Which Way Did He Go?

A journalist maps the story of the country’s biggest cartographic crook.

On the morning of October 31, 1995, a nondescript man signed into the special collections room of the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library as one James Perry. No briefcases, bags, or even pens are allowed inside the small, glass-enclosed room. But when the man left the library several hours later, he took 13 rare maps with him, hidden under his clothing. The day before, he’d launched a similar attack on Northwestern’s McCormick Library of Special Collections, razoring six maps from the pages of several antique atlases. As the man left, curator R. Russell Maylone said, “I hope you found what you’re looking for.”

James Perry, whose real name is Gilbert Bland, was nabbed by the authorities at Johns Hopkins University in December 1995 after pilfering at least 250 valuable maps from libraries across the U.S. and Canada. Miles Harvey–then the literary critic for Outside magazine–stumbled upon the story of Bland some months later in a Chicago Tribune article on the crime spree that had rocked the rarefied world of research libraries.

In the introduction to his new book, The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime, Harvey writes: “I had no idea, the first time I read those words, that they would soon be chiseled into my mind. Yet I do remember feeling an unusually intense jolt of curiosity, as fiery and bracing as the coffee I had raised to my lips….I think I was intrigued not so much by what the story said but by what it left looming between the lines. What was it about these mysterious old maps that people found so alluring? And what kind of person would wander so far and put so much on the line for their acquisition? Who was this Gilbert Bland?”

All Harvey knew from the piece in the Tribune was that Bland was suspected of pilfering maps from Johns Hopkins University and possibly other libraries. He had no idea whether Bland was obsessively hoarding the maps for himself or was in it for money, part of a black market catering to the peculiar cravings of collectors.

It turned out that Bland had been billing himself as an antiques dealer in Florida, selling his ill-gotten booty through an international network of antiquarian dealers and collectors. He’d had plenty of previous brushes with the law–credit card fraud, unemployment compensation fraud, minor drug charges, motor vehicle theft–but nothing to suggest he was capable of this kind of daredevil villainy. With each scrape he’d somehow managed to re-create himself: a different job, a different marriage, a different name.

He wasn’t distinctive. He didn’t attract attention. He was bland. Beyond a general physical description, Bland could only be described by librarians in the vaguest of terms: “clean-cut,” “quiet,” “polite,” “nondescript and noncommunicative.” Exactly the demeanor you’d expect from someone who wanted to examine old maps. He had no desire for fame, avoided the watchful eyes of librarians, changed identities like dirty socks, and didn’t like it much when Harvey started digging into his life.

Harvey has worked in journalism since he was 15, when he started covering high school sports for his hometown’s Downers Grove Reporter. He continued through college at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as a journalism major and columnist for the Daily Illini. After an internship at the Los Angeles Times capital bureau in Washington in 1984, he came back to Chicago to work for UPI, taking wire copy and rewriting it for radio and TV broadcasts. In ’86 he started working for In These Times as assistant managing editor. That was a good fit. “I came from a very political family,” he says. “My father was a schoolteacher and my mother was chairman of the Du Page Democratic Party. I was really interested in politics and journalism both. In These Times was great for me.”

He left in 1989 to study creative writing in grad school at the University of Michigan. But when he finished, the managing editor of In These Times was going on maternity leave, so as a favor, and because “I had nothing better to do,” he filled in for her. It turned out to be more than just filling in: for the next five years Harvey worked intermittently as acting managing editor, books and arts editor, managing editor, and contributing editor. “I ended up sticking around probably longer than I should have,” he says.

It took some encouragement for him to start freelancing: “I’d been really chicken about it. My wife [Rengin Altay] is an actress and she’s just fearless. She’s never done anything but acting and she’s just stupidly fearless in that way you have to be to do this sort of thing. She talked me into it. She was really helpful.”

In 1994 Harvey got the gig at Outside, where Michael Paterniti, his graduate school roommate, was then an editor. While he wrote book reviews for Outside, he also did some small news items and consumer reporting, and a feature on great outdoor books, “The Outside Canon,” that was a finalist for a National Magazine Award. When he decided to tackle Bland’s story, the piece took a year to write, mainly because Bland adamantly refused to talk. “It took forever to get info on Bland–all public record stuff, which can take months. Also I think the interest waned in my story at Outside. They had a real hard time understanding why it was an Outside story when it became more and more about libraries.”

