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Disappearing Ink: The Insider, the FBI, and the Looting of the Kenyon College Library

Disappearing Ink: The Insider, the FBI, and the Looting of the Kenyon College Library

by Travis McDade

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The remarkable true story of the document heist that shocked the world.
Like many aspiring writers, David Breithaupt had money problems. But what he also had was unsupervised access to one of the finest special collections libraries in the country.
In October 1990, Kenyon College hired Breithaupt as its library’s part-time evening supervisor. In April 2000, he was fired after a Georgia librarian discovered him selling a letter by Flannery O’Connor on eBay, but that was only the tip of the iceberg: for the past ten years, Breithaupt had been browsing the collection, taking from it whatever rare books, manuscripts, and documents caught his eye—W. H. Auden annotated typescripts, a Thomas Pynchon manuscript, and much, much more. It was a large-scale, long-term pillaging of Kenyon College’s most precious works.
After he was caught, the American justice system looked like it was about to disappoint the college the way it had countless rare book crime victims before—but Kenyon, refused to let this happen . . .

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781626818965
Publisher: Diversion Books
Publication date: 09/07/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 123
Sales rank: 1,054,802
File size: 1 MB

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No One to Watch Over Him

Kenyon College looks like it was designed for a postcard. Perched atop a small, tree-clothed hill and surrounded by a picturesque town, the campus in autumn looks very much like the Platonic ideal of a small college. Even the drive in seems like it was designed to make a college recruiter's job easier. The tan fields and gently uneven terrain of central Ohio make the approach like a journey into an older, simpler time. Novelist and alum P.F. Kluge made this point in his 1993 book-length paean to Kenyon, Alma Mater, noting that, after escaping the malls and apartments and golf courses that cluster the outer orbit of Columbus, "we move through a downbeat, abandoned-feeling country where weeds grow in railroad tracks that lead to rusted trestle-bridges." It is a Rockwell idyll, this trip into rural Americana, where "somewhere among these small farms with Mail Pouch chewing tobacco signs splashed on rickety barns, somewhere near a sleepy, white-clapboard Ohio town," sits the campus of Kenyon. In short, the place looks straight-from-central- casting perfect. Still, home to about 1,500 undergraduates, the area was also, like a lot of farm country, host to its fair share of pests. Fo ten years, one of them worked at the Olin and Chalmers Library.

David Conard Breithaupt was raised in nearby Mount Vernon, an only-slightly-less-picturesque town four miles straight west of Gambier. The seat of Knox County, Mount Vernon dubs itself America's Hometown and, with the fall foliage bordering two- hundred-year-old houses and a charming town square, it is not difficult to imagine it so. All things considered, it was a pretty nice place to grow up. David's father George Breithaupt, a graduate of Duke Law School, knew it would be. After practicing in Columbus for a few years, he moved his family to the country town and became legal counsel for a local corporation. He had a house built — Frank Lloyd Wright-style — on a large, secluded property nestled between some woods and a small pond. He immersed himself in the community, becoming a member of several local boards, a Knight of Pythias, chairman of the Knox County Democratic Party, and a director of the Peoples Bank at Gambier. In 1972, he even ran for Congress.

He was prosperous, too, at home, with a loving wife and four children, all boys. The last of these was David, who grew up comfortable, but undistinguished, attending local schools right up until he graduated from Mount Vernon High. Like many small towns, this meant that pretty much everyone in the community knew either David, his parents, or one of his brothers. This would matter in coming years when many local folks, disbelieving a Breithaupt could commit the crimes David was accused of, would consider the whole thing a gigantic mistake. Or, worse yet, a vindictive action by Kenyon meant to cover its mistakes. It would end up being neither of those.

In 1977, Breithaupt made his way to the Columbus College of Art and Design where he did two things part-time: took classes and worked at nearby Clintonville Public Library. He was tired of Mount Vernon and the conservative nature of rural Ohio — what he called the "backwoods dogma of my town" — and the state capital offered a conveniently located alternative. He stayed in Columbus until the break of the 1980s when, without a degree, he moved to New York City.

The difference between Mount Vernon and Columbus — known locally as Cow Town — was noticeable, but not drastic: like moving from the fairway to the first cut of rough. But New York City was something altogether different — and altogether different was just what Breithaupt was looking for. A fervid reader with grand literary aspirations, he understood there was little artistic street cred to be had growing up in quiet Midwest prosperity. Being the son of a successful Duke Law grad with a happy marriage, in an area where the most important person is the Ohio State football coach, is not exactly the sort of real world experience young writers in the 1970s were looking for. So he sought his fortune in New York. And if the grim streets of the city in the first years of the Koch Administration offered nothing else, it was real world experience.

