Rare Book Monthly

Articles - March - 2014 Issue

Sharp Eyes Discover Hidden Library Theft


Document stolen from Vermont library.

A Colchester, Vermont, man has been charged in a case of library theft, and it is an example of just how difficult this crime can be to detect if patrons aren't being watched all of the time. Patrick Rooney, age 55, was charged with taking a document from the Fletcher Free Library in Burlington, and later attempting to sell it to the Bailey-Howe Library at the University of Vermont.


The item allegedly stolen wasn't a whole book. It was a single page. It came from the Burlington Proprietors Volume 1. This is a book containing documentation of various land transactions. It is dated 1791. Rooney reportedly claimed the page had been bound out of place at the back of the book, but whether this is true is unclear. A couple of things were unusual about this particular page. One is that it contained the name of General Ira Allen. Allen is not well known outside of his native Vermont, but his brother is. That would be Ethan Allen, the Vermonter who led his “Green Mountain Boys” in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga early in the American Revolution. Most of the Allens' careers were otherwise spent in the development of Vermont, as it carved out its own independence and then statehood.


The other unusual thing about this document is it relates to a transaction in the town of Sterling. That one may puzzle even native Vermonters. There is no town of Sterling in Vermont. There hasn't been one in over a century and a half. Once upon a time there was, but few would remember it now. Perhaps this emboldened the thief to believe the document would never be missed. Sterling was created in 1782, a virtually uninhabited area in northern Vermont, surrounded by Allen's Green Mountains. It never did gain many inhabitants. The town reached 193 residents in 1840, but administering it for such a limited number of people was burdensome. In 1856, the residents voted to dissolve the town, its land being incorporated into its neighbors. If no one missed a document relating to Sterling, it would not be all that surprising. Few are aware of it.


Unfortunately for the thief, at least one person remembered Sterling. It is not known when the document was stolen. However, it was still present in the Fletcher Library collection in 2010. At that time, the document was one that was scanned by the Bailey-Howe Library at the University of Vermont as part of a preservation initiative. More recently, according to the police report, Rooney offered it for sale to the Bailey-Howe Library. One of the curators at that library thought it looked familiar. He checked the digital copy and discovered it had the same markings and stains as the one that had been offered for sale by Rooney. The police were contacted, and Rooney was charged with petit larceny and selling stolen property.


This is not the first time Rooney has been so charged. At least three times between 1991 and 2001 he was charged in connection with artifacts stolen from libraries and museums and offered for sale. However, this was unknown to librarians at the University of Vermont Library as they had purchased items from Rooney before. Obviously, they will need to conduct some more investigations. The police report noted that the document has been described as “priceless.” Nonetheless, a valuation must be made to establish the level of the charge, and it has been estimated to be worth from $175 (allegedly Rooney's asking price) to $500. As such, if guilty, Rooney could be assessed a fine $1,000, imprisonment for up to one year, or both.


Editor's note:  The Burlington Free Press has reported that after Rooney failed to appear for his arraignment, he was discovered dead in his home, the apparent victim of a suicide.


Posted On: 2014-03-01 20:30
User Name: mikefromco

Good article, but... what would be most useful would be a picture (perhaps the arrest mug shot)---so that his future presence will not pass unnoticed by curators, librarians and dealers. As this was not his first arrest, it is unlikely to be his last crime.

Posted On: 2014-03-01 20:50
User Name: mikefromco

It appears Rooney's picture is N/A, but pictures would be useful in future theft articles.

Posted On: 2014-03-01 23:27
User Name: AE244155

There was a mug shot available with the police report but we didn't want to use it with a fairly small crime and a belief this would be a deterrence for quite awhile. As the Editor's Note added, unfortunately, Mr. Rooney apparently took his own life.

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