6 Times Literary Works Were Stolen

Central Press/Getty Images
Central Press/Getty Images

Last month, a short, untitled prequel to the Harry Potter series was stolen in a home burglary in Birmingham, England. Handwritten on two sides of a postcard, the 800-word manuscript told a story involving a young James Potter (Harry’s father) and his friend, Sirius Black, both of whom have a brush with Muggle policemen, and was auctioned to support a British charity.

Police are investigating the theft, and author J.K. Rowling is urging fans not to buy the work. That said, Rowling is in good (albeit unlucky) company, as plenty of other valuable, important, or rare manuscripts have been swiped from authors or the individuals or institutions tasked with taking care of them. Here's a sampling of them.

1. HEMINGWAY'S SUITCASE OF EARLY WRITING PROJECTS WAS STOLEN IN A PARISIAN TRAIN STATION.

In 1922, Ernest Hemingway was a young newspaper correspondent with big dreams, a fledgling marriage, and a prolific body of unpublished fiction. The last two were jeopardized by an ill-fated trip to Lausanne, Switzerland: Hemingway was there to cover an international conference, and his wife, Hadley, planned to join him from Paris to go skiing. The doting spouse packed Hemingway’s manuscripts into a suitcase—including an attempt at a novel he’d written about his experiences as a World War I ambulance driver—and set off for the slopes, thinking her husband could write while on holiday and share his work with an editor/journalist he had met. But on the way, the suitcase was stolen, and most of Hemingway’s hard work was lost to him forever.

Hemingway describes the moment he learned the bad news in his 1964 memoir, A Moveable Feast:

"I had never seen anyone hurt by a thing other than death or unbearable suffering except Hadley when she told me about the things being gone. She had cried and cried and could not tell me. I told her that no matter what the dreadful thing was that had happened nothing could be that bad, and whatever it was, it was all right and not to worry. We could work it out. Then, finally, she told me. I was sure she could not have brought the carbons too and I hired someone to cover for me on my newspaper job. I was making good money then at journalism, and took the train for Paris. It was true alright and I remember what I did in the night after I let myself into the flat and found it was true."

Hemingway never does reveal "what he did" (chances are it involved drinking), but "he was very brave about it," Hadley told a friend in the 1970s. That said, the ex-wife added, she "could tell he was heartbroken."

2. MALCOLM LOWRY'S FIRST NOVEL WAS STOLEN FROM THE CAR OF A PUBLISHING FIRM DIRECTOR.

English writer Malcolm Lowry achieved literary fame with Under the Volcano, his 1947 novel about the final moments of an alcoholic ex-British ambassador in Mexico. Before that, he had only published a single book—a largely overlooked work called Ultramarine.

Released in 1933, Ultramarine was based on Lowry’s experiences working on a Far East steamer ship as a teen, before studying at Cambridge University. The young writer completed his manuscript during his final term of school, and a publisher accepted it—but the novel’s fate was thrust into peril when a publishing firm director had his briefcase stolen from his car. Inside the case was the only typescript version of Ultramarine.

It’s unclear how the novel ultimately ended up getting published, especially since Lowry claimed to have destroyed or thrown out all of his previous drafts. According to the author, a friend had rescued Lowry's final draft from the trash (accounts differ whether it was the manuscript or a carbon copy). Meanwhile, another chum claims that a version of Ultramarine had been written and left at his house, and that Lowry knew it was still there.

3. FRANZ KAFKA'S NOTEBOOKS AND LETTERS WERE STOLEN BY NAZIS.

After Franz Kafka died of tuberculosis in 1924, his lover Dora Diamant kept up to 20 of the author’s notebooks—which contained jotted-down thoughts, ideas, and sketches—and 35 of his letters. But when the Nazis came into power, the Gestapo raided Diamant’s house in Berlin. Looking for communist propaganda, they confiscated all of her papers, including Kafka’s works.

One of Kafka’s friends, Max Brod, along with a man named Klaus Wagenbach, tried to locate the writings—but since the Gestapo had confiscated so many documents, their search efforts weren’t successful. In later years, political turmoil in Germany prevented the two from pursuing the goods.

