The Mystery of the Hilltop Monastery, the Locked Room, and the Missing-Rare Manuscripts
May 23 2002, One of the most popular attractions in Alsace, tens of thousands of
people a year tour its abbey, church, chapel and cloisters, dine in its hotel and
restaurants and admire the stunning view across the plain to the river Rhine and,
beyond, the Black Forest.
When over a thousand priceless books and illuminated manuscripts, some weighing
up to 11 pounds, began vanishing from a locked room in an 8th century monastery,
police were stumped.
Investigators worked for nearly two years to catch the thief as the books continued
to disappear from the library of the Mont Sainte Odile monastery in the Alsace region of eastern France.
Among them, from August, 2000, was a curiously well-informed thief.
From that date, a succession of immensely valuable works, including precious early religious texts and several dozen heavy 15th-century illuminated manuscripts bound
in wood and leather, began disappearing from the abbey’s first-floor library.
“It was one of those frustrating but also rather thrilling cases,” Madeleine Simoncello, the Saverne public prosecutor.
“Quite extraordinary items were vanishing, sometimes singly, sometimes by the
dozen. By last weekend over 1,000 had gone, yet the room wasn’t even open to
the public and as far as we knew nobody could get in.”
The library building adjoined part of the main abbey but was separate from it and kept permanently locked.
“It was really a perfect mystery,” Ms. Simoncello said.
“The convent had the locks changed once, then a second and a third time, and
the windows sealed. The thefts stopped for a while, then started again this Easter.
That’s when we started thinking seriously about the possibility of another entrance.”
The search started. Floorboards were lifted, wall panels tapped, all to no avail.
Eventually, a lucky gendarme pushed tentatively at the back of one of the library bookshelves.
A plank swang back, and he found himself looking into a small, sealed room which led—via a rope ladder and a well-hidden,
disused corridor between the two buildings—into a workshop belonging to what is now the convent’s hotel.
One part of the mystery, at least, was solved.
It remained to catch the thief.
“On Sunday, the gendarmes noticed the library had been visited again,” Ms. Simoncello said.
“A number of items had been removed from the shelves and placed in a pile waiting
for the thief’s next visit. We installed a video camera in the hotel workshop
and he was caught in the act that same night.”
Waiting police arrested the suspect, an unnamed 32-year-old mechanical engineering
teacher from Illkirch-Graffenstaden near Strasbourg, with two suitcases containing
nearly 300 books and manuscripts.
A search of his home revealed the rest of the stolen artifacts, carefully stored and undamaged.
Nothing had been sold; the suspect had hoarded everything for himself, said an assistant
prosecutor, Simone Soeil.
“He was an amateur student of Latin and he had a passion for these ancient
books, but I’m afraid he didn’t have the right to take them,” she
said, adding that they would have been almost impossible to sell on the open market
without being detected.
A former director of the abbey, Cannon Charles Diss, said the value of the works was “incalculable, quite literally priceless because they were unique. They
would have been instantly recognized by any expert.”
The man has since confessed his modus operandi.
He entered the convent during the day with the visiting tourists and pilgrims, made
his way carefully to the hotel workshop, and slid into the disused corridor without
From there he made his way to the library, selected his withdrawals at leisure,
and left under cover of night with departing hotel or restaurant guests.
For some time, Ms. Simoncello said, until the locks were changed, he also used a
set of stolen keys.
How had he discovered the existence of the secret passage?
That, the prosecutor said, was the last element of the mystery to be solved. “It seems it is mentioned in a highly specialized review,” she said.
This particular issue dealt with some of the oddities of Mont Sainte-Odile.
The suspect, who quite clearly adored the abbey, came across it in the Strasbourg University library.
“The man was one of very, very few people to know of the passageway’s existence,” she said.
The use he made of his knowledge could now cost him up to five years in prison.
Bibliokleptomaniac Crime Is As Old As the Written Word
As long as there have been book lovers, there have been book thieves.
Egypt’s Ptolemy II is said to have withheld wheat from Athens’ starving citizens until they allowed him to borrow and make copies of rare Greek manuscripts.
The philosopher Aristotle showed sympathy towards those who stole books for the pleasure of reading, though he condemned the “unnatural” criminals who sold them for profit.
In medieval libraries, religious works were chained to stands and shelves to make
sure they stayed where they were placed.
The most widely employed deterrent in the Middle Ages, however, was not the chain but the curse.
One monastery threatened prospective thieves with damnation with Judas, Ananias, Caiaphas, and Pilate; while others invoked anathema, the most solemn ecclesiastical
curse, leading to excommunication.
A colorful example, from the monastery of San Pedro in Barcelona, goes like this:
“For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its
owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck
with palsy, and all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain crying aloud for
mercy, and let there be no surcease to this agony till he sing in dissolution. Let
bookworms gnaw his entrails … and when at last he goeth to his final punishment,
let the flames of Hell consume him forever.”
The advent of national libraries increased public interest in printed treasures
rendered priceless by their antiquity.
One of the more audacious thefts of recent years involved the taking of a ï¿½one million
goatskin-bound edition of Shakespeare’s first folio, published in 1623, from
A Cambridge graduate recently stole more than 400 old books from three libraries
and was jailed for four years.
William Jacques, 33, plundered the British Library and Cambridge University library.
Among the works he put up for auction were Kepler’s Astronomia Nova,
dating from 1609, worth $75,000, and two copies of Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia
printed in 1687 and put on sale for $135,000.
Even popular 20th century literature has been looted.
The British Library admitted that hundreds of comics, dating from 1924 and featuring
Desperate Dan and Korky the Cat, vanished from its newspaper storage branch in north
Information for these pages come from snippets, one or two or very few
from any one source, found in a variety of Internet sources; the International Herald Tribune;
and A Gentle Madness, Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books
by Nicholas A. Basbanes, published by Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1999.
“When you take stuff from one writer, it’s plagiarism;
but when you take it from many writers, it’s research.”
Back to part 1 of kleptomania