Harvard Law School's "Human Skin" Book Isn't Really Made of People

An old story recently resurfaced that Harvard University's library had discovered a trio of books in its collection were bound with human skin, including skin from a man who was flayed alive in the 17th century. But the most famous skin-covered book in the Ivy League isn't what seems, says Harvard's Law Library.

The book in question, Practicarum quaestionum circa leges regias..., bears the following interesting inscription on its final page:

"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."

But the heartfelt inscription may have been a morbid joke, because when Harvard had the book tested, its binding turned out to be sheepskin.

Daniel Kirby, a Harvard conservation scientist, used peptide mass fingerprinting to analyze samples from 9 parts of the binding, and concluded it was definitely not human. This method of protein analysis was invented in 1993—the year after an earlier test of the book proved inconclusive.

Langdell Law Library curator David Ferris told the Harvard Crimson in 2006 that the book was "almost certainly rebound" after it was first assembled.

The Crimson identified two other books in the school's collections that may be bound in peopleskin, but there are reasons to doubt both of those, too.

The Countway Library's Center for the History of medicine owns a copy of Ovid's Metamorphoses, in French, which has "bound in human skin" penciled on the inside cover.

"I think even this is somewhat doubtful as [the book] doesn't greatly resemble others I've seen in the past," Countway reference librarian Jack Eckert said in 2006.

Harvard's Houghton Collection also holds Des destinées de l'ame..., an essay collection by French poet Arsène Houssaye. A note describing a memo that came with the book—the original memo has since been lost—says it was bound using "the back of the unclaimed body of a woman patient in a French mental hospital who died suddenly of apoplexy."

The doctor who owned the book in the 1880s wrote that "a book on the human soul merited that it was given a human skin."

Okay, that one is crazy enough to be true. Harvard may want to have it tested for sheepish protein signatures just to be sure, though.

"I haven't heard from the curator of ours if/when that will happen," writes Houghton Library Early Modern curator John Overholt on Twitter.

[Photo Credit: Harvard Law School]