Saturday, August 13, 2005

N.C.'s original copy of Bill of Rights home again after long, strange odyssey


Courtesy of the State of North Carolina Archives and Records Section

North Carolina's copy of the original Bill of Rights was carried by federal marshals back into the Capitol in Raleigh from which it was taken.

RALEIGH, N.C. -- George Washington sent it to North Carolina in 1789 as an inducement to the hesitant colony to join a new union, and it was snatched away in the chaos following a tumultuous Civil War to restore that same union.

In the years that followed, North Carolina's missing copy of the original Bill of Rights passed from a Yankee soldier's rucksack to an Indianapolis family to a Connecticut antique dealer. It hung in a bank building, a library, even a nursing home, and was secreted around the country in apparent attempts to sell it to the highest bidder.

This month, the long, strange trip of the prized parchment valued at up to $40 million came full circle when it was carried by federal marshals back into the same Greek-revival Capitol from which it was taken.

"North Carolina's stolen Bill of Rights may have been out of state for nearly 140 years," Gov. Michael Easley declared as he took custody of the fragile animal skin, "but never out of mind."

Tar Heel tenacity was, in part, behind Washington's decision to send the 13 original states handwritten copies of the Bill of Rights.

North Carolina and Rhode Island refused to ratify the Constitution until certain individual rights were guaranteed. What Washington sent them by courier was a list of 12, 10 of which would become known as the Bill of Rights. (Notably, the rights to free speech, religion and the press that we know as the First Amendment were No. 3 on the original list.) It was signed by John Adams, the first vice president.

In April 1865, with Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman turning his sights on Raleigh, Gov. Zebulon Vance ordered the state's archives moved out of the city. Apparently, the order didn't include the Bill of Rights.

Gen. Judson Kilpatrick's 3rd Cavalry Division took Raleigh on April 13, a day before the nation's attention would turn to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

Newspaper accounts tell of a state Capitol in confusion, with troops ransacking records and seizing strategically valuable lighthouse lenses that had been stored by the Confederates in the building's rotunda.

Capitol historian Raymond Beck says Union soldiers apparently used old state records to wrap these lenses for transport to Washington.

Beck thinks one of those soldiers "recognized the document and its value and slipped it inside his shirt or jacket and made off with it."

In 1877, the secretary of state and treasurer of North Carolina apparently learned that the document was in Indianapolis and traveled there to try to get it back.

The case lay dormant for two more decades, when the Raleigh News & Observer reprinted an article from the Indianapolis News. The headline blared: "Stolen Historical Relic Taken from the Capitol here by a Yankee."

According to the article, a News reporter found the Bill of Rights hanging on a wall at the Indianapolis Board of Trade Building. Charles A. Shotwell, a wholesale merchant, told the reporter he had purchased the document from a Union soldier from Tippecanoe, Ohio, who had been in Sherman's army.

"I believe it cost me $5," he said. The reporter described the document as 28 inches wide and 32 inches long.

"It is perfectly preserved, the ink in some places still a jet black, but for the most part a rusty brown; the handwriting is admirably plain, free from all flourishes and regular as copper plate."

After receiving an appeal from his North Carolina counterpart, Indiana Secretary of State William D. Owen offered to do what he could to broker the document's return.

"Mr. Shotwell is a stranger to me," he wrote, "but my judgment is, that with genteel and courteous treatment, he will not be unreasonable in the matter."

Apparently, the Tar Heels were not genteel and courteous enough.

Nothing more was heard until 1925, when a representative of the Shotwell family offered to the sell the document to the state for a "reasonable honorarium," explaining that Shotwell had obtained it "in the belief that it was contraband of war."

Robert House, chairman of North Carolina's historical commission, was curt in his reply, saying the state would not ransom its own property.

"So long as it remains away from the official custody of North Carolina," he wrote, "it will serve as a memorial of individual theft."

Over the next seven decades, the document was displayed prominently in a bank building, a library, over the Shotwell mantle and in a nursing home where one family member lived out her days.

The Shotwell heirs made several attempts to sell the document, but reputable auction houses backed out over questions about the chain of title.

