Case of the purloined Bill of Rights is solved - after 140 years

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

US Attorney Frank Whitney's heart was beating fast. Gov. Mike Easley, a man known to take a few speedy turns on the NASCAR track, couldn't keep his fingers from trembling a little as he touched the faded parchment that was once handled by George Washington himself. State Archivist Jeff Crow knew the document would cap his career, and found himself fairly speechless.

Late Thursday, North Carolina's copy of the Bill of Rights - the very copy that swayed the state's vote to ratify the US Constitution - returned to the state capitol for the first time in 140 years.

It was stolen from a case in the capitol in 1865 by one of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's Union "marauders" during the Civil War, on his way back home from razing Atlanta. In 2003, the FBI recovered the North Carolina copy in a sting in Philadelphia. Until last week, it had been in federal custody, its future unclear.

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This is partly a cloak-and-dagger story of how the founding words of the country became embroiled in a real-life twist on the movie "National Treasure," involving wealthy Yankee antique barons and a nail-biting FBI sting.

But the document's transfer from US custody to state vaults is also a victory for generations of state officials, who can mark the end of an unusual legal fight testing one of the Bill's own amendments and a still-standing 1862 order by Abraham Lincoln outlawing looting by US soldiers.

"For the Bill to be returned to the very building it was stolen from right at the end of a bloody civil war has tested not only the meaning of the Constitution, but also honors George Washington's wishes and Abraham Lincoln's wishes as well," says Mr. Whitney.

When Sherman's troops laid over in Raleigh, N.C., in 1865 - as Lee handed over his sword at Appomattox and Lincoln was assassinated - they didn't just pilfer chickens and possum toddy beer. One man, possibly from the Fifth Ohio Cavalry Regiment, rolled up the Bill of Rights and stuffed it in his knapsack.

Back home the soldier, whose name is unknown, sold the document to a Charles Shotwell. "I was living at Troy, Ohio, at the close of the war, 32 years ago," Mr. Shotwell said in the Indianapolis News on May 10, 1897. "I believe it cost me $5."

The Shotwells tried to sell the Bill back to North Carolina in 1897 and in 1925, but were refused - a principled stand that North Carolina maintained through out the document's absence.

Though the Bill's value has been estimated at $30 million today, it is, to the nation, priceless. After North Carolina became the only state to vote against joining the Union, the Bill, transcribed by three congressional clerks and personally postmarked by then-Vice President John Adams, changed the Tarheels' minds.

Some 210 years later, it was on the open market.

Two Connecticut Yankees bought it for $200,000 in the 1990s. One was well-known "Antiques Roadshow" appraiser Wayne Pratt. The other was Robert Matthews, a Jay Gatsby-like figure whose real estate dealings with Connecticut Gov. John Rowland eventually led to Mr. Rowland's resignation.

In 2003, Messrs. Matthews and Pratt, through lawyers, approached the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia about selling the Bill of Rights. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell called Governor Easley to talk about joining forces to buy it. Instead, Easley called in his backup, Mr. Crow and Mr. Whitney, and in the span of five days a sting was planned.

After inspecting a real cashier's check for $4 million, a go-between lawyer was taken completely by surprise by FBI agents a few days later in Philadelphia.

Pratt was suspended from "Antiques Roadshow" but was later praised by prosecutors for quickly giving up his claim to the document. Matthews continues to fight, filing a lawsuit in Pennsylvania and vowing to appeal last week's federal district court decision to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. He claims the Bill was legal war booty, taken from a state that had seceded from the Union and given up its right to constitutional protections. He also says he has a right to a jury trial, per the Seventh Amendment.

For his part, Whitney has argued the 11th Amendment - namely, that federal courts can't intervene in a lawsuit against a state government. Judge Terrence Boyle agreed in a nine-page ruling on Thursday, ordering that the Bill be "immediately delivered" to Easley, who took possession of it at 5:30 p.m. under heavy guard by state troopers. Matthews's chances to recoup the Bill are greatly diminished, experts say.

"North Carolina property law is now the substantive law that governs this," says Whitney.

In a hushed, impromptu ceremony, a dozen political leaders surrounded one of America's founding documents on Thursday, much as their forebears may have in 1789. Before the Bill was ushered to the Archives building for conservation, they were allowed to touch a corner of the sheepskin parchment. Archivists said natural emollients on their hands would preserve the faded but still readable document.

"It's an amazing journey," says Jeff Crow, chief archivist.

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