But Harvey persevered, and his story, “Mr. Bland’s Evil Plot to Control the World,” was published in June of 1997. Harvey says, “I really lucked out. Outside was, right when my article came out, at the zenith of its popularity. It had just won three National Magazine Awards. It had three books that had started as Outside articles on various best-seller lists [Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Into Thin Air and Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm]. It was weird. The story came out and all of a sudden I started getting calls from agents and editors. But I was so burned out on the article that I basically ignored it. One guy called and said, ‘I want to make this into a book.’ I said, ‘I don’t think so.'”

Harvey eventually ended up going with an agent, Sloan Harris, who had him rewrite his book proposal three times; the third sold within a week. In writing the proposal, Harvey thought that the book would have to differ from the original article: “I wanted to write a book much more about maps and map culture, and I also realized that this would have to be about me too, about the search, exploration, and discovery.”

He was still working for Outside when he started writing, but after a few months he quit to devote all his time to the book. He spent three years in his spare, one-room office in Andersonville digging ever deeper into the esoteric world of cartomania.

The Island of Lost Maps (which refers to the FBI’s collection of what’s been recovered of Gilbert Bland’s thefts) has as its backbone Harvey’s search for the what, when, how, where, and why of Bland’s escapades in America’s libraries. But it’s also much more: the book journeys into the history of exploration (Columbus may have stumbled onto America by using a pilfered, perhaps erroneous, map); early mapmaking (showing sea monsters, the lands of Gog and Magog, the Garden of Eden, the Islands of the Satyrs–whose residents were reported to have “tails like animals”–lands named Masculina and Feminea, and even weirder errata as factual details); and the peculiar aficionados of cartography who, unlike Bland, are quite colorful, such as Graham Arader, a bombastic dealer who virtually created the modern map-collecting market, “Once Bitten” and “Twice Shy,” collectors burned by Bland who wish to remain anonymous, and “Mr. Atlas,” possibly the world’s preeminent map collector. But Bland himself remained largely terra incognita. He eventually wound up serving a total of 17 months in prison on various state and federal charges and, in the last five years, only 100 or so maps have been identified and returned to their owners. Another 150 are stored away in the FBI’s care.

Despite the years of research into Bland’s life and criminal activities and despite the 50,000-copy first printing of his book, Harvey has mixed emotions about the culmination of his work. “In one way it was great. I think every writer hopes for a project that’s consuming. It was great to have this single thing I did every day and not be distracted. A rare gift. But it was weird to spend four years of my life in constant meditation about a man I’d never met and who had no desire to meet me. It was bizarre. At some point I just realized that there was this Gilbert Bland in real life and there was this Gilbert Bland in my head. This sort of cipher of all my hopes and fears really had nothing to do with the real-life Gilbert Bland. In a way I became obsessed.”

As Harvey writes in his closing chapter, “Mr. Bland, I Presume”: “It was not that I meant him any harm: if anything, my feelings of compassion toward him had only grown over the years. But I had come to realize that, no matter what my intentions, the telling of his story would doom Bland to what was, for him, a most terrible fate: to be known.”

Harvey says, “I basically realize now that I was a thief too, prowling around this guy’s life just like he prowled around libraries and sort of cutting away little details of his life, secreting them back to my apartment, and throwing them into my book. It became more and more apparent to me that there was a real downside to what I was doing. It didn’t stop me from writing the book, but it did really wear me down. Still, with the publication of the book, I don’t feel good. This guy certainly deserves to be written about–he made his own bed and became a public figure by any standard. But I don’t necessarily feel good that my work is causing him pain and discomfort.

“On the other hand,” he continues, “I said that at a gathering of the American Library Association. I was on a panel with Russell Maylone…. We were standing in front of all these other librarians, and he just looked at me and said, ‘Well, don’t feel too bad.'”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Dorothy Perry.