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Stetson Hall, home to the Chapin Library at Williams College.



(This is an expanded version of an article that ran in the Williams College 2006 commencement newspaper, On Campus)


O, theft most base, That we have stol'n what we do fear to keep! — Troilus and Cressida, Act II, scene II

By Mark E. Rondeau

On Thursday, February 8, 1940, at about 10 a.m., a middle-aged man with an overcoat draped on his arm walked into the Chapin Library at Williams College. He presented a folded and signed letter of introduction addressed to the head librarian, Lucy Eugenia Osborne.

In the archives at Chapin one can find a copy of the letter the man presented. It was typed on Middlebury College stationery:

Dear Madam:

May I introduce you to Professor Sinclair E. Gillingham of our English Department, who plans to do various research work at your college. He is very eager to visit your library and to examine your set of the Shakespeare folios.

Sincerely Yours,

Paul Dwight Moody — President

Osborne directed the man to a study room and had him sit at a table. She brought to him the library’s five Shakespeare folios. Four of these volumes comprised a matching set and a fifth had a different binding. Each volume of the matching set was wrapped in stiff red cloth and stored in a box case.

“I placed all these, removed from their cases, on the table, and placed the cases on a window-seat close by. I placed the First Folio in front of him. He said he would want other books later,” she recalled. “I was not going to give them to him at the same time with the folios, as that would be unwise, but went to start on getting them ready.”

After several minutes, Professor Gillingham came out into the front room.

“He had his heavy black overcoat over his arm so that it was on the arm furthest away from me, and said he wanted to get his wife, who always worked with him and took a great interest in his work,” Osborne remembered. “This is very usual. Many men from out of town bring their wives, who may at first stay out in a car or down at the Inn. Then the man sees how fine the books are and wants his wife to come in, too.”

Professor Gillingham said he would not be gone longer than 15 or 20 minutes.

Osborne went to the front room to await his return, sitting in a window seat overlooking the street that was then called College Place. She saw him leave the building and, walking with a swaying, willowy gait, cross the street, and go down the hill in the direction of the old Williams Inn.

“Although he did not come soon, I was not unduly surprised, for this again is usual, since the visitor often meets a colleague among the Williams men and forgets the time,” she said. “If he is staying a few days, he may even let it all go until the next day! So although it was annoying, since I had to close up the room and keep it reserved, though I needed it for someone else, I did reserve it and no discovery was made until 4:35 p.m.”

At that time, Osborne’s young assistant, Geraldine Droppers, made the startling discovery. “The First Folio!” she reportedly exclaimed. “It’s gone — and this book — this cheap book — has been left in its place!”

Covered with the red cloth wrapper and placed in the First Folio’s box case was an 1870 English translation of Reynard The Fox, by Goethe. The pages of the book had been hacked down the front edges, no doubt to approximate the dimensions of the First Folio. The book had been glued into a red cover.

“It was a very badly botched piece of work but it served its purpose,” Osborne said.

At this time Williamstown had a one-man police force, and his name was George Royal. On February 8, Chief Royal was home eating dinner at 6:30 p.m. when the phone rang.

When Royal arrived at Stetson Hall, he found an excited little group, including Osborne, Droppers, Williams Assistant Treasurer Earl O. Brown, and Williams President James Phinney Baxter, III. At that time Stetson Hall housed the regular library and the Chapin Rare Books collection in a specially built and furnished wing.

College officials, who were keeping the theft a secret, had already checked with the Williams Inn to see if a Professor Gillingham was registered there. The answer was no.

Taking charge, Chief Royal needed to know exactly what had been stolen. Osborne described the difference between the four volumes in the set of folios. The oldest, and most valuable, was the stolen First Folio. Printed in London in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, the First Folio is one of the most famous of rare books. The other three folios in the set were published later.

The First Folio was assembled by two of Shakespeare’s actor friends, John Heminges and Henry Condell. They collated existing printed copies of some of the plays with actors’ promptbooks and other manuscripts and made hundreds of corrections and emendations.

“In doing so, they defined Shakespeare’s canon, rejecting attributions of some plays that had appeared earlier under his name, and produced what is still the most important text of his works,” according to Chapin Assistant Librarian Wayne Hammond. “The First Folio includes 36 plays, almost all of those now considered to be by Shakespeare; only Pericles is omitted. Among these, 20 had not been previously printed, including MacBeth, Twelfth Night, and The Tempest.”

