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 libraryâ€”their skin binds three of the books in Harvardâ€™s 15-million-volume collection.
Without extensive genetic testing, Harvard librarians still do not have the â€œfoggiest notionâ€ of how many volumes wrapped in human hide exist throughout the system, says Director of University Libraries Sidney Verba â€™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.
Langdellâ€™s curator of rare books and manuscripts, David Ferris, says of his libraryâ€™s man-bound holding: â€œWe are reluctant to have it become an object of fascination.â€ But the Spanish law book, which dates back to 1605, may become just that.
Accessible in the libraryâ€™s Elihu Reading Room, the book, entitled â€œPracticarum quaestionum circa leges regias…,â€ looks old but otherwise ordinary.
Delicate, stiff, and with wrinkled edges, the skinâ€™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 tattoosâ€”except for a â€œHarvard Law Libraryâ€ branding on its spine. Nothing about it shouts â€œhuman fleshâ€ to the untrained eye.
The bookâ€™s 794th and final page includes an inscription in purple cursive: â€œthe 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.â€
Ferris, who believes the volume was â€œalmost certainly reboundâ€ after its initial assembly, sees it as â€œa kind of memento mori, in the spirit of rings and jewelry made out of the hair of deceased in the 19th century.â€
â€œWhile it strikes us as macabre,â€ the curator says, â€œit is honoring and memorializing this man.â€
In February 1946, Harvard acquired the tome from a New Orleans rare books dealer for $42.50. â€œClem G. Hearsey, New Orleans,â€ is stamped on the bookâ€™s first page. In 1992, DNA tests on the bindingâ€™s skin proved inconclusiveâ€”the genetic evidence presumably was corrupted by the tanning process. Ferris says â€œhe has never seen a book like this on the market,â€ 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 Libraryâ€™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 Schoolâ€™s 1597 French translation of Ovidâ€™s â€œMetamorphosesâ€ bears a small penciled annotation, â€œBound in human skin,â€ on the inside cover.
But Eckert questions the bindingâ€™s authenticity. â€œI think even this is somewhat doubtful as [the book] doesnâ€™t greatly resemble others Iâ€™ve seen in the past,â€ he adds.
Back in Harvard Yard, in the rarefied confines of Harvardâ€™s Houghton Collection, resides â€œDes destinÃ©es de lâ€™ame…,â€ a collection of essays meditating on the human spirit by ArsÃ¨ne Houssaye, a French poet and essayist.
Houghtonâ€™s associate librarian for collections, Thomas Horrocks, describes the light volume as one of the authorâ€™s lesser works.
Notes from a now-missing typed memorandum that once accompanied the book revealed that the bindingâ€™s skin comes from â€œthe back of the unclaimed body of a woman patient in a French mental hospital who died suddenly of apoplexy.â€
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 â€œa book on the human soul merited that it was given a human skin.â€
Given to Houghton in June 1954 by the wife of John B. Stetson, the small bookâ€”approximately three by six inchesâ€”sports gold trim. Its binding features a greenish-gold hue as well as visible pores.
Via Roadtrippers Daily.
NYM published an article on a similar book owned by Brown back in 2006 as well.