Campus History

The Mystery of the Missing UW Books

More than a century ago, a charming Southern student hid a dark secret.

Jenny Morrill MA1905 was a student of history — both her own and that of her beloved South. She was a Daughter of the American Revolution and, more immediately, the daughter of a Confederate naval officer. Born in Pensacola, Florida, and raised in three southern states, she had a lifelong dream to study her region’s past.

To that end, she attended the University of Tennessee, graduating in 1904 with honors, before continuing her studies in Madison. The Wisconsin Historical Society housed the Draper Collection — a lovingly curated gathering of manuscript material related to the Revolutionary War–era South. The University of Wisconsin also had Frederick Jackson Turner 1884, MA1888, who became her thesis adviser. Morrill’s aim was to complete graduate school and return home to teach.

She returned with much more.

Morrill was, according to a local newspaper, “a typical Southern girl, with dark hair and eyes, olive complexion, and a lithe, graceful figure. Her charm of manner was so great that she was a social favorite.” And while she was broadly popular, she was particularly friendly with members of the library staff. She counted librarian Mary Foster among her closest friends and had on many occasions dined with the family of Reuben Gold Thwaites, librarian and director of the Historical Society.

After Morrill’s first year, the annual library survey showed some valuable books missing, but too few to matter. Moderate book loss is a standard hazard year to year, and in this case, there was little to suggest a pattern. Morrill completed her master’s thesis — “The Settlement of Alabama, 1820–1880” — under Turner. In the summer of 1906, she headed south to spend time with family before returning to campus to continue working toward her doctorate. Like many out-of-town students, she left behind several boxes of personal material for storage at the warehouse of Sumner & Morris.

Around the same time, the library survey again showed missing books. The Southern history collection, in particular, had lost more than 250 volumes. A conference of librarians and faculty was convened, led by Thwaites. The consensus was that the only person who had access and a demonstrated interest in the subject was Jenny Morrill. Thwaites went to her lodgings to seek an explanation.

He first spoke with her roommate, who, it turned out, was also missing some books. She told Thwaites that Morrill was out of town and, just as importantly, where she left her belongings. Thwaites went to Sumner & Morris.

Wisconsin Historical Society, Series 934, box 23

What he found there startled him — all the missing books, and then some. In addition to those taken from the UW, he also found volumes stolen from Morrill’s roommate and several dozen taken from the University of Tennessee. Worse yet, Morrill had mutilated many of the books, cutting out any identification stamps — often by ripping out the title page. She also wrote her name inside their covers along with “bought at auction.” Later surveys showed that even with books Morrill left on the library shelves, she very often cut out valuable maps and illustrations.

Thwaites wrote to Morrill — not so much asking for an explanation as to inform her that he had discovered her crime and that “the matter of criminal prosecution is being taken under advisement.” Morrill pleaded for mercy, excusing her behavior on account of morphine addiction and asking Thwaites to keep this from becoming public to protect her family. But it was too late for that. Local newspapers had gotten the story from the sheriff.

Thwaites noted to Morrill how inadequate her explanation was. For one thing, her thefts (counting the ones from the University of Tennessee) had taken place at least as far back as three years earlier, “which argues a steady, persistent purpose, far removed from [morphine] hysteria.”

For practical reasons, she was never charged; there seemed to be little appetite on behalf of prosecutors to bring her back to Madison. In the end, she agreed to pay for as many replacement books as could be found. Using this “Morrill Fund,” Thwaites spent the next several years trying to do just that.

Morrill, for her part, remained in Florida, where she became a teacher of civics and history at Daytona High School. She taught for several decades before retiring — to become a librarian.

Travis McDade has written four books on rare book theft, the most recent of which is  Torn from Their Bindings.

Published in the Summer 2019 issue


  • Christopher Clarke December 17, 2022

    Just came across this story while doing family research. How interesting!!! Jenny Morrill was the sister of my Great Grandfather, William K. Morrill—Mobile, Alabama. I’ll definitely share this story with my family members.

    Christopher Clarke
    Mobile, Alabama

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