Stealing Audubon’s bird book: An apt fate

As police marched their handcuffed suspect away, the library witnesses applauded the men in blue.

Mike Selby

In early June of 1980, a small commotion could be heard outside the Troy (New York) Public Library. As the library staff and patrons headed outside to investigate, they witnessed a man in his late 30s sprinting full speed towards the library, with half-a-dozen police in full pursuit behind him. Before anyone could really comprehend what was happening, the man was at the front steps of the library — but so were the police, who quickly tackled him. As they marched their handcuffed suspect away, the library witnesses applauded the men in blue.

The Troy police had arrested (rearrested is more accurate) Gary Charles Evans, a habitual criminal who had just escaped from the city jail. A native of Troy, many who witnessed his takedown outside the library either knew Evans or knew of him. He had graced the local newspaper police beats since he was a teenager, and had graduated from petty street crime to running an antique theft-ring. With a handful of partners, Evans targeted antique jewelry and coin dealers, museums, and libraries.

Although he was running towards the Troy Library that day to hide, it was another library located in Vermont which occupied his thoughts. The Norman Williams Library in the town of Woodstock possessed a book which Evans desperately wanted to get his hands on: John James Audubon’s ‘Birds of America.’ The Norman Williams Library held the very first American edition of this incredible book. First published in 1827, it is a monstrosity of a book, about the size of a bay window. Each book has 425 hand-painted prints by Audubon himself; life-size images of what was then thought to be every bird in the United States (six have sadly gone extinct since then).

Having financed it himself, Audubon’s ambitious project bankrupt himself and his heirs, as he died soon after it was completed. It wasn’t until the 20th century when it became one of the most prized and collected books in history. One copy recently sold at Sotheby’s for $7.9 million.

Which is why Evans wanted it, hoping the security at the Norman Williams Library was similar to every other public library he knew. Of course, due to his latest arrest, and a series of other crimes (he was caught using a crane to steal a 1,000-pound marble bench out of a cemetery), he didn’t make it to Woodstock until 1994.

The theft itself was as easy as he thought. Evans waited until the library closed, slipped in through a basement window, and somewhat awkwardly left with a massive 60-pound book.

Although Evans found it easy, this was the wrong library to steal from. The chair of the library board was extremely proud of that book, and extremely proud of the fact that a public library owned such a rare and important item. The chair was also a federal judge, and he literally made a federal case of it. Evans was arrested almost immediately, this time by FBI agents with high powered rifles and night-vision. Evans was once again back in jail, and the ‘Birds of America’ was returned to the library (now locked away each night in a bulletproof safe).

Thankfully, Evans connection to books and libraries ends here.

Besides being a somewhat clumsy book/antiques/cemetery/furniture thief, Gary Evans was also a prolific serial killer, who butchered and dismembered half-a-dozen people before his final arrest in 1998. While being transferred in a police van from court back to jail, Evans managed to un-cuff himself, and jumped out of the van’s side window. Unbelievably, the van was crossing a bridge that very moment, and Evans plunged to his death into the Hudson River.

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library