In the late '90s, Diamant's biographer, Kathi Diamant, and San Diego State University launched the Kafka Project, a search for these missing documents. They've spent two decades scouring Nazi archives in Prague and Berlin, consulting with scholars and national archivists, and investigating a claim that Kafka’s stolen writings were last spotted on a train to the east so they wouldn’t be destroyed by air raids.

Currently, Diamant and German scholar Dr. Hans Koch are trying to gain access to a secret Berlin archive to catalogue its contents—and hopefully, to find the long-lost works they’ve been searching for all these years.

4. A TWILIGHT FAN STOLE A RETELLING OF THE BOOK BY AUTHOR STEPHENIE MEYER.

"Twilight" author Stephenie Meyer at a movie premiere
Angela Weiss/Getty Images

When word got out in 2008 that Twilight author Stephenie Meyer was writing Midnight Sun, a version of the series’ first book told from vampire Edward Cullen’s prospective, an eager reader got hold of the unfinished draft and published it online without Meyer’s consent or knowledge.

Meyer was so upset that she ceased work on Midnight Sun, telling fans that the unauthorized leak had ruined her creative process. Originally, Meyer had shared a teaser chapter of the work on her personal website—but after putting brakes on the project, she posted the entire uncompleted work for fans to read.

“I rather my fans not read this version…. It was only an incomplete draft….” Meyer wrote. “But to end the confusion, I’ve decided to make the draft available…. I hope this fragment gives you further insight into Edward’s head and adds a new dimension to the Twilight story. That’s what inspired me to write it in the first place."

Recently, Meyer had reportedly started working on Midnight Sun again—but since the premise was too similar to the forthcoming Grey, a retelling of 50 Shades of Grey from character Christian Grey's perspective, she decided to once again put the kibosh on the effort.

5. WALT WHITMAN'S NOTEBOOKS WERE STOLEN FROM THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS.

American poet and author Walt Whitman
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

According to The New York Times, in 1918, Walt Whitman’s friend and literary executor Thomas B. Harned gave the Library of Congress a collection of 24 notebooks that had once belonged to the author. They contained notes from when the 19th century poet worked as a Civil War army nurse, an early version of his seminal poem “Song of Myself,” and a draft of the wartime poem "Cavalry Crossing a Ford.”

In 1942, many valuable library items, including Whitman’s notebooks, were sent away to Ohio for safekeeping as World War II raged on. Several years later, a package that supposedly contained 10 of the writer’s composition tablets arrived back in Washington, D.C.—but the notebooks themselves were missing. (The box’s seal was unbroken, suggesting that the works were stolen before the box was shipped.)

The notebooks were presumed lost for decades, until an anonymous man discovered four of the pocket-sized books among his father’s papers after his death. He tried to sell them at Sotheby’s auction house in New York, as all he knew about the works was that his late father had received them as a gift around 30 years prior. But since the works were stolen property, they couldn’t be resold.

Sotheby’s returned the rediscovered notebooks to the Library of Congress, much to the delight of historians, conservationists, and scholars. (The other six remain missing.) "This is definitely the most important literary material we could have hoped to recover of anything known in American literature," David Wigdor, who was then assistant chief of the Library of Congress’s manuscript division, told The Washington Post. "This material will actually be used by scholars. Their utility is quite transcendent."

6. ONE OF SHAKESPEARE'S FIRST FOLIOS WAS STOLEN FROM AN ENGLISH LIBRARY.

A sketch of author William Shakespeare writing while seated in a chair
Edward Gooch/Getty Images

Before William Shakespeare’s death in 1616, only half of his theatrical works had already been printed, in small books called quartos; no large-scale anthology of the Bard’s plays existed yet. Two of Shakespeare’s friends, John Heminge and Henry Condell, who belonged to his acting company The King’s Men, decided to change this: They took 36 of his plays and gave them to publishers Edward Blount and Isaac Jaggard.

In 1623, the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays was finally completed. Its given name is Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, but most scholars simply refer to it as the “First Folio,” in reference to the large-sized paper the works were printed on. (In those days, this kind of paper was usually reserved for royal proclamations and for important works, like theology and history.) Since multiple versions existed of some plays, Shakespeare’s friends claimed to have used “original” copies for the First Folio, although nobody knows for sure if this is true.

