Stealing History and Two Indicted Men: Museum Thefts Leave Me Wondering

Benjamin Franklin

For those of you who have not been following this story, I’ll give you the short recap:

Two New Yorkers, one 63, the other, 24, have been charged with stealing historic documents from various museums (I won’t even glorify them by publishing their names). You can read more about this crazy story here at http://www.edition.cnn.com/2011/CRIME/07/28/historical.document.theft/index.html for more details and information. However, to continue the recap, some of the documents stolen include historical documents from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, a letter from 1780 from Benjamin Franklin to John Paul Jones from the New York Historical Society, and 60 documents from the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, including a land grant signed by Abraham Lincoln (source: The Baltimore Sun from the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s office).

Stealing a letter written by one of history’s finest (and a personal favorite), Benjamin Franklin, is awfully bold (in addition to a stupid, selfish, and imprudent decision). When FBI investigators broke into the 63-year-old’s New York apartment, they made a comment that people who steal our nation’s history will be dealt with swiftly. Let’s hope so.

This story left me concerned for our museums that house our most precious documents; how many artifacts, letters, and documents have been “lifted” over the years? Luckily, a gentleman from the Maryland Historical Society saw one of the men swipe a text from the library and called police. The men were subsequently indicted. This story is strange, indeed.

When it comes to preserving letters, as someone who has a fondness for writing feels compelled to discuss—especially the most treasured and heartfelt words on paper to people we know, love, trust, or respect (or all of the above)—the thought of these works being taken by someone to do God-only-knows-what-with is a bit scary.

This summer I’ve been catching up on reading, movies, and some TV; I’m engrossed in the HBO series John Adams right now and have been particularly captivated by the relationship between President Adams and his wife, Abigail. I knew very little about the two, but through research, have found that the pair was very much in love and best friends throughout their lives. Some of the letters that they wrote to each other are archived and we have the distinct pleasure of learning about people from history through their letters or their journals.

Queen Elizabeth I, one of the great women of history, was a consummate writer. I found some of her original writings at this site: http://www.luminarium.org/renlit/elizabib.htm. These works are captivating. When writers try to piece together history, they need these written letters, poems, speeches, and journals to help them understand and appreciate the language and happenings of the day and associate that with the time in which the people lived. If we didn’t have such things, how would we know, first-hand, what life was like?

Perhaps that’s why this story caused me to pause—the thought of stealing historical memorabilia and letters and documents is nervy.

When Ken Burns was making his mini-series on the Civil War, he apparently received letters from the war that friends, relatives, spouses, and lovers had kept safely locked away, but were now willing to share. One particular letter made its way to him—a love letter from Major Sullivan Ballou to his wife where he eloquently and beautifully says goodbye to her knowing his chances of survival are slim. That letter gives me goosebumps. (To read it, visit http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/text-of-sullivan-ballous-letter/2011/07/19/gIQALIfKQI_story.html .)

Preserving our historical documents and artifacts is imperative to our understanding of our past. These two thieves have a collection that the Baltimore Sun reported as being “truly breathtaking in its scope.” Let’s hope these men not only face the music, but also return ALL that was not theirs to take in the first place.

In the words of Benjamin Franklin: “We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid.”

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