known book at Harvard bound in human skin. Similar testing done on books thought to be bound in human skin at the Harvard Law School Library and the Harvard Medical School’s Countway Library revealed that both were actually bound in sheepskin.
Houghton’s book contains a very specific note from the late 19th century detailing the binding’s origin. This was not the gruesome pastime of just one individual; there are many accounts of similar occurrences in the 19th century, in which the bodies of executed criminals were donated to science, and the skins given to tanners and bookbinders.
The book has been a part of Harvard Library’s collections for eighty years; it was deposited at the library by John B. Stetson, Jr. in 1934, and presented as a gift by Stetson’s widow twenty years later. While the unusual and grotesque provenance have made the book a popular object of curiosity, particularly to undergraduates, it serves as a reminder that such practices were at one time considered acceptable.
Thanks to Heather Cole, Assistant Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts, for contributing this post.