Harvard University Removes Human Skin Cover from 19th-Century Book

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Harvard University, home to many esoteric and unique treasures, has recently taken an unexpected action concerning one such piece in its collection – a 19th-century book bound in human skin. Titled ‘Des Destinées de L’âme,’ or ‘Destinies of the Soul,’ this intriguing tome has had a controversial history, triggering the decision to remove the macabre cover.

This unsettling artefact is the work of Arsène Houssaye, a renowned French novelist and poet who scribed the text during the early 1880s. The manuscript was then presented to a physician named Ludovic Bouland. According to Harvard’s account, Bouland, in a chillingly unconventional manner, bound the book in skin, sourced without consent from the cadaver of a deceased female patient in the hospital where he was stationed.

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Inside the book, Bouland left a handwritten note that stated, ‘a book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering,’ as unveiled by associate university librarian Thomas Hyry. Bouland’s note also provided a detailed description of the preparation process that the skin had undergone for it to be used for binding.

Back in 2014, a scientific analysis of the unsettling binding had indeed confirmed it to be comprised of human skin, an understandably alarming realization for the esteemed Ivy League institution. Given the book’s peculiar history and its ethical implications, Harvard took measures to ensure the situation was handled appropriately.

A recent statement from Harvard divulged how the library’s practices towards the book did not align with their ethical standards, prompting them to reconsider how it was handled. It made the book accessible to anyone who expressed a desire to consult it—a decision it admitted was made in error.

There have even been tales of student workers being pranked by being asked to retrieve the book without being privy to the chilling fact that it contained human remains. Upon discovery of the book’s morbid binding component, the library took to the Houghton blog—and formerly adopted a lurid, humorous, and sensational tone that further triggered widespread media attention.

The extract of human skin has been removed and is currently held in secure storage at the Harvard Library, as confirmed by Anne-Marie Eze, Houghton Library associate librarian.

Striving to achieve a resolution that meets the ethical standards and respect for the deceased, the library will delve deeper into research about the book, its binder Bouland, and the anonymous female patient. They are also coordinating with French authorities to determine a final respectful disposition.

Harvard’s decision was influenced by a recent review from a report on the presence of human remains within its museum collections. Both the Harvard Library and the Harvard Museum Collections Returns Committee have unanimously agreed that the ill-gotten human remains in the book’s binding no longer fit to remain within the university’s library collections. The embarrassing saga of the ‘skin-bound book’ reflects the institution’s shifting focus on ethical treatment and respect for the dead in the preservation of their artefacts.

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Melinda Cochrane is a poet, teacher and fiction author. She is also the editor and publisher of The Inspired Heart, a collection of international writers. Melinda also runs a publishing company, Melinda Cochrane International books for aspiring writers, based out Montreal, Quebec. Her publication credits include: The art of poetic inquiry, (Backalong Books), a novella, Desperate Freedom, (Brian Wrixon Books Canada), and 2 collections of poetry; The Man Who Stole Father’s Boat, (Backalong Books), and She’s an Island Poet, Desperate Freedom was on the bestseller's list for one week, and The Man Who Stole Father’s Boat is one of hope and encouragement for all those living in the social welfare system. She’s been published in online magazines such as, (regular writer for) ‘Life as a Human’, and Shannon Grissom’s magazine.