Experts Agree: One In Three Harvard Library Books Not Bound In Human Skin

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Harvard Library Books Not Bound In Human Skin

After an investigation by a Harvard conservation scientist, it would appear that a book of Spanish law published in the early 1600's thought to be bound in human skin in in fact covered in sheepskin.

The study was conducted after the story of three books at Harvard's library that may be covered in human skin resurfaced in the news over the last few weeks. Speculation about this particular book's materials started due to an odd inscription inside:

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.

However, tests of the proteins sampled from the book prove it is not human skin. Not today, anyway. One theory regards the fact that the book was originally published between the years 1605 and 1606 while the note inside refers to the year 1632. This may hint at the possibility that the book had been rebound at some point.

As for Harvard library's other two fleshy tomes, a book by French writer Houssaye and a copy of Ovid's Metamorphoses, there is no scientific word as of yet. Heather Cole, an assistant curator at the Harvard library, has said that the Houssaye book does appear to have a different binding material than is typical. In addition, it contains a note from a doctor, a friend of the author, who alludes to the human origins of the binding materials.

If you're interested in seeing a book bound in human skin, you're in "luck." Philadelphia's Mütter Museum, a festival of the senses for those of us who enjoy the macabre (cast of a woman who lived most of her life with a horn in her forehead, photographs of Civil War injuries, fetuses in jars, and a chest of drawers containing items swallowed by one doctor's patients) does hold a book bound in a woman's skin. If you can't make the trip, the museum's YouTube channel is not to be missed, especially the series titled "Guess What's On The Curator's Desk." Make sure to also check out the books linked below for more.

Image of The Mutter Museum Of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia
Author: Gretchen Worden
Price: $33.06
Publisher: Blast Books (2002)
Binding: Hardcover, 192 pages
Image of Mütter Museum Historic Medical Photographs
Author: College of Physicians of Philadelphia
Price: $35.74
Publisher: Blast Books (2007)
Binding: Hardcover, 224 pages

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L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami April 7, 2014 - 3:32pm

So what about the other two of each sample? Funny stuff.

Repo Kempt's picture
Repo Kempt from Nova Scotia April 8, 2014 - 3:04pm

I was at the Mütter Museum last year. Cool spot!

I also saw numerous postings online and news articles about the 'famous necropants' made of human skin at the Witchcraft Museum in Iceland. i was there two years ago. They are made of rubber and the display case says 'replica', but the articles always fail to mention that...

Thanks for the book links!

helpfulsnowman's picture
Community Manager
helpfulsnowman from Colorado is reading But What If We're Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman April 19, 2014 - 7:51am

@Sarah:  No word yet. Which causes me to speculate that they haven't tested as they're afraid of the truth. But that could just be the Fox Mulder in me talking.

@Repo: You're welcome! I'll have to check that out. Necropants is definitely the best word of the week.