Back in 2014, Harvard University’s Houghton Library revealed the unsettling history of one of its books. The work, entitled “Des Destinees de l’Ame,” was actually bound using human skin.
The university staff believed the skin used came from an unknown female mental patient who had died of natural causes. Then, the grisly book-binding process began.
After the author of the book, Arsene Houssaye, finished writing in the mid-1800s, he passed the literature on to a friend. That friend, Dr. Ludovic Bouland, then actually performed the gruesome binding process.
As macabre as this practice may seem, though, covering books with human skin– otherwise known as anthropodermic bibliopegy– was actually a subject of particular interest during the nineteenth century.
Some examples even date as far back as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but popularity truly spiked during the 1800s.
And the reasons why books were bound in this way were plentiful. Some justified the practice as punishment or to aid in the promotion of propaganda, while others simply coveted the rarity of owning such unusual “collector’s items.”
Primarily, during the early nineteenth century, human skin book binding was sometimes used as a sort of post-mortem punishment for executed criminals– especially since it fits in quite well with the idea of dissection.
Following the introduction of the Murder Act in 1752– which aimed to “better prevent the horrid crime of murder”– dissection was used as a deterrent to the English public.
It also undignified criminals who were executed one last time by publicly dissecting them post-mortem.