There has always been a certain amount of literary cache in poor living and grime, particularly in retrospect, so Breithaupt did his penance and took notes. And while his dreams of early fiction glory died the way they inevitably do for most — killed by a thousand cuts of publishers' rejections — he did manage to find work on the periphery of the Manhattan literary world, in a number of different roles he would later count as the most important parts of his New York biography. He worked briefly for the New York Public Library and the circulation department at Rolling Stone. He did archive work for five years for the poet Allen Ginsberg. He also had jobs in several legendary New York bookstores: Womrath's and the Gryphon book store, both on the west side, and the Brazenhead. This store, originally in Brooklyn, and later on East Eighty-Fourth Street in Manhattan, was also haunted by a number of authors and New York City personages, most notably a young Jonathan Lethem. That successful author would become Breithaupt's lifelong friend, ally, and target of affection.

Of course, being a sponge on the edge of the literary scene meant Breithaupt also soaked up his fair share of drugs and alcohol. He managed to kick booze after a late-80s stint in rehab, but an opiate addiction would bedevil him. When he returned to central Ohio in 1990, it was with his personal book collection — including some Allen Ginsberg materials — and not a whole lot else. The idea was that he would take care of his ailing father, but it is also true that one decade in New York was enough. In any event, as he had in Manhattan, he had trouble finding good, steady work at home. Even when he did manage to get a job — as he did at Printing Arts Press — he only stayed a short time. Lack of discernible skills, requisite degrees, or basic qualifications may have all played a role in his frustrations, but so, too, did his personality. Plenty smart and outwardly pleasant, he could be at times passive-aggressive, and even people who liked him described him as eccentric or quirky.

Still, those are not traits that would automatically disqualify a person from library work, especially at night, so in October 1990, he hit the jackpot: a part-time job working at Kenyon College's Olin and Chalmers Library. His job, as evening supervisor, was to oversee the student workers and do whatever common-sense circulation or security duties needed to be done. Essentially, he provided adult supervision between 5pm and 2am. This was a boon for him. For one thing, he liked college students and some of them liked him back. The job did not require a great deal of work, so he could afford to sit and listen to their problems and give advice. With his own stories of literary New York to offer, he was an exotic character in his own right, and this brought him attention of the sort he liked. More importantly, other than the students, there was no one around to keep track of him, or bring him attention of the sort he didn't like.

Of course, the job wasn't without its challenges. Some of the professional staff of the library found him strange and maybe too enamored of books. Librarians tend to have an above-average tolerance for bibliophilism, so Breithaupt's ability to stand out in that crowd is saying something. It wasn't that he just liked books, he had to be surrounded by them — to pick through trash to get at them. It was a fixation he did not shy away from sharing, and pretty much everyone who knew anything about him knew that. Still, as personality disorders go, an extreme love of books has to be among the sweetest.

There is no doubt that Breithaupt was a true student of literature, with a broad knowledge base and genuine insights into fiction. If things had gone differently, he might have been a professor at a small college, teaching a course on the modern novel and making a decent living. Instead, he spent his thirties working part-time in an hourly position, with no real hope for financial security in his future. And this is the other thing that people who knew something about him most often knew: he was unhappy with his salary. In retrospect, the combination of his extreme love of books and his extreme lack of money might have set off warning bells. But America's academic libraries are almost entirely populated by people who love books and do not make enough money — so, if nothing else, he had this in common with many of his coworkers.

Unlike most rare book thefts, there was never a discernable starting point to Breithaupt's crime — that is, he never decided to start stealing from Kenyon. He just simply treated the collection there as if it was a natural extension of his own. As Breithaupt's colleague at Brazenhead, Jonathan Lethem, noted, employees stole from every bookstore he worked at — they simply felt that the books belonged to them as much as they did the customers. Whether Breithaupt learned this attitude in New York bookstores or had it when he first left Ohio, it was exactly how he felt when he got a position at the Olin and Chalmers Library. He took things without remorse — as if it was the most natural thing in the world. He routinely left for home with an armful of books, a fact that everyone noticed about him. Librarians, students, janitors, and campus police all saw him do it, and all remembered seeing him do it, because it seemed so strange. Some of these books he had checked out, some he had not. Of the ones he had not, some he would return and some he would not. As with many things in Breithaupt's crime spree, the fact that he was so open about it tended to make everyone think there was nothing wrong. This was an idea that was only reinforced by his experience the first time anyone cautioned him against stealing.

