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Harvard removes human skin binding from a book in its library

In a note inside the volume, its original owner said "a book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering."
A copy of "Des destinées de L’Ame" is shown.
Posted at 5:56 PM, Mar 29, 2024

Remember the human skin-bound spellbook from "Hocus Pocus?" Turns out it wasn't such a far-fetched movie prop after all.

Until this week, a real 19th-century book bound in human skin lived at Harvard University, and though it wasn't a spellbook, its story carries a similar air of darkness.

The copy of Arsène Houssaye's book "Des Destinées de l'âme" first arrived at Harvard in 1934. Described as "a meditation on the soul and life after death" by Harvard Library, the book was initially placed there on deposit by American diplomat John B. Stetson, but his widow ended up donating it to the university's Houghton Library 20 years later, Harvard said.

Harvard Art Museum / Arsène Houssaye

Before that though, Houssaye himself had given the volume to his friend and the copy's original owner, French physician and bibliophile Dr. Ludovic Bouland. 

Harvard states that while he was working as a medical student in a hospital in the 1860s, Boulard took the skin from a deceased female patient without consent and later used it to bind his copy of the French novel. The university says a now-lost memo from Stetson stated the woman was a psychiatric patient at a French hospital.

According to a handwritten note inserted into the volume, per Harvard, Bouland said, "a book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering." This note also described how the doctor treated the skin to form it into the text's binding.

This history behind the novel has surrounded Harvard in debate and criticism in recent years, notably since it confirmed the skin was of human origin through scientific testing in 2014. 

Then on Wednesday, the university announced it had removed the novel's skin binding after a museum committee decided against its holding in the Library's collection "due to the ethically fraught nature of the book's origins and subsequent history." 

Harvard Library

Harvard Library also said it was further researching Bouland and the anonymous patient while consulting with authorities both at Harvard and in France to "determine a final respectful disposition" of her remains. 

"Harvard Library acknowledges past failures in its stewardship of the book that further objectified and compromised the dignity of the human being whose remains were used for its binding," Harvard Library said. "We apologize to those adversely affected by these actions."

The decision to review the book's keeping came as a recommendation from the Harvard University Steering Committee on Human Remains, which released a report in the fall of 2022 stating the university possessed human remains of more than 22,000 people. This includes human skulls, teeth, locks of hair and even five full skeletons. Some of the remains were from enslaved people, and thousands were Native Americans — remains of which should have been returned to their tribal lands under a 1990 federal law. 

In a statement at the time, then-Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow said he apologized on behalf of the university for its role in "collection practices that placed the academic enterprise above respect for the dead and human decency." He also outlined several practices Harvard would undertake to change its collection and stewardship practices regarding human remains.

"One measure of any community is how it treats its least powerful members," Bacow's statement said. "We cannot remedy the indignities visited upon some of the individuals whose remains are housed in our museum collections while they lived, but we can help to ensure that they are treated in death with the care that we would wish for ourselves."

As for the future of Houghton Library's copy of "Des destinées de l’âme," the now debound text is currently unavailable to "consult" in person, but it can be studied online. The university said it expects it will be months or longer for it to determine the future of the human remains removed from the volume.

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