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Harvard's other connection to preserved human skin

In addition to the newly revealed unpleasantries at Harvard Medical School, Harvard's Houghton Library has a 19th-century French book bound in human skin - Des destinées de l'ame (Destinies of the Soul).

Or as the library's catalog puts it:

Bound in human skin, taken from the back of the unclaimed body of a woman patient in a French mental hospital who died suddenly of apoplexy; laid into case with this book is typed memorandum by J.B. Stetson giving details of its provenance; in case, 18 cm. Inscribed: A mon cher docteur Bouland. Arsène Houssaye.

The entry also notes that no, the book is not available to be checked out.

It turns out that back in the 19th century, when medical students hired resurrectionists to dig up freshly buried corpses for dissection, doctors, at least some doctors, had a thing for binding books in flesh, or, in the scientific terminology they love so much, anthropodermic bibliopegy.

The book's author, Arsène Houssaye, sent a copy of his musings on the afterlife to his friend, Dr. Ludovic Bouland, a noted medical doctor and prominent bibliophile, who found somebody to bind it in the skin of the poor dead mental patient - as attested in a two-page handwritten note Bouland inserted into the book:

This book is bound in human skin parchment on which no ornament has been stamped to preserve its elegance. By looking carefully you easily distinguish the pores of the skin. A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering: I had kept this piece of human skin taken from the back of a woman. It is interesting to see the different aspects that change this skin according to the method of preparation to which it is subjected. Compare for example with the small volume I have in my library, Sever. Pinaeus de Virginitatis notis which is also bound in human skin but tanned with sumac.

In 2014, Harvard scientists and book conservators put the book binding to the test and, using state-of-the-art protein testing, concluded the binding was, in fact, preserved human skin. First they confirmed the material contained proteins unique to primates, then used liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry to determine specific sequences of amino acids, which let them rule out gorillas, chimps and other non-human primates.

This was in contrast to another supposed human-skin book, at Harvard Law School, that turned out to be bound in sheepskin (similarly, a copy of a book of the writings of Ovid at the Harvard Medical School library was also proven to be bound with sheepskin rather than humanskin).

Harvard has been in possession of Houssaye's book since at least 1934, when book collector John B. Stetson, Jr., "deposited" it at the Houghton library. In 1954, his widow formally gave the library permanent ownership. Online sources, at least, do not say how or why Stetson acquired the book.

After reading about the confirmatory tests, Pam Bernard, who herself had not just gone to Harvard but had been given the book to hold on a visit to the Houghton Library, pondered the woman whose skin was cut away to cover a book:

For years I have yearned
for some quiet place for her to emerge—
in my writing, my dreams—
even once traveling three thousand miles
in hopes I might find her—but she was neither
there, nor anywhere I searched.
Then one soft afternoon as I crossed
the back meadow, I came upon her
humming among butterflyweed
and cranesbill, the hem of her
walking dress darkened with mud.
Her hair was swept back into a single
loose braid, and she wore a necklace
of nutmeg and violets.

Note: The Boston Athenaeum also has a book supposedly covered in human skin - the skin of the man who wrote it.

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Comments

World's Greatest University?

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Thank you for quoting and linking to the beautiful poem by Pam Bernard. It brought some balm to the feelings of horror accompanying the original story.

Long time Universal Hub reader, first time commenter here- poetry is that powerful!

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there's that copy of the Necronomi

$^#&%%%#######

NO CARRIER

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That other university up in Arkham, MA is much more receptive to requests for this book.

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Nope nope no no no no no no

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Nope nope no no no no nononono

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is making me sick. Truly horrifying!

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But using discarded foreskins for a variety of commercial uses is good?

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that turns into a suitcase when you rub it

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Theme music

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Countway Library at Harvard Medical School is home to the Warren Anatomical Museum,
"One of the last surviving anatomy and pathology museum collections in the United States."

Lots of interesting stuff to be seen there, including preserved human remains and other things that those culprits in Peabody* were probably salivating over.

The website says that the museum itself is temporarily closed due to a renovation project at Countway, but they intend to reopen it, hopefully soon. [The website says winter/spring 2023.]

* - PEABODY?? I can't understand why Kat's Creepy Creations located in that city. It would be a perfect fit for the next town over... Salem.

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Strictly a guess here, but maybe Salem rents are just too damn high for somebody who just wants to earn a living selling stolen human parts, while Peabody has more reasonable lease rates.

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Although she obviously should be working out of Braintree.

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