Tragic End to the Life of Shakespearean Book Thief
Raymond Scott and his Cuban girlfriend Heidi Rios.
It was a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare... along with a comedy of errors. The life of perhaps the most entertaining of book thieves came to a sad conclusion in March. When the jokes came to an end, and the reality of a surprisingly long prison sentence set in, Raymond Scott took his own life. Scott provided his native England with a year full of humor as he awaited trial for theft of a Shakespeare First Folio. It was a truly entertaining performance, worthy of the man whose book he purloined. Unfortunately, what lay behind his celebrity was theft, common theft except for the million dollar price tag on the item he stole. When the performance ended, and Scott was left with the isolation and bleakness of his punishment, it proved to be more than he could endure. Scott was not an evil man, just someone who needed to be born with a fortune. Unfortunately, like most of us, he missed out on having rich parents, so he attempted to make up for it in the wrong way.
Raymond Scott was born on February 12, 1957. His father was an electrical engineer, while his mother tended to the house. His father, Raymond Sr., was not a rich man, but made a good living, and saved his money. Raymond Jr. was not much like his father. He possessed little of the work and save ethic that made his father reasonably successful in life. In fact, he never really held down much of a job in his 55 years of life. He preferred the life of the landed gentry, even if his ship never landed.
His father's savings enabled Raymond to get by without seriously working. Over the years, he supplemented his income with petty thefts and shoplifting. At times they were as petty as a bottle of wine or a smoke detector. Big time criminal he was not. When his father died in 2004, he inherited some money which enabled him to afford a few more luxuries. He purchased a Ferrari, and was noted for appreciating fine liquor. Raymond also was able to supplement his income with a caregiver's allowance, a small sum paid regularly to people who take care of an elderly person. Raymond took care of his mother.
In December of 1998, a copy of the Shakespeare First Folio disappeared from the Durham University Library. The university was about 10 miles down the road from Scott's home. It does not appear that Scott's name ever came up in relation to its disappearance. Why would it? Scott was at best a petty thief, while the Durham First Folio, though certainly not a perfect copy, was still something like a million dollar-item. This was way beyond Scott's level.
Indeed, we may never know whether Scott actually stole the book himself. Even after he went to prison, he remained vague as to how he came in possession of the book, though his original explanation was clearly a fabrication. In fact, he was never convicted of stealing the First Folio. His conviction was for possession of stolen goods. One suspects he took advantage of lax security at the Durham Library and put the book away in some hidden space, hoping that in time, everyone would forget that the book had been stolen. There are many lesser books for which this might be the case, but not a First Folio. No one is going to buy one of those for anything approaching its value without some careful research into its past. Stolen First Folios may go missing, but they are never forgotten.
Despite an inheritance, caregiver's allowance, and the reduction in expenses that comes with living at home with Mom, Scott was still not able to cover his financial needs. He took to doing what the rest of us who are not criminals do – running up credit card debt. He reportedly owed something like $100,000 this way. Meanwhile, he took on the persona of an international playboy. He traveled to Cuba, where foreign currency is welcomed, and met a young lady who danced in a nightclub. She was roughly 30 years his junior, and quite an attractive lady. Scott, to no one's surprise, was smitten. He succeeded in securing the interest of someone out of his league, though he did so by false pretenses.
Scott's Cuban girlfriend believed he was an independently wealthy playboy. Unfortunately, credit card companies will only let you run up debt for so long. Scott needed some real cash, and it was probably this realization that led him to pull down that First Folio, now missing a decade, from his shelf. He must have believed enough time had elapsed to safely move his treasure along. He was, of course, wrong.
One afternoon in 2008, Raymond Scott, a completely unknown person in the book world, or on any stage beyond the petty offenses section of his local police department, walked into the Folger Library in Washington D.C. The Folger is noted for having the largest collection of Shakespeare First Folios anywhere on Earth – by far. It holds around a third of the 232 copies known to still exist. He said he was seeking authentication of his copy. Of course, Scott would have known his copy was authentic. He knew from where it had come. What he undoubtedly was really looking for was a buyer. A lot of financial problems can quickly disappear if you have a First Folio to sell.
What Scott may not have realized is that the Folger's experts would do more than just authenticate his copy. They would also check to see if it matched up with anything in the stolen book databases. That was where it had been noted that the Durham copy had been stolen, and their expert compared Scott's copy for attributes of the missing Durham copy. Voila! A match. But not a match made in heaven for Raymond Scott. This was no match like the one he found with Cuban dancer Heidy Rios.
Scott had a story concocted to explain his possession of the valuable book. He claimed it was entrusted to him by a friend of Ms. Rios. It had been sitting in Cuba for generations. The family knew it was valuable, but Cuba being a Communist country and all, they couldn't get it out. So, they gave it to this “wealthy” British playboy who would be able to sneak it out of the country for them. No one was convinced. It perfectly matched the Durham copy, which had only been missing for ten years, not generations. In a few places, tell-take markings had been removed, including a page. Nevertheless, there were plenty of unique attributes to clearly identify that this copy had not come from the friend of a Cuban girlfriend thousands of miles away, but from a university library just ten miles down the road from Scott's home.