In 1995, Washington attorney John Richardson wrote a letter to Betty McCain, North Carolina's secretary of cultural resources, to negotiate the sale of "the article." It was all very cloak-and-dagger.

Richardson said the sellers were insisting upon anonymity and warned that "they are nervous and, if they believe their identity may be disclosed against their will, they might act in a manner which will not be in any of our interests." (It was later revealed that he was acting on behalf of Wayne Pratt, a Connecticut antique dealer and guest appraiser on PBS' "Antiques Road Show.")

Richardson told McCain that his clients had received estimates of $3 million to $10 million for the document. Again, the state refused to deal.

In early 2000, Pratt and Robert Matthews, a Connecticut real estate and software investor, bought the document from the Shotwell heirs for $200,000.

Later that year, four men and a woman showed up at the offices of the First Federal Congress Project at George Washington University with a large cardboard box. Project director Charlene Bickford and her team had been working to collect and document all correspondence to and from the nascent government, and the visitors -- who declined to identify themselves -- wanted her opinion of their parcel.

Bickford examined the document in the ornate gold frame with the cardboard backing and immediately recognized it as a Bill of Rights, with the distinctive handwriting of one of the clerks of the first Congress.

"It looks very much like an original copy," she told the visitors, advising them that five states no longer had their copies. New York's and Georgia's were lost in fires, while North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Maryland were all believed to have had theirs stolen.

On March 18, 2003, a courier sat inside a Philadelphia coffee shop awaiting a call. He had a cell phone and a large cardboard box.

Pratt's people had contacted the National Constitution Center, then under construction in Philadelphia, about purchasing an original copy of the Bill of Rights. What he didn't know was that the center had alerted authorities.

When the courier finally got the call to bring the document upstairs for authentication, the FBI was waiting.

Comparing the handwriting from Washington's transmittal letter to docketing on the back of the Bill of Rights, experts have concluded that this is North Carolina's original copy. Pratt surrendered his interest to the state, but Matthews continues to fight for his half. Though North Carolina now has the document in its possession, the actual ownership is still an open question in federal court.

Attorney Michael Stratton says the state abandoned the Bill of Rights when it seceded, and that U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle's Aug. 4 order transferring custody to the state was a "renegade" act that violated three of the rights the parchment guarantees. He plans to sue the state to get either the document or the money.

For now, the faded, flaking artifact sits in a vault at the state archives, just a block from the old Capitol.

Gov. Easley would like to see someone try to take it again.

As he told reporters: "We've got the Highway Patrol locked and loaded."


Bill of Rights Seized by FBI

by David Hewett

On March 18, an undercover FBI agent in Philadelphia, posing as a philanthropist seeking to buy material for a museum, managed to recover a copy of the Bill of Rights allegedly stolen by a Union soldier at the close of the Civil War.

The handwritten document, one of 14 made in 1789, went missing from Raleigh, North Carolina, in April 1865, when General William Tecumseh Sherman's troops occupied the city.

The document lists 12 proposed amendments, only ten of which remained when it was formally ratified on December 15, 1791. Over the years, five of the documents issued to the original 13 states have disappeared.

Authorities believe the ex-Union soldier sold the North Carolina copy in Ohio about a year after it was stolen, in 1866. It disappeared for almost 60 years, until 1925, when someone offered to sell it back to North Carolina authorities. The offer was spurned and characterized as paying ransom for a stolen object.

Another offer in 1995 met the same fate. According to a March 23 Associated Press story, the FBI said the 1995 offer came with a threat: if the name of the person offering to sell the document was released, the document would be damaged. (Some estimates of its monetary value have ranged as high as $30 million.)

The seizure on March 18 came after a broker representing the seller first contacted New York City document dealer Seth Kaller. Kaller sent the broker on to officials at Philadelphia's newest museum, the National Constitution Center, slated to open in July. The broker offered them the copy for $4 million.

According to Liz Barszczewski of the National Constitution Center, "We were very much out front about this. When we were approached about purchasing the document, we went through with all the standard steps involved, including seeking authentication.

