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Jun 06, 2014 07:36 AM EDT

“Human Skin Used To Bind 19th Century Book,” Harvard Experts Say

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A series of tests at Harvard University have concluded that a 19th-century book housed at the school's Houghton Library is bound with "human skin."

In a statement, Senior Rare Book Conservator Alan Puglia said that researchers are 99.9 percent confident about human skin being used as binding material for the version of French writer Arsene Houssaye's "Des destinees de l'ame (A meditation on the soul and life after death)."

In the mid-1880s, Houssaye (1815-1896) presented the book to his friend Dr. Ludovic Bouland, a well-known bibliophile. Bouland bound the book with skin from the unclaimed body of a female mental patient who had died of a stroke, according to the library.

Explaining his choice of the unique binding material for the book, Bouland said, "A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering."

For the tests, the researchers took microscopic samples from various parts of the binding and identified the source of the material through its proteins.

The analysis of "Des destinees de l'ame" matched "the human reference, and clearly eliminated other common parchment sources, such as sheep, cattle and goat," said Bill Lane, the director of the Harvard Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics Resource Laboratory.

Bouland said that apart from the 19-century book, Séverin Pineau's "De integritatis & corruptionis virginum notis," is also bound in human hide. The skin used for the 17th century volume is tanned with sumac. It is currently featured in the collection of the Wellcome Library in London.

Although binding a book with human skin sounds weird, the library said that the practice is not new and in fact dates back to 16th century.

"Termed anthropodermic bibliopegy, the binding of books in human skin has occurred at least since the 16th century," it said. "The confessions of criminals were occasionally bound in the skin of the convicted, or an individual might request to be memorialized for family or lovers in the form of a book."

In 2006, Harvard's college newspaper, The Crimson, said that at least three books in the university's libraries were wrapped in human skin. But testing of two other volumes at the Harvard Law School Library and the Harvard Medical School's Countway Library revealed that they were bound in sheepskin.

"Houghton's book is now the only known book at Harvard bound in human skin," said the library, the college's main repository for rare books and manuscripts, CNN reports.

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