On Friday, March 8, 1940, people all over America opened their newspapers, little dreaming of the shocking crime they were about to read.
The crime was uncovered in Cleveland, Ohio, but it had been perpetrated in major cities across the nation, since 1926. It wasn’t the work of a criminal syndicate, but of one man.
Professor Orville Marsh had stolen 800 library books from cities as far away as St. Louis, Chicago, and Toledo. Marsh’s criminality was not suspected by Akron University, nor Cleveland College, where he taught business administration for six years. No one had cause to suspect Marsh of this level of depravity. The 52-year-old had a deceptively innocent appearance, and he was an educated man. He had gotten his undergrad from Harvard and his master’s degree from University of Chicago.
Marsh’s deadly web of deception unraveled at last in March 1940. After the professor failed to pay his rent, the building custodian opened the storage locker belonging to Marsh and was confronted by the spoils of Marsh’s criminal career. He notified police.
Detective Peter Merylo arrived at Marsh’s building at midnight with several policemen. No doubt deducing that Marsh was a dangerous man, Merylo concluded it would be safest to apprehend him at night. The police broke down the door of Marsh’s apartment and found the hardened thief cowering in a closet. The apartment was littered with library books.
Marsh was jailed in Cleveland, and the value of the library books was estimated to be $10,000. About 200 of the stolen volumes were from various branches of the Cleveland public library. Others were from New York, St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, and Toledo.
The Akron Beacon Journal sent a reporter to interview the disgraced professor in his jail cell, and found the prisoner ready to talk. He said he had been contemplating his crimes for hours. “All night long I sat in jail thinking, thinking, trying to figure out what made me do it. I couldn’t.”
The reporter was curious about how it started. “It was back in 1926,” Marsh admitted. “At that time I was taking my masters degree at the University of Chicago. I needed reference books. I suppose I could’ve borrowed them just as easily on a card. But I had a mania—call it a complex, if you will—to steal them. I couldn’t overcome it.”
Incredibly, Marsh revealed his “technique” to the reporter. He would enter the library rooms where reference books on economics were kept, throw his coat on the table, secrete the books under it, and then walk out with his coat over his arm. It was diabolically simple.
Newspapers all over the country picked up the story, and several weeks later, Marsh’s day of reckoning arrived. In court, the judge was stunned to learn that Marsh never actually read the books he stole. The court demanded of the prisoner, “But why did you take them?”
Marsh shrugged. “I don’t know why I took them exactly. I knew it was wrong to steal but when I saw expensive books in the library, the desire to possess them got the better of me.”
Marsh attempted to excuse his conduct, by declaring he had always wanted books but he could never afford them. “I have been oppressed by poverty ever since I worked my way through Harvard University. They have found some books which have been missing since 1925.”
When the judge seemed unmoved, Marsh pleaded insanity. “Probably I need treatment from a psychiatrist,” he said.
The fearless Detective Merylo was in court to ensure justice was served. Accordingly, Marsh was fined $10, plus court costs. The books were sent back to the libraries.
Detective Merylo explained to reporters Marsh could only be charged with petty larceny because the books, almost all of which were technical, disappeared one or two at a time.
On his way out of court, the notorious criminal gave this comment to the press: “I always intended to read them when I took them, but they kept getting ahead of me.”
And so closes a dark chapter of criminality in northeastern Ohio.