That Harvard Book Bound In Human Flesh Isn’t Actually Bound In Human Flesh

It's sheepskin. Sorry, folks.

Image via the Harvard Law School Blog

Image via the Harvard Law School Blog

Science: 1, Internet: 0.

For one reason or another—perhaps it was the flashy headline, or the gruesome mysterious details—a nearly decade-old story published by the Harvard Crimson about a collection of books at the university’s library, that are allegedly bound in human skin, crawled to the surface of the Internet this week.

But unfortunately for the Internet, as the story started to regain traction officials from the school fleshed out the details of what really wraps at least some of the literature in their collection, and discovered it’s not human skin after all—it’s actually sheepskin. “Baaaaaad news for fans of anthropodermic bibliopegy (binding books in human skin): Recent analyses of a book owned by the [Harvard Law School] Library, long believed but never proven to have been bound in human skin, have conclusively established that the book was bound in sheepskin,” according to a post on the Harvard Library Law School’s blog, dated April 3.

The original story that set the ball rolling and got the Internet hungry for the skin-deep details on the bound books was called, “The Skinny on Harvard’s Rare Book Collection,” and highlighted a selection of works that are housed in three separate libraries on campus—the Houghton Library, the Countway Library of Medicine, and the law school’s library. That story was first written in 2006.

A quick Google search shows that the story was reintroduced to the Internet after it was picked up by publications like The New York Daily News, who re-reported the subject matter back in March. But more likely to blame is a post on Reddit/Books, where more than one recent entry managed to set off a firestorm of comments, and, of course, the domino effect of people plucking the links without doing much vetting.

An inscription inside the book, which alludes to the idea that the literature is in fact wrapped in the skin of a person, could also be to blame. The writing has left curators, conservators, and dermatologists curious about the book cover’s material for decades, the HLS blog said.

And with good reason. The inscription reads:

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.

Seems pretty clear that the binding is from some guy named Jonas Wright’s body. But not so fast; officials said despite people studying the book, examining it, questioning it—you name it—their research was always inconclusive until now. “Thanks to a technique for identifying proteins that was developed in the last twenty years, we recently have been able to answer the question once and for all,” they wrote.

The Law Library was able to finally dispel any mystery surrounding flesh-gate with the help of Daniel Kirby, a conservation scientist at the Harvard University Art Museums’ Straus Center, who used “peptide mass fingerprinting” to dig into the samples from the binding, and differentiate them from other skins, the blog post said.

While the mystery surrounding what this particular book was bound in has clearly been solved, the covers of the other two books allegedly bound by the body of a person still haven’t been cracked.

The Harvard Law School’s recent discovery also fails to explain one other thing: why would anyone name a sheep Jonas Wright? And why did a sheep own a book? “If Jonas Wright was indeed a sheep, why would someone have written such an inscription? We’ll probably never know. Perhaps before it arrived at HLS in 1946, the book was bound in a different binding at some point in its history,” staff from the library wrote in their blog post Thursday. “Or perhaps the inscription was simply the product of someone’s macabre imagination. In any event, we are indebted to Daniel Kirby’s analysis and are glad the question is finally settled. Score one for modern science!”

Score zero for the Internet.