New details have emerged in the 2-month-old case of Benjamin W. Johnson, the University of Wisconsin student and former Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library employee alleged to have stolen over $2 million in unique historical artifacts from the library over the summer.
Johnson, 21, of Hamden, was charged in October with 12 counts of first-degree larceny and 11 counts of criminal mischief for allegedly taking and damaging several items, including a 1780 letter from George Washington to the French Gen. Rochambeau valued at $350,000 and two other letters in Washington’s handwriting valued at $110,000, according to a Yale Police Department affidavit.
Police also recovered extremely valuable early copies of famous American novels — including “Moby Dick,” “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” and “The Catcher in the Rye” — when they raided the Hamden home of Johnson’s parents.
Johnson was allegedly selling off the treasure trove of historical documents from his dorm room.
Some documents featuring the signatures of historical figures — such as Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock and Isaac Newton — had already been ruined, police said, cut apart by Johnson in order to sell the signatures separately.
Neither Johnson, who is currently free on $50,000 bail, nor his parents could be reached for comment Sunday night.
The thefts allegedly occurred while Johnson held a job at the Beinecke Library over the summer and apparently went undetected until a Philadelphia collector dealing with Johnson grew suspicious.
Despite the many restrictions the Beinecke Library puts on patrons, former library employee Eric Gilde ’04 said that, on the whole, employee security is “pretty lax.”
“We were unsupervised most of the time,” said Gilde, who worked in the library’s public services department. “We went into the stacks to pull documents without anyone watching, for the most part.”
He said that while many of the security measures he knew about focused on keeping the collections safe from natural disasters and patrons, few focused on keeping the library safe from mischievous employees.
“I remember thinking that if someone really wanted to take something out, it wouldn’t be that hard,” Gilde said.
He added that he sensed library higher-ups “put a lot of trust in their student [employees],” which may be why restrictions placed on employees are not as stringent as those placed upon patrons.
Some University officials and faculty members said they felt the thefts from Beinecke Library affect Yale more fundamentally than ordinary property crimes.
“It’s most distressing because it’s the theft of something so intrinsic to the University’s scholarly mission,” Yale spokesman Tom Conroy said.
English professor Amy Hungerford echoed Conroy’s sentiment.
“These things are priceless,” Hungerford said.
She said many graduate students uncover original thesis topics while perusing early manuscripts of the works in their field of interest — many of which are housed in Beinecke Library.
“It’s not just the works that are gone,” Hungerford said. “Pieces of scholarship disappear with them.”
–The Associated Press contributed to this story.