March 6, 2014

‘But the librarian said, “Take whatever you want!”‘: man gets probation after stealing $100,000 worth of rare books


the-book-thief-coverPoor Joseph Heath. According to him, he was just taking the kind suggestion of a colleague—a librarian at Becker College, where he was employed as a janitor–to “take whatever you wanted” when he smuggled dozens of rare books, valued at over $115,000, from the library and sold them to book dealers.

The police were of another opinion, charging Heath with receiving stolen property valued at more than $250 and two counts of larceny of property valued at more than $250. He was arrested in November, and received his judgment this week—reparation of $3000 and three years of probation, which could be suspended upon future review.

Heath had offered the missing books, which included an original first edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe and another book signed by Abraham Lincoln, to private collectors and dealers, and had begun posting on Craigslist in an effort to move more.

The theft was discovered when Heath attempted to sell the books to the Leicester Historical Society. One of the members of the board at the society recognized the books from the May Collection, named after abolitionist Rev. Samuel May whose house is now part of the Becker College campus. When she reached out to Becker College to inquire about why the books were not already in the collection she triggered an investigation which ultimately uncovered the theft.

Police recovered some of the books at Heath’s house and others were returned by collectors once they found out how Mr. Heath had taken possession of them. Around fifty books—include the one signed by Lincoln—remain missing.


Amy Conchie is assistant to the publisher at Melville House.