The Founder of the Chapin Library, Alfred Clark Chapin, Williams Class of 1869, paid $31,000 for the set of four folios in 1919. The volumes, including the First Folio, are bound in red morocco — a fine leather from goatskin tanned with sumac — and are gilt tooled in elaborate design by Bedford of London.

They were part of the library’s original collection when it opened in 1923. Of 750 copies of the First Folio believed to have been printed, some 230 copies are known to exist.

Osborne described Professor Gillingham as a slender man between 5’8” and 5’10” tall and between 35 and 40 years old. He was conservatively dressed in a dark suit and carrying a heavy overcoat on his arm. He wore a peculiar hat, almost white, with a nap so long that it looked fuzzy. It was round with a rolling brim and a soft, crushed crown. His eyes were hidden by glasses, from which a long black ribbon hung down from the right side. The man’s complexion was pale. He voice was low and he had no noticeable accent. He didn’t say much.

Preliminary investigation revealed that the letter was a forgery and that, in fact, no Professor Gillingham taught at Middlebury College. Even the college letterhead differed from that on the thief’s letter of introduction.

As the investigation continued, Royal was joined by Massachusetts State Police Detective John Horgan, from the Pittsfield barracks. Both spent the day after the theft, Feb. 9, investigating the case but found no leads. On Saturday, Feb. 10, The North Adams Transcript, the daily paper in the small city adjacent to Williamstown, ran an article headlined, “Thief Gets Shakespeare First Edition From Set Worth $31,000 At College.”

The next day, Aubrey Josiah Peck, a Williams junior from Charleston, West Virginia, came to see Royal. He said he had seen a man dressed just like Gillingham. Peck had just begun to cross College Place on the morning of the crime when a car turned off Main Street right in front of him, driving him back to the curb. Three men rode in the car, which headed toward the library. Gillingham sat on the passenger side of the front seat. Peck remembered that the car had New York license plates, but he did not remember the plate number. It was a start for the investigators.

“You see this chase is hotly follow’d, friends.” — King Henry V, Act II, scene IV

Before long, national newspapers took notice of the theft. Famous columnist Walter Winchell briefly mentioned the theft in his syndicated “On Broadway” column for February 26: “The Chapin Library of Williams College has Mass. and N.Y. cops looking for the thief who took a first folio of Shakespeare. Worth between 50 and 80 Gs. It is red morocco bound.”

More somber observations came from journalists who regularly wrote about books. In “Notes for Bibliophiles” in the book section of The New York Herald Tribune on Sunday, March 10, an unnamed writer wrote about “A First Folio at Large.”

“It helps not at all to express moral indignation when a great book is stolen from an institution where pride lies in the extent and generous spirit of its service to scholars.”

In The New York Times, Philip Brooks followed the progress of the case in his “Notes on Rare Books” column. On March 3 the column ran with pictures of the title page and binding of the stolen First Folio. He thought this the first-ever theft of a First Folio, and he prophetically surmised that “the readiness with which it can be identified precludes the likelihood of its being offered for sale.”

In fact, to guard against unwitting collectors buying the stolen First Folio, some 5,000 flyers giving an exact description of it were spread around the country. In addition, a $1,000 reward was offered for its safe return in another circular.

In March, a telegram arrived in the offices of the company which had insured the First Folio: “Interested circular. Have information. Arrange some one [sic] stay Queens Hotel, Montreal, under name Chapin. Arrive tomorrow night. Await call.” It was signed: “Dealer.”

It was obvious that “Dealer” was referring to the First Folio. An investigator from the insurance company made the hotel reservation under the name John Chapin. Royal and Horgan joined the investigator in Troy on a train bound for Montreal. Upon arriving, Royal and Horgan left the train separately and went to another hotel, the Windsor.

“Chapin” waited by the phone in the Queens Hotel, but no call came that night. The phone did ring the next morning, though. A man identifying himself as “Reader” said the reward would have to increase fivefold. Chapin said he would have to contact his company to see if they would raise the reward to $5,000. Reader told him to put the answer in the personals column of the Montreal Gazette.

Chapin first held a quick meeting with Royal and Horgan. He noted that Reader sounded nervous and like he had a slight foreign accent and was trying to disguise his voice. Later that day and over the course of the next day, Chapin received several hang-up calls at his room and no word from Reader. That night he received permission from the insurance company to raise the reward to $5,000 for purposes of the investigation.

