An Excessive Fondness for Books Gone Wrong?
"I'm afraid my burning passion overrode my conscience. It may appear selfish, but I felt the books had been abandoned. They were covered with dust and pigeon droppings and I felt no one consulted them anymore."
This bibliokleptomaniac found out how to go into the monastery library via a secret passage that he had discovered, take several rare books, then he would take them home where he would enjoy his new acquisitions.
He apparently never tried to sell them. He just enjoyed having these old books and could not resist taking them as long as he thought he would not get caught by the law. For more details of this real-life story, see the details that follow.
Book hoarder seized in Alsace
- When more than a thousand priceless books and illuminated manuscripts, some weighing up to four kilograms, began vanishing from a locked room in an eighth-century monastery, the police were baffled.
- 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.
- The thief was finally caught when the intruder was recorded on video as he tried to snatch another book.
- The suspect, a 32-year-old teacher from the Strasbourg area, had been entering the locked library through a secret passageway he reportedly learned of in a book about the monastery.
- He was placed under investigation, a step short of being charged, for the thefts.
- The suspect clearly loved the history of Mont Sainte Odile, a major tourist site in the Alsace region and he hoarded the priceless books for himself.
The mystery of the hilltop monastery, the locked room and the missing manuscripts
Disappearance of priceless works baffled police for nearly two years
- The 8th-century convent of Mont Sainte-Odile is described as towering over the picturesque small town of Saverne in the foothills of the Vosges mountains. 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.
- 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. Police were flummoxed.
- "It was one of those frustrating but also rather thrilling cases," Madeleine Simoncello, the Saverne public prosecutor, said. She explained that, quite extraordinary, items were vanishing, sometimes singly, sometimes by the dozen. At one point, over 1,000 had disappeared, yet the room wasn't even open to the public and as far as we knew nobody could get into the library.
- 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. The Alsace gendarmes may even have offered up a prayer or two to Saint Odile, the patron saint of Alsace who, legend has it, was born blind but regained her eyesight at the age of 13 when baptized in a spring at the foot of the mount that now bears her name.
- Odile went on to found Alsace's first convent before dying peacefully in the abbey in 720, having performed what the guidebook unhelpfully describes as "numerous miracles related to her previous disability"—meaning that she helped the blind to see. It took some weeks for her to come to the aid of the investigators.
- 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. "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, Stanislas Gosse, a 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 objects, 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.
- 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 being observed.
Keys were stolen for easier access to the library
- 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 Strasbourg University library." The man was one of very, very few people to know of the passageway's existence, she said.
Another more recent description of the theft
- To the monks of Mont Saint-Odile, perched high in the Vosges mountains in north-eastern France, it seemed like the work of the devil: during nearly two years of doubt and mystification, 1,100 ancient books disappeared from the monastery library without any trace of a break-in.
- In June, 2003, the mystery concluded when the thief, Stanislas Gosse, 33, was given a suspended sentence of 18 months for the burglary.
- He found a forgotten map in public archives, revealing secret access to the locked library from the attic.
- The attic, reached by a daring climb up exterior walls, led to a steep, narrow stairway and then the secret chamber. A hidden mechanism opened up the back of one of five cupboards in the library. The plans suggested that the secret passage served in medieval times to spy on the monks' conversations.
- Inside the library, Gosse spent hours by candlelight picking out volumes, some of which he stored in the attic.
- The librarian, Alain Donius, called the police to report that entire shelves had been cleared. Even though the locks were changed and the library door reinforced with steel, books continued to disappear at a steady rate during the police inquiry.
- His counsel, Cathy Petit, said her client had taken great care of the books and even restored some of them. The prosecutor said Father Donius had forgiven Gosse and told him he could come back to the library; but only through the front door.
- The thief who confounded French police and priests for two years by taking more than 1,100 books from a locked abbey library received an eighteen-month suspended sentence, June 18, 2003, from the court in Saverne. Stanislas Gosse, 33, a teacher at a Strasbourg engineering school, was found guilty of "burglary by ruse and escalade", a reference to the secret passage he used to sneak into the stacks of Mont Sainte-Odile. He was also fined approximately U.S.$19,900.
- "I'm afraid my burning passion overrode my conscience. It may appear selfish, but I felt the books had been abandoned. They were covered with dust and pigeon droppings and I felt no one consulted them anymore," Gosse told the court.
- Gosse committed the thefts from August, 2000, until he was caught May 19, 2002, with the use of a hidden video camera.
- Noting that the archbishop of Strasbourg and the abbey priest have declared their forgiveness, prosecutor Jean Dissler said Gosse is welcome back at the library—through the front door.
A true story about a cleptomaniac or art thief.
Another example of kleptomania can be seen here.
The biblio unit of words.
The clepto-, klepto- unit of words.