Michael Vinson. Bluffing Texas Style: The Arsons, Forgeries, and High-Stakes Poker Capers of Rare Book Dealer Johnny Jenkins.

Brian Shetler


The story of Johnny Jenkins, rare book dealer, forger, gambler, and misterioso, has haunted me since my days in library school nearly a decade ago. I first encountered Jenkins through his publication Rare Books and Manuscript Thefts: A Security System for Librarians, Booksellers, and Collectors, which was printed in 1982 while Jenkins served as president of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA). I was doing research related to the history of book theft in the United States and found Jenkins’s short text (only 27 pages) to be a helpful insight into how the ABAA viewed book theft and security. Pursuing Jenkins a bit further, I quickly came upon Calvin Trillin’s fascinating 1989 New Yorker article that chronicled Jenkins’s demise. The details of Jenkins’s secret life of forgeries, gambling, and arson were fascinating; the details of his death (shot in the back of the head, no weapon found, ruled a suicide?) were macabre and confounding. A few years later, while on break at a conference in Austin, TX, I walked into a used bookstore and found a copy of Jenkins’s Audubon and Other Capers (1976), which told the tale of his exploits in helping the FBI track down book thieves in the early 1970s. The completely contradictory life that Jenkins led, coupled with his untimely and odd death, stuck in my brain in the form of unanswered questions, unclear details, and an unresolved murder or suicide. While it was not up to me to put the pieces together and offer a clear picture of Johnny Jenkins’s life, career, and death, it had to be done by someone. That someone, it turns out, was another rare book dealer specializing in Texas and the West, Michael Vinson.

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