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The story behind Thieves of Book Row

Thieves of Book Row is a nonfiction book by Travis McDade, curator of Law Rare Books at the U of I. It was published last June by Oxford University Press. The book focuses on a theft of a rare book—a first edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems—from the New York Public Library during the Great Depression. An organized ring of book thieves were behind the theft. While the book was eventually returned and the crime more or less solved, many other books the ring stole were never recovered. Thieves of Book Row is extensively researched, written with clarity and voice and examines an historical crime that hasn’t been covered in depth before. I spoke with McDade recently about his own book and about book theft in general in America historically and currently.  

Why a book about this particular long ago theft?

I asked McDade what led him to write about this specific book crime in New York during the Great Depression. He explained that he was looking at different eras in American book theft, and found the story. He put it aside to work on other projects, but then happened on a book in downtown Champaign which gave him more information to work with:

Across the street from [Cafe] Kopi used to be The Old Main Bookshoppe. I’d been there before, but one day after having coffee I noticed they were going out of business, so I wandered in there and started looking around. On one of the shelves, high up, there was the Books About Books section, and they had various book sellers’ catalogs and various books about books. I saw the autobiography of Keyes Metcalf, a librarian at Harvard, who had worked at the New York Public Library until around 1937, which I didn’t know. So I wondered if he knew about this crime. I wondered if he was around when this Poe book was stolen. And sure enough, he was and he had written a few pages about it and some of the guys involved in it—and it re-invigorated me on this subject. So I did more research and found another article in a contemporaneous magazine—I think it was 1932 or 1933—and I decided I’d write an article about it. And it just snowballed from there. 

McDade went to the New York Public library and to New York court archives to do further research for the book.

A rogues gallery

The book gets into many of the back stories of the men actually stealing books from libraries during the 1920s and 30s and the booksellers who recruited them to do so. Some of these thieves are sympathetic—down on their luck men who can’t find other work in a troubled era. One book thief, for instance, tries to go straight, but is shaken down by his own probation officer. Others are just sleazy. For instance, Harold Borden Clarke, a book thief and confidence man with delusions of grandeur who was ultimately caught and jailed but never rehabilitated. McDade said of Clarke:

Even though I had his side of the story—I had his archives—he came across as a complete jerk. Maybe he had never grown out of that adolescent phase where it’s just all about him. I didn’t get too much into psychoanalysis, but there was something wrong with him. He was clearly a pathological liar—and not even a very good one. It didn’t seem like he had any long term plan for his confidence game. After he got out of jail he went on to have this long career, ostensibly as a regular bookseller, which was amusing to me, because he went from getting out of jail, to Canada, and then this career using book knowledge earned from his life of crime. Officially, he wasn’t stealing books anymore, but I’m sure there were some shenanigans going on—he probably had people stealing for him. It’s not like he saw the light and turned into a good guy.

Ironically enough, it was Clarke’s own extensive records—which he donated to the Archives of Ontario—which enabled McDade to present this obscure historical person to the world in an unflattering light. McDade said:

He was fighting this battle with the Canadian government all the time over taxes, basically, but really over everything. He just didn’t like the Canadian government. I had a ton of material about him. Especially first person material. I guess that’s the way it is with narcissists. If the story is about them, they’ll keep telling it, even if it’s ultimately to their detriment. People that specifically leave archival material—he left all his bookselling material to the archives—probably think that people will be interested in them in a certain way. I think he thought as this great bookseller in Canada who was very successful and knew a lot of important people, folks would be writing about him one way. He probably never guessed that the one person who did write about him—me—is not very fond of him.

Book theft today

That was the Great Depression, but now that there is more security and technology—book sensors and so forth—in libraries, I asked McDade if book theft is still a problem today. He responded:

It’s definitely a problem today. And it’s a problem on two different levels. It’s a problem on the public library level, where people will be stealing regular items. A regular John Grisham book or a regular mystery book, for example. Those things go out the window even though there’s not much of a resale market. Textbooks, there’s a good resale market, so those get stolen all the time. But some thefts—who knows—maybe it’s just for the thrill of it. The type of theft I write about is rare book theft—books that are worth a great deal of money, or at least have some value beside just the content. 

I asked McDade about book theft at the U of I in particular. He said:

The Rare Book and Manuscript Library is pretty secure, so it’s not a problem there. But in the main stacks—absolutely. One of the things that happened in the main stacks is that people would go in there and steal the prints out of the ornithological books. They’d just cut them right out. That was a problem particularly in the ‘80s.  If you go in there now, a lot of these oversized books are still just sitting in there, but if you flip through them a lot of the illustrations are gone. Someone would just cut out a hundred of them with a razor and then leave. They would basically steal them and then fence them. One of these guys actually owned and operated an antique print store in Dallas, and he would put them in frames. Most of the prints have a stamp on them—of the University of Illinois or Cornell or wherever—but under a frame no one ever sees it. If you go into hotels, or restaurants, you’ll sometimes see on the wall framed prints of birds or flora and a lot of them have come from stolen books. Some are reproductions, but if they look authentic they’ve probably been cut out of a book.

Consistency in book theft sentencing now and then

In Thieves of Book Row, McDade focuses on the theft of the Poe book from the New York Public Library, but also touches on many other book thefts of the 1920s and 30s as well. There’s a remarkable inconsistency in how convicted book thieves were sentenced by judges of the era. Some were sent to do hard time in Sing Sing, while others committing comparable crimes were let off without any consequences at all. I asked McDade about consistency in sentencing in rare book crimes today. He said:

At the federal level there’s a remarkable consistency, although there are exceptions to that of course. At the state level it’s less so. State laws are not generally as robust. I’ve noticed if a case gets a lot of press, it is taken more seriously—and that was true back earlier in the century, too. If there’s press the prosecutor will treat it more seriously and then the judge will treat it more seriously. If it doesn’t get a lot of press—if it’s a local thing that doesn’t get picked up by a lot of people, then usually the punishment is just a slap on the wrist. Part of this is that prosecutors don’t often think of book crimes as serious crimes. They’re like, “who cares; overdue library book type of thing.” Also, libraries and archives sometimes don’t convince the prosecutor to take it seriously. Sometimes a judge needs a nudge from the prosecutor and the community. 

