Otto Funk - The Great Chicago Library Book Thief

Otto Funk - The Great Chicago Library Book Thief
The Chicago Library of Funk's time was in an empty water tower on the site of Burnham's Rookery Building.

This story was a long time in the making and realistically too long for a blog post so I am including the link to the full story here.

As a book lover myself, I was drawn to the story of Otto Funk, the most prolific book thief in Chicago history.  As most great stories, I had come across this one by sheer happenstance as I was researching an unrelated story concerning the Chicago Public Library.  It contains all the elements of a great play; obsession, mystery, tragedy and at times a darkly comedic tinge.  I could find very little written about Otto Funk with the exception of an article by David Hoyt which was published in the Summer 2012 edition of the University of Chicago magazine, “The Core”.

The more I researched Funk, the more I wanted to know about his origins and motivations.  He immigrated to Chicago with his family at a time in which cheap labor was needed during the rebuilding of the city after the fire of 1871.  While the labor was needed, the influx of laborers, especially from Germany, were not necessarily given a hearty welcome and were for the most part mistrusted by the management and local government.  Keep in mind that Chicago’s Haymarket Affair had not occurred yet but was right around the corner.

While many thought of Otto Funk as insane or a “crank”, as was the language of the time, it is impressive that somehow John A. Talbot as he later became known, pulled himself out of that life that his family found themselves in.   He had a propensity for learning and a literal obsession with books.

Book Thievery Begins

In 1878 Otto was arrested for stealing 200 valuable books from dealer Alex Klappenbach at No. 48 Dearborn Street, 1,300 volumes from Jansen McClurg & Co. and quite a few from bookseller L. D. Ingersoll in Arcade Court.  He was held to a Grand Jury where he was found to be insane and the case was dismissed.  It was in this case that the first clue to his original birth name of Anton was revealed by a handwritten note in the case file.

Funk started to use the name of John A. Talbot or Talbut shortly after his first arrest for book theft.  He thought it necessary to change his name mainly because the Funk name was tarnished due to his recent larceny arrest and he also wanted to choose a name that was not quite so ethnic sounding (although he still spoke with a Polish/German accent).  It is under John A. Talbot that he was accepted at the University of Chicago in 1879 where he excelled in all of his studies and graduated as class Salutatorian.  He delivered the class oration on June 13, 1882, at 2 pm to a graduating class of 259 students (242 male and 27 female).

The first Chicago University that Funk graduated from.

The first Chicago University that Funk graduated from.

In March of 1882 Funk applied to the Library for the position of night and Sunday reading room attendant and brought with him letters of recommendation from Mayor Harrison, the president, and one professor of the University of Chicago and one from a prominent physician.  Unfortunately, there were no openings at the time and Funk took a very short-lived teaching position in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  He returned in the fall of 1883 and started working in the library reading room on September 4, 1883, and enrolled in the Chicago Medical College.   The Chicago Public Library during Funk’s tenure was a temporary location that existed inside of an empty water tower in the center of the temporary city hall.  The location was given the nickname “The Rookery” because of a large number of pigeons that would commonly roost there.  Later, in 1888, Daniel Burnham and John Root would create the still extant Rookery Building on the same site.  Funk seemed to have severe issues with social cues and relationships and was released from his position at the library on October 25, 1884, for “incivility to visitors”.

Chicago Librarian William E. Poole became suspicious when a large number of medical books were unaccounted for and Funk was a medical student.   It was when an attendant mentioned seeing Funk with a large number of medical books that he was approached and a few were found on his person.  He was arrested for the theft on Wednesday, January 21, 1885, and taken to the Harrison Street Police Station.

A bust of Chicago Librarian, William Poole at the Harold Washington Library.

A bust of Chicago Librarian, William Poole at the Harold Washington Library.

As the Chicago police were unloading the thousands of volumes of stolen books at the new city hall, one officer noticed a plain pine box and suspected it might contain explosives.  Detective John Bonfield, who would later gain national attention with regard to Chicago’s Haymarket Riots, brought the device outside to the empty space between the city hall and county building.  A chemist conducted an examination of the box and Bonfield after about 20 minutes very gingerly opened the box which contained a loaded and cocked .32 caliber pistol which was connected to a crank that if activated would have ignited the 10 to 12 bars of dynamite which could have taken with it many lives and most of the building.

