No, this is not a synopsis for the beloved Halloween movie Hocus Pocus. Recently, a rare book preserved in Harvard’s Houghton Library was confirmed bound in actual human flesh. More specifically, the book is bound in skin from a woman's back. The unnamed woman died in a French mental hospital sometime in the late 19th century. Eat your heart out, Sanderson sisters.

In the esteemed Houghton Library blog, researchers announced they are 99 percent confident that the binding of Arsène Houssaye’s Des destinées de l’âme is made of human skin. This conclusion came after a series of diverse tests to determine the binding’s material, including the highly accurate peptide mass fingerprinting test. “The analytical data, taken together with the provenance of Des destinées de l’âme, make it very unlikely that the source could be other than human,” Bill Lane, director of the Harvard Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics Resource Laboratory explained in the blog. What makes this discovery so remarkable is that the book is now the only known book at Harvard to be bound in human skin. Although similar tests had been done on other tomes boasting of human binding, results have always shown other sources.

A Book on the Human Soul

To make matters even creepier, the book is a collection of essays meditating on the human soul and the after-life, The Huffington Post reported. Houssaye, the book’s author, gave it to his friend, Dr. Ludocvic Bouland. Bouland then had the book rebound, adding the note, “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.” Turns out he wasn’t bluffing. Researchers are not able to say that the book is without a shadow of a doubt human however, since human DNA so closely resembles that of other primates. Still, the collected data along with the book’s macabre message led researchers to be quite confident with their conclusion.

Somewhat Common Practice

To those of us who aren’t avid fans of Silence of the Lambs, the notion of binding a book in human flesh sounds downright revolting. It was, however, a somewhat common practice many years ago, according to Heather Cole, assistant curator of modern books and manuscripts at the Houghton Library. "Termed anthropodermic bibliopegy, the binding of books in human skin has occurred at least since the 16th century. The confessions of criminals were occasionally bound in the skin of the convicted, or an individual might request to be memorialized for family or lovers in the form of a book," she explained, The Atlantic reported.

The practice was most popular in the 17th and 18th centuries but fell out of fashion near the end of the Victorian Age. Doctors of the time period enjoyed binding their anatomy texts in human flesh, and records of trials for criminals sentenced to death were often bound in their skin as a “form of punishment that surpasses death,” io9 reported.

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