Vivid account of an organized gang that victimized public and university libraries in the late 1920s and early ’30s.
Rare-book dealers on Manhattan’s famed Book Row along lower Fourth Avenue almost inevitably were offered material of questionable provenance, writes McDade (The Book Thief: The True Crimes of Daniel Spiegelman, 2006), and they didn’t always turn it down. But three booksellers—Charles Romm, Ben Harris and Harry Gold—actually recruited freelance thieves into their own crooked network. The Romm Gang became so adept at stealing rare volumes and scrubbing off the marks that identified their institutional owners that by 1930, it was sitting on a cache of thousands of books that had to be carefully moved into the market so as not to attract attention. The gang finally overstepped on January 10, 1931, when it hit the Reserve Book Room of the New York Public Library and boosted first editions of The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick and an exceedingly rare early collection by Edgar Allan Poe, Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems. NYPL special investigator G. William Bergquist tracked the Poe to Gold but wasn’t able to prove the bookseller had it until he got a lucky break. In Boston, police nabbed two of its key suppliers, who gave Bergquist enough information to persuade New York’s finest to raid Gold, Romm and Harris. The latter two were caught red-handed with stolen books and got jail sentences, but Gold apparently was tipped off in time to hide any incriminating evidence. It took a sting operation organized by Bergquist to retrieve the Poe volume and nail the slipperiest and most brazen member of the Romm Gang. McDade, a rare-books curator at the University of Illinois College of Law, does a nice job of capturing the colorful personalities involved, as well as the morally ambiguous nature of the rare-book trade.
A treat for true-crime fans and bibliophiles alike.