Bookshelf provides descriptions and notices of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects.

Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures

by Robert K. Wittman, with John Shiffman
published by Broadway Paperbacks, 2011; 324 pages, paper, $15.00

While employed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Philadelphia, Robert King Wittman created and was senior investigator of the bureau’s Art Crime Team. He arrived in 1988 in Philadelphia, “home to two of the nation’s best art museums and one of the country’s largest archaeology collections,” adding “the month I reported for duty, two of them were robbed.” And so begins a spellbinding and articulate chronicle of suspense, intrigue, daring, and guile.

In his riveting account entitled Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures, Wittman regales readers with his forays into the underworld to not only solve crimes and arrest perpetrators but most importantly to return stolen works of art and antiquities to their rightful places. “But art theft is rarely about the love of art or the cleverness of the crime,” asserts Wittman, “and the thief is rarely the Hollywood caricature — the reclusive millionaire with the stunning collection, accessible only by pressing the concealed button on the bust of Shakespeare, opening the steel door that reveals the private, climate – controlled gallery. The art thieves I met in my career ran the gamut — rich, poor, smart, foolish, attractive, grotesque. Yet nearly all of them had one thing in common: brute greed. They stole for money, not beauty.”

Wittman traveled the world, putting his life in danger, to recover some of the world’s greatest treasures valued at hundreds of millions of dollars, but he also solved several cases in Pennsylvania. His first coup was assisting with the arrest of the individual who, brandishing a gun, ran off with L’Homme au Nez Casse (The Man with the Broken Nose) from Philadelphia’s Rodin Museum, a monumentally significant bronze sculpture by Augusteé Rodin. He next worked on solving the heist of a fifty-pound crystal ball originally from the Imperial Palace in Beijing, China, and a five-thousand-year-old bronze statue of Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead, from the prestigious University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

The author contends “90 percent of museum thefts are inside jobs,” a thesis that held true in his investigation of missing objects from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) in Philadelphia which houses the nation’s second largest repository of early Americana. An inventory by HSP staff revealed that a late-eighteenth century Lancaster County long rifle and three presentation swords given to Union Generals George Gordon Meade, David Birney, and Andrew Humphreys were missing. A break in the case came from Bruce S. Bazelon, an expert on military accoutrements recently retired from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC), who related a story he had heard from a dealer in the Poconos. Wittman eventually found the swords — and hundreds of objects worth millions of dollars — smuggled out of HSP’s collections storage areas by a janitor trusted by everyone at the society. The theft in 1996 of several dozen historical objects from PHMC’s Pennsbury Manor, William Penn’s country estate in Bucks County, was the first case Wittman prosecuted under the landmark federal Theft of Major Artwork Statute.

In 2000, Wittman investigated prominent Pennsylvania appraisers Russell Albert Pritchard III, his father Russ Pritchard Jr., and George Juno, who specialized in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century militaria. The younger Pritchard and Juno, who helped Harrisburg Mayor Stephen R. Reed build a collection for the city’s National Civil War Museum, were appraisers on PBS’s Antiques Roadshow. Wittman accused the pair of fraud by fixing segments of the popular television series and duping viewers in other sales, which marred the show’s reputation. All three were convicted.

Priceless is a fast-paced jaunt through the worlds of art and crime made even more meaningful because the author is a student of art history who, shortly after joining the Philadelphia office of the FBI, enrolled in classes at the Barnes Foundation in Merion.

An interview with Wittman, a resident of Chester Springs, Chester County, will be featured in a future edition of Pennsylvania Heritage.


Medical Caregiving and Identity in Pennsylvania’s Anthracite Region, 1880-2000

by Karol K. Weaver
published by the Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011; 187 pages, cloth, $64.95

While much has been written about northeastern Pennsylvania’s immigrant traditions, music, food, culture, and folklore, little attention has been given to the study of medical culture — until now. In Medical Caregiving and Identity in Pennsylvania’s Anthracite Region, 1880-2000, Karol K. Weaver employs an impressive range of primary sources, including folk songs, patent medicine advertisements, oral history interviews, ghost stories, even jokes, to illustrate how the residents of the hard coke region crafted their gender and ethnic identities by the medical decisions they made.

The author examines communities’ relationships with both biomedically trained physicians and informally trained caregivers, and how these relationships reflected a sense of what she describes as “Americanness.” Weaver skillfully uses interviews and oral histories to tell the story of neighbor-hood healers, midwives, Pennsylvania German powwowers, self-help, and the eventual transition to modern-day medicine. The book illustrates not only how each of these methods of healing was shaped by its patrons and their diverse backgrounds, but also how it helped mold the identities of the new Americans who sought it out.

Medical Caregiving and Identity in Pennsylvania’s Anthracite Region, 1880-2000, includes historic images, extensive notes, and a bibliography.