The agent placed this ad in the personals of the next day’s Montreal Gazette: “Willing to increase. Please arrange for personal interview — Chapin.”

The following day a telegram from Reader arrived expressing doubts about Chapin’s sincerity and asking for a guarantee of “payment in absence of personal risk if counsel” — ie., a go-between — “shall mediate negotiations?”

“Should you get no message by March 23rd, will mean endeavors here abandoned,” the message concluded.

Chapin consulted again with Royal and Horgan. They concluded that Reader was very nervous about the whole situation. The next day was Good Friday, a holiday in Canada, and the Gazette didn’t publish a paper.

On Saturday morning, March 23, Chapin’s reply appeared in the Gazette’s personals section: “Mission friendly. Willing to meet counsel but definitely will leave tonight—Chapin.”

Chapin waited in his room all day until midnight for some sign from Reader, and Royal and Horgan waited in theirs for news from the agent, but all three were disappointed. No call or telegram arrived. They left Montreal later that morning.

By the time of the Montreal negotiations the FBI had become involved because the case possibly involved the interstate transportation of stolen property, a violation of the National Stolen Property Act. Several more initially promising leads in the case went nowhere. By summer, the company insuring the First Folio apparently gave up hope of solving the theft and sent the college a check for $24,000.

“Thou’rt a scholar; let us therefore eat and drink.” — Twelfth Night, Act II, scene III

On the night of June 30, a man in a tavern in Albany, N.Y. — about 45 miles west of Williamstown — had been brooding for hours about something and drinking heavily. He called the Albany authorities: “Hey, I’m wanted by the police.”

Donald Lynch, 36, of Hudson Falls, N.Y., was a shoe salesman. He was married and the father of a two-year-old son. At the station Lynch told police about posing as a professor and stealing of an extremely valuable book of Shakespeare’s plays.

The police were skeptical, but had heard about the First Folio theft. Sober in the morning, Lynch tried to back away from his confession, but soon gave more details. He said a stranger had offered him $1,000 to steal the book, but he had received only $160 and trouble. The police called Chief Royal, who was in Albany an hour later.

They took Lynch to Williams College the next day. He had put on weight since the theft, making it harder for Osborne to identify him now in person. So Lynch reenacted everything he had done as Professor Gillingham on the day of the theft. Then Royal, an Albany police detective, and Miss Osborne started firing questions at Lynch. Osborne finally recognized him as the mysterious Professor Gillingham.

“I hope you’re satisfied,” Lynch said to her.

But Lynch just shrugged when asked about the location of the First Folio. Later, after Royal had bought him dinner at a nice restaurant, Lynch admitted that there were three other men in the gang, all of them from Buffalo, N.Y. They had coached him ahead of time, and he stole the First Folio and gave it to them. When he wired them for more money, however, he said he was told “that there was no more and I’d stay healthy if I stayed away from Buffalo.”

Despite his crime, Lynch seems a somewhat sympathetic figure in some accounts: "The young and personable shoe clerk told a Transcript reporter this morning he felt '10 years younger' and willingly posed for the Transcript's photographer," according to a July 5 article in the North Adams paper. "Chief Royal said Lynch is without a criminal record; that he had worked for shoe stores in Hudson Falls and nearby Glens Falls ever since leaving high school in his sophomore year and had been bonded all that time."

“The law hath not been dead.” — Measure for Measure, Act IV, scene II

On July 7, two groups of FBI agents sprang into action in Buffalo.

Joseph Biernot, 42, a convicted bootlegger, whom Lynch identified as the “money man” of the gang, submitted to arrest without incident.

The other group of agents, joined by Chief Royal, went to the house of William and Edward Kwiatkowski, aged 22 and 20 respectively. One article describes them as “shiftless sons of an honest foundry worker.”

Agents found Edward, who had a minor role in the plot, listening to the radio in the family living room. He was arrested without incident. However, agents searched the house in vain for William, whom Lynch had described as the “brains” of the gang. In his room they found him hiding under a pile of blankets behind his bed.

William Kwiatkowski is described in one article as a “tall, blond, glib young man.” He was a high school dropout with literary pretensions gone bad. “This charge is perfectly absurd,” he reportedly said to the agents. “You are being misled by the fantasies of a drunkard.”

