Was Harvard's copy of the Gutenberg Bible ever stolen from Widener Library?
There was an unsuccessful attempt to steal the Gutenberg Bible in 1969. On August 19th of that year a would-be thief hid in a bathroom on the third floor of Widener; then, after the library closed, he went out a window directly on to the roof of the Widener Memorial Room. He tied a rope to a pipe and let himself down to the windows of the Memorial Room, which he broke to enter the room. He then broke the glass of the case holding the two volumes of the bible, put the books in a backpack, and attempted to climb back up the way he had come. However, he may not have properly estimated the weight of the two volumes - they weigh between 30 and 35 pounds apiece - and was unable to make it back to the roof. Since his rope was only long enough to reach the Memorial Room, he was not able to slide down to the bottom of, what was then, a light well, six stories below. He fell, landing on his backpack, badly injuring himself and, somewhat less seriously, the books. He was found early the next day by the maintenance crew, who heard his groans coming through an open window on Level D.
The layout, as well as the security, of the building has changed significantly since this occurred. He entered the room through what was the west interior court or light well, which was one of two such running from top to bottom of Widener. In the renovation of 1999-2004, these courts were turned into reading rooms, so the one he used became what is known as the Stacks Reading Room. And, after the attempted theft, only one volume of the bible is kept on display in the Memorial Room.
The thief, who gave several aliases to police (Vido K. Aras being the name he is generally known as), was not ultimately prosecuted, as he persuaded a court psychiatrist that he was insane at the time of the theft. He spent less than two months in an institution before being released.
see: W.H. Bond. "The Gutenberg Caper." Harvard Magazine (March/April 1986): 42-48.
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