For instance, several years ago with, Forbes Smiley, a map thief—that case received a lot of coverage and it was taken very seriously. He was prosecuted on the state level and the federal level. He ultimately got kind of a cupcake sentence, but he did spend some time in jail. However other people were caught doing really severe things but didn’t get in much trouble at all. So, I would say there’s more consistency than there used to be, but there’s still variance depending on related factors.

Market value and cultural value

The thieves described in Thieves of Book Row went to great lengths—days of planning and groundwork—to steal from libraries. I asked McDade if the type of items stolen by book thieves in the 1920s and 1930s would still be worth stealing today. He said:

In a lot of ways, the answer would be no, because taste in things waxes and wanes. But the three main books that were stolen from the New York Public Library—Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter and Al Aaraaf are still very valuable. A lot of the authors that were collectible back then are moderately collectable today, but to a large extent people don’t even think about them anymore. Christopher Morley, for instance, who was alive and very collectible then. James Branch Cabell—a number of people were very valuable at the time, but no so much anymore. A lot of the things that were valuable in the ‘20s and ‘30s lost value during the War and later rebounded, but a lot of others never did. It would be an interesting project to look at what prices were for items in 1929 and how those prices have been maintained. People often talk about books being good investments, and like artwork, some books are.

Today, the market value of the rare books stolen is a factor judges look at in sentencing thieves. McDade said:

When it comes to property crimes, basically what we’re dealing with is market value. If you look at the federal sentencing guidelines, the way you get bumped up to a higher sentence is generally through having stolen something of greater value. So if you steal something that’s worth ten million dollars versus something that’s worth ten thousand dollars, then you’re going to have a big jump in the sentence. The big question is who decides what the value is, because the market is a fickle thing. On the 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, the book was worth more than on the 49th or the 51st, to use a simple example. Things wax and wane. So who sets it? Usually the prosecutor and the defense attorney come to an agreement. The defense will get a librarian to make an estimate and the prosecution will get a librarian to make an estimate. Usually these things are pleaded out. 

There was a theft from Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, where these college kids stole from the special collections there at the library. Transylvania is a very old college, and they had a fairly nice collection there for a small college. These guys stole a first edition of Origin of the Species, they stole some folios, they stole some pretty legitimate things. One of the questions that came up—these guys had not realized how large some of these books were, so they dropped a few as they were leaving the library—was “what did they steal?” Is it stolen if they took it out of the cabinet, out of the room or out of the library? It was sort of a philosophical question about when an item becomes stolen. And it mattered because some of the items they left behind had significant value. At the sentencing level, they actually left out of the equation many of the books that were taken from the room, but not the library—that is, dropped along the way. But for some reason these guys appealed their sentence, and the judge went against them, eventually upping the value of the items they were said to have stolen.

However, where the theft of rare books is concerned, assigning value is more complicated since the question of cultural value comes into play. How do you put a price on the cultural value of something like a first edition of a book by a great American author from the 19th Century? It’s a challenge for the courts. McDade said:

Where the movement for categorizing items of cultural heritage as more important than other items comes from is the theft of Native American artifacts out west. Basically, these guys were stealing again and again and again and getting a slap on the wrist. Now they’re prosecuted for stealing items of cultural heritage, which is treated more severely. We do this with books now as well. My first book was about a guy who stole a bunch of books from the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University—he was sentenced back in 1998, before items of cultural heritage had made their way into the guidelines. The judge basically said that these books that were stolen were worth more than their monetary value, so he gave Spiegelman a greater sentence. Which was an awesome thing for him to do. But it was just an individual judge going out on a limb and unilaterally understanding the importance of these things. It added precedent, but it was a minor precedent and not binding to the rest of the country. 

Then, around 2002 or 2003, based on the theft of artifacts out west, there was a movement to put into the federal sentencing guidelines the idea that cultural heritage items were worth more than their monetary value, and people who steal or destroy them ought to be sentenced accordingly. It took a while to put these things in the sentencing scheme, but now we have this cultural heritage sentencing guideline that elevates these items above just some other piece of property. Rare books fall under this umbrella of items of cultural heritage—even though that wasn’t the original intent. So any of the three items stolen in Thieves of Book Row would fall under this category today.  

Prosecutors have more tools to use now, and I think that’s great; people in the government were able to realize the value of cultural items. There’s an FBI art theft unit now where agents focus on this significant area of crime that no one really had been focusing on specifically. There’s a similar thing at the National Archives, which have been looted again and again and again. Now you have these guys there whose job it is to keep the archives safe and to track down stolen material. There’s a concerted effort overall.

The more things change…

While the theft of rare books is taken more seriously today than in the past, McDade said it’s still a problem and there’s still the loss of what’s already been stolen over the years—the countless books, maps and other items of cultural items that have disappeared from libraries and archives. They could be anywhere now—attics, garages, and so forth, the owners themselves having no idea of their true worth. McDade said:

It’s heart-rending, really. When you think about the scope—how many of these books and maps and documents have walked out of buildings never to be seen again. It’s terrible. We still have a lot of great special collections all over the country, and we have great collections here in town, but it’s amazing to think just how many things have disappeared. As I mentioned in Thieves of Book Row, they got back the Poe book, but not Moby Dick or The Scarlet Letter. They’re somewhere now, but they’re not where they belong.

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