"We didn't see the original document; they showed us photos. We said it would have to go to a document examiner for authentication. He's the one who made the suggestion that it probably wasn't Pennsylvania's missing copy but North Carolina's."

Jim Green of the Library Company of Philadelphia did examine the document, but the discovery proving it was the long lost copy from North Carolina was made at George Washington University's First Federal Congress Project, and that very much involved project director Charlene Bangs Bickford.

It wasn't Bickford's first contact with North Carolina's copy. Bickford said, "In early 2000 we got a telephone call, from a lawyer I believe, asking us to look at a document. He made an appointment, and two men, a blonde woman, and two armed guards arrived. They first showed us photos, then brought out the framed manuscript Bill of Rights, which had been in a cardboard packing case.

"Well, we are probably the most qualified people in the country to authenticate a Bill of Rights, and this one appeared to be authentic. There were fourteen made, all written in longhand by one of two clerks of the House or one clerk of the Senate. Actually, it's wrong to call them copies. All are original documents signed by both Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg, the first Speaker of the House, and John Adams, as vice president and president of the Senate.

"Six states have lost theirs, including Delaware, which ratified it right on the document and sent it back to Washington, where it's now in the National Archives. Of the five others that are missing, two, from New York and Georgia, supposedly were lost in fires.

"Three of us looked at the framed document, and it certainly appeared authentic to our eyes; the handwriting matched those on the others we had seen. There were some condition problems, some fading, but the big problem was that it had been glued down on board. I told them it would have to be lifted from the board by a very expert paper conservator.

"There was something very wrong about the group. They refused to identify themselves and would not tell us anything about where they got the document or where it had been. I told them that the document had been taken from one of the states, and they should be discussing that with the authorities. They left.

"I felt terrible. We should have had authorities here to stop them. I couldn't believe we had just had one of the originals in our office and now it was gone, and we didn't even know who had brought it to us.

"Then two months ago, we got a call from Jim Green of the Library Company of Philadelphia. He said he had one of the originals of the Bill of Rights in for authentication. There was a notebook with information about the originals and a copy of the docketing on the back of it.

"It was the copy we had seen two years earlier, but now it had been removed from the board backing. The notebook contained information I had supplied two years earlier. The minute we had our hands on the docketing, we knew whose it was. Actually, Helen Veit, our handwriting expert, recognized it first. `It's the one from North Carolina,' she said.

"We matched the docketing handwriting with the docketing on two letters written by George Washington to the governor of North Carolina. One of those letters actually concerned the Bill of Rights."

Liz Barszczewski of the National Constitution Center told what happened next. "Our president and CEO, Joseph Torsella, called Governor Rendell and told him about the document. Our governor called the governor of North Carolina, Governor Easley, who contacted the FBI and the U.S. Attorney."

On March 13, Chief United States District Judge Terrence Boyle of Raleigh signed a seizure warrant (which remained sealed and not accessible to the press at this writing). The parties met in Philadelphia five days later, and the FBI agent seized the document when a courier delivered it.

According to some reports, a fake wire transfer of $4 million was completed before a courier delivered the document.

"We executed a warrant for the seizure on behalf of North Carolina," Rich Manieri of the Philadelphia U.S. Attorney's Office said.

Had any charges been filed in Pennsylvania? "No, but it's the subject of an ongoing investigation," Manieri replied.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Higdon Jr. of the Eastern District of North Carolina said, "The document is now in the custody of the FBI."

Had any charges been filed? "No," Higdon said, and added, "The investigation is continuing."

The owner of the document is Woodbury, Connecticut, and Nantucket, Massachusetts, dealer Wayne Pratt. Pratt is an Antiques Roadshow regular whose advertisements run monthly on the back cover of The Magazine Antiques.

Pratt's attorney, Hugh Stevens, of Everett, Gaskins, Hancock & Stevens in Raleigh, said that his law firm was notified by federal prosecutors on March 25 that Pratt was the target of a criminal investigation.

Attorney Stevens released this statement on March 28. "On our advice, Mr. Pratt will not grant interviews or answer any questions about this matter while it is in litigation. Therefore, we ask that you afford him the courtesy of not attempting to contact him."