At age 18, Kwiatkowski had retyped a 15-year-old story from a literary magazine and sold it to another magazine. The deception was quickly discovered, and he received a one-year sentence for violating copyright laws. He promised to avoid trouble in the future, and the sentence was suspended. However, he soon was caught trying to sell to a Chicago book mart a valuable book he had stolen from the Buffalo Public Library. He received a one-year sentence for violating his probation.

Police believed William Kwiatkowski, who had a slight Polish accent, to be the mysterious “Reader” of the unsuccessful Montreal negotiations for the return of the First Folio.

Biernot had met Lynch at an Albany tavern and introduced him to the Kwiatkowskis. Biernot was married to their sister. William Kwiatkowski thought up the idea of stealing the Shakespeare First Folio. They put Lynch through an elaborate course of training to make him familiar with books and librarians. Biernot had provided the money for the scholar’s costume and other expenses.

After their capture, the three men from Buffalo denied involvement with the theft. All four men in the gang, including Lynch, were charged with violation of the National Stolen Property Act, but the stolen property itself was still missing. The FBI searched for weeks in vain for the First Folio. William Kwiatkowski wasn’t talking.

The case was assigned to Robert Hitchcock, assistant U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York. He was preparing to prosecute the case when an intermediary for the Kwiatkowskis made an offer: the return of the First Folio if a more serious grand larceny charge were dropped in Massachusetts. Hitchcock contacted Massachusetts authorities, and two weeks later they agreed to the deal.

After five days the intermediary brought the First Folio to Hitchcock’s office. The indefatigable Lucy Eugenia Osborne took a train to Buffalo to identify the volume. She counted every one of its more than 400 pages to make sure none had been removed. The book was undamaged.

But before the First Folio could return home, it was needed as evidence in the trial on the federal charge of conspiracy to transport stolen property across state lines. At the federal courthouse in Rochester, N.Y. on Oct. 8, Lynch quickly pled guilty as a government witness. The other three defendants, hoping for leniency, also rose and pled guilty.

A week later, Lynch was given a three-month term to go with the three months he had already served in jail. Edward Kwiatkowski received two years on probation. Biernot received 18 months, and William Kwiatkowski received a two-year sentence.

The Monday, October 21 issue of The North Adams Transcript reported the First Folio’s imminent arrival back in Williamstown: “Carrying by far the most precious treasure ever placed in his custody, Chief of Police George A. Royal was expected to arrive back in Williamstown sometime tonight with the rare Shakespeare first Folio that was stolen Feb. 8...”

To this day, scholars examine the First Folio from time to time, as do students. The volume was recently examined for inclusion in a new worldwide census of copies of the First Folio, said Assistant Chapin Librarian Wayne Hammond.

With the passage of more than 65 years the theft has taken on a much lighter aspect. In fact, Reference and Instruction Librarian Lori DuBois used the incident in a fun First Days mystery tour in 2005 to introduce new students to what the Williams library system offers. More than 480 first-year students used the online catalog, FRANCIS; The New York Times article database; and the electronic reserves system to gather clues to the mystery. They also visited the “scene of the crime” — the Chapin Library — to look at records and artifacts of the theft in the College Archives. The First Folio itself was on display during this First Days activity.

The fact that the First Folio theft had a happy ending makes it possible to enjoy the story and laugh about it today. The title of one of Shakespeare’s plays in the First Folio says it best: All’s Well That Ends Well.


A Note on Sources: Two full-length magazine articles were written about the First Folio theft. They’ve Kidnaped Shakespeare by William Mangil appeared in True Detective Mysteries in 1941. The article was reprinted with additional commentary in the book Perspectives: A Williams Anthology (Williams College, 1983). This article was a major source of information for this press release. The other magazine article was Case of a Missing Shakespeare in the December 1941 issue of Esquire by Robert M. Hitchcock, the assistant U.S. Attorney who prosecuted the men involved in the theft. Two other significant sources for this article were a typed account of the theft by Lucy Eugenia Osborne, and the FBI case file. Both are part of the Chapin Library’s archived records and materials relating to the theft. Wayne Hammond’s article The Shakespeare First Folio in the Fall 2005 Williams Library Update gives excellent information on the origin, history, and significance of the First Folio. Newspaper articles quoted from here are identified in the text.

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