by Hannelore Sudermann | © Washington State University
A tale of tenacity, obsession, and ancient texts
The papers were yellowed, fragile, and disorganized, but in December of 1941, on a search for rare books and documents in Mexico, Spanish professor J. Horace Nunemaker found his treasure.
A long-time collector who spent many hours searching for old Spanish texts and papers through booksellers and dealers in Spain and the United States, Nunemaker had just turned his efforts to Mexico City. There he made the find of his life, a collection that dated almost as far back as the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire and contained the business dealings of one central elite family and several families who had intermarried.
Nunemaker’s wouldn’t be the only quest for these papers. Four decades later, a portion of them were hunted out and plucked from the University’s locked archives by a notorious book thief. That led to a police investigation and ultimately a third quest, this one involving a WSU police officer, the FBI, and a snitch.
But first, how they came to Pullman.
During Nunemaker’s time, President E.O. Holland was the ultimate collector at Washington State College, aiding faculty from a variety of disciplines in their efforts to acquire art and literature that would enhance the school’s museums and library. In one vein, he envisioned the state college as a center for Central American studies. With that in mind he both encouraged and, at times, financially supported Nunemaker’s acquisitions.
Nunemaker had come to Washington State to teach and be chair of the foreign languages department in 1928. He had honed his passion for travel and collecting as a young faculty member at Denison University, voyaging to Spain and leading summer tours through a program in New York. “His Spanish was perfect,” says his son John Horace Nunemaker ’43. For his doctoral thesis, he focused on the kings of Spain and their interest in geology. It fed his fascination for scrutinizing old Spanish texts. “We had all kinds of stuff that he brought back,” says his son, “things bound in parchment and dating back to the sixteenth century. He was very excited about anything historical, especially in the Spanish language.”
In 1939, at the end of the Spanish Civil War, Holland sent him back to Spain to find books for the library. His trip, supported by the Friends of the Library, was a great success. He obtained 2,000 books and 26 manuscripts. But then he ran into trouble with the outbreak of World War II. He lost his passage home on a German ship. “We were pretty worried,” says his daughter Mary Emma Eriksen ’48. Fortunately, after a few weeks, he found berth on a Greek ship from Lisbon.
Since war had made Europe so difficult to reach, Holland and Nunemaker turned their sights to Mexico.
Eriksen has memories of her father in his study—upstairs in a converted bedroom of their brick home on B Street. “He would sit in a chair cross-legged. I would often go up to see him,” she says. He would talk about his discoveries, details he found in his translation of a rare book or document. “He had a way of making historical information very interesting.” Of the stories he told, there was one of Spanish-born Pedro Romero de Terreros, the Count of Regla, who was at the core of the Mexican collection he procured in Mexico the winter of 1941.
Romero de Terreros was the fourth son in a relatively poor family. He left Andalusia around 1730, at the age of about 20, and found fortune across the Atlantic in “New Spain.” His uncle had already become established in a town north of Mexico City, with a variety of business interests. When the uncle died in 1735, Romero de Terreros took charge of managing the inheritance and business dealings for the heirs, and did quite well. Six years later, he was making large investments in silver mines around the region. From there his wealth and fame grew. He married the daughter of the Countess of Miravalle, whose family had been in New Spain for 150 years and who could provide him more with connections than money.
As his own fortunes grew, he lobbied for greater recognition from his homeland, eventually earning the title of Conde de Santa Maria de Regla (Count of Regla) from King Carlos III. The count was, in Nunemaker’s own words, “one of the wealthiest men in all the Indies.” Mexico’s silver mines “were the source of his wealth and generosity, which included even a fully-equipped battleship as a gift to the king.”
Four generations of Romero de Terreros descendants married into other long-standing elite families, managed their businesses, estates, and silver mines, and contributed to the Catholic Church and local charities. As Regla and his heirs journeyed through time, they left a trail of documents that not only help us understand the families, but also offer land records, business transactions, estate inventories, and community events, throwing light on many aspects of life and history in Colonial Mexico.
