Rare Book Monthly

Articles - October - 2008 Issue

Arrests Made in Theft of First Book Printed in the American West

Max

The copy of the Maxwell Code sold last year at Cowen's.


By Michael Stillman

Thefts of rare and valuable books from institutional libraries almost seem to be becoming commonplace these days. Such a theft, and thankfully, concomitant arrest, hit the wires from the battleground state of Ohio last month. Stolen was a copy of the cumbersomely named The Laws of the Territory of the United States North-West of the Ohio. It is more commonly referred to as the Maxwell Code, or Maxwell's Code for its printer, William Maxwell. What makes this item remarkable is that it was the first book printed in the great American Northwest, and in 1796, Ohio was still considered part of the Northwest. There are around 15 copies of this Cincinnati first edition still known to exist. However, most of these copies have serious defects, with the stolen copy being one of the best around. This item, especially in good condition, is so rare it is hard to imagine how the thieves could have hoped to fence it, but they were probably unaware how difficult this would be. They are not antiquarians.

The victim of this theft was the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library in Fremont. There is some irony here in that many believe Hayes "stole" his election, but that is an issue for another day. Hayes was never prosecuted for theft, but these three other Ohioans surely will be.

Charged in this case are Joshua McCarty, 31, his reputed girlfriend Angela Bays, 19, both of Columbus, and Zachary Scranton, 21, of Marysville. Along with the Maxwell Code, they are also accused of stealing a copy of the slightly later Freeman Code. According to an FBI affidavit, the theft came down something like this. On June 27, McCarty and Bays asked to view the Maxwell Code, which was kept in a box with the 1798 Freeman Code. When a library employee discovered McCarty emerging from a women's bathroom with the Maxwell Code in hand, the employee retrieved the book and sent McCarty on his way. The employee put this book and the Freeman Code back in the box from whence they came and returned it to the shelf. However, what went unnoticed was that the Freeman Code had been ripped from its binder. It had been bound with many extra blank leaves, so the librarian did not notice at the time it was missing.

Two months later, on August 25, Zachary Scranton entered the library and asked to see the Maxwell Code. According to the FBI, McCarty had offered him $300 to steal it. McCarty is not a generous man, considering the Maxwell Code's value of $100,000-plus. Scranton could not provide the library with any ID, but amazingly, he was given the rare book in return for handing over his backpack as collateral. Scranton later left the building saying he needed to make a telephone call, but never returned. The librarians then noticed the Maxwell Code was missing, and when they looked in Scranton's backpack, all they found were paper towels.

Once the Hays Library realized what had happened, they sent out emails to various booksellers and auction houses concerning the missing Maxwell Code. Several dealers indicated that they had been contacted by McCarty, and that he had sold a copy of the Freeman Code to a bookseller earlier. That dealer in turn sold it to a British collector for $35,000. This led the librarians to check on their copy of the Freeman Code, which they soon learned was also missing. With this information in hand, the FBI tracked down McCarty, who had been arrested in 2007 for stealing $20,000 worth of maps from an Illinois bookstore. He also had other arrests on his record. Cell phone records indicated numerous calls between McCarty and Scranton from the vicinity of the Hays Library on the day of the Maxwell theft, and library workers identified Scranton as the suspect. Scranton reportedly then implicated McCarty. With all of this evidence in hand, the FBI had sufficient cause to bring the charges.

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