How Stephen Blumberg Became The World's Most Successful Book Thief

In the early morning hours of March 20, 1990, the FBI paid a visit to a home in Ottumwa, Iowa. They were there to arrest a suspect in a series of thefts that spanned two decades. Inside the large home were numerous bookcases filled with almost 24,000 books and manuscripts (per Book Riot). There were also paintings, rugs, old records, and antiques. A 41-year-old man named Stephen Carrie Blumberg lived in the home, and to say he loved books was an understatement; Blumberg was a bibliomaniac and a biblioklept.

That same day, the FBI arrested Blumberg after searching his home. As reported by The New York Times, he was charged with the possession of stolen books worth about $20 million at that time. With the large number of rare books found in his home, the FBI said that matching them with the reported stolen items would take more than a year. Upon further investigation into Blumberg, authorities discovered that he had prior theft charges. Today, Blumberg is known as the Book Bandit, and he holds the Guinness World Record for being the most prolific book thief.

Stephen Blumberg's background

Stephen Carrie Blumberg was born in 1948 in Minnesota. He came from an affluent family, and his father worked as a physician. Blumberg was an only child and mostly kept to himself as a young boy. He carried this trait into adulthood and only had a few friends. His own father described him as "kind of an eccentric genius," per AP News. "This son of mine is an oddball if you ever saw one," his father further stated. His mother said that her son had a habit of collecting items, such as balls of string, coins, and old records before he eventually started collecting stained glass windows and door knobs from Victorian homes.

As noted by Guinness World Records, Blumberg was diagnosed with schizophrenia at 15 years old. Those with this mental disorder are said to have atypical interpretations of reality and have a different way of thinking that may be a deterrent to daily life (via Mayo Clinic). Blumberg was first arrested at the age of 19 for stealing antique doorknobs. According to him, his fascination for antique pieces stemmed from studying a building in the middle of demolition. At that time, one of the construction workers gave him a stained glass window. Blumberg's parents noticed his odd behavior, and they sought help from professionals and had their son speak to a therapist, as reported by Book Riot. He was sent to different institutions, and after escaping from one, Blumberg turned to theft. He entered abandoned buildings, collecting doorknobs and stained glass that he came across. This behavior led to several charges of entering private property.

The thefts

According to Guinness World Records, Stephen Blumberg believed that society didn't appreciate artifacts, and he made it his mission to preserve them. He had a strong dislike for librarians, who he thought didn't pay careful attention to rare books. Thus began his book theft. As reported by Harvard Magazine, Blumberg was meticulous in planning his heists. He cased libraries and set off alarm systems to study the security response. With his slim build, he was able to crawl through ventilation systems, dumbwaiter shafts, and narrow enclosures. Blumberg was ready with all the tools he needed to get the books. He also had help from different accomplices.

As noted by the University of Cincinnati, Blumberg was able to steal 23,600 books and manuscripts from more than 250 libraries across 45 states. He also targeted two libraries in Canada. The bibliomaniac didn't sell any of the books he stole. Instead, he kept them organized in his 17-room home in Iowa, which was filled with bookcases. He had a special interest in Indian culture, city planning, railroads, and the early Americana. According to Harper's Magazine, the books were arranged by location, such as California, Illinois, Ohio, and New England. Books of special interest to him were kept in cases protected with glass, and some books dated back to the 14th and 15th centuries.

Stephen Blumberg's arrest

For years, Stephen Blumberg's book thefts, for the most part, were left unnoticed. At the University of Washington, however, a police officer became suspicious about a book thief in the United States when he observed a man lurking in the campus library when a series of thefts occurred (via Guinness World Records). The man was identified as "Matthew McGue," one of the aliases Blumberg used. It was the same identity he used to gain access to Harvard's library. Despite the police officer's suspicions, Blumberg wasn't caught.

It was through his friend and accomplice, Kenny Rhodes, that the FBI was able to track down the book thief. Rhodes began working with the FBI as an informant in 1989, and he negotiated with the Justice Department for him to get a bounty of $56,000 in exchange for information about Blumberg, as reported by Harvard Magazine. In fact, Rhodes was the one who knocked on Blumberg's door on the day of his arrest. Among those found in his home were travel journals and letters of Indian fighter General George Crook, early pioneer letters, diaries, railroad records, hand-printed bibles, first edition books, and other priceless collections.

The book thief's sentence

Stephen Blumberg pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, but despite his history of mental illness, the jury — after only four hours of deliberation — found him guilty (via Harvard Magazine). He was ordered to pay a fine of $200,000 and was sentenced to 71 months in prison. While in prison, he was interviewed by Philip Weiss of Harper's Magazine, and as Weiss noted, Blumberg never used the term "stealing" when they talked about his theft. Instead, he considered them as borrowing. "I'm in for having books that had been borrowed from the library, overdue library books," Blumberg stated. He stayed true to his mission of becoming the protector of rare books, and he figured they would be returned to their owners after his death.

Blumberg was released from prison in December 1995. As a result of his decades of thievery, libraries and institutions implemented more stringent security measures to protect valuable items. According to Book Riot, some libraries weren't even aware that items were stolen from them until the FBI returned the books. Blumberg has since been arrested for antique theft several times since his release and so far, it seems that he has stayed away from stealing books.