• The Hub

    News, Notes, Talk

    What should we do with books bound in human skin?

    Brittany Allen

    March 28, 2024, 2:37pm

    As of this morning, Harvard’s Houghton Library has removed a book bound with human skin from its collection. Or rather, the skin has been removed from the book.

    This is in accordance with the findings of a committee appointed to examine human remains in university museum collections. The expunging is also inspired by an open letter from a humanist affinity group who insist that the “loathsome object” be repatriated post-haste to its native France.

    So, who is responsible for this most disturbing artifact?

    The book in question is Des destinées de l’âme, an 1880s meditation on life after death by Arsène Houssaye, a French poet and novelist. Though the author did not personally see to the book’s binding, he did gift the offending copy to a nefarious physician acquaintance called Dr. Ludovic Bouland. (Cue the trembling horses.)

    According to Harvard, Bouland bound the book “with skin he took without consent from the body of a deceased female patient.” In a handwritten note, the dark doc further explained his reasoning and process, claiming that “a book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering.” Which, yikes. 

    The unsettling and often grossly exploitative practice of anthropodermic bibliopegyor, binding books in human skindates back to the 16th century. (Though the practice was popularized among, you guessed it, the creepy Victorians.) The College of Physicians in Philadelphia is home to a few such pieceslike this one, care of a woman who died of trichinosis. And the Boston Athaeneum houses a wild sample in the case of the infamous crook, James Allen, who actually requested his autobiography be bound in his own dermis.

    But most surviving examples involve books revenge-bound with the skin of murdered convicts, enemies, or other pseudo-patients. Like the young woman covering Des destinées.

    All this gives credence to protest, not to mention an obvious case of the icks.

    Led by acclaimed academic librarian Paul Needham, the affinity group chided Harvard in their open letter for sensationalizing Des destinées de l’âme’s origins and taking their sweet time responding to calls for its removal. And considering that the nameless young woman whose skin was harvested for the cover was also subject to abuse at the ends of her doctor (Bouland experimented on his patients with hydrogen cyanide), I tend to agree with the humanists. But this begs a larger question: what should libraries and museums do with all the other ghosts haunting their storage units?

    Per the steering committee’s report, Harvard alone has discovered 20,000 human remains in its collection. This figure includes the skeletons, bones, hair and teeth of many unwilling donors, including Native Americans and enslaved people. Some say these remains should all be returned to the appropriate cultural or familial bodies, where they can be given dignified, respectful re-internments. Others think that museums can keep some of their creepy bits so long as they frame the morbid plunder in context.

    When it comes to the remains of enslaved, incarcerated, or generally looted bodies, I think return and apologize is a good move (read: precursor to meaningful reparations). But when it comes to certain murkier cases, like the anonymized, anthropogenically bound medical texts one can find at the College of Physicians? I’m more on the fence. If a body is given to science, one way or another, does this not include the skin? But, hmm. Now that I say it out loud…

    I guess I don’t especially want to partake in a case-by-case cultural accounting of body-bound books. Thankfully(?), the Anthropodermic Book Project has honed a method for analyzing these probably cursed things, so we don’t have to.

    But their work is currently on hiatus. 

  • %d bloggers like this: