Sunday, September 24

22 years ago someone stole Darwin’s “Tree of Life” manuscripts. Now a mysterious anonymous has returned them

This story opens with an overhead shot of a Cambridge University corridor. It is the year 2000. A librarian picks up a small blue box and, while the camera accompanies him through the library, he walks to the institution’s Photographic Unit. There, the two Darwin notebooks that are kept inside the box will be photographed and digitized. A few months later, in November of that year, the Unit will finish its work, mark it as done, and wait for the librarians to put the box back in its place.

It would take 22 years to see those notebooks again.

an unseen robbery

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Just a few months after the photography work was completed, in January 2001, a routine check discovered that the box was not where it should be. Jessica Gardner, a university librarian and director of library services since 2017, explained many years later that her predecessors “they genuinely believed that what had happened was that these they had been misfiled [los cuadernos] and they did exhaustive searches over the years” to find them.

The history of one of the most dangerous ideas ever thought: the theory of evolution

It was not an absurd idea. In the year 2000, the security procedures were different and, otherwise, the Cambridge University Library is a huge monster of more than 210 kilometers of shelves and around 10 million books, maps, manuscripts or other objects. If something was lost in her, recovering it became a challenge.

However, those notebooks were not just any notebooks. It is very difficult to know what price they would have obtained in the market, but the experts are clear that nothing less than a few million pounds. It is not only that there are many interested in the material of Charles Darwin, but that in one of them there is a sketch of the ‘tree of life’: the famous graphical representation of the Theory of Evolution. That is to say, possibly, it was the first document in which Darwin reflected the idea that all living beings have the same remote origin.

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Therefore, in early 2020, taking advantage of the fact that the library is reviewing all its repositories, the librarians decided to search and assemble the complete Darwin archive. They found 189 boxes, but they couldn’t locate the notebooks. For this reason, they carried out an internal investigation analyzing each step that the notebooks had taken and concluded that it was most likely that someone had stolen them. It became public and the police began to investigate.

The black market is a labyrinth without exits

Lambeth Palace Great Hall Fig Tree

However, there was not much hope placed on the matter. Jessica Gardner herself recognized that they were too special a material to be sold publicly. It was black market meat and, once there, only a stroke of luck could return him to the University.

One day fear came and never left: Charles Darwin's fight against himself

In this context, “a stroke of luck” is a police operation that he finds it by rebound or something similar to what happened in the Lambeth Palace in London. This palace is the official residence of the Bishop of Canterbury, the highest authority (after the queen) of the Church of England, and contains one of the oldest libraries in the United Kingdom. During the bombing of World War II, an incendiary bomb fell on the area that housed much of the library’s most valuable collection.

At that time it was estimated that up to 10,000 books had been lost; therefore, when in later years a book was found to be missing, it was almost automatically assumed that it had been destroyed in the fire. However, until 1,400 of them were stolen by a librarian using confusion.

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Only when the librarian was on his deathbed, 40 years after all this, did he repent and leave a letter to his executor explaining what had happened and detailing a list of all the stolen copies (explaining, in many cases, where they were). Thus, at last, many of them recovered. Everything a lucky break.

A bright pink bag


On March 9, the library found a bright pink gift bag in a camera-free area of ​​your facility. Inside was the original blue box with the two cling-wrapped notebooks and a brown envelope that said “Librarian, Happy Easter, X.” All alarms went off.

For five days (the time it took the police to analyze the package and make sure it was safe to open) in the Cambridge Library, he hardly slept. Everyone knew what was inside, but until it could be opened, they couldn’t be sure. Finally, they removed the film and they confirmed that the notebooks were back.

The mystery of the anonymous

Officially, the identity of the person who returned the notebooks is unknown and, therefore, their motivation is unknown. However, there is no lack of theories that indicate that it is possible that this anonymity is fictitious. When the Lambeth Palace theft was discovered, the authorities kept the identity of the thief secret. The reason, beyond “doing no harm to possible living relatives”, was more strategic.

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The police understood that if they publicly announced the identity of the author and there was a public scorn, other people in the same situation might prefer to dispose of the documents or works of art rather than return them and see their reputation publicly tarnished.

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Therefore, it should not be ruled out that the story of the Easter gift is a way to hide the true identity of the thief. We won’t know (at least not soon), but it’s good news because it’s a praxis that (regardless of its veracity) can encourage many people to return all that we once lost.

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