Also on March 28, Stevens filed a "Motion to Vacate Sealing Order and For Entry of Order to Show Cause" with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. In that motion, Stevens asserted that Pratt is "not aware of any definitive or conclusive evidence demonstrating that the seized document is, in fact, the same document that was once in the State of North Carolina's possession...."

On April 1, attorney Hugh Stevens spoke with us. He said the motion to vacate the sealing would be heard by Judge Boyle the following day, and he hoped for a speedy resolution. "We don't know what evidence was supplied to the court [that ordered both the seizure and the sealing of the record]. We are simply puzzled why Mr. Pratt is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation. We take the position that the document was lawfully in his possession."

Wayne Pratt was not the individual who handed over the document at the Philadelphia seizure, Hugh Stevens said. "It was an employee or courier," he said. He would not reveal how long Pratt had owned the document.

Attorney Stevens was unaware that the FBI claimed that the person trying to sell the document in 1995 had threatened to damage it if his name was made public.

"You have to take what the FBI says with a grain of salt," Stevens said. "For instance, one report says the FBI was incredulous when the document was delivered in a cardboard box. Well, technically it was in a cardboard box, but it was in a special carton Mr. Pratt normally uses to hold fine art."

The FBI supervisor-in-charge at the Raleigh office, Michael Saylor, told us on April 2 that they could not comment on the alleged threat in 1995 because it was part of a continuing criminal investigation.

The application for the seizure warrant used by the U.S. Attorney must have contained false information, Hugh Stevens stated in a March 28 memorandum in support of his motion. The application stated that the document was in North Carolina. "It was not," the memorandum stated, "and it is obvious the U.S. Attorney's office must have known as much because they dispatched the Federal Bureau of Investigation to Pennsylvania to seize the property."

On National Public Radio's Morning Edition show of April 3, North Carolina's Attorney General Roy Cooper stated, "There's no question in my mind that this is the original Bill of Rights given to the people of North Carolina and that it was stolen. We will defend it against all claims, including antiques dealers from Connecticut who are trying to make a fast buck off of it."

The producers of Antiques Roadshow have decided not to invite Pratt to this summer's tapings. Judy Matthews of WGBH told M.A.D., "As is our policy, if any of our guest appraisers are involved in a legal matter that may reflect on their professional conduct or business practice, we reserve the right to decline to have them participate on Antiques Roadshow, and in this case, this is what we're faced with." Matthews did add that after the disposition of the case, WGBH may revisit its decision.

Attorney Hugh Stevens said U.S. Attorney Frank D. Whitney of the Eastern District of North Carolina instituted an in rem action, The United States of America v. The North Carolina Original Bill of Rights, which will determine the provenance of the document and seek its forfeiture.

North Carolina is a tough state to tangle with when it comes to documents, said veteran author and document and autograph dealer Kenneth Rendell of New York City and Boston.

Rendell offered these words of caution. "I won't buy any documents involving North Carolina. The state is notorious in going after documents that may have been owned by them at one time.

"It's not a fair and rational decision, but North Carolina will use all the legal forces they have to win a case. If they can get jurisdiction, you can expect a huge legal bill to fight them. They spent a lot of money to appeal a decision involving a measly thousand-dollar document. The poor owner couldn't afford that kind of legal costs and gave up.

"If anyone offers us a group of documents that appear to have come from North Carolina, and there's any chance that they may have been state-owned at one time, we don't buy them. Period. We tell the seller that they're worthless, you might as well throw them away.

"All the experienced document dealers know this fact."

In an odd development, on March 23, June Griffin, leader of the private Bill of Rights Committee for Tennessee, said the Volunteer State should share the historic document with North Carolina, or at least get a copy of it. Griffin said North Carolina included Tennessee at the time.

North Carolina's Governor, Michael Easley, suggested Griffin had been partaking perhaps too liberally of some of Tennessee's famous whiskey. North Carolina's deputy secretary for archives and history noted that Tennessee wasn't part of North Carolina when the Bill of Rights was ratified.


Back to Main Page

Back to Sampling the Site Page