When he returned to England, Scott was arrested, and plans for a trial began. This involved several pretrial court appearances, and this is where Scott really became a celebrity. For once in his life, Scott was going to inhabit the public stage like an international playboy. He arrived in court in various flamboyant costumes. One time, evidently in deference to his Cuban explanation, he arrived in a stretch Humvee. He was dressed in a military outfit, evidently patterned on Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, though it is not known whether Guevara carried a couple of champagne bottles in his hand like Scott. More likely, Guevara would have shared Scott's love for a good cigar. On another occasion, Scott arrived in a horse-drawn carriage, a lovely “assistant” by his side. He was dressed in a kilt. He must have been reveling in his Scottish heritage.
When not dressed in period costume, Scott would arrive in expensive clothing, sometimes with huge fur collars, and designer sunglasses. He would regale and entertain the press with his humor, all the while maintaining his innocence. It appeared he lived a charmed life, at least for as long as he could put off the day of judgment. However, there comes a day of reckoning, and Scott's came in August of 2010. Neither judge nor jury were buying Scott's fanciful tale of Cuban intrigue. They looked at the identifying markers in the First Folio, and undoubtedly Scott's close proximity to Durham University, and came down with the only decision a reasonable jury could reach. Scott was found guilty.
Tragic End to the Life of Shakespearean Book Thief
Raymond Scott and “assistant” arrive at court for earlier hearing.
The decision was hardly unexpected, but the sentence was somewhat surprising. England has not been noted for unduly harsh punishment since they closed the Tower, but Scott was sentenced to eight years in prison. The high value of the book didn't help, nor did his past history, though petty. Perhaps his flamboyant style was unhelpful as well. Nonetheless, we have seen much lighter sentences for larger and more destructive book thefts in America, normally the harsher, more “law and order” jurisdiction. Eight years is a long time.
At first, Scott seemed to adjust to prison life fairly well. Several months in, he spoke about how they had him working in the prison library. He was learning bookkeeping, but “not the extended borrowing type,” he joked. He had earned a certain status among his fellow prisoners for his audacity and celebrity. Scott was planning an appeal, at least of the length of his sentence if not the conviction, and was working on an autobiography he dubbed “Shakespeare and Love.” All seemed well, considering the circumstances.
Sadly, it did not turn out so well for Scott. Society determined his debt to it, and like his debt to Mastercard, it was more than he could handle. Scott became depressed. The length of his sentence became unbearable. He became particularly down when another birthday passed for his elderly mother, and he was not there to share it. In February of this year, Scott wrote a letter to the Sunday Sun newspaper. The humor was gone. It was that of a desperate man, seeking the one type of salvation not available to a prisoner, at least not in this world – freedom. He revealed that he had been placed on suicide watch. “Thought last night it’d be nice to die peacefully in my sleep no more pain, a panacea,” he wrote.
Scott wrote disparagingly of the days when he made his flamboyant appearances in court. “The drunken buffoon attending court. Yuk. The ludicrous enterprise with the folio surely THAT person was mentally ill deluded not real in cloud cuckoo land.” he wrote the Sun. The desperation grows deeper in his words: “Just had the absolute worst week of my life. Total breakdown pacing round the cell all night shaking. The scales have fallen from my eyes it’s a waking nightmare. Not eating. Not sleeping. Mother came up on Wednesday - difficult visit she left worried naturally. How did I get into all this? Rescue me somebody please give me a second chance. Can’t cope. On suicide watch 'the orange book'. Dear me what a disaster, when I think what I had, now look at me living like an animal in a cage.”
No one rescued Scott. No one gave him a second chance. Perhaps no one could. Scott was colorful, eccentric, outrageous, a personality waiting for five decades to be released from a Walter Mitty body. For a year, it was. He had an elongated 15 minutes of fame. However, Scott was no hardened criminal. He was not prepared for the life after crime. The self-confidence melted under the reality of prison bars. His lawyer at trial attempted to paint Scott as a “naive mummy's boy” and an “old fool,” taken in by the charms of a young Cuban dancer. “He’s someone who genuinely believes a 21-year-old dancer is his fiancee,” the lawyer explained. It was almost certainly an accurate portrayal of Scott, even if it didn't help to get him off. He entertained us, provided us with a year of comic relief, but in reality, Raymond Scott was a man out of his element. It truly is sad. Scott could have been a minor celebrity, at least in his home town, if he had just have been able to express his colorful, underlying personality without resorting to crime. He could not, and as a result, Raymond Scott is with us no more, a victim of his own hand.
The Durham First Folio, however, is back where it belongs.