Experts believe that only 750 or fewer copies of the First Folio were published, and today, only 233 known copies survive worldwide. These books are worth millions of dollars each—which is likely the reason why in 1998, someone stole a First Folio from the Durham Cathedral library in England.

In 2008, a decade after the book’s theft, a man named Raymond Scott brought it to the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., and requested an evaluation and appraisal. Scott claimed he’d been given the work as a gift in Cuba, from a friend whose mother had safeguarded the “old English Book” in a chest.

Right off the bat, Folger staff knew that the work was a First Folio, and Stephen C. Massey, a famous rare-book appraiser, confirmed it was the one stolen from Durham. The Folger contacted authorities, and police eventually arrested Scott. Nobody could prove if he was, in fact, the person who originally stole the Durham First Folio, but in 2010, Scott was convicted of handling stolen goods and smuggling the valuable work out of England. He died in prison in 2012.

Where Did the Phrase 'Red Herring' Come From?

iStock.com/Mathias Darmell
iStock.com/Mathias Darmell

You may have seen a red herring in a recent book or movie, but you probably only realized it after the fact. These misleading clues are designed to trick you into drawing an incorrect conclusion, and they're a popular ploy among storytellers of all stripes.

If you've seen or read the Harry Potter series—and really, who hasn’t?—then you may recall some of the many instances where J.K. Rowling employed this literary device. That endearing plot twist about the nature of Snape's character, for example, is likely one of the longest-running red herrings ever written.

Sometimes they aren't even subtle. Agatha Christie's murder mystery And Then There Were None directly mentions red herring in reference to a character's death, and a statue of a red herring appears in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Perhaps most blatantly, a character in the cartoon A Pup Named Scooby-Doo who was constantly being blamed for myriad crimes was named—you guessed it—Red Herring.

But where does this literary device come from, and why is it named after a fish? For a bit of background: herring are naturally a silvery hue, but they turn reddish-brown when they're smoked. Long before refrigerators were invented, this was done to preserve the fish for months at a time. They can also be pretty smelly. As Gizmodo's io9 blog points out, it was believed that red herring were dragged against the ground to help train hounds to sniff out prey in the 17th century. Another theory was that escaped prisoners used the fish to cover their tracks and confuse the dogs that tailed them.

However, io9 notes that red herring were actually used to train horses rather than dogs, and only if the preferred choice—a dead cat—wasn't available. The idea was that the horses would get used to following the scent trail, which in turn would make them less likely to get spooked while "following the hounds amid the noise and bustle of a fox hunt," notes British etymologist and writer Michael Quinion, who researched the origin of the phrase red herring.

The actual origin of the figurative sense of the phrase can be traced back to the early 1800s. Around this time, English journalist William Cobbett wrote a presumably fictional story about how he had used red herring as a boy to throw hounds off the scent of a hare. He elaborated on this anecdote and used it to criticize some of his fellow journalists. "He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon," Quinion writes in a blog. "This caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters."

According to Quinion, an extended version of this story was printed in 1833, and the idiom spread from there. Although many people are more familiar with red herrings in pop culture, they also crop up in political spheres and debates of all kinds. Robert J. Gula, the author of Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language, defines a red herring as "a detail or remark inserted into a discussion, either intentionally or unintentionally, that sidetracks the discussion."

The goal is to distract the listener or opponent from the original topic, and it's considered a type of flawed reasoning—or, more fancifully, a logical fallacy. This application of red herring seems to be more in line with its original usage, but as Quinion notes: "This does nothing to change the sense of red herring, of course: it's been for too long a fixed part of our vocabulary for it to change. But at least we now know its origin. Another obscure etymology has been nailed down."

8 Facts About Shel Silverstein

Shel Silverstein was a multi-talented children’s author, comic artist, poet, playwright, and songwriter, and above all else, a rule-breaker. From The Giving Tree to Where the Sidewalk Ends, his titles are beloved by children and adults alike. At the time they were written, though, they defied common notions about what a "children’s" story could and should be. This isn’t all that surprising, considering that the Chicago-born author, who passed away in 1999, led a pretty unconventional life. Here are eight things you might not know about him.

