The Skinny on Harvard’s Rare Book Collection

Human flesh-bound volumes R.I.P. on library shelves

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.

‘MEMENTO MORI’

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.

ONLY SKIN DEEP

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.

IN HARVARD’S SKIN

According to the former director of libraries at the University of Kentucky, Lawrence S. Thompson, the first reputed example of human-skin binding—anthropodermic bibliopegy—dates to a 13th century French Bible. Human-skin binding likely began in the late 16th or early 17th century, according to Thompson, who has written about the topic.

Harvard’s anthropodermic history seems to have begun in 1933. A Crimson article from that year reports that Winthrop House hosted an exhibition of “the finest collection of miniature books in the world,” owned by then-undergraduate R.L. Henderson ’34.

“The collection includes,” the article continues, “a volume bound in human skin.” But, according to the article, the “removal of 20 square inches of skin from his back failed to impair the health of its donor, who is still alive and in the best of condition.”

Verba, who is a political scientist at Harvard in addition to his role as the University’s chief librarian, says that “Harvard Library has been around for 350 years,” and his “guess is that at no point in its history did Harvard go out to collect books bound in human skin.”

“We certainly haven’t gone out and looked for them,” Verba emphasizes.

But Eckert, the Countway librarian, speculates that Countway’s acquisition may have had that purpose. The accession information of Countway’s Ovid, acquired in 1989, “mentions the binding, so I suspect it was known, and this was probably the reason for the purchase,” Eckert explains in an e-mail.

Harvard is not alone in its human holdings. Brown University’s John Hay Library contains three books bound in human skin, and the Daily Pennsylvanian, the student newspaper at the University of Pennsylvania, reports that Penn’s medical school turned out a handful of human-skin tanners and binders in the late 19th century.

What Thompson calls “the most famous of all anthropodermic bindings” resides across the river at the Boston Athenaeum. The book, “The Highwayman: Narrative of the Life of James Allen alias George Walton,” is a memoir whose author lives on inside as well as on the book’s covers. Walton was impressed by the courage of a man whom he once attacked, and when Walton was facing execution, he asked to have his memoir bound in his own skin and presented to the brave man.

Lea Professor of History Ann Blair, who teaches History 1318, “History of the Book and Reading,” says she does not think the University should actively seek more human skin-bound books.

“Given the many pressures on library purchasing these days,” Blair writes in an e-mail, “I wouldn’t want to prioritize this kind of book; the text rather than the binding of a book is what matters to most students and scholars.”

—Staff writer Samuel P. Jacobs can be reached at jacobs@fas.harvard.edu.