The real Edinburgh reverend who stole literature centuries before The Book Thief
In Markus Zusak’s seminal novel, The Book Thief, young protagonist, Liesel Meminger, develops a taste for purloining books (at great danger to herself and her new family) to satiate her growing appetite for words.
Close to two centuries before Zusak’s book was even released, in 1830, there was a similarly light-fingered individual at work in Edinburgh – the very real and somewhat infamous Reverend Duncan McCaig.
Driven to temptation
In the early 19th century, books were still very much a luxury item, with most classes unable to afford them.
It would be several decades before new printing techniques would make literature less expensive, with the invention of cheap ‘penny dreadful’ stories, for instance.
Whether or not his motive was money-related remains unclear, but the good Reverend Duncan McCaig managed to avoid suspicion for nearly a year after carrying out a spate of thefts from booksellers across the city.
Ironically, McCaig’s downfall came when he pilfered a bible from merchant, Walter Richardson.
Pretending to browse before stashing it under his cloak, the Reverend left the stolen bible with a waiter at the Reading Rooms below Richardson’s premises for safekeeping. By chance, Richardson heard that a bible had been left there and was awaiting collection.
A trap was set to catch the book thief.
After lying in wait, astonished police apprehended the clergyman, catching him red-handed with the stolen book.
On searching his lodgings afterwards, officers found 20 other books that had also been reported stolen, including copies of Johnson’s Dictionary, the works of Robert Burns, Latin Synonyms, the works of Sophocles and The Complaint or Night Thoughts.
McCaig’s fate was sealed.
Brought to justice
An account of McCaig’s sensational trial appeared in an article in The Scotsman newspaper, dated 8 June 1831.
A lengthy account of McCaig’s trial appeared in The Scotsman in June 1831 (Photo: JP)
On the day of the trial, the courtroom “was excessively crowded” with spectators, who had come especially to see the reverend face justice.
The evidence was overwhelming – McCaig was beyond help.
Summing up, the three justices presiding over his trial felt compelled to throw the book at the clergyman, sentencing him to 14 years penal servitude in Australia. Lord Justice Clerk was particularly damning:
“I am quite sure that there is nothing I can say – intentionally it will not be said – that could aggravate the feelings of degradation which must swell your own breast.
“To conceive it possible that a person who held the situation of a minister of a Chapel of Ease in Edinburgh should have descended to the commission of such crimes affords one of the most melancholy examples of the depravity of our nature that has ever come to under my observation.”
Having pleaded not guilty, McCaig “maintained the greatest composure, and heard his sentence with almost apparent indifference.”
Transported for life
On 14 October 1832, the disgraced McCaig boarded the prison ship, Circassian, in Plymouth.
The vessel was bound for the penal colony of Port Arthur in Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), bearing a human cargo of 192 convicted criminals.
British Navy ships carried convicts to Australia, where they established the first European settlements in the late 1700s (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Transportation to Australia had reached its peak by the 1830s, with most thieves – particularly repeat offenders – expecting to be sentenced to a minimum of seven years’ hard labour on the other side of the world.
As with most transported convicts, McCaig was barred from ever returning to Scotland.
After the American Wars of Independence ended in defeat for the British, there was little alternative but to send criminals to the new Australian colonies instead.
By the 1850s, however, colonists had grown resentful of felons being foisted upon them, and the punishment began to wane.
The prison clerk recording McCaig’s arrival seems to have shown some surprise at his occupation as a clergyman (Photo: Tasmania Government Archives)
Arriving in Tasmania on 16 February 1833 after a four-month voyage, McCaig was entered into Port Arthur’s records as being 31 years of age with a “fresh” complexion, reddish beard, brown hair, and hazel eyes.
Next to profession, the clerk scrawled “clergyman – Scotch church.” It is unclear if the small exclamation marks above this particular entry were contemporaneous, but the convicted criminal’s former career would have undoubtedly raised a few eyebrows.
Life as a prisoner
For the crime of stealing, McCaig would have been forced to work long hours in one of the penal station’s micro-industries – shipbuilding, shoemaking, smithing, timber, and brick making.
His prison conduct records show he was punished several times for his “inability to do the quantity of work required.”
Port Arthur penal station, much of which would have been standing when McCaig arrived in Australia (Photo: Port Arthur Historic Site)
It was noted, however, that he was of “good character, courteous and respectable”, which goes some way towards explaining why authorities granted him an early release.
It’s perhaps fitting that the both Reverend Duncan McCaig and Liesel Meminger ultimately found redemption in the written word.
Death – who acts as a narrator in Zusak’s novel – alludes to Liesel becoming a writer when he finally comes to claim her as an old woman.
Released from captivity in Port Arthur with a conditional pardon in 1841, McCaig settled as a free man in the town of Launceston in the north of the island, where he worked as teacher.
He died on 26 February 1849.
In the census carried out during the previous year, McCaig is recorded as a professional person living alone in a wooden dwelling – and still clinging to the beliefs of the Church of Scotland.