In 1918, the Regla archive was moved from a country estate into a descendant’s home in Mexico City where they were organized by a family member, according to historian Edith Couturier, who wrote The Silver King: The Remarkable Life of the Count of Regla in Colonial Mexico. In 1939, a portion of it was made available for sale, according to Couturier.
In the winter of 1941–42, Nunemaker arrived to buy it. There aren’t many details in our archives about how he found the papers, but the professor was well-known to antiquarian book sellers and dealers who specialized in Spanish-language materials. With money from the Early Birds, a civic club in Spokane, he was able to buy the collection of about 22,000 pages for $9,030.83.
Holland credits his find in a 1948 letter. “Very likely we would never have been able to get the Regla collection if you had not been in Mexico City at the time this great quantity of source material was placed on the market,” he wrote.
Acquiring the papers was only the first hurdle. Getting them out of Mexico was another concern. It took some doing and a full year of delays while the Mexican government reviewed the deal, “but he was able to get them back in a diplomatic pouch,” says his son. The Mexican government withheld a small portion of the papers, of which Nunemaker was able to obtain micro-filmed copies by 1945.
Back in Pullman the professor was provided a space to house the collection in the basement of the Home Economics building. He quickly filled the room with file cabinets and bookcases, though he had hoped the site was temporary and that sometime soon could be relocated to a better, more permanent space in the library.
While many of the business papers were organized and bound in leather, a good portion of the collection was loose-leaf vellum and in no particular order. Nunemaker had a great task ahead determining the content of these materials. He enlisted the help of his better students. “They were very fragile,” says Genevieve DeVleming ’48, who took a turn translating for her instructor. “With some of these documents, you had to guess at what they meant.” The language came in different versions. Particularly difficult was the formal and sometimes antiquated Spanish.
Nunemaker eventually hand-picked Jacquelyn Melcher Gaines ’47 to be his research assistant. She was a student from Lummi Island who had done well with her Spanish major and decided to continue to graduate school. She took great care with the materials, was meticulous enough to meet her professor’s high standards, and had a real facility with deciphering the content and meaning of the papers. “I think I had a monkish side to me,” she says. “I spent hours poring over these hand-written documents.
“The loose papers were all mixed up in these drawers,” she says. “My job was to try to get them in chronological order.” It wasn’t an easy task, since the documents were both fragile and inscrutable. “Eventually you got used to a particular scribe,” says Gaines. Some of the papers carried prominent signatures. “To find the signatures of the kings of Spain, that was really impressive,” she says. “Then figuring out which king it was made it even more thrilling.”
She also enjoyed seeing her mentor at work. “I think there was nothing he liked more than to work on a manuscript which had the most illegible writing,” she wrote about Nunemaker in a memorial. “He told us, ‘We know there must be something that makes sense there; it is only a question of solving the puzzle of the handwriting.’”
Nunemaker prized the papers and had planned a career with them. “It was to be his life’s work, if he had been spared,” wrote his colleague A.W. Thompson. But his plans were cut short by leukemia. Even with failing health, he tried to spend time with the documents. “He kept coming in to check on me,” says Gaines. “But he looked so pale.”
Gaines was able to finish her degree and complete what is now known as the Gaines Calendar, a chronological organization of the loose-leaf papers. Her work was so extensive she was told by the faculty she could publish a few papers on her work and easily complete her doctorate.
After Nunemaker’s death in 1949, the materials were absorbed into the archives. In 1963 the Gaines Calendar was published, making it possible for scholars to know of and access portions of the collection. The 1970s saw a new approach to history, one that brought the Regla Papers new attention. This “new social history” considered daily life, family business, contracts, and official business and government papers in looking at the past by building a context of time and culture.
