Bookseller Sentenced to 15 Months for Theft
The now defunct website of Denning Books.
By Michael Stillman
A Philadelphia bookseller was sentenced to 15 months in prison on July 12 after pleading guilty to stealing 146 documents from the National Archives, where he worked part-time as an unpaid assistant (at least unpaid in the traditional sense). Denning McTague's story may have an all too familiar ring to many booksellers, though hopefully the choices he made, and the penalty he will now endure, do not.
McTague reportedly inherited his business, Denning House Books, from his mother. The business was run from an historical old home ("Denning House") in Salisbury Mills, New York, near George Washington's headquarters at Newburgh. In time, the business would migrate to Philadelphia, and much of its sales to eBay.
McTague was a highly educated individual, with Masters degrees in Library Science and History. Those degrees will qualify the holder to be a scholar, but not necessarily financially wealthy. Many librarians and historians can attest to this. Nor does bookselling always qualify one to be wealthy, and many booksellers can confirm this too. According to statements filed by his attorney, McTague's business was not doing well, and he found himself in financial straits managing two residences along with a day job and a side career as a bookseller. Two jobs and still struggling will undoubtedly sound familiar to many booksellers, while the above average education and love of collecting fits the recently revealed Abebooks' profile of their sellers (though at age 40, he is younger than their typical 45-64).
McTague's next step seems a bit odd. With all of these responsibilities and financial challenges, most people would not sign up for substantial volunteer work. However, that is what he did, with the National Archives. With his age and degrees, McTague did not fit the typical profile for such volunteers, but the folks at the Archives may have believed this was part of a requirement for more advanced degrees. McTague began working on a project for the upcoming sesquicentennial of the Civil War. This gave him access to documents scholars could only handle under strict supervision. At the end of the day, he would stick them in his yellow notepad, and as a staff member, walk out without being inspected. Success must have begot more such attempts (reminiscent of the Smiley map stealing case) as he managed to remove 146 documents before being caught.
Ultimately, it is almost impossible to pull off such thefts forever. Often, it is some small, unexpected event that produces the downfall. In Smiley's case, it was a dropped razorblade on the floor, spotted by a sharp-eyed librarian. In McTague's, it was the coincidence of an eBay buyer recalling inspecting one of the documents being offered a long time ago at the National Archives. Brothers Dean and Jim Thomas recognized an item on eBay as one Dean had photocopied while doing research at the Philadelphia Regional Archives twenty years earlier. The Thomases, book publishers from Gettysburg, contacted the National Archives to see whether it had been sold off as an excess holding. It had not. Tracing the seller through eBay was not difficult, and McTague was trapped.
Bookseller Sentenced to 15 Months for Theft
The brothers were honored by the National Archives with certificates and facsimiles of some of the stolen items, though their greatest reward must be in knowing they helped save some of the nation's historical records.
McTague was charged with the theft on March 15, which is the final date feedback appears on his eBay account. The Denning House website is no longer available either. He admitted to the theft and has expressed remorse. Fortunately, all but two of the items have been recovered, though many were sold. The most notable among them included an order from the War Department announcing the death of President Lincoln to soldiers in the field, and a letter from Confederate General "Jeb" Stuart.
Denning McTague is a case history for a changing world. Booksellers are all too familiar with the changes wrought to their field by rapidly moving technology. His other fields, library science and history, do not carry the degree of respect they did for an earlier generation. In another article this month, we look at declining use of libraries and the implications for librarians. His attorney described McTeague as a man with a failing business, an inability to find a good job despite his extensive educational background, and mounds of debt. Despite building qualifications that probably would have guaranteed an earlier generation financial success, today it brings little reward. One negative pointed towards him was a comment he made about being angry he was unpaid for his internship. Of course he chose to volunteer, yet it is not hard to imagine his resenting the fact that the only way he could use his intellectual skills was to give them away. If only he could sell used cars or lobby congressmen, he wouldn't have had to give his skills away for nothing.
Nevertheless, sad as his predicament is, you can't steal things, and especially one-of-a-kind national treasures. I don't believe it is contradictory to feel a certain sympathy for McTague while still believing he needs to do his time. We just can't open the doors to stealing as a redress for changing societal priorities. Many working people, such as those who labored in America's automobile plants, have faced similar crises as circumstances changed. No one deserves this, especially someone who works hard to train for some of the most respected fields of their time. But times change. Respect, as measured by dollars, has changed. There is a commentary on our society here, but I will let you choose your own. I do know we cannot rollback time. Nor can McTague rollback his. He must serve it, plus pay a $3,000 fine.