Category Archive 'Anthropodermic Books'

03 Apr 2014

Harvard Has (At Least) Three Books Bound in Human Skin

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The Crimson did a feature on Harvard’s Anthropodermic items back in 2006.

A few individuals give new meaning to the idea of spending forever in the library—their skin binds three of the books in Harvard’s 15-million-volume collection.

Without extensive genetic testing, Harvard librarians still do not have the “foggiest notion” of how many volumes wrapped in human hide exist throughout the system, says Director of University Libraries Sidney Verba ’53. But they have identified three such volumes in the Langdell Law Library, Countway Library of Medicine, and the Houghton Collection. The three books range in content from medieval law to Roman poetry to French philosophy.

Langdell’s curator of rare books and manuscripts, David Ferris, says of his library’s man-bound holding: “We are reluctant to have it become an object of fascination.” But the Spanish law book, which dates back to 1605, may become just that.

Accessible in the library’s Elihu Reading Room, the book, entitled “Practicarum quaestionum circa leges regias…,” looks old but otherwise ordinary.

Delicate, stiff, and with wrinkled edges, the skin’s coloring is a subdued yellow, with sporadic brown and black splotches like an old banana. The skin is not covered in hair or marked by tattoos—except for a “Harvard Law Library” branding on its spine. Nothing about it shouts “human flesh” to the untrained eye.

The book’s 794th and final page includes an inscription in purple cursive: “the bynding of this booke is all that remains of my dear friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma on the Fourth Day of August, 1632. King Mbesa did give me the book, it being one of poore Jonas chiefe possessions, together with ample of his skin to bynd it. Requiescat in pace.”

Ferris, who believes the volume was “almost certainly rebound” after its initial assembly, sees it as “a kind of memento mori, in the spirit of rings and jewelry made out of the hair of deceased in the 19th century.”

“While it strikes us as macabre,” the curator says, “it is honoring and memorializing this man.”

In February 1946, Harvard acquired the tome from a New Orleans rare books dealer for $42.50. “Clem G. Hearsey, New Orleans,” is stamped on the book’s first page. In 1992, DNA tests on the binding’s skin proved inconclusive—the genetic evidence presumably was corrupted by the tanning process. Ferris says “he has never seen a book like this on the market,” and that, without its binding, the book probably values between $500 and $1000, while the skin makes it more valuable.

Jack Eckert, the reference librarian at the Countway Library’s Center for the History of Medicine in Longwood, writes in an e-mail that he believes only one human-skin volume exists in the Countway collection. According to Eckert, the Medical School’s 1597 French translation of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” bears a small penciled annotation, “Bound in human skin,” on the inside cover.

But Eckert questions the binding’s authenticity. “I think even this is somewhat doubtful as [the book] doesn’t greatly resemble others I’ve seen in the past,” he adds.

Back in Harvard Yard, in the rarefied confines of Harvard’s Houghton Collection, resides “Des destinées de l’ame…,” a collection of essays meditating on the human spirit by Arsène Houssaye, a French poet and essayist.

Houghton’s associate librarian for collections, Thomas Horrocks, describes the light volume as one of the author’s lesser works.

Notes from a now-missing typed memorandum that once accompanied the book revealed that the binding’s skin comes from “the back of the unclaimed body of a woman patient in a French mental hospital who died suddenly of apoplexy.”

Houssaye gave the book, printed in the 1880s, to his friend, Dr. Bouland. The doctor, who had the book rebound, included a note expressing his belief that “a book on the human soul merited that it was given a human skin.”

Given to Houghton in June 1954 by the wife of John B. Stetson, the small book—approximately three by six inches—sports gold trim. Its binding features a greenish-gold hue as well as visible pores.

Via Roadtrippers Daily.

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NYM published an article on a similar book owned by Brown back in 2006 as well.

07 Jan 2006

Books Bound in Human Skin

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William Corder's Trial
William Corder’s Trial, bound in William Corder’s skin

A Boston Globe article exploits a fairly well-known bibliographic curiosity to provoke some public shock:

Brown University’s library boasts an unusual anatomy book. Tanned and polished to a smooth golden brown, its cover looks and feels no different from any other fine leather.

But here’s its secret: the book is bound in human skin.

A number of prestigious libraries — including Harvard University’s — have such books in their collections. While the idea of making leather from human skin seems bizarre and cruel today, it was not uncommon in centuries past, said Laura Hartman, a rare book cataloger at the National Library of Medicine in Maryland and author of a paper on the subject…

The library has three books bound in human skin — the anatomy text and two 19th century editions of “The Dance of Death,” a medieval morality tale.

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Bibliophile publications, and the literature of the supernatural, sometimes feature colorful stories of rare older books, particularly grimoires (i.e., instruction manuals for practicing black magic), purportedly bound in human skin (usually that of a virgin slave), but real examples seem to be mostly unique Victorian and Edwardian exhibition bindings of anatomical texts or avant garde literature.

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The above story probably came about via a reading of this one from the Harvard Law School Record.


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