“Historians of social and occupational groups, regions, communities, and enterprises began to better appreciate the centrality—and often indispensability—of the undistilled and immediate documentation found so abundantly in collections such as the Regla Papers to the study of these topics,” writes historian John Kicza. When he joined the Department of History faculty in 1980, he was very interested in spending time with the Regla collection since it fit with his expertise in Latin American history. While Kicza and other scholars have dipped into the papers over the years, Gaines was likely the person who had spent the most time with it. “Few similar collections for Latin America exist in the United States,” Kicza writes.
Kizca and the archivists had plans to further explore the Regla Papers, but those plans were interrupted in 1988, when a portion of the collection disappeared.
Officer J. Stephen Huntsberry (Steve to his friends), was called to Holland Library in the early winter of 1988. He thought it was yet another report of a missing book. He’d dealt with these before: pages razored out of rare volumes, or entire books smuggled away in a backpack.
The first indication of this theft likely came when a job candidate asked to see an item from the archives for his own interests. The librarians weren’t able to find it. Later at a meeting, it came out that another item was missing. In a building of thousands of books, materials can often be misplaced or simply misshelved. So, without much ado, the archivists set out on a shelf-by-shelf hunt for those things, only to discover that still more materials were gone. These included a first edition 1589 book by Richard Hakluyt, The Principall Navigations, Voiages, and Discoveries of the English Nation. The extremely rare and valuable book was key in promoting British settlement of North America. Gone as well was William Butler Yeats’s 1917 Responsibilities and Other Poems with annotations and corrections in the author’s own hand. So were Hudson’s Bay Company documents, 40 books from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and a very large chunk of the Regla Papers.
Archivist John Guido, a small character with a goatee, ushered the much taller Huntsberry into the collection and handed him examples similar to the things that were gone. Cradling a document that was created before 1501, at the dawn of printing, Huntsberry was charmed. “I suddenly understood the attraction of rare books and documents,” he says. “And I realized this was not simply somebody misplacing documents.”
It seemed as each day passed, new losses were discovered. “I think it was a sickening feeling for everybody involved,” says Eileen Brady, a librarian who then was on the Faculty Senate Library Committee. At first, they must have all looked at each other, she says. “The theory is that most thefts like these are inside jobs.”
In total 357 books and 2,500 manuscripts, about $500,000 worth of rare materials, had been stolen from WSU’s archives. Huntsberry threw himself into the investigation, first looking at staff, students, and faculty, then reviewing visiting scholars who had spent time in the library. Huntsberry checked motel records. He discovered that WSU wasn’t the only school that had recently suffered a substantial loss of rare materials. He heard about a theft of pioneer diaries from the University of Oregon, and of another, similar situation in Southern California. “Then I thought, whoa, this is a much bigger thing than I imagined.”
Many of the affected schools were keeping quiet. News of theft from their archives implied that they weren’t properly protecting their materials. And often the school officials and police didn’t consider book theft a serious crime. “Back then the penalties for stealing were a slap on the wrist,” says Huntsberry.
Looking through records, the detective found a name—that of a University of Minnesota professor who had signed in to several of the affected libraries. He printed up flyers with a sketch and some general information including that this person seemed knowledgeable about rare books. He sent them around to other schools. Then, that April, a librarian at the University of California at Riverside discovered a suspicious-looking man in a closed area of the library. The man was detained and processed by the police, who discovered what could be considered burglary tools in his bag. He also had maps of other libraries and a schedule of the business hours for Holland Library at WSU. Someone called and left Huntsberry a message. “I called them back right away and said ‘Don’t let him go.’ But they had,” he says.
Still, they had recorded a drivers license containing the name of the Minnesota professor, as well as fingerprints. Huntsberry forwarded his materials to the FBI. They weren’t that interested, he says. He also sent his report to authorities in Minnesota and several other states. What he got back was not the Minnesota professor, who was able to prove he wasn’t in the places where his ID had turned up, but the name of Stephen Blumberg, a Minnesota native in his 40s who had prior arrests for trespassing and burglary. The WSU officer was pretty sure he had his man. But there wasn’t much he could do.
