Posted: Jun 09, 2014 12:22 AM CST Updated: Jun 10, 2014 2:33 AM CST
By Kimberly Wright
'Des Destinées de L'ame' by Arsène Houssaye was bound in the skin of a female French mental hospital patient. (Source: Rob at Houghton/Wikicommons) 'Des Destinées de L'ame' by Arsène Houssaye was bound in the skin of a female French mental hospital patient. (
(RNN) - "Never judge a book by its cover" is a popular saying, but for some books, that advice is impossible to follow.
Harvard conservators and scientists performed tests on the cover of one of their rare books and have found, with 99-percent certainty, that it is made of flesh, according to the Houghton Library blog.
The book, Des Destinées de L'ame by Arsene Houssaye, was written in the 1880s in Paris as a meditation on the soul and, curiously enough, life after death.
The test seems to confirm the note found in the macabre manuscript, detailing the cover's origins.
The note, written by Dr. Ludovic Bouland, who received the book from Houssaye, claimed that Bouland had the book custom-bound with skin from the back of a deceased, unclaimed female mental patient.
"This book is bound in human skin parchment on which no ornament has been stamped to preserve its elegance," Bouland explained. "By looking carefully you easily distinguish the pores of the skin. A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering ..."
Historians suspect the practice of reusing human skin dates back to at least the Middle Ages. The first modern instance of skin being used to bind manuscripts, also known as anthropodermic bibliopegy, dates back to the 1700s, according to Lawrence S. Thompson in his report, Tanned Human Skin.
During the French Revolution, copies of the new constitution were bound in the skin of the opposition. Flaying and dissection also became part of English jurisprudence in the early 19th century.
Thompson theorized that by using criminals this way, English authorities were trying to discourage "Burking." He said it was "so-called from the profession of William Burke, who earned his bread by murdering the good citizens of Edinburgh and selling the cadavers to a local physician for dissection."
That fate awaited Burke himself when he was executed in 1829 for the deaths of those 16 citizens. His skin was tanned and part of it was made into a wallet, while other parts were distributed widely.
"One portion of it was included in the remarkable collection of papers relative to Burke and [William] Hare which was formed for Sir Walter Scott and retained in the library of the bard at Abbotsford after his death," Thompson said.
The book-binding practice also occurred in the U.S., usually among doctors, and major libraries' collections may include books allegedly covered in skin.
Among these American-made books are at least three volumes in the library of the Philadelphia College of Physicians, Thompson said. One early volume bore the inscription: "'The leather with which this book is bound is human skin, from a soldier who died during the great Southern rebellion.'"
Other books in the college's collection were bound using deceased patients. Some of those whose skins were harvested chose to be recycled as book covers.
Seeking fame, Ernst Kauffman created a collection of woodcuts, which he had bound in his own skin after his death, according to Thompson.
The Boston Athenaeum library holds another instance of someone who chose to achieve immortality through publication.
Highwayman John Allen requested that, after his execution, his memoirs be bound in his own hide and given to John Fenno Jr., the man who had accused him of attempted murder, as a token of respect, the Boston Athenaeum website stated. That memoir was published in 1837.