One of the things he noticed in his early investigation of the Kenyon shelves was the existence of small but extraordinary artifacts in some of the books. Before computers took over the circulation process, slip cards inside the back covers of library books — a location known in the book trade as the "back endpaper paste down" — were an essential part of checkouts. These remnants of a prior age remained in all the Kenyon books that pre-dated the use of computers, and by systematically going through some of the older works in the general collection, he could find cards that had been signed by some of the many famous authors who worked or studied at the school — authors like E.L. Doctorow, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, and William Gass. When Breithaupt found ones he liked, he simply took them.

As a crime, this was relatively minor. But as an example of Breithaupt's attitude about the collection, it was perfect. With an almost childlike wonder, he searched for these artifacts, going through book after book after book, scanning for the golden ticket of literary ephemera. When he found one with a famous name, he would pluck it out, and mention it to everyone he saw — from student workers to librarians to the library director. To most of them, if they thought about it at all, it seemed like a harmless exercise, even if they understood that he was taking the things home with him. It was only when a Kenyon alum later complained that someone was selling these things online that Breithaupt was told by his supervisor to quit it. But other than that, he was not disciplined.

This was an important lesson. As at other places he had worked, no one was paying very close attention. He could spend his evenings searching for the hidden gems of the collection and, unless the place caught fire, or students left trash on the tables, or complained to his bosses about noise, no one would care. In essence, he was being paid — if only slightly paid — to do a slow browse of the library. Stealing from anywhere except the Special Collections was a breeze, and stealing from there was not exactly a Thomas Crown affair. So starting shortly after he first took the job, he began the slow-motion pilfering of one of the great small college collections in the nation.

It would last the better part of a decade.


Like Kicking a Puppy

The second half of the 1990s was the golden age of listservs. For the first time, masses of people with specialized, sometimes peculiar, interests had a way to instantly communicate with folks of like mind. This was a boon for Breithaupt. Whatever personal peccadilloes he had were filtered by hyperspace; in the black-and-white world of short Internet posts, he was nothing but pleasant and knowledgeable. Without being pedantic, he gave informed opinions and routinely offered little pieces of information that were genuinely interesting. For instance, in a message posted to the Beat Generation List shortly after the death of Allen Ginsberg, Breithaupt claimed the poet was meant to be on the cover of Rolling Stone but that the band U2 had disappointing album sales and needed the publicity, so they supplanted the Beat, who instead got a long tribute inside. Nothing earthshaking, but a cool conversation piece for certain fans — and right in the wheelhouse of a man for whom an association with Allen Ginsberg would prove to be a lifelong source of esteem.

As a frequent contributor to this list — and others like it, including the Bohemian List — his most important trait might have been as a voice of reason during the fairly common flame wars that plagued the discussion group. When he participated, it was as a calming influence. And it was in this capacity that he posted a long answer in a June 1996 discussion under the subject heading of "Libraries and Beat Books." A list member noticed that a lot of these books were missing from library shelves, and a brief discussion of the matter as to why they were so often stolen ensued. Breithaupt noted that friends had asked him to steal books from Kenyon, but he always said no because "of the few things I consider sacred are the books in a library." Among the reasons he objected to such thefts was that it might not allow a person new to the Beats to discover them, as he had. So don't steal, he warned in closing, because it's bad karma, "like kicking a puppy!"

In general, rare book thieves fall into two categories: those who sell and those who keep. Contrary to popular opinion — which holds that stealing books to own them is somehow less of a crime than stealing books to sell them — the hoarders are the worst. Once a person who steals for his own collection gets a book, it will generally not surface again until he dies. And sometimes not even then. But people who steal to sell put themselves at near constant risk of getting caught. When he wrote this post he was almost certainly in the former category. That is, he might not have looked upon taking things from Kenyon as anything other than borrowing. In any event, it is common for people who steal from libraries to think they are doing the books a favor, treasuring them more than the librarians and students ever would. And Breithaupt certainly did that, surrounding himself with books and literary artifacts on every flat surface in his house. He might even have convinced himself that he was one day going to give them back. In fact, after his thefts were discovered, people who knew him well simply felt the man lacked the guile to pull off such an enormous and ongoing crime. But then there was Christa Hupp.

Ten years older than Breithaupt, Hupp was also a native Ohioan who wanted bigger things from life. Described in 1981 by the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram as a "32-year-old mother, housewife and fledgling activist" she was one of the founding members of an organization so new "it hasn't even developed a firm philosophy." She just wanted to do something. Before the advent of the Internet, that mostly meant getting her name in the local newspaper a dozen times by age thirty-five. These mentions were for subjects ranging from the arts to political activism to cross-country skiing.


Excerpted from "Disappearing Ink"
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Copyright © 2015 Travis McDade.
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