Funk was eventually released on $2,000 bond supplied by his brothers-in-law, Anton Kortas and Joseph Dudzik.  Kortas posted the property that he owned at 666 Dickson Street and Dudzik posted the property he owned at 47 Blackhawk.

Funk Purports to be a Doctor

At roughly the same time that he was being “let go” by the library he was also under investigation by the Illinois State Board of Health for violations of the Medical Practice Act.

The board received a complaint that a “J.A. Talbot” was practicing medicine at 1915 State Street in Chicago and was in violation of the Medical-Practice Act.  It was found that he was a student attending lectures at the Chicago Medical College and claimed to be practicing only as the assistant of Dr. Otto Wegner.  Dr. Wegner and Talbot were both warned that Talbot could only assist under the supervision of Dr. Wegner and that he was not allowed to practice on his own.

Funk’s Plan for Revenge

It wouldn’t be long before the authorities were on the hunt for Funk again but this time for something quite different from a book theft.  It seems that Funk had been behind the excavation of trenches on the University of Chicago grounds at night without the knowledge of the University.

Funk was arrested on Wednesday, April 22nd not only on suspicion but on evidence that was unreported to the public.  A blue work shirt was found among the excavating tools and a handkerchief was found in one of the pockets bearing the embroidered name of J.A. Talbot.

While many of the faculty believed, especially since an explosive boobytrap was found among his stash of stolen books, that Funk intended to do damage to his former school, many of the students had a different theory.

In fact, the mathematics professor, Alonzo J. Howe, believed that based on his knowledge of Funk (Talbot as he knew him) his intent was to murder a young woman who had rejected his affections.  The woman’s name was Jennie Isetta Gibson and she was the daughter of a conductor for the Illinois Central Railroad as well as a member of the junior class at the University of Chicago.  After viewing the layout of the trap that was set, it became obvious to him that Funk planned on taking a position near the observation tower where it would have been difficult to detect him but would give him a good overview of the grounds and could pull the traps doors from a distance and would be able to close them quickly and remotely thereby giving him complete control over his victim.

The Criminal Courts Building during the Funk hearings.

The Criminal Courts Building during the Funk hearings.

Funk appeared in court in front of Justice Foote on the charge of malicious mischief.   Present in the courtroom were Lt. Bedell, Detectives Kipley and Treharne of the Cottage Grove Station, Professor of Mathematics Howe, a group of students from the University of Chicago as well as the father of Ms. Gibson who was the target of Funk’s affection and revenge.

After hearing Funk’s testimony Justice Foote announced, “too much learning hath made him mad!”

The justice held him on a bond of $500 that Funk was unable to post.

In June of 1885, Funk was acquitted of all criminal charges due to him being found insane and was sent to the Elgin State Mental Hospital.

Funk Escapes from the Insane Asylum

On Wednesday, September 15, 1885, Funk decided that he was not insane and left the Elgin Asylum through an open window in his apartment.  Funk lived in an apartment on the first floor and in the front of the Elgin establishment. There were no bars on the window so it was fairly easy for him to slip out undetected.

The Elgin State Mental Hospital where Funk was sent to after his crimes.

The Elgin State Mental Hospital where Funk was sent to after his crimes.

Funk Heads to Harvard

Otto Funk had no plans to return to the Elgin Hospital and with money given to him by his attorney and advise to leave town, Funk headed for New York.  The authorities in Chicago made no attempt to retrieve him and realistically were, more than likely, relieved to have been rid of him.

The Harvard Divinity School had recently opened and Funk applied for and received a scholarship to attend.  He had used the same documents from prominent Chicago citizens that helped him secure employment with the Chicago Public Library years earlier but had fraudulently changed the dates on the documents from 1883 to 1885.

