*Blogger's note: I know I brought this to you last week. But this is new information. I did not want you to think I lost my mind. :)
Harvard historians say a book thought to be bound in human skin is actually sheepskin. But the macabre art of anthropodermic bibliopegy has a long, dark history.
It is inscribed with the disturbing information that "the bynding of this booke is all that remains of my dear friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma on the Fourth Day of August, 1632".
But analysis by Harvard scientists has discovered that the binding of the 17-century book, Practicarum Quaestionum Circa Leges Regias Hispaniae, is actually sheepskin.
Harvard university revealed in 2006 that at least three of the 15m volumes in its libraries were thought to be bound in human skin – a practice known as anthropodermic bibliopegy. The yellow and brown splotched binding of Practicarum Quaestionum Circa Leges Regias Hispaniae (the title is a treatise on Spanish law published around the start of the 17th century) was believed to be one of these books, largely because of the inscription on the final page, which continues: "King Mbesa did give me the book, it being one of poore Jonas chiefe possessions, together with ample of his skin to bynd it. Requiescat in pace."
The words have tantalised curators and conservators for years, said Karen Beck at Harvard law school, but previous studies to determine the binding's provenance have been inconclusive. But now new analysis of the parchment binding by Daniel Kirby, a conservation scientist at the Harvard university art museums' Straus Centre has "conclusively established that the book was bound in sheepskin", said Beck on the Harvard law school library blog.
"Kirby used a method called peptide mass fingerprinting to analyse nine samples of the front and back covers, binding, and glue. With peptide mass fingerprinting, the samples could readily be differentiated from other parchment sources including cattle, deer, and goat, as well as human skin. The glue was identified as a mixture of cattle and pig collagen," said Beck.
"If Jonas Wright was indeed a sheep, why would someone have written such an inscription?" she asked. "We'll probably never know. Perhaps before it arrived at HLS in 1946, the book was bound in a different binding at some point in its history. Or perhaps the inscription was simply the product of someone's macabre imagination."
Two other titles which are believed to be bound in human skin still reside in Harvard's libraries – a 1597 French translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses , which is annotated with the words "bound in human skin" on its inside cover, according to The Harvard Crimson, and Arsène Houssaye's mediations on the spirit, Des Destinées de L'Ame, which dates to the 1880s.
According to the Houghton Library at Harvard], where Houssaye's book resides, "in the mid-1880s, Houssaye presented his recent book, a meditation on the soul and life after death, to his friend Dr Ludovic Bouland, a noted medical doctor and prominent bibliophile. Bouland bound the book with skin from the unclaimed body of a female mental patient who had died of a stroke".
A note from Bouland inserted in the book reads: "This book is bound in human skin parchment on which no ornament has been stamped to preserve its elegance. By looking carefully you easily distinguish the pores of the skin. A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering: I had kept this piece of human skin taken from the back of a woman."
Its binding has, reported The Crimson, "a greenish-gold hue as well as visible pores". Heather Cole, an assistant curator at Houghton Library, told Reuters that the binding "looks different than the normal kinds of leathers [calf or sheep] we use to bind books".
The practice of anthropodermic bibliopegy was once "somewhat common", according to Harvard librarians, who said that "the binding of books in human skin has occurred at least since the 16th century", when "the confessions of criminals were occasionally bound in the skin of the convicted, or an individual might request to be memorialised for family or lovers in the form of a book".
Other titles bound in human skin include The Highwayman: Narrative of the Life of James Allen alias George Walton, a death-bed confession the author asked be delivered bound in his own skin to his last victim, kept at the Boston Athenaeum.
Closer to home, the infamous 19th-century murderer, William Burke, was hanged in 1829 for the murder of 16 people. Between 1827-1828 he and his accomplice William Hare poisoned and sold their victims to Dr Robert Knox, who used the cadavers to teach students anatomy.
Burke's own skin was removed from his body as his corpse was dissected following his death, and part of it is now to be found as the grisly binding for a pocketbook lying in the archives at Surgeon's Hall Museum in Edinburgh.