The Map Thief

map thiefTitle: The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps
Author: Michael Blanding
Genre: Non-Fiction, Crime, History
Pages: 320
Publication: Gotham, May 2014

In June 2005, E.  Forbes Smiley III pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket, and dropped the blade for an X-acto knife on the floor.  The rare map dealer was sitting in the Beinecke Library at Yale University flipping through books containing rare maps.  A librarian noticed the blade, contacted university security, and before long Smiley was under arrest.  Incomplete cataloging at libraries, light security, and the trust of librarians allowed him to effortlessly walk out of libraries as esteemed as the New York Public Library and Harvard University with valuable maps folded up in his pockets.  Eventually he would admit to stealing 97 rare maps.

Smiley was an expert in rare maps, but he was not a businessman.  He alienated others in the field, bouncing checks and developing a reputation as a dishonest dealer, potentially dealing in stolen maps.  He spent money he did not have – living a lavish lifestyle and employing half of a town in his attempts to recreate an idyllic small New England town.  Before long he was in tax trouble as well.  As the bills piled up, Smiley got desperate.  One theft led to another when he discovered how easily the maps could be taken and resold, but he still couldn’t seem to get himself out from under a situation of his own making.

Much of the first part of the book tells little of Smiley’s story, but instead focuses on the history of maps, their influence on history, and the evolution of map collecting.  While not what I initially expected, I found the history both fascinating and necessary.  Enlightening on its own, it provided the necessary context when the maps Smiley sold and stole were discussed later in the book.  I found the outcome unsatisfactory, mostly because I have no patience for those who steal from libraries, but the journey was informative, interesting, and entertaining.

And we are lucky enough to have a Q&A from the author, Michael Blanding!

How many maps did Forbes Smiley steal?

Smiley admitted to stealing 97 maps from six libraries—Harvard, Yale, New York Public Library, Boston Public Library, the British Library, and the Newberry Library in Chicago—worth over $3 million in all. However, the libraries accuse him of taking many more. In all, they are missing around 250 maps, and have evidence that he stole at least a dozen of them. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle—but we may never know for sure exactly how many he stole.

How did he steal them?

In many cases, the maps were contained in rare books, and Smiley was able to go into a library and just rip them out or cut them out with a razor blade when no one was looking. In other cases, he would request a folder full of maps and just take one. Then, he folded them and put them in the pocket of his blazer and just walked right out. Library catalogs often don’t specify which exact maps should appear in which books or folders. So Smiley could rip out a map worth $100,000, and walk out without anyone knowing it was missing. Many of the map library curators knew him as a respected rare-map dealer and trusted him almost like a colleague; he abused that trust to walk out with rare maps right under their noses.

How could he ever sell these rare maps? Wouldn’t someone know they were stolen?

Maps aren’t like works of art, which exist in only one copy and are strictly catalogued by museums. A rare map might exist in a dozen or more copies, both in libraries and private hands, with no way of knowing if another copy isn’t hidden in someone’s attic somewhere. Smiley sold mostly to other dealers he’d worked with for years, and they apparently believed them when he told them that he was quietly selling off copies of old maps from the collection of old clients. When these dealers then sold them to collectors, they could openly display them with no idea that stolen property was hanging in their offices and living rooms.

Wow! How did old maps get to be worth so much?

As art began getting pricier in the 1980s, many wealthy collectors turned to maps as a less expensive way to decorate their homes and display their wealth and knowledge. A doctor or stock broker might not be able to afford millions of dollars for a Monet or a Picasso, but they could afford a few tens of thousands for an original map print that might be equally beautiful, and come with an interesting history going back hundreds of years to boot. Map prices really began skyrocketing in the 1990s, when they became trendy for home decorating.

What did he do with all that money?

Like most thieves, he spent some of the money on luxuries—nice clothes, fancy dinners, travel… But most of it, strangely, went to a small town in Maine that Smiley essentially tried to buy and remake into his vision of a perfect New England village. He bought the post office, a general store, and a restaurant, and spent a lot of money fixing up the town and employing its residents. Not everyone in the town liked his ideas, however, and he ended up getting into a messy feud with the neighbors across the street who owned a marina. Eventually the dispute grew into a lawsuit that divided the whole town.

What caused Smiley to steal?

Smiley was never a good businessman, and from the beginning of his career as a map dealer, he was always overextended and owing money to people. He also claims that his own gallery was robbed back in the late 1980s, putting more pressure on his business. As map prices rose in the 1990s, he began competing fiercely with other dealers, who drove up prices on him at auction and made him pay more for his maps. The final straw, however, was the flap over the town up in Maine; he began hemorrhaging money on legal bills at the same time he was trying to keep his businesses there afloat. One day in a library he realized that he could fold a map into the size of a credit card and slip in his jacket pocket, then sell it the next day for $30,000 to make his payroll up in Maine. That started him down a slippery slope that led to more and more thefts.

