04-Furs

A Bibliomaniac Serial Killer 1

Furs et Ordinaciones, Valencia 1482

This is an oft told tale of book madness and murder. It has elements that ring true and also mythic elements. It inspired the young Flaubert's 1838 novella Bibliomania. This version comes from the unrecorded scholar Max Sander's article Bibliomania,   freely available from Northwestern University School of Law Scholarly Commons. It was published in a criminal law journal in 1943. Sander, a 'scholar specialising  in bibliographical-iconographicaI research work' gave his address as The Huntington Hotel, Pasadena, California. See part two for an update and queries on this story...

...As a young man, Don Vincente was a monk in the Cisterciens cloister Poblet near Tarragona, and because of his passion for books he was made keeper of the cloister's valuable library. During a political disturbance of the time the cloister was pillaged, and there was good reason to believe that Don Vincente had been familiar with the plunderers. It was hinted that he had shown them the place where the cloister's gold and silver treasures were hidden, in order to secure precious books for himself. Be that as it may, he went to Barcelona and opened a bookshop with a remarkable stock of rare books, which was patronized by all collectors although he almost never sold a really important item. His frugal livelihood and small business expenses could be covered by selling cheaper stock. He was never seen reading a book; only to own them and look at them, to turn over their leaves was of interest to him. When he had a chance to buy a precious book, he was obliged to sell something more substantial from his beloved stock, but even then the buyer almost had to wrench away his acquisition before Don Vincente reluctantly parted with it.

In the middle of 1836 a book auction, eagerly awaited by all collectors, was held at Barcelona. Nothing less than the unique copy of a famous book was offered, Furs et Ordinaciones, printed at Valencia in 1482 by Lamberto Palmar, the first printer in Spain. Every book collector was prepared to make almost any financial sacrifice for this treasure. The booksellers, taking action against Don Vincente, had formed a syndicate in order to buy the book in common, for they knew that it would be lost to the trade forever if it once entered his shop. The bidder for the syndicate was Augustino Patxot, a dealer who had his shop near Don Vincente's. When the famous book was called up in the salesroom, it seemed less a sale than a murderous duel. Patxot was victorious, acquiring the volume for 4,555 reali (about $300.00). Don Vincente appeared insane at this loss, muttered threats, reeled along the street and did not even take the "reales de consolacion", a small amount of money the highest bidder had to pay the next highest, as was the custom at Spanish auctions.

Three days later, in the middle of the night, the inhabitants of the street were awakened by a fire: Patxot's shop was blazing. When the heaps of ashes were cleared away, a charred body was found. And then began a series of inexplicable and gruesome discoveries. A few weeks later, in a suburb, the corpse of a priest was found pierced by two dagger wounds. There followed other sinister discoveries of the same kind: the bodies of an alderman, a young German literator, a well-known poet, a judge, a municipal official--altogether nine men-and all murdered by stabbing. There were never indications of robbery; the victims' clothes always contained their money and valuables... All of the men had been peaceful, quiet individuals without personal enemies. But there was one thing they all had in common: they were cultured men, dedicated to learning and reading.

The populace was seized with terror; the wildest rumors were afloat, the most absurd surmises. Finally the rumour spread that a revival of the Inquisition, a secret tribunal of the Saint-Office, had begun. As Don Vincente had done very little to ingratiate himself with his colleagues, intimation of his guilt found willing ears; since he was a former monk, it was easy to associate him with such rumours. The authorities, in order to show the populace that they were not sleeping, ordered a search of his home, at first without any practical results. The sheriff rummaged through his belongings, but found no clues. At last he saw on an upper shelf a book, Directorium Inquisitrum. Since the public had connected Don Vincente with this hated institution, and in order not to return quite empty-handed, he ordered his assistant to remove the book. In doing so another book tumbled down, open, at the feet of the officer. He was not a bookman, but, remembering the auction sale and the fire in the buyer's shop, the title was well fixed in his mind. Taking quick action, he arrested Don Vincente, in spite of his protestation that the volume that had been found was another copy of the famous book.

In jail he continued to protest his innocence, notwithstanding the fact that a careful examination of his whole stock had shown that some of his books had belonged to the murdered men. The inquiring magistrate understood the kind of maniac he had to deal with and promised that his books would be taken care of and kept together, though their owner were found guilty. As soon as he believed that there was nothing to fear for his beloved books, he told the plain truth. In court he confessed quietly that he had slipped into Patxot's shop, knowing that the man slept in a back room. He strangled his victim, took the famous book, and set the shop afire. Had he also taken money? asked the president. Insulted, Don Vincente answered: "No, I am not a thief." Had he hated Patxot? "Not at all; in order to get the book I had to strangle him, but I did it without bad feelings."

 Regarding the other homicides, he declared that the priest had insisted upon buying a book and he had been so weak as to yield. As soon as the priest had gone away, he ran after him, attempting to cancel the deal, but without success. When they arrived in a deserted suburb, still quarreling, he stabbed the priest in order to get the book. "But," he said, "I gave him absolution in extremis and then finished him with a second stab."

"Explain the other eight homicides." "Oh, they were very simple. I sold to the amateurs only books I had before carefully deprived of one leaf. After some days they discovered the imperfections, came back with the book to my shop, where I manoeuvered them into the back room and finished them with a stab. When night came I removed the corpses to a dark place. The Good Thief assisted me, for my hand never failed." Was he remorseful for having murdered so many men? "Remorse? Why? Every man must die, sooner or later, but good books must be conserved. Therefore I took the greatest care to paste in the leaves I had previously taken out."

To defend himself for the crime of murder seemed to him not even worthwhile, but to be considered guilty of having mutilated a precious book - that he could not concede. His lawyer pleaded not guilty, contending that it was out of the question to execute an insane man; besides, there was no real evidence: the confession of a lunatic had no value whatsoever. The confession of his client was full of contradictions, and to prove this assertion he produced a catalogue of a French bookseller who offered another copy of the famous book which had prompted the man to become a criminal. Until that moment the defendant had been quite serene; but as soon as he heard these words he shrieked frantically: "Mr. President, I have committed a dreadful mistake; my copy is not unique !" Until execution he repeated again and again: "My copy is not unique."

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