1. One of Shel Silverstein's first jobs was selling hot dogs in Chicago.

Shel Silverstein didn’t always want to be a writer, or even a cartoonist or songwriter. His first love was baseball. "When I was a kid—12, 14, around there—I would much rather have been a good baseball player or a hit with the girls," he once said in an interview. "But I couldn’t play ball, I couldn’t dance. Luckily, the girls didn’t want me; not much I could do about that. So I started to draw and to write.” The closest he came to his MLB dream was when he landed a stint at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, selling hot dogs to White Sox fans.

2. Silverstein never finished college.

Silverstein was expelled from one school (the University of Illinois) and dropped out of another (the School of the Art Institute of Chicago). Finally, he managed to get through three years of the English program at Chicago's Roosevelt University, but his studies came to an abrupt end when he was drafted in 1953.

3. Silverstein was a Korean War veteran.

In the 1950s, Silverstein was drafted into the U.S. armed service. While he was stationed in Korea and Japan, he also worked as a cartoonist for the military publication Stars and Stripes. It was his first big cartooning gig. "For a guy of my age and with my limited experience to suddenly have to turn out cartoons on a day-to-day deadline deadline, the job was enormous,'' Silverstein told Stars and Stripes in a 1969 interview.

4. Silverstein worked for Playboy magazine and was Part of Hugh Hefner's inner circle.

That’s right: the lovable children’s author was on Playboy’s payroll for many years. He started drawing comics for the men’s magazine in the 1950s and ended up becoming close friends with Hugh Hefner. In fact, he often spent weeks or even months at the Playboy Mansion, where he wrote some of his books. His cartoons for the magazine proved so popular that Playboy sent him around the world to find the humor in places like London, Paris, North Africa, and Moscow during the Cold War. Perhaps his most off-color assignment, though, was visiting a nudist camp in New Jersey. These drawings were compiled in the 2007 book Playboy's Silverstein Around the World, which includes a foreword from Hefner.

5. Silverstein wrote Johnny Cash's hit song "A Boy Named Sue."

Few people know that Silverstein was a songwriter, too. One of his biggest hits was the comical tale of a boy who learned how to defend himself after being relentlessly bullied for his feminine-sounding name, Sue. The song was popularized by Johnny Cash and ended up being his top-selling single, while Silverstein was awarded a Grammy for Best Country Song. You can watch Silverstein strumming the guitar and shouting the lyrics alongside Cash on The Johnny Cash Show in the video above. Silverstein also wrote a follow-up song from the dad’s point of view, The Father of a Boy Named Sue, but it didn't take off the way the original did.

6. Silverstein is in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Three years after his death, Silverstein was inducted posthumously into this exclusive society of songwriters. He wrote more than 800 songs throughout his career, some of which were quite raunchy. But his best-known songs were performed by country legends like Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings. “His compositions were instantly identifiable, filled with elevated wordplay and captivating, humor-filled narratives,” the Nashville Songwriters Foundation said of Silverstein's music.

7. Silverstein wrote the first children’s book to appear on The New York Times best sellerS list.

A Light in the Attic (1981) was the first children’s book to ever make it onto the prestigious New York Times Best Sellers list. It remained there for a whopping 182 weeks, breaking all of the previous records for hardcover books at that time.

8. Silverstein wasn't a fan of happy endings.

If you couldn’t already tell by The Giving Tree’s sad conclusion, Silverstein didn’t believe in giving his stories happy endings. He felt that doing so would alienate his young readers. "The child asks why I don't have this happiness thing you're telling me about, and comes to think when his joy stops that he has failed, that it won't come back,” the author said in a 1978 interview. This turned out to be a risky move, and The Giving Tree was rejected several times for being too sad or too unconventional. Fortunately, after four years of searching for a publisher, it found a home at HarperCollins (then Harper & Row) and has gone on to become one of the best-selling—and most beloved—children's books of all time.

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