Truly, Harvard has it all. Prestige. Money. Power. A decent basketball program. Human skin.
A 2006 Crimson story is making the rounds today which gives the skinny on some of the weirdest items in the Harvard Library collection: among the 15 million volumes in the university’s library system are three very old tomes—including a 1605 Spanish book of law, a 1597 medical volume, and an 1880 book of poetry—that are bound in human skin.
Without extensive genetic testing, Harvard librarians still do not have the “foggiest notion” of how many volumes wrapped in human hide exist throughout the system, says Director of University Libraries Sidney Verba ’53. But they have identified three such volumes in theLangdell Law Library, Countway Library of Medicine, and the Houghton Collection. The three books range in content from medieval law to Roman poetry to French philosophy.
The librarians seemed hesitant to talk about the three books, which just makes this story even more fascinating. “I don’t want this being an object of curiosity,” said one. There are books in Harvard bound in the skin of accused murderers. They’re going to be objects of curiosity!
Accessible in the library’s Elihu Reading Room, the [Spanish law volume], entitled “Practicarum quaestionum circa leges regias…,” looks old but otherwise ordinary.
Delicate, stiff, and with wrinkled edges, the skin’s coloring is a subdued yellow, with sporadic brown and black splotches like an old banana. The skin is not covered in hair or marked by tattoos—except for a “Harvard Law Library” branding on its spine. Nothing about it shouts “human flesh” to the untrained eye.
The book’s 794th and final page includes an inscription in purple cursive: “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. 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.”
In case you weren’t convinced the 17th century was a bizarre (and terrible) time to be alive, remember: you’d be grateful if your king killed your bro but remembered to leave you some of his skin so you could finally get your book published.
Human-skin binding likely began in the late 16th century. Only in the last 100 or so years has it been considered a taboo. Harvard apparently received its first skin-bound book in 1933, and its Ivy League cousins Brown and UPenn also have acknowledged the existence of similar books in their libraries. None of the schools say they’ve specifically sought them out, which is a comforting thought.
But it is a little concerning that skin-bound books don’t look that different from any other old volume. Only when you’re told that the yellow shit wrapping a book is human skin do you feel the creeps.
Ever been in a rare book room? Or touched a very book. You might have touched a book of skin, dude.