A Modern Euphemism Which Softens the Ugly Word Book-thief

A definition of “biblioklept,” from William S. Walsh’s strange and wonderful 1909 ‘cyclopedia, Handy-book of Literary Curiosities:

Biblioklept, a modern euphemism which softens the ugly word book-thief by shrouding it in the mystery of the Greek language. So the French say, not voleur, but chipeiir de livres. The true bibliomaniac cannot help feeling a tenderness for his pet fad, even when carried to regrettable excesses. Perhaps he has often felt his own fingers tingle in view of a rare de Grolier, a unique Elzevir, he knows the strength of the temptation, he estimates rightly his own weakness; perhaps, if he carries self-analysis to the unflattering point which it rarely reaches, save in the sincerest and finest spirits, he recognizes that his power of resistance is supplied not by virtue, but by fear,—fear of ilie police and of Mrs. Grundy. In his inner soul he admires the daring which risks all for the sake of a great passion. When a famous book-collector was exhibiting his treasures to the Duke of Sussex, Queen Victoria’s uncle, he apologized to his royal highness for having to unlock each case. ‘• Oh, quite right, quite right,” was the reassuring reply: “to tell the truth, I’m a terrible thief.” There are not many of us who are so honest. Nevertheless, the epidemic form which bibliokleptomania has assumed is recognized in the motto which school-boys affix to their books, warning honest friends not to steal them. ” Honest may, of course, be a fine bit of sarcasm. But one prefers to look upon it as indicating a subtle juvenile prescience that the most honest and the most friendly will steal books, as the most honest will cheat their dearest friends in a matter of horseflesh.

The roll of book-thieves, if it included all those who have prigged without detection or who have borrowed without returning, would doubtless include the most illustrious men of all ages. But strike from the list those whose thefts have been active and not passive, and admitting perforce only that probably small proportion whose active thieving has been discovered and proclaimed, a splendid array of names will still remain. It will include learned men, wise men, good men,—the highest dignitaries of church and state, even a pope. And that pope was no less a man than Innocent X. To be sure, he was not pope, but plain Monsignor Pamphilio, when he stole a book from Du Moustier, the painter,—his one detected crime. But who shall say it was his only crime ? To be sure, again, Du Moustier was something of a thief himself: he used to brag how he had prigged a book of which he had long been in search from a stall on the Pont-Neuf. Nevertheless, he strenuously objected to be stolen from. When, therefore, Monsignor Pamphilio, in the train of Cardinal Barberini, paid a visit to the painter’s studio in Paris and quietly slipped into his soutane a copy of ” L’Histoire du Concile de Trente,” M. Uu Moustier, catching him in the act, furiously told the cardinal that a holy man should not bring thieves and robbers in his train. With these and other words of a like libellous nature he recovered the History of the Council of Trent, and kicked out the future pontiff. Historians date from this incident that hatred to the crown and the people of France which distinguished the pontifical reign of Innocent X.

Among royal personages, the Ptolemies were book-thieves on a large scale. An entire department in the Alexandrian Library, significantly called ” Hooks from the Ships,” consisted of rare volumes taken from sea-voyagers who touched at the port. True, the Ptolemies had a conscience. They were careful to have fair transcripts made of these valuable manuscripts, which they presented to the visitors ; but, as Aristotle says, and, indeed, as is evident enough to minds of far inferior compass, the exchange, being involuntary, could not readily be differentiated from robbery. Brantome tells us that Catherine de Medicis, when Marshal Strozzi died, seized upon his very valuable library, promising some day to pay the value to his son, but the promise was never kept.

Perhaps the greatest of biblioklepts was Don Vincente, a friar of that Poblat convent whose library was plundered and dispersed at the pillage of the monasteries during the regency of Queen Christina in 1834. Coming to Barcelona, he established himself in a gloomy den in the book-selling quarter of the town. Here he set up as a dealer, but fell so in love with his accumulated purchases that only want tempted him to sell them. Once at an auction he was outbid for a copy of the ” Ordinacions per los Gloriosos Keys de Arago,”—a great rarity, perhaps a unique. Three days later the house of the successful rival was burned to the ground, and his blackened body, pipe in hand, was found in the ruins. He had set the house on fire with his pipe,— that was the general verdict. A mysterious succession of murders followed. One bibliophile after another was found in the streets or the river, with a dagger in his heart. The shop of Uon Vincente was searched. The ” Ordinacions” was discovered. How had it escaped the flames that had burned down the purchaser’s house? Then the Uon confessed not only that murder but others. Most of his victims were customers who had purchased from him books he could not bear to part with. At the trial, counsel for the defence tried to discredit the confession, and when it was objected that the “Ordinacions” was a unique copy, they proved there was another in the Louvre, that, therefore, there might be still more, and that the defendant’s might have been honestly procured. At this, Don Vincente, hitherto callous and silent, uttered a low cry. ” Aha !” said the alcade, ” you are beginning to realize the enormity of your offence!” “Yes,” sobbed the penitent thief, “the copy was not a unique, after all.”

A worthy successor to this good friar was Count Guglielmi Libri Carucci, known by his penultimate name Libri, which, curiously enough, means books. He was a meml>er of the French Institute, a professor in the College of France, a valued contributor to the Revue dcs Deux Mondcs, and an inspector-general of French libraries under Louis Philippe. Yet he succeeded in getting away with a large number of valuable books and manuscripts belonging to the libraries he “inspected.” His thefts were first brought to the notice of the Paris librarians by anonymous letters, and then by articles in the Monileur and the National. In 1848 he was prosecuted and condemned by default to ten years’ imprisonment ; but even then his friends did not desert him. Prosper Merimee, who defended him before the Senate, refused to believe in his guilt. When he fled to London, Sir Antonio Panizzi received him with open arms, maintaining that he was a persecuted man, and gave him carte blanche to wander about the library of the British Museum. Lord Ashburnham bought some of the stolen wares for ^8000. M. Delisle tried to negotiate with young Lord Ashburnham in 1878, but without success. Finally, in 1890, the stolen property was returned to the French library in exchange for Manesse’s rare collection of German poetry and the sum of ^6000.

Of the lesser fry of biblioklepts there is no space to speak. In Paris alone as many as a hundred thieves of this kind have been prosecuted in a single year. Vet they are a small percentage of the total detected. Jules Janin mentions a fellow-citizen whose first impulse when he saw a book was to put it in his pocket. So notorious was this failing that whenever a volume was missed at a public sale, the auctioneer duly announced it, and knocked it down to the enthusiast for a good price, which he never failed to pay. If he walked out before the sale was over, the detectives would crowd around him, asking if he did not have an Elzevir or an Aldine in his pocket. He would make a careful search. ” Yes, yes, here it is,” he would finally cry : ” so much obliged to you. I am so absent.”

In London it is just as bad. There the book-snatcher is a person well known to dealers. Mr. Besant has described him in his story ” In Luck at Last:” ” First, the book-snatcher marks his prey ; he finds the shop which has a set containing the volume which is missing in his own set; next he arms himself with a volume which closely resembles the one he covets, and then, on pretence of turning over the leaves, he watches his opportunity to effect an exchange, and goes away rejoicing, his set complete.”

Lockhart mentions, in his ” Life of Scott,” how at Holyrood he had placed some lines sent to Sir Walter by Lord Byron, together with the accompanying present, in one of the rooms, but the lines mysteriously disappeared. He adds that he mentions this circumstance in the hope of depriving the thief of the pleasure of displaying his plunder.


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