Clean Politics, Clean Streams: A Legislative Autobiography and Reflections

by Franklin L. Kury
published by Lehigh University Press, 2011; 274 pages; cloth, $80.00, paper, $24.95

In Clean Politics, Clean Streams: A Legislative Autobiography and Reflections, Franklin L. Kury, who served in the General Assembly of Pennsylvania from 1967 through 1980, offers an intimate and insightful look at the workings of the state legislature and describes his role in the passage of environmental legislation. The only Democrat elected from his district to serve in the house or senate since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s landslide in 1936, Kury, a resident of Sunbury, Northumberland County, was instrumental in enacting an environmental amendment to the state constitution, a comprehensive clean stream law, gubernatorial disability law, reform of the senate’s procedure for confirmation of gubernatorial appointments, a new public utility law, and flood plain and storm water management laws.

Clean Politics, Clean Streams, opens with Kury’s recollections of early family life, college and law school, and early employment, which he credits with igniting his passion for politics. The real “insider’s story” commences with his recollections of state politics, especially backroom maneuvers and the players who dominated them. He remembers, in remarkable detail, individuals on both sides of the aisle in the two chambers who influenced, supported, or challenged him.

Although this book is titled an autobiography, it is much more than merely a legislative memoir. A prologue sets the stage for Pennsylvania’s political milieu of the late twentieth century by recounting various acts and actions of the state legislature which impacted citizens over the course of seventy-five years. “From the end of the Civil War through the Great Depression of 1929,” Kury writes, “the legislature appeared to equate the public interest with the corporate interests of the coal, steel, and railroads that provided the bulwarks of the state’s economy.” He then discusses party bosses, patronage, and powerful lobbyists and their effect on the political system.

The author’s lively narrative is engaging and his firsthand account of how and why certain bills passed (or did not pass) is engrossing, especially because he sponsored major pieces of legislation. The book is punctuated with a number of photographs from Kury’s personal collection, which brings to life the key players who minted their careers in the State Capitol.

Continuing his commitment to serving Pennsylvanians, Kury, now a resident of Harrisburg, recently joined the board of the Pennsylvania Heritage Society.


The Pittsburgh Reader: Seventy-Five Years of Books about Pittsburgh

by various authors
published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011; 287 pages, paper, free.

The University of Pittsburgh Press was founded in 1936 with funding provided by the A. W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust, the Buhl Foundation, the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, and the University of Pittsburgh to publish a series of readable and historically accurate books about Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania for general readers, students, and scholars. For three-quarters of a century, the press has established itself as a scholarly publisher with distinguished books in academic areas, poetry, and short fiction, while never wavering from its commitment to publishing books about the city and region. The press’s Pittsburgh-related works range in subjects from history to art and from biography to historical fiction, written and illustrated by some of the area’s most talented writers and artists.

To celebrate its diamond anniversary in 2011, the press released The Pittsburgh Reader: Seventy-Five Years of Books about Pittsburgh featuring excerpts from seventy-five books written or edited by individuals whose names are familiar far beyond Allegheny County: Michael Aronson, Samuel Hays, Joel Tarr, Joe Trotter, Martha Frick Symington Sanger, Charles Morse Stotz, Franklin Toker, Dick Thornburgh, Virginia Bartlett, Thomas Starzl, August Wilson, and John Edgar Wideman, among many others.

Few American cities are home to a university press; fewer still are home to a publisher with a dedication to works written about its home city and region and largely written by local writers. The University of Pittsburgh Press published this collection in appreciation of the attention and support of booklovers in western Pennsylvania. As part of its celebration, the press is making copies of The Pittsburgh Reader: Seventy-Five Years of Books about Pittsburgh free of charge, through December 31, 2011.


Architecture and Landscape of the Pennsylvania Germans, 1720-1920

edited by Sally McMurry and Nancy Van Dolson
published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011; 250 pages, cloth, $49.95

The phrase “Pennsylvania German architecture” likely calls to mind a mental image of a continental three-room dwelling, with a cavernous hearth, five-plate stoves, tiny windows, exposed beams, colorful decorative motifs, perhaps even a vaulted cellar, as well as a huge bank barn with its projecting overhang, or canopy. These and other trademarks of Pennsylvania German architecture have long been of great interest to a wide audience, including tourists, genealogists, architectural historians, antiquarians, folklorists, and social historians.

Since the late nineteenth century, scholars have engaged in field measurement and drawing, photographic recordation, documentation, and careful observation which, in turn, resulted in extended dialogue and debate about Pennsylvania German building traditions, spatial sensibilities, and aesthetic culture. Researchers sought answers to two key questions: What cultural patterns were being expressed by these buildings? How did shifting social, technological, and economic forces shape architectural changes?

Sally McMurry and Nancy Van Dolson, editors of Architecture and Landscape of the Pennsylvania Germans, 1720-1920, assembled contemporary scholarly insights about the contributions of Pennsylvania Germans to American architectural expression, moving beyond earlier preconceptions of the three-room house and forebay barn. The original interpretive insights that will help advance an understanding of Pennsylvania German culture and history. Pennsylvania Germans’ lives are traced through their houses, barns, outbuildings, commercial buildings, places of worship, and landscapes. The essays bring years of field observation as well as an engagement with current scholarly perspectives such as the nature of ethnicity, the social construction of landscape, and recent historiography about the Keystone State’s German population. Dozens of original measured drawings — many for the first time in print — document important architectural works, including iconic barns in Berks County, an unusual farm complex in Cumberland County, and distinctive urban houses in Lancaster County.