Beyond the Quads

The Book Thief

Otto Funk, AB 1882, stole books, built bombs, and would not say why.

David L. Hoyt, AB’91 | Photo courtesy of University of Chicago Special Collections Research Center

Correction: The idea for the story "The Book Thief" (Otto Funk, AB 1882) was first brought to the Core’s attention by Travis McDade, associate professor of library administration and curator of rare law books at the University of Illinois College of Law. An expert on book theft, McDade also provided background on Funk, contributions that, through editorial oversight, were not acknowledged in the article. The editors regret this error.

Otto Funk, kleptomaniac, “crank, and dynamitard,” in the words of the Chicago Tribune, was for the year 1885 undoubtedly the best-known graduate of the University of Chicago—the Old University of Chicago, that is, founded in 1857 at Cottage Grove Avenue and 35th Street and forerunner of the current institution. Three years after his graduation in 1882, more than 2,000 books stolen from the Chicago Public Library were discovered—some 100 in Funk’s apartment in the Prairie Avenue neighborhood and the rest in a relative’s barn in Bridgeport. The city’s chief librarian claimed that it was the largest embezzlement of its kind in US history.

Funk was catapulted to still greater heights of notoriety for packing two powerful dynamite bombs among the books, for fraudulently practicing medicine, and for engineering an elaborate tunnel and trapdoor scheme on the Old University grounds—while skipping bail—in a suspected plot to kidnap a female student who had not reciprocated his affections.

His exploits filled the last pages of the last surviving issue of the student paper, the Volante. A creditor had foreclosed on the Old University, for which Funk (alias “Talbut”) now served as a troubled epitaph. The Old University of Chicago, the paper wrote, “is generally regarded as a poor, crippled, hump-backed old concern, … but when it is asserted that we never do anything to attract attention, we do most enthusiastically object. The newspapers of Chicago owe a debt of gratitude that can never be paid to the University.” Thanks were due, in particular, to “our own and only Talbut.”

Despite the widespread press coverage, Funk the man remains a mystery. He died young and by his own hand in a Boston jail, tremendously well educated for a man of his background but leaving little written record of his worldview. A stocky, full-bearded man who stood 5’5” (average height for an immigrant man at the time), in his mid to late 20s, attractive and nattily dressed, he still carried the German accent of his immigrant upbringing. When interviewed, he rarely gave a motive for his acts, leaving friends and antagonists alike to speculate whether he was a lucid criminal or a madman. “Too much learning,” a judge declared at his second arraignment, “hath made him mad.” It was never determined why he made the bombs. Some of his statements had anarchist undertones: “Should I be deprived from pursuing my studies,” he warned the Tribune, “there may be some fun in store for Chicago.” But little suggests he was motivated by the tumultuous politics of the 1880s.

He did—like so many students at the current University of Chicago—have a passion for books. He stated as much to the press, repeatedly. Funk read voraciously, exploiting his natural intelligence to advance far beyond the hardscrabble world of his father’s basement apartment in the industrial Goose Island area—a notable ascent of the Gilded Age social ladder during a severe economic depression. But Funk’s intellectual drive was paired with an easily enticed material passion. Chicago had become the nation’s second-largest publishing center, and bookstores proliferated. Like the rash of women caught shoplifting from Parisian department stores (famously described by Émile Zola in the novel Au Bonheur des Dames, published two years before Funk’s library exploit), Funk appeared to steal books not out of want but bedazzlement.

Funk’s illicit acquisitions began in high school in the late 1870s. He targeted high-end, discount, and second-hand booksellers alike. When he was eventually caught, tried, and dismissed by reason of insanity in 1878, he changed his name to John Anthony Talbut, the less German-sounding moniker under which he registered as a student at the Old University of Chicago in 1879. His friends and professors recalled Funk possessing an unusually large personal library, including a complete 36-volume edition of Spinoza.

Respected by but distant from his peers, Funk graduated salutatorian in 1882 and landed a solidly white-collar position as a night clerk at the recently established Chicago Public Library. For 14 months between late 1883 and early 1885, Funk removed 2,118 books from the library, approximately 2 percent of its collection. He “abstracted” (in the usage of the time) several books a day, beginning on the first day of his employment, hiding them in special pockets affixed to the interior of his overcoat. A number of the books were on medicine and anatomy, which he presumably used in his fraudulent medical practice; under the name “Dr. Talbot-Astley,” he had opened an office near the barn where most of the books were stored.

When a reading room attendant finally spotted Funk carrying away a bundle of books, police detectives closed in. Funk confessed to taking the books, but not to stealing them: “I wanted to have them around me,” he declared. The event was reported in the New York Times and papers across the Midwest. By one account, the news brought legislative activity in Springfield to a halt. Again found guilty, but acquitted by reason of insanity, he was dispatched to the asylum at Elgin. Funk insisted that he was sane and that his alleged “mysteriousness”—a euphemism for insanity—was merely his ability to “think philosophically.” When this argument failed to persuade the asylum superintendant, he escaped.

In a repeat of the strategy that had served him so well, Funk made his way to Harvard. By forging letters of recommendation he was accepted to the Divinity School, even winning a small stipend. But his fate was sealed when, barely arrived at Cambridge, he began to pilfer the library. After a failed escape attempt involving a stolen horse and carriage, Funk was locked in the jail cell where he used a poison powder to take his life. Among his last communications was a message asking his lawyer in Chicago to recover possessions left at the asylum: his underwear and a copy of Max Nordau’s Conventional Lies of Our Civilization.


Between 1883 and 1885, Funk stole two out of every 100 books in the Chicago Public Library’s collection.