How was he caught?

Smiley was caught in June 2005 when an attentive librarian at Yale University noticed an X-acto knife blade he had dropped on the floor. When library staff looked him up, they saw he was a rare-map dealer and began to get suspicious. A Yale police officer followed him out of the library, and when they searched him, they found a map of New England by John Smith in his pocket that they were able to match to one of the books he’d been using. Once he was arrested, the FBI sent out notices to other libraries, which began to discover that they too were missing maps from books Smiley had used. The case unraveled from there.

Where is he now? Is he in prison?

No, he served only three years in prison, despite pleading guilty to $2.3 million in thefts. In part that was because of the assistance he provided to the FBI in recovering the 97 maps, only 18 of which they had enough evidence to charge, earning leniency from the judge. Smiley got out of prison in early 2010, returning to his home on Martha’s Vineyard, which he was able to keep despite the money he still owes to dealers and collectors. Crime doesn’t totally pay, however. Last I spoke with him, he was working as a landscaper making $12 an hour, and still struggling to repay the millions he owes.

Could this kind of theft happen again?

It could and it has. Since Smiley’s sentencing, there hasn’t been a major case of map theft in the United States, though there have been several in Europe to the tune of millions of dollars. Many of the libraries have taken precautions since the Smiley case, increasing security and surveillance, and taking digital photos to catalog their collections. Map dealers, too, have become warier of buying stolen material. However, there is still a great deal of secrecy that is endemic to the map trade. Libraries are often reluctant to publicize when they are missing material, and dealers are often reluctant to reveal what maps they are buying, or ask too many questions about where they came from. All of that makes it easier to get away with selling stolen material. Unless something changes, as one former map librarian told me, it’s not a matter of if there will be another case of rare map theft, but when.


Graphic Novels

will & whitWill (Wilhelmina) is dealing with a lot.  Her parents died in a car accident last year and she’s developed a fear of the dark that she combats with a creative hobby – creating lamps out of nearly anything.  Living with her aunt, and helping her run an antique store, Will is looking forward to a summer of hanging out with her friends.  But when Hurricane Whit comes to town and causes a massive blackout, Will has to face her fears, and herself, without the aid of her lamps.

This is a far more “girly” graphic novel than any I have read previously, and would be a great way to introduce girls to the genre, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work for boys too.  Will’s struggles with her friends, her fears, and the loss of her parents are ones that can be universally understood and appreciated.  The illustrations are bold and flow seamlessly with the use of dark and light and shadows adding depth to the story.  Will’s story is one of courage and is full of heart, showing that there is always light to be found, even when it is darkest.

Title: Will & Whit
Author: Laura Lee Gulledge
Genre: Fiction, Young Adult, Graphic Novel
Pages: 192
Publication: Amulet Paperbacks, May 2013

marchJohn Lewis is a Congressman and a key figure in the civil rights movement.  This graphic novel is the first in a planned trilogy telling the story of Congressman Lewis’s life.  The book begins with Lewis’s participation in the Edmund Pettus Bridge Crossing (the Bloody Sunday of the civil rights movement), but that story does not get completed in this installment.  Instead, it moves forward in time, using President Obama’s inauguration in 2009 as the framework for the story, Lewis looks back on his life, what it was like to live under segregation, and the journey that has led to this moment in history, sharing it with several young boys who are meeting the Congressman.  From his time as a child on the farm, to his meeting Martin Luther King, Jr.,  through to his use of nonviolent protest at department store lunch counters in Nashville, this graphic novel tells a moving story of the first part of this man’s personal history while never losing sight of the larger historical context.

Title: March: Book One
Author: John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell
Genre: Non-Fiction, Graphic Novel
Pages: 128
Publication: Top Shelf Productions, August 2013

The Boy on the Wooden Box

boy on the wooden boxThe author, Leon Leyson, was born Leib Lezjon in Narewka Poland.  He was only ten years old when the Nazis invaded Poland and forced his family into the Krakow ghetto.  Courage, determination and luck would leave him a survivor of the ghetto and his next stop – the Plaszow concentration camp.  But ultimately it would be his name on a list, Oskar Schindler’s list, which would save his life, the life of his parents, and the lives of two of his siblings.

