There's something undeniably creepy about big, expansive libraries. The hushed whispers, the almost artificial quiet, and the smell of dusty tomes combine to create a surreal experience. But when it comes to creepy libraries, Harvard University might take the cake... you see, at least two of its books are bound in human skin.
A few years ago, three separate books were discovered in Harvard University's library that had particularly strange-looking leather covers. Upon further inspection, it was discovered that the smooth binding was actually human flesh... in one case, skin allegedly harvested from a man who was flayed alive. Yep, definitely the creepiest library ever.
As it turns out, the practice of using human skin to bind books was actually pretty popular during the 17th century. It's referred to as Anthropodermic bibliopegy and proved pretty common when it came to anatomical textbooks. Medical professionals would often use the flesh of cadavers they'd dissected during their research. Waste not, want not, I suppose.
Harvard's creepy books deal with Roman poetry, French philosophy, and a treatise on medieval Spanish law for which the previously mentioned flayed skin was supposedly used. The book, Practicarum quaestionum circa leges regias… has a very interesting inscription inside, as The Harvard Crimson reports.
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.’
Years later, the infamous "flayed skin book" had garnered so much attention on campus that Harvard went ahead and had the thing tested, concluding that it was likely a morbid 17th century joke. Despite the creepy inscription, their tests showed that the book's cover was actually made out of a mixture of "cattle and pig collagen".
Hey, two out of three ain't bad.
Now, all the attention has caused Harvard to perform more tests on the rest of their bizarre book collection, and as it turns out, not all of the fleshy volumes were the work of an old-timey prankster. The tests actually confirmed that they do own at least one book bound in genuine human skin.
"The [test result] from Des destinées de l’ame matched the human reference, and clearly eliminated other common parchment sources, such as sheep, cattle and goat," said Harvard Laboratory director Bill Lane.
According to Director of University Libraries Sidney Verba '53, there are almost certainly more of the human flesh-books out there, probably even in its own library, but while it's possible to touch the one confirmed and two possible skin-books in Harvard's rare book room, the librarians aren't exactly fond of all the attention they've received lately (even inciting a few tepid responses to this very post). In fact, they've made it a point to downplay their ownership of the real flesh-bound books in favor of reminding the media that one of them is fake. Nice try.
If you do decide to head to Harvard and check out the books for yourself, do us a favor - just don't read them out loud. We all know how that ends.