A 19th-Century Book Made From A Dead Woman’s Skin Was Just Removed From Harvard’s Library

Published March 29, 2024

Des Destinées de L'âme was written by French novelist Arsène Houssaye in the mid-1880s about the nature of souls and life after death.

Harvard Human Skin Book

Houghton Library/Harvard UniversityDes Destinées de L’âme, the book bound in human skin and held at Harvard Library.

After nearly 100 years in the collections of Harvard University’s Houghton Library, a controversial book covered in a woman’s skin is being removed due to the “ethically fraught nature of the book’s binding.”

The book is titled Des Destinées de L’âme, or Destinies of the Soul, and was published in 1879 by Arsène Houssaye. The volume was not originally bound in the dead woman’s skin. That was a change made by its first owner, the French physician Dr. Ludovic Bouland. According to Harvard Library, Bouland “bound the book with skin he took without consent from the body of a deceased female patient in a hospital where he worked.”

The library’s copy of Des Destinées de L’âme contained a handwritten note from Bouland in which he wrote that “a book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering.”

How Harvard Library Came Into Possession Of The Book

“Evidence indicates that Bouland bound the book with skin, taken from a woman, which he had acquired as a medical student,” associate university librarian Tom Hyry said in an update from Harvard Library. “A memo accompanying the book written by John Stetson, which has since been lost, told us that Bouland took this skin from the body of an unknown deceased woman patient from a French psychiatric hospital.”

Bouland’s handwritten note also detailed the process he used to treat the skin so that it could be used to bind the text. The doctor did not include any other details about the woman whose skin was used.

Arsène Houssaye

Public DomainA portrait of Arsène Houssaye, the author of Des Destinées de L’âme.

Bouland died in 1933, and the following year, the copy of Des Destinées de L’âme was accepted on deposit by the American diplomat, businessman, and Harvard alumnus John B. Stetson, Jr.

In 1944, the book was transferred from Widener Library to Houghton Library and then officially donated by Stetson’s widow, Ruby, to Houghton Library in 1954.

Removing The Controversial Book From The Library’s Collections

In 2014, Harvard Library tested the binding of the book to confirm that it was indeed made from human skin. At the time, the library stated the verification was “good news for fans of anthropodermic bibliopegy, bibliomaniacs, and cannibals alike,” as reported by The Guardian. Now, however, they’ve taken a more serious approach to the tome.

The copy of Des Destinées de L’âme formerly available at Houghton Library is now “permanently unavailable to library users.” However, it has been fully digitized and is available to the public online — though images of the skin-bound cover have been removed from the school’s website.

As for the skin itself, Hyry said the library is seeking “to restore dignity to the woman whose skin was used. The Library is now in the process of conducting additional biographical and provenance research into the anonymous female patient, the book, and Bouland, as well as consulting with proper authorities in France and at the University to help determine how best to carry this out.”

After reading about Harvard Library’s decision to pull a human skin-bound book from their library, take a look inside the 19th-century book used to explain “sexual deviancy.” Or, learn about Ed Gein, the serial killer who made furniture out of human skin.

Austin Harvey
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.
Cara Johnson
A writer and editor based in Charleston, South Carolina and an assistant editor at All That's Interesting, Cara Johnson holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Washington & Lee University and an M.A. in English from College of Charleston and has written for various publications in her six-year career.
Citation copied
Cite This Article
Harvey, Austin. "A 19th-Century Book Made From A Dead Woman’s Skin Was Just Removed From Harvard’s Library." AllThatsInteresting.com, March 29, 2024, https://allthatsinteresting.com/harvard-human-skin-book. Accessed June 20, 2024.