“To Dust You Shall Return:” Books Bound in Human Skin

By Kate Womersley

In the closing couplet of Sonnet 18, Shakespeare offers reassurance that the pages of literature can preserve us, even after we die:

           So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

           So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Around the time he penned these lines, another method for literarily holding onto the dead was flourishing: not on the paper of folios, but in literal folds around them. The art of anthropodermic bibliopegy (bookbinding using human skin) was openly practiced from the end of the sixteenth century and survived until the last years of the nineteenth.[1]

Harvard University’s archives hold three books which were, until recently, believed to be covered in dead people’s dermatological remains. Notes on the insides of the volumes give clues about their exteriors, which had previously been validated only by superficial testing and the naked eye. Heather Cole, assistant director of Harvard’s Houghton Library, described the greenish tinge of their copy of Arsène Houssaye’s work, Des Destinées de l’Ame (1880s)which has “large pores on the front of it” and “looks different than the normal kinds of leathers we use to bind books.”

But that which “eyes can see” is not sufficient proof that the bindings are homo sapiens. Early in 2014, Harvard’s Weissman Preservation Center removed the three books for verification. Microscopic samples were taken from several spots on each book cover, and the proteins analyzed to create a peptide mass fingerprint (PMF). This was then matched to skin samples from humans, or, less sensationally, cows, pigs and sheep.

Weissman’s initial findings were disappointing. Countway Library’s 1597 copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in French, which bears the inscription “Bound in human skin”, is in fact sheepskin. Langdell Library’s 1605 book of Spanish law, claiming to be wrapped in the hide of a criminal who was “flayed alive”, is also plain ewe.

Dejected, many assumed that the Houghton’s copy of Des Destinées de l’Ame would also prove to be a fake. But rumors of inauthenticity have been greatly exaggerated. Alan Puglia, Senior Rare Book Conservator at the Houghton, said of the nineteenth-century volume that after promising first-round tests, a shred of doubt lingered over whether it could possibly be the skin of a non-human primate. But the Houssaye cover has been further analyzed using Liquid Chromatography-Tandem Mass Spectrometry (LCMSMS) to order the amino acids that make up the leather’s peptides, which are different for every species.[2]

On June 4th 2014, Weissman’s verdict was announced via the Houghton blog: Houssaye’s The Destiny of the Soul is bound in human hide.

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Des Destinées de l’Ame, from the Houghton’s holdings

The little volume has a strange medical history. Acquired by Harvard in June 1954, the three by six inch object with its gold trim started life as a normal book. In the late 1880s, Houssaye presented this particular copy of the recently published work to his friend, Dr. Ludovic Bouland. As well as a medical doctor, Bouland was an indulgent bibliophile. His macabre imagination couldn’t resist but bring together his two domains of expertise, binding Houssaye’s gift in a psychiatric patient’s skin which had fallen into his possession. The “dorsal” leather came from the back of an unclaimed female corpse. She had been in an asylum when she died from a stroke.

Turning cadaver to cover required a trained tanner. Skin taken from the back had the benefit of a large surface area, but it tended to have a particularly coarse grain. A woman’s thigh was often favored for the task. The skin would have been flayed, dehaired, degreased, salted, soaked in water for 6 hours to 2 days, and then tanned. As with the skins of reared animals, tanning increases durability against decomposition, as the tannin (an acid derived from oak or fir trees) permanently alters the protein structure of the hide. The resulting texture of human leather is comparable to that of pigskin.

Bouland commemorated his creativity with a note inside Des Destinées de l’Ame’s cover:

This book is bound in human skin parchment on which no ornament has been stamped to preserve its elegance. By looking carefully you easily distinguish the pores of the skin. A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering: I had kept this piece of human skin taken from the back of a woman.

The gesture is distasteful to modern sensibilities, particularly because it claims that this was a fitting end for a human body. But Bouland’s inscription was not anomalous for its time. Four types of text were popularly considered “deserving” of human bindings: convicted criminals’ testaments, erotica (one 1793 edition of Justine et Juliette by the Marquis de Sade is said to have been bound in female breasts), mementos of dead loved ones wrapped in their skins, and medical treatises (such as Dr. Robert Couper’s Speculations on the Mode and Appearances of Impregnation in the Human Female (1789)). [2] From a historical perspective, such diverse covers are interesting because of the intimacies between the books’ messages and their materiality.

Due to ease of procurement, doctors were often principal characters in the stories surrounding these bindings. Certain surgeons were renowned for their flaying skills. In seventeenth-century France, the famous Parisian surgeon, Pierre Sue, gave a pair of slippers made of human skin as a present to the Cabinet du Roi, as well as a belt of the same material which had a nipple as an ornament.

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Pierre Sue’s Present

Skins were used for trinkets of revenge as well as providing object proof of medical mastery. When the cadaver-dealing William Burke was executed in 1829, wallets were made from his skin. One was presented to the doorkeeper who tended the anatomical classrooms in Edinburgh, and the rest were sold on the city’s streets.[3] In 1821, Richard Smith, senior surgeon at the Bristol Infirmary, was given the corpse of hanged criminal, John Horwood, after testifying at the trial.

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Smith used the body as a teaching aid in his medical lectures on circulation and respiration. After this second public mortification of sorts, Horwood’s body was flayed, tanned and a swatch was used to front the collected papers of his trial at Smith’s request. The binding has a skull and crossbones in each corner, accompanied by the inscription, ‘Cutis Vera Johannis Horwood’: the real skin of John Horwood.

There is an odd symmetry that the Houssaye anthropoderma has found its resting place at Harvard. In 1883, the city of Boston was shaken by scandalous trafficking of human skins. A handful of medical students, some from Harvard Medical School, sent fleshy samples including a white woman’s breast with the nipple intact, to a tannery in North Cambridge. Dr Faunce, who graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1882, gave his classmate a skin which “was from a negro”, he later told the local court. Christian Muller, one of the tanners who handled the specimens, said to the jury that he “received the skins as he received alligator and calf skins”. [4]

It was soon discovered that the integuments were those of dead inmates from The Tewksbury Almshouse, an asylum for the poor of Massachusetts. The almshouse’s manager, Thomas Marsh, had been illegally trading full cadavers with Boston’s medical institutions. In 1883, Governor Benjamin Butler called a committee to inspect  Marsh’s establishment and that same year human tanning was outlawed in Massachusetts, as reported in the Boston Evening Transcript:


Newspapers went wild for the story. The New York Times concluded that the investigation “had been from first to last an infamous burlesque on a decent public inquiry.”

The collective imagination seems insatiably drawn to these stories which bring together the underbelly of medicine and the trappings of high culture. Perhaps that is why rumors of Harvard’s Ovid and legal treatise endured for so long. News of Houssaye’s human binding has, at time of writing, been enthusiastically reported by CNN, NBC, The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Atlantic.

[1] A tentative google search turns up companies which are still selling human leather products today.

[2] Lawrence S. Thompson, ‘Tanned Human Skin’, Bull Med Libr Assoc. Apr 1946; 34(2): 93–102, p.98.

[3] David H. Freedman, “20 Things you didn’t know about autopsies,” Discover September 2012.

[4] Documents, House No.418, by Massachusetts. General Court. House of Representatives. July, 1883. p.92 [available on Google Books].

Regarding the ethical considerations of The Houghton’s anhtropodermic binding, Paul Needham of Princeton University has made some suggestions.

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