These days, if you make off with a stack of library materials, the Los Angeles Public Library will report your thieving name to a collections agency. But library bandits of yesteryear like 20-year-old Clyde M. Thompson faced much stiffer penalties.
A librarian at LAPL noticed that the copy of Eugene O’Neill’s controversial play All God’s Chillun Got Wings was at large, and traced the missing copy to Thompson. About 30 library books were found in Thompson’s home at 1406 E. 110th St., and he was sentenced to 60 days in jail, 2 days for each stolen book.
During the 1920s, the Los Angeles Public Library employed detectives to investigate thefts and mutilation of library material. A 1929 Times article featured the efforts of Special Investigator Samuel Wardlaw, a man as hardcore as he was humorless.
He interrogated patrons in the stacks when he observed them hiding books, and once used a sorority pin to track down a young woman who tried to sneak a rare volume of Chaucer out under her coat. While he seemed to have a soft spot in his heart for the children he captured, Wardlaw regarded most library patrons with a certain degree of contempt. He said, "Sometimes I think the Los Angeles Public Library must be on the mailing or calling list of every crank and eccentric in the West."
While the library detectives frequently visited people at home to reclaim stolen books, it was rare that criminal charges were pursued. No particular reason was given for poor Clyde Thompson’s exceptionally harsh sentence.