"Houghton Library's copy of Arsène Houssaye's Des destinées de l'ame (FC8.H8177.879dc) is without a doubt bound in human skin," Harvard confirmed Wednesday, after subjecting the book to peptide mass fingerprinting, a method of identifying proteins.
The Langdell Law Library's alleged human-skin book went through the same process months ago, and was revealed to be sheepskin, but Houghton's Des destinées could only be wrapped in the skin of a human being or other closely related primate.
A mass spectrometer helped rule out more primitive sources, making it likely that a morbid note included in the book is accurate: It was covered with skin from "the back of the unclaimed body of a woman patient in a French mental hospital who died suddenly of apoplexy."
Chilling, but not as rare as you might expect. According to the Houghton blog,
This was not the gruesome pastime of just one individual;there are many accounts of similar occurrences in the 19th century, in which the bodies of executed criminals were donated to science, and the skins given to tanners and bookbinders.
And then the books would be read over a nice Chianti.