Leon was the youngest child on the list, and the only one to publish a memoir.  He tells the story as only a child survivor can, through the eyes of innocence, a combination of fear and confusion.  A child who at the end of each horrific day only wants his mother.  More amazing than his strength, courage, and survival is the seeming lack of bitterness or anger in his telling of the story.  He does not give the Nazis that final power over his life as he comes to California, becomes educated, serves in the military, marries, works, and raises a family with love and dignity.

A perfect way to introduce students to the atrocities of the Holocaust, the book is appropriate for middle school students and teens, giving them a glimpse of the atrocities suffered by children their own age in a story that is ultimately filled with kindness, heroism, and hope.  But this is more than a book for kids, this biography is a moving story for adults, providing a unique perspective.  Beautifully told, this is also a beautiful book, with photographs of Leon and his family as well as photos of Oskar Schindler and his list.

Title: The Boy on the Wooden Box
Author: Leon Leyson
Genre: Non-Fiction, History, Young Adult
Pages: 240
Publication:  Atheneum Books for Young Readers, August 2013

The Remedy


“The bacteria precede us.  The outnumber us.  And they will outlast us.”

In the nineteenth century twenty-two out of every thousand people died each year, more than 2% of the population– today only 5 out of a thousand people die each year.  In the nineteenth century the average lifespan was thirty-six years – today it’s about eighty.  The biggest killer in the nineteenth century?  Tuberculosis.  Also known as consumption, this disease was rampant, believed to be hereditary, and in spite of numerous claims of ways to cure the disease, no cure or effective treatment was available.

Then in 1882 a German doctor, Robert Koch, presented to the world the cause of tuberculosis.  It was not hereditary, but caused by bacteria.  Using unparalleled and unprecedented scientific methods, Dr. Koch had identified, isolated and replicated the deadly bacteria, injected it into healthy animals, watched as the animals developed tuberculosis, found the bacteria in their blood and tissue, isolated it, and repeated the process, proving without a doubt the cause of the world’s number one killer.  Spurred on by a professional and contentious rivalry with Louis Pasteur, Koch tackled the next problem, finding a cure.  In his haste to satisfy both his professional pride and national pressures, driven by a desire for recognition, Koch threw aside the very scientific methods which had made him well-regarded and presented the world with the cure that was not.

Enter Arthur Conan Doyle, a young small-town English doctor and writer, headed towards Berlin to cover the announcement of Koch’s cure.  When he sees the German doctor’s cure at work he is horrified and quickly returns to England to report on the farce.  While Koch stubbornly insists that his cure will work, the ill descend upon Berlin desperate for help where none can be found.  Koch’s reputation destroyed, in spite of his groundbreaking work in germ theory and discovering the cause of tuberculosis, flees to other parts of the world to work away from the scrutiny of his critics.  Meanwhile, Arthur Conan Doyle, unsuccessful as a doctor, ironically employs the very scientific methods that made Koch famous in the creation of Doyle’s most famous character, Sherlock Holmes.

The epilogue is as interesting and terrifying as the rest of the book.  Tuberculosis, once thought to have been cured, is coming back in new and drug-resistant forms as a whole new generation of scientist begin to look at how microbes affect our health in other ways including heart disease and cancer.   Smart, insightful, and interesting, this book is the tale of the egos of ambitious men, an unparalleled time of scientific discovery, and the resulting societal changes.  It leaves one to ponder where we will go from here…

And we are lucky enough to have a Q&A from the author, Thomas Goetz!

Q&A with Thomas Goetz, author of The Remedy

What is the Germ Theory, and why was it so important?

The Germ Theory is the hypothesis that many diseases are caused by microbes, not by the body itself or by some other cause such as miasma – bad air. The idea that some diseases were pathogenic or contagious had been around for centuries, but it wasn’t until Louis Pasteur in the 1860s and then Robert Koch in the 1870s that enough evidence was marshaled to make the argument convincing. In particular, it was Koch, with his Postulates – a series of conditions that must be met to prove a microbial cause of disease – who produced a method by which science could definitively establish the cause of disease.

Pasteur and Koch’s work on the Germ Theory constitutes the birth of modern medicine, when science finally began to explore the true causes of disease – and therefore to determine vaccines or treatments for those diseases. Once the germ theory was established in laboratories, at last hygienists and social reformers could finally attack the causes of infectious disease, which were by far the leading cause of death in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This insight into causes pushed hygiene forward. Within a few decades, infectious disease was no longer the looming threat it had been, and people’s lives grew longer and healthier.

Why does it take society so long to believe science?

