By Travis McDade
In a desk donated to the Vermont thrift store at which he worked, Tim Bernaby was pleasantly surprised to find several letters and cards written by Robert Frost. He took these missives and sold them for $25,000. When asked about it, he said he found the items not in the desk, but in the trash — an excuse that must have seemed to him unassailable, but that in the field of rare book, map, and document theft is something of a cliché. Next to grandpa’s attic trunk, the humble trash bin is the choicest place for thieves to find otherwise unexplainable items.
The American trash digger par excellence is surely David Breithaupt. If he is to be believed, the garbage dump at the back dock of Kenyon College’s Olin and Chalmers Library, where he worked, was something of a cornucopia, existing for nearly a decade and replenishing his shortage of valuable books on a schedule coinciding nicely with his need for cash. This trash can (actually, it was trash bags) claim was so central to his defense that he trotted it out early and often — not only was it the first official excuse he used, but it was the mainstay he relied on in legal briefs even years later. It was an excuse generally derided by central Ohio lawyers, librarians, and normal people, but accepted by an astonishing array of the literary figures Breithaupt glommed onto during his years in New York.
It is worth noting that while the trash-dock-of-plenty was Breithaupt’s most dearly held and oft-stated excuse, he did not rely on it alone to explain how he came to possess so many hundreds of the college’s rare materials. He “found” several Kenyon books — including a 1635 Mercator Atlas and a first edition Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — at a nearby antique shop. He also “found” a particularly valuable Flannery O’Connor letter tucked into an otherwise unrelated book he bought at a local sale. In the end, Breithaupt was either a hapless fabulist who was dead-to-rights guilty, or the luckiest collector in the history of mankind. A central Ohio jury believed it to be the former.
Breithaupt, as it happens, paid a fairly stiff price for his crimes. Nineteenth century Biblical scholar Constantin Von Tischendorf, on the other hand, parlayed his trash finding story into celebrity. As a young man, Tischendorf set for himself the rather ambitious goal of reconstructing the original text of the New Testament; he noted to a friend that he would compile this Bible “upon the strictest principles; a text that will approach as closely as possible to the very letter as it proceeded from the hands of the Apostles.” Initially this meant he would simply make copies of the oldest New Testaments he found, mostly in Europe, and bring them together for research. But his thinking on the matter would evolve.
In 1844, he travelled across North Africa and arrived, eventually, at St. Catherine’s Monastery on the Sinai Peninsula. It was, he later claimed, in the monastery’s library that he noticed a basket full of papers “mouldered by time,” being consigned to flames for the sake of heat. He “rescued” from this trash basket some 86 pages of what turned out to be a fourth century Bible, and brought them back to Leipzig. In an age when fire was a major threat to books, saving one from the flames must have struck Tischendorf as an entirely believable tale — never mind that parchment (which is animal skin, after all) does not burn well enough to be a good source of heat. But aside from that, to accept his rescued-from-refuse claim, a person would have to believe that, after some fifteen hundred years of existence, monks were burning the oldest extant copy of the Bible, in the library, on the very day that a man professed to be searching for things exactly like that just happened to be there. In any event, Tischendorf’s story is somewhat undercut by the fact that he returned years later and stole/borrowed/bought (depending upon who is asked) the rest of the manuscript containing the New Testament.
It is tempting to think that 19th century folks were more credulous, and believed the story as Tischendorf wrote it. Some did, of course — like some continue to believe Breithaupt. But here is the 1892 judgment of noted Englishman and book collector W. G. Thorpe: “But as to stealing books. The thing is not only sometimes lawful, but even meritorious, and one man will go to heaven for it — in fact, has gone there already. The mode in which Tischendorf ran off with the Codex Sinaiticus…may be described as anything you please, from theft under trust to hocussing and felony; but it succeeded, and all Christendom was glad thereof.”
Christendom is unlikely to look as kindly upon the trashcan discoveries of Tim Bernaby. Still, who needs Christendom when you have a permissive legal system: Bernaby pleaded guilty to unlawful taking of personal property and was fined $100.
Travis McDade is Curator of Law Rare Books at the University of Illinois College of Law. He is the author of Thieves of Book Row: New York’s Most Notorious Rare Book Ring and the Man Who Stopped It and The Book Thief: The True Crimes of Daniel Spiegelman. He teaches a class called “Rare Books, Crime & Punishment.” Read his previous blog posts: “The professionalization of library theft” ; “Barry Landau’s coat pockets” ; “The difficulty of insider book theft” ; and “Barry Landau and the grim decade of archives theft”.
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Image credit: Konstantin von Tischendorf (1815–1874), German theologian, around 1870. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.