Monday, June 2, 2014

Michael Blanding's "The Map Thief"

Michael Blanding is a Boston-based investigative journalist whose work has appeared in The Nation, The New Republic, Salon, Consumers Digest, The Boston Globe Magazine, and Boston Magazine. His first book, The Coke Machine: The Dirty Truth Behind the World's Favorite Soft Drink, was published by Avery/Penguin in 2010. His new book is The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps.

Blanding applied the “Page 99 Test” to The Map Thief and reported the following:
From page 99:
At its height in 1870, Sebec was the largest town in Piscataquis County, with a population of more than a thousand people. Since then, however, its fortunes had ebbed as the lumber business had dried up and gone to Canada and the population dropped to only six hundred. Now Piscataquis is the second-poorest county in Maine and one of the most sparsely populated areas east of the Mississippi.

Still, the town has retained a sparse beauty, with wooded hills rising over the lake, and dozens of historic homes clustered around the village center. Among the residents are summer visitors who own houses—still quaintly referred to as ‘camps’—on the lakeshore. Their children join the local kids jumping off the milldam bridge into the lake and running through the surrounding woods.

The house Smiley bought overlooking the dam in 1989 conforms to the New England farmhouse rhyme, ‘Big house, little house, back house, barn.’ A five-over-five Colonial saltbox, it features two fireplaces bisected by a central staircase. Attached to it is a smaller carbon copy with a kitchen and pantry, servants’ quarters that have since been converted into a garage, and finally the big red barn. Smiley put Adirondack chairs on the front lawn and cleared a path through the wildflowers and smoke bush down to a grassy area that gave way to a small wooden dock…

In the dining room was a long wooden table, with matching wooded benches. Off the main hall, a children’s playroom was filled with antique toys—a hobbyhorse, a stuffed bear, and a dollhouse. And in the corner was Smiley’s office, where he retreated to look at maps and installed shelves for blues records and his father’s gardening book collection after he died in 1994. The only map hanging in the house was one that was there when they bought it—a map of Sebec Lake done for the Dover-Foxcroft Chamber of Commerce in 1962 that hung over the dining room table.
On first blush, a small town in Maine might seem to have little to do with an international map thief, who admitted to stealing nearly 100 antiquarian maps valued at more than $3 million. But in fact, the small village of Sebec has everything to do with the grandiose schemes of Forbes Smiley, a respected map dealer who betrayed the world he loved by defiling maps and atlases from rare book libraries across the country and overseas.

That’s because rather than spending most of his money on buying luxuries, Smiley spent it on buying Sebec. In addition to his farmhouse, he also bought up the town post office, and a general store and restaurant, refurbishing them to the tune of half a million dollars and spending thousands more employing much of the town in his businesses.

Smiley had always loved New England history, and sought to make Sebec the perfect ideal of a New England village—and himself the benefactor of the town. Many residents supported him in his vision. Alas, however, not everyone shared it. When a couple across the street named the Moriartys tried to put in a noisy speedboat marina, Smiley and his friends got into a nasty feud that turned into a costly legal battle dividing the town. Smiley stole more and more maps to keep up with the money he was hemorrhaging on payroll and legal bills up in Maine.

Eventually, Smiley lost his legal case in Sebec, and left the town, never to return. A year later, he was caught stealing maps at Yale University, and admitted to his crimes. The Moriartys celebrated, putting a picture of his mug shot in their marina window. Smiley had to sell his shops before he went to prison, but they were never redeveloped. Even today, they sit boarded up by the lakeshore, the tables in his restaurant still set as if it might open for breakfast in the morning.

Little else remains of Forbes Smiley’s dream of putting an ideal New England village on the map.
Visit Michael Blanding's website.

--Marshal Zeringue