Any scientific discovery takes about a generation to manifest – to work its way from discovery to publication into practice. That was true in the 1870s and it’s true in the 2010s. This lag is vexing, especially for scientists, but it’s understandable. It simply takes time for consensus to emerge, and for an academic consensus to actually change practice – how science is applied in the field. The fact that society often needs to be convinced of the new truth only adds to the lag. This sounds old fashioned – the germ theory is entirely common sense now, and it seems absurd to think that anyone would doubt the existence of germs. But we have the same slow process today. Think about something seemingly obvious, like vitamins. The 1980s saw a new wave of research into Vitamin D deficiency and various disease risks – but we are still muddling towards some sort of consensus on what people should actually do 30 years later. Same with the science around sugar and nutrition and obesity. It takes science a long time to establish a proof, and it takes society a long time to believe that proof.

Why should we care about infectious disease today?

There are some scientists would believe we’re on the precipice of a new era of infectious disease, due to a few convergent trends. One is the fact that we’re exhausting our antibiotics and new superbugs are emerging. Second is the idea that many diseases we have considered chronic – such as heart disease or obesity or auto-immune disorders – may actually have significant microbial components. I think one thing to understand is that our understanding of all microbes as ‘germs’ may be misplaced. There are many microbes that actually help us more than hurt us – and we need to be aware that purging all germs from our environment can have profoundly negative unintended consequences.

What does Sherlock Holmes have to do with tuberculosis?

Sherlock Holmes is a character of his age – he personifies the late 19th century’s appetite for all things scientific and for this new notion that science can actually solve human problems. In creating Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle borrowed not only from his med school mentor Joe Bell, but also from the great scientists of the day, particularly Robert Koch’s, who diligent laboratory methods Conan Doyle admired and wrote about. When Koch discovered the bacteria that causes tuberculosis, Conan Doyle was inspired by the rigor and tenacity of Koch’s methods, and his single-minded focus on rooting out the cause. The fact that Conan Doyle’s own wife would die of the disease decades later – and the fact that tuberculosis was part of the ruse at Reichenbach Falls that allowed Holmes to be “killed” – well, that’s the consequence of tuberculosis being such a ubiquitous disease, common to everyday experience at the time.

Why did the last quarter of the 19th century create more technologies that the last quarter of the 20th century?

Those 25 years from 1875 to 1900 were abuzz with discovery, with invention after invention transforming everyday life. Everything from toilet paper to paperclips to electronics were invented in those years. In part, this was a result of the previous decades of industrialization, where factory processes were at last turned toward addressing the toils of daily life. A century later, by 1975, so much of modern life had already been optimized and improved upon. That’s not to say there weren’t transformative discoveries afoot – the personal computer, the cell phone, and so many other pieces of modern technology emerged in those last 25 years, technologies that we’d consider essential today. But I’d argue that the pace and impact of new technologies was much more profound in the 19th century. For many, the landscape of daily life on either end of those 25 years would be unrecognizable, where life in 2000 wasn’t all that different from 1975. Even bell bottoms were making a comeback!

Title: The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis
Author: Thomas Goetz
Genre: Non-Fiction, History
Pages: 320
Publication: Gotham, April 2014

The Adventures of Henry Thoreau

thoreauFrom his childhood, through his time at Harvard, his years of drifting from one job to another, this narrative biography follows a literary icon.  A quirky introverted intellectual, Thoreau was a teacher and a private tutor, a pencil-maker (actually improving on the process), and a handyman.  He was friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson (who was also his mentor), Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the Alcotts.  Thoreau had a deep love of the natural world which inspires many of his actions – a trip down the river with his brother, his time on Walden Pond, a trip to the mountains of Maine.  On land borrowed from Emerson, he built a cabin on Walden Pond – the notes of his time there would result in his most well-known literary work, Walden.  He also spent a night in jail for refusal to pay his poll taxes – the notes of his time there would result in another of his well-known works, Civil Disobedience, which inspired Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Luckily, the book is far more than a list of facts, it is the story of a man’s life – his work, his friendships, his dreams, successes, and failures.  It’s the story of a trip with his brother, teaching Nathaniel Hawthorne to row a boat, falling in love, spending time with Emerson and his family.  I was captivated by the tale of his life which made me wish for simpler times, when berries grew in abundance by the roadside, ponds were full of fish, and forests and fields were lush with vegetation.  And I was admittedly more than a little jealous of his ability and opportunity to spend several years in his waterfront cabin, thinking, reading, and writing…

Title:The Adventures of Henry Thoreau: A Young Man’s Unlikely Path to Walden Pond
Author: Michael Sims
Genre: Non-Fiction, Biography
Pages: 384
Publication: Bloomsbury, February 2014