“I was told I couldn’t traipse around the country,” says Huntsberry. “It was out of my jurisdiction, anyway. So I gave it over to the FBI.”
Two years later, with the help of an informant, the FBI arrested Blumberg in Ottumwa, Iowa. When they entered his home they discovered the greatest cache of stolen books and manuscripts in the history of United States. “It was like a small town library,” says Huntsberry, who later traveled to the Midwest with Guido to recover the WSU materials from the FBI warehouse. “Only with Gutenberg bibles.”
Blumberg had set out to build himself his own private library of the rarest and most significant books of American history and literature. Over years, he had filled it with books he had pinched from the shelves of Harvard University, the Claremont Colleges, and hundreds of others. His lair was a large crumbling brick Victorian. There he covered over the windows and filled every room with bookcases. He was wily in his thefts, squeezing his small frame into tight spaces, riding in dumbwaiters, taking advantage of shift changes at the checkout counters.
With the help of the librarians, Huntsberry traced Blumberg’s steps in Pullman. He had stolen a set of “sub-masters” for the University from a desk in an employee area of the library. The keys could get him through a variety of doors around campus. He let himself into the library after closing, probably through the loading dock doors on the north side of Holland Library. The archives were kept on the same floor behind locked cages in an area closed to the public, but there were gaps at the top of the eight-foot cages that the slender 125-pound Blumberg could wriggle through. He climbed in and retrieved his targets, sliding them under the cages and carrying them through several doors to his pickup at the loading dock. “He picked and chose,” says Huntsberry. “He would research what to take.” If there were multiple copies, he would take the very best one. With the Regla materials, he likely used the Gaines Calendar to make his selections.
In Blumberg’s house in Iowa, the FBI found 16,000 rare books and manuscripts valued at the time between $25 million and $35 million. Blumberg was tried in 1991. His lawyers argued that that his stealing was a symptom of mental illness. He later told a writer that he believed he was protecting the books and manuscripts from neglect or worse in the hands of the libraries.
The book thief spent four and a half years in prison. At the end of that time, Huntsberry and WSU librarian Eileen Brady were called to testify at his parole hearing. Huntsberry told the court that he thought Blumberg would reoffend. Brady testified about the damage he had done taking original documents. “The original material tells you a lot of things that you cannot get from a photocopy,” she says, noting writing in the margins, ink and paper used. Even the smell and the feel of them tell you something, she says. She also testified that simply posting a photo of the thief in libraries around the country would not much help librarians if Blumberg continued to steal. “Once you look at a picture long enough, you get used to seeing it and then you don’t really see it anymore,” she says. “Besides, he’s a rather unprepossessing person.” The latter statement, she says, was the only time he looked at her during the hearing.
Blumberg is now out of prison and may be living near his family in the Midwest.
Huntsberry lives in Arizona and works on contract with the border patrol. Since the Blumberg affair, he has been invited to consult with libraries and museums around the country about security and investigating thefts. He admits that during his time at WSU, his dogged pursuit of Blumberg and the books might have ruffled a few feathers. Back then, federal law enforcement and others didn’t value rare books the way they did artwork or other stolen artifacts, he says. “If I did anything right by being stubborn and obnoxious about this, they’re over that now.”
Today almost all of the books and papers recovered from Blumberg’s house have been returned to their libraries. And many of those libraries have changed the way they house and use their rare materials.
The Regla Papers and WSU’s rich collection of rare books and manuscripts are today kept behind several layers of security in locked underground storerooms at the Terrell Library. To access them you have to go through the Manuscripts and Archives offices and have keys to both elevators and doors.
But scholars, students, and members of the public who want to work directly with the materials, in the way Nunemaker and Gaines once did, can certainly do so. There is a small glass-walled reading room where they can peruse the documents under the watchful eyes of the archives staff.
Title illustration by David Wheeler
Comments are temporarily unavailable while we perform some maintenance to reduce spam messages. If you have comments about this article, please send them to us by email: firstname.lastname@example.org