The book, bound in human flesh and housed in Houghton Library for almost a century, was so popular that it had inspired hazing rituals at Harvard University.

College students employed by the library were asked to retrieve the book without being told that it was bound in human skin, as a form of hazing, decades ago.

Now – ten years after scientists at Harvard confirmed that the 19th-century French book about the destiny of the human soul is bound in human skin – the original binding has been removed.

The binding was removed “due to the ethically fraught nature of the book’s origins and subsequent history,” Harvard said on Wednesday.

Taken from the back of a woman, a psychiatric patient in a French hospital who died of a stroke in the 1800s, the skin has been placed “into respectful temporary storage,” until the library decides how to dispose of it in a dignified manner.

The removal follows years of debate about how the university should handle the binding, and a 2022 Harvard report focusing on human remains in university collections, which was spurred by the reckoning with how racism, slavery and colonialism helped establish universities and museums.


The book bound in human skin was a copy of “Des Destinées de L’âme,” by Arsène Houssaye, a 19th-century French novelist and poet. Houssaye gifted the printed text of the book to his friend, Ludovic Bouland, in the early 1880s.

Bouland, a doctor, bound the book in human skin that he had acquired himself while still a medical student, according to his handwritten note inserted into the volume. The note also describes the process used to treat the skin so it could be used to bind the text.

“A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering,” Bouland wrote. “By looking carefully you easily distinguish the pores of the skin.”

The note also stated that nothing had been stamped on the cover in order to “preserve its elegance.”

Harvard College Library accepted the book from John B. Stetson, an American diplomat and Harvard graduate, in 1934. It was transferred to Houghton Library in 1944 and formally donated to Harvard in 1954.

In 2014, scientists confirmed that the book is “without a doubt” bound in human skin.


Then, Harvard had carried a blog post titled “Caveat Lecter” announcing “good news for fans of anthropodermic bibliopegy, bibliomaniacs and cannibals alike,” according to “Dark Archives,” a book written by Megan Rosenbloom, a librarian and expert on anthropodermic bibliopegy, the practice of binding books in human skin.

Rosenbloom is also part of the Anthropodermic Book Project, which tests alleged anthropodermic books to see if they’re of human origin. So far, the project has confirmed 18 books to be bound in human skin.

One of the strongest voices critiquing the blog post belonged to Paul Needham, a retired librarian who had worked at Princeton University. He said that the blog post should be deleted and the book’s cover buried.

“Although preservation is a central responsibility of libraries and museums, it is not one isolated from wider questions of ethics,” Needham wrote in the New York Review of Books. “There are times with the ‘good’ of preservation must be weighed against other compelling responsibilities.”

The library’s blog post can no longer be accessed on the university website.

Following the 2022 report, Houghton Library reviewed the book and found that the human remains used in the Houssaye book’s binding no longer belong in the Harvard Library collections, and “Des destinées de l’âme” was disbound.


“The core problem with the volume’s creation was a doctor who didn’t see a whole person in front of him and carried out an odious act of removing a piece of skin from a deceased patient, almost certainly without consent, and used it in a book binding that has been handled by many for more than a century,” said Tom Hyry, a librarian at Harvard, in a news release. “We believe it’s time the remains be put to rest.”

The human skin used to bind the book is not available, in person or digitally, to any researcher and the library has removed all images of the skin from its catalogue, online blog posts and other channels.

The book will be available to researchers, without its cover.

On Wednesday, the library apologized for objectifying and compromising the dignity of the woman whose skin was used for the binding while the book was in their care.

The library outlined the ways in which it failed to care for the book’s binding.

This included making the book available to anyone who asked for it regardless of why they wanted to borrow it, and employing a “sensationalistic, morbid, and humorous tone,” in the blog post about the binding.

The university said it is conducting additional biographical and provenance research into the anonymous female patient, the book, and Bouland.

Additionally, it is consulting with French authorities “to determine a final respectful disposition of these human remains.”

Even after more than 90 years, it may still “take months, and perhaps longer” for the library to find a resting place for the remains.

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