Williams thefts: a brief history

Photo courtesy OF Mark Rondeau Stetson Hall is home to the College’s Chapin Archives, the site of the theft of Shakespeare’s First Folio.
Stetson Hall is home to the College’s Chapin Archives, the site of the theft of Shakespeare’s First Folio. Photo courtesy of Mark Rondeau.

History has shown that the College is a great target for thieves of all levels of practice. Whether the thief is a College president looking to start a new college elsewhere, a drunk student with ambitions to deliver pizza or a small Californian liberal arts college taking our first-place spot in college rankings, many people covet what the College has.

One of the most pervasive theft stories in the College’s history is almost certainly a myth. This legend dates back to 1821, when the second president of the College, Zephaniah Swift Moore, left the College to become the first president of Amherst. Moore took 15 students with himone fifth of the College’s student body at the time”  and, the story goes, a substantial portion of the College library’s books to bolster Amherst’s tiny library.

Though no evidence has proven this story true, Williams students and Amherst students alike have used it for over a century to foster a smug satisfaction about the superiority of their respective college, especially during Williams-Amherst football games.

The story may come from the poor record-keeping that obscures the sources of Amherst’s earliest collection of books, or a proposal in 1821 that suggested moving the libraries of the College’s two student literary societies to Amherstthis proposal was so decidedly juvenile, that, had not its opposers been equally juvenile, they would have made no resistance to it, but would have enjoyed the sport of seeing how far that joke could be carried, according to Parsons Cooke ’22, as he stated in his 1855 book Recollections of Rev E.D. Griffin. The proposal was rejected, but that didn’t stop the story from spreading.

Over 100 years later, an actual theft from the College’s libraries proved to be a much bigger loss. On Feb. 4, 1940, a stranger entered the College’s Chapin Archives carrying a letter of introduction from the president of Middlebury that identified him as Professor Sinclair E. Gillingham, and asked to see the College’s copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio. At that time, Chapin Archives allowed visitors to view archived works privately, so Gillingham was left alone with the Folio, which was delivered to him in a red clamshell box. After a few minutes, he told the librarian that he had to get his wife to look at the rare work.

Gillingham never returned, and the librarian discovered that he had replaced the Folio in the box with another book. The letter of introduction was forged; Gillingham’s real name was David Lynch, and he was a shoe salesman, not a professor. He had been hired by a crime syndicate in Buffalo, N.Y., to steal the Folio, which was one of around 230 copies known to exist, and was worth between approximately $50,000 and $80,000 at the time, that is between $800,000 and $1.3 million in modern currency.

If that last figure entices you, keep in mind what Lynch’s employers soon discovered: Shakespeare’s First Folio is perhaps the worst thing one could steal. Every Folio is unique. Many were bound privately upon their initial purchase, or rebound and recut later, so their bindings and dimensions are not uniform. The Folios were edited and published simultaneously, so uncorrected pages were mixed with corrected versions at random. Each has also suffered its own markings, damages and refurbishing over the centuries. All of these details are meticulously recorded, down to the precise locations of tears and burn holes. As a result, Shakespeare’s First Folio is nearly impossible to fence, and the stolen copy was inevitably found and recovered, with assistance from the FBI, later in the year.

Unfortunately, contemporary thefts have been less spectacular. The plain fact is that the College has not seen a good, proper, well-conducted theft in a few decades – or if we have, it was so good we have yet to discover it.

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