For Boston College students, November always seems to arrive sooner than expected—oftentimes causing some seasonal disorientation. With half-discarded Halloween decor lingering in the dorms, the wintry remnants of a Nor’ Easter briefly blanketing the campus in white, and local radio stations spreading some premature Yuletide cheer over the airways, I take comfort in the fact that, despite the confusion, it’s always enclosure-making season in the John J. Burns Library conservation lab.
Over the past few months I’ve measured, outlined, and constructed enclosures for a variety of rare items—ranging from an early twentieth century bill of execution to a sheet of Irish religious poetry. Of all the objects in need of a new home, one item in particular was able to pique my interest and sustain it as I worked: a 1680 pamphlet titled, “The Life and Death of the Fam’d Mr. Blood.” Printed on sheets of well-worn, yellowing paper, the fourteen-page pamphlet details, “in response to public interest and demand,” the exploits and adventures of one Colonel Thomas Blood. He was indeed a controversial figure in his day: An Irish-born military hero with alternating loyalties to the English crown and parliament, Colonel Blood gained international notoriety for his seizure of Dublin Castle, his violent rivalry with The Duke of Ormonde, and, most famously, his attempted theft of the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London.
As I cut lengths of buckram cloth to make a cover for the paper portfolio that would house the pamphlet, I further investigated the colonel’s legendary caper. What I found was nothing short of remarkable: Blood had undertaken a carefully organized and cleverly executed heist that nearly left him in possession of some of the most valuable items of his time: the royal crown and scepter of King Charles II. To assist him in this monumental endeavor, he enlisted the service of three or four other men; each drawn from his usual pool of trusted associates and war-time compatriots. Together, Blood and his Gang cased the Tower of London for weeks—tracking the movement of the guards, mapping out escape routes, and, most importantly, developing positive relationships with the watchmen and key-keepers—often by showering them with gifts such as a “pair of new white gloves.” Colonel Blood himself spent a great deal of time visiting Talbot Edwards, the 77-year old chief of the tower, and his family, eventually asking for his daughter’s hand in marriage. With their fearless leader closer than ever to the chief and the Jewels, Blood’s gang decided that it was time to strike.
On the appointed day, May 9th, 1671, Blood met with Chief Edwards to discuss the appropriate exchange of dowry that would follow the wedding. In the midst of the discussion, Blood proposed a respite from their negotiations and suggested that Edwards show him the Crown Jewels. Agreeing reluctantly after some additional coaxing, Edwards led Blood down the countless steps to the tower dungeons where the jewels were kept. As soon as Edwards opened the door and led the Colonel inside, Blood’s gang—having silently infiltrated the fortress and followed down the stairs—slammed the door shut and began to bind and gag him. Using Edward’s keys, the men removed the Jewels from their casing and began to hide them underneath their clothes. When they simply would not fit, the robbers commenced to smashing the crown against the ground to flatten it and sawing the scepter in half with a file. Moving quickly out the door, up the stairs, and towards the gate, it seemed as if Blood and his gang had succeeded in their mission—at least until Chief Edward’s son, returning early from an engagement overseas, saw his father’s body strewn across the earthen floor of the Jewel Room and sounded the alarm. Brandishing hidden rapiers from their canes and drawing their pistols, the thieves fought their way across the drawbridge of the tower until finally they were overtaken by an entire regiment of soldiers. In the scuffle, the Jewels were further damaged; several precious stones fell out of place and were scattered across the ground, never to be reclaimed.
For those who wish to discover the fate of Mr. Blood and his marauding band of outlaws or seek more of his adventures, I encourage you to peruse “The Life and Death of the Fam’d Mr. Blood” in the John J. Burns Library Reading Room. For those who find Blood’s example daring, bold, and worthy of imitation, I urge you not to adopt his approach to the housing of rare materials—they are by no means endorsed by conservation science. Perhaps the famed scoundrel would have benefited from making a few protective enclosures of his own.
- Robert Williams, Conservation Assistant, Burns Library & B.C. Class of 2014