An amazingly interesting book on the well-organized, unbelievably large ring of book thieves that terrorized public and academic libraries throughout the Northeast throughout the early 1900s, peaking during the Great Depression. No library was immune, from small reading rooms to NYPL and Harvard University, valuable and important books, maps, and pamphlets flew off the shelves into the hands of these prolific thieves who had to procure warehouses to store all of their stolen materials. From first editions of Moby Dick and The Scarlet Letter to Edgar Allen Poe’s Al-Aaraaf, these thieves boldly walked into the rare book rooms of libraries and walked out with treasures.
Interestingly, many of the security measures used by libraries today (special markings in the books, rare book rooms, security and investigators) were founded during this time. Unfortunately, it seemed that as soon as libraries employed new security techniques, the thieves found ways to overcome them. In steps a mild-mannered special investigator from the NYPL, G. William Bergquist, determined to find the missing Al-Aaraaf and to stop this gang of thieves.
I was shocked to learn that in spite of the high value of the items, even when thieves were caught, the legal system was rarely concerned with prosecution and incarceration in line with the crimes committed. There also seemed to be little or no impact on professional perceptions of those who were found to be thieves, and those who knowingly received and sold the stolen goods. It was an expected, known, and often accepted aspect of doing business. Often, after a brief jail term, the criminals were back in business, earning enough money to retire in the Caribbean!
A fun and interesting book for anyone interested in criminal activities or the history of rare books.
Title: Thieves of Book Row: New York’s Most Notorious Rare Book Ring and the Man Who Stopped It
Author: Travis McDade
Publication: Oxford University Press, June 2013