He managed to barely make ends meet while living in Harvard University’s Divinity Hall and attending religious studies.  The administration at the University of Chicago heard rumors that Funk was a student at Harvard and informed the University of Funk’s real name and character.  Funk was called into Harvard President Charles William Eliot’s office and asked to leave the school.  His name was also removed from the University’s Catalog.

Funk tried to sneak back into the University’s Divinity Library by borrowing the keys but was denied.   Soon hundreds of books were discovered missing from Harvard’s Divinity Library and police were called when Funk stole the overcoat of a fellow student.   Funk was apprehended and on the way back to Cambridge he escaped and stole a horse and carriage from a Dr. Wesselhoeft.  Funk fancied himself a doctor of sorts and probably had made the acquaintance of Dr. Wesselhoeft at some earlier time.  Funk attempted to disguise the stolen horse by shaving its mane and tail and changing its markings using silver nitrate to stain the white horse’s face and legs.  Funk was apprehended a second time and interrogated by Sgt. Harriman of the Cambridge Police Department.  Funk admitted to everything and based on conversations the police found a stash of 150 books hidden in Norton Woods behind the Agassiz Museum.  In addition, a package of 25 books were found ready to be shipped at the Sawin and Co.’s express station in Harvard Square and a trunk at the Old Colony Station in Boston contained valuable surgical instruments stolen from Dr. Wesselhoeft of Cambridge along with more books, a bottle of silver nitrate purchased at a pharmacy in Waltham and a tricycle stolen from a J.W. Hodgkins of Boston.

Harvard's Divinity School Library.

Harvard’s Divinity School Library.

The End of Otto Funk

Funk was transported to the jail at the Brattle Court Police Station in Cambridge where he spent the night.  He seemed to be in decent spirits given his situation and had been checked on a number of times by the jail watchman and by Captain Thomas Lucy.

The next morning, October 30, 1885, a jail watchman entered Funk’s cell to find him not breathing and without a heartbeat.  His body was still warm.  His body was transported to the offices of H.D. Litchfield, the Cambridge City Undertaker and the Medical Examiner determined his death was a suicide caused by taking a fatal dose of morphine which had been concealed within a secret sewn-in compartment in his vest.   On the package of poison was an inscription that was dated Oct. 10, 1884, and read, “Alexander the Great, always looking to his fate, carried poison concealed on his person.”

Also contained in his clothing was a note written on blue paper which read, “Mr. Peabody:  Will you please forward my trunk to my sister Bertha Topel, 47 West Black Hawk Street, Chicago.  Tell her what has happened.”  The Mr. Peabody that Funk was referring to was Professor of Theology Francis Greenwood Peabody of the Harvard Divinity School.

It was obvious that Funk had planned for this type of contingency in case he ever faced incarceration in either prison or another asylum.

The authorities in Chicago learned of Funk’s death through the Cambridge Police Chief and sent an officer to the house of Anton Funk, Otto’s Father, at 666 Dickson Street.  As the officer explained the circumstances of Funk’s death there was absolutely no emotion on the 75-year-old man’s face.  The only words spoken by the elder Funk was, “Well, what can I do about it?”

Francis Greenwood Peabody, Professor of Theology, Harvard Divinity School.

Francis Greenwood Peabody, Professor of Theology, Harvard Divinity School.

Bertha Topel, Otto’s sister, was also notified at 47 West Blackhawk.  She initially received the news very calmly but then started to break down.  She sobbed, “We did all we could for him when he was here.  The first time he was arrested we raised over $300 to help him through.  I gave $65 and another sister $120, and we are not rich people.”

Even if the family wanted to they couldn’t afford to take custody of Funk’s body and he was given a pauper’s burial at the Cambridge City Cemetery.  He was buried under his alias of John A. Talbot in an unmarked grave and pretty much lost to history until now.

Anton Funk died almost two years after his son on October 24, 1887, and was buried in a term grave in the “Polish Cemetery” now known as St. Adalbert’s Cemetery in Niles, IL.  His daughters Bertha Topel and Frances Kortas joined him after their deaths and daughter Agnes Dudzik was laid to rest at All Saints.

If you would like to read the longer version of the story with transcriptions of letters written from Otto Funk to his attorney and the State Mental Hospital click here.

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