A Forgotten Theft

A Forgotten Theft

Time passes, people die and their memories and experiences are mostly lost. Some may have left diaries, letters, artifacts, books and genealogical information with family who later felt these recollections from a past generation would best be preserved in libraries. Such was the case with a 1949 donation from Mrs. A.S.C. Forbes to Long Beach Public Library. Over time librarians moved on, retired, eventually passed away and a new Main library was built. Those staff members who came later had brief information about this priceless donation, but didn’t have time to research and appreciate what they had. Thank goodness for newspapers which are vital to historical research. Without them I would not have been able to piece together this story of a theft I remember from 1983.


Original Miller Room, old Main library.

On November 12, 1983, there was a little reported, major theft, from Long Beach Public Library’s Earl Burns Miller Special Collections Room. It seemed the thief had previously visited the room, which was open to walk-in visitors several hours a day, and knew exactly what he was looking for. That early Friday morning, the thief entered the building by climbing a window washing lift on the southeast side of the library, then slipped through an opening in a broken vent just above the windows. The lift was normally stored inside the building, but was left outside the night of the burglary, apparently by mistake. The library’s silent alarm wasn’t tripped until the thief left by one of the main doors. Police said the burglar tried to saw through the door of the special collections room, but failed because it was so thick. He then used a heavy pry bar.   Seventeen* items mostly silver and porcelain antiques from the 1700s were stolen. Library officials put a price tag of $3,000 on two of the stolen items – a pair of sterling silver cups that were made in London in 1810, but said it was impossible to determine the value of the entire collection, which was housed in eight locked display cases. Also taken was a Bible and two other rare books. A request to the police for a report on the theft was not found.  The items stolen were never recovered.

Mrs. Armitage Forbes.

Though not identified by name, an inventory of the collection found that items donated by Mrs. A.S.C. Forbes, were missing. They included a 1599 Bible and 1578 Concordance allegedly once owned by John Milton (1562-1647), an English composer and father of poet John Milton (1608-1674). The value of both is today valued at $15,000, and would bring a much higher price if it was shown to have belonged to John Milton.

Present day researchers could verify if the Bible and Concordance did indeed once belong to Milton, the composer, by looking at the hand writing in their margins.  The hand writing, and the fact it was passed through the family, was  the only proof of Milton’s ownership, librarian Lelia Seward told the Press Telegram  in 1949 (4/9/1949). It was a “Breeches” Bible published in 1599. “Breeches” Bibles were so named because in their printing it referred to the garments made by Adam and Eve out of fig leaves as “breeches” (not aprons) in Genesis chapter three, verse seven. Until the appearance of the King James version the Breeches (or “Geneva”) Bible was the most popular Bible available. It was the Bible quoted by William Shakespeare in his plays; it was used by the Puritans and Pilgrims, who wanted nothing to do with the King James Bible of the Anglican Church, and the first Bible taken to America, brought over on the Mayflower. It was produced by John Calvin, John Knox, John Foxe and other English refugees in neutral Geneva, Switzerland, fleeing the persecution of Roman Catholic Queen Mary in England. It was first printed in 1560 and published until 1644.

Geneva Bible.

Textually, the Geneva Bible offered a number of radical changes. It was the first Bible in English to add numbered verses to each chapter of scripture. It was also printed in an easier-to-read “Roman Style Typeface” rather than the earlier “Gothic Blackletter Style Typeface.” In addition, it was the first “Study Bible” with extensive commentary notes in the margins. In fact, it was the presence of a note, which proclaimed the Pope an “antichrist,” that so outraged Queen Mary. Ironically, Protestants of all denominations today embrace the King James version of the Bible (which reads 90% the same as the Geneva), even though the King James version is not a Protestant Bible…it’s Anglican/Church of England.

Long Beach Public Library secured the Bible, Concordance, and other items from the collection of Harrye Rebecca Piper Forbes, also known as Mrs. A.S.C. Forbes, a well-known California writer, whose books “California Missions and Landmarks” and “Mission Tales in the Days of the Dons” are most well-known.  Mrs. Forbes placed the books in the library in memory of her husband, Armitage S.C. Forbes. Mr. Forbes was the son of the Reverend Edward Forbes to whom the books had been given by his grandfather, the Reverend R. Jeffreys. (John Milton, the composer, married Sara Jeffreys).

History reveals that John (the composer) Milton’s father, Richard Milton, a Roman Catholic, discovered the Bible in his son’s room. As a result, and since his son was rejecting Catholic belief, he was disinherited. The Bible acquired by the library was thought to be this one. Psalms bound in the back of the Bible were believed to have been compiled in part by the senior John Milton, one of the foremost composers of his day.

John Milton, the poet. The stolen Bible belonged to his father.

Armitage Forbes received the books in a parcel carefully wrapped in velum, marked “The Milton Books.” It contained in addition to the Bible and Concordance, a small French prayer book, and two books of sermons. According to family tradition, the marginal notes in the 1578 Concordance were in Milton’s handwriting.

In addition to the Bible and Concordance, Mrs. Forbes included in the public library’s memorial collection a large edition of “Paradise Lost,” by John Milton, the poet, illustrated by Gustave Dore. This was the first illustrated version of the poem and appeared in the fourth edition of the work in 1688. Also included in the donation were notes on the Forbes and Jeffrey’s families, photographs, two 17th century books of sermons, and a Hindustani manual written in 1845 by another Forbes ancestor, Duncan Forbes.

A recent search of the holdings in the special collections room has not turned up anything of the Forbes donation, except a scrapbook.  Perhaps, after reading this article, antiquarian book dealers, libraries and collectors will recall the sale or purchase of such items and help solve the mystery. The Long Beach Public Library Foundation, like many nonprofits, is suffering financially. Perhaps Long Beach officials would allow the possessor to keep the items they may not have known were stolen, for a price. The money going to the Library Foundation.

*items stolen from the collection donated by the Millers: a pair of sterling silver cups made in London in 1810; a Chinese porcelain pitcher from 1790; a 1790 Chinese tea caddy; a 1790 English porcelain sugar bowl; a set of three English sterling silver berry service pieces made in England in 1790; an 1843 ceramic pitcher; two silver Dutch oval compotes; a 1785 vase with floral relief; a 1790 Chinese tea pot with strap handle; a 1792 Chinese porcelain saucer; a 1790 Chinese sugar bowl; a 1790 Chinese mug; a covered porcelain pedestal dish of undetermined age; and an English sugar bowl made in 1790.