The libraries at Harvard University have been thought to contain three books made of human flesh, but the mystery surrounding one of them has been solved. Recent testing on one of the books has concluded that it is in fact bound in sheepskin, not human. The three tomes were collected by Harvard throughout their 350 year history, and became widely accepted as being bound in human skin after a 2006 article appeared in the Harvard Crimson detailing the discovery of them.
The books in question do not appear to be any different from most old texts, wrinkled and leathery. However, the inscriptions on them are what tipped curators off that they might be on to something strange. One of the books, a translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, states simply and directly that it is bound in human flesh. Another, a medieval law book, is a bit more exotic, declaring the name of the person who had their skin flayed to create the binding, Jonas Wright, as well as the date they were killed, August 4, 1632. That is the book that was examined using a process known as peptide mass fingerprinting, allowing scientists to determine the components of the binding belonged to a sheep, not person. The glue holding the binding together was concluded to be made of cattle and pig collagen.
The books have existed in the various libraries of Harvard’s campus for decades, and the inscriptions have been confounding those who studied the specimens for almost as long. Harvard claims to not have gone out in search of such morbid samples, but think their massive collection of texts is simply so large, at nearly 15 million volumes, that it cannot help but contain a certain number of oddities. The text was acquired by Harvard for $42.50, and if it had been shown to conclusively been made of human skin would have been valued at thousands of dollars for its rarity. Now, partly from the age, and partly due to the strange inscription, it may still be worth somewhere between $500 and $1,000. It presents a fine collectible but is much less unique than previously thought.
Finding books bound in the skin of a human is not something unique to Harvard. Several other places, such as the University of Pennsylvania, have such specimens. The Mutter Museum in Philadelphia has several samples on public display. What made the Harvard tomes so unique was the strange way they were labeled. The reason for the inscriptions is unknown. They may have been meant to honor the dead, or they may have even been a morbid joke played by someone when the book was made, or a later owner. The notes, along with the texture of the cover, allowed even the to be a convincing replica of real human skin.
In spite of the debunked mystery, the other two specimens are still believed to be authentic. Due to the age of the covers, as well as the tanning process used in creating them, they cannot be tested for DNA. Samples must be taken from the skin in order to perform the testing. Whether they will be tested for authenticity in the future is unknown, but perhaps the mystery around these memento mori has more value than an answer would.
By Brian Moore