Historical and Contemporary Thefts of Lincolniana

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Below is a post from Bryan Whitledge that first appeared on the Society of American Archivists Security Roundtable listserv on February 12, 2016 about current and historical thefts from historical institutions. If you have an issue you would like to write about for this blog series, please email archivesissues@gmail.com.

Today is the 207th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. It also marks two months since a plaster sculpture of Lincoln’s hand by George Grey Barnard went missing from a Kankakee, Illinois museum. The story made national headlines, including a New York Times piece from January 3. As the museum director noted, the security in the little museum was far from ideal due to budget constraints. This isn’t the first time that Lincoln-related materials have gone missing, including other sculptures.

In 1890, sculptor Leonard Volk reported that his own cast of Lincoln’s left hand was stolen, he believed with malicious intent. Volk was using the casts as a model for a Life statue of Lincoln at the time. A little over 100 years later, in 1992, the Glessner House Museum in Chicago had bronze castings of Volk’s 1860 lifemask and hands taken in what appeared to be an after-hours, insider job. A week later, the casts were returned to the Glessner House entrance anonymously in the middle of the night.

As for documents, there have been numerous instances of Lincoln papers being stolen. In no particular order, these include:

1)      Signed Lincoln letters among $5 million worth of materials taken from the Chicago Polish Museum at some point years ago in an insider job and returned in 2012,

2)      Documents taken from the National Archives by Charles Merrill Mount around 1984-87, which were recovered in 1987 after Goodspeed’s shop in Boston alerted authorities,

3)      Nearly 200 documents stolen between 1993 and 1996 by Sean Brown, a researcher involved with the Lincoln Legal Papers Project who gained the confidence of various municipal archives and surreptitiously stole the documents. The theft was discovered by other members of the Lincoln Legal Papers Project who recognized documents when they were purchased at auction. More documents were recovered in 1998,

4)      And, several Civil War documents returned to NARA in 2011 that had been stolen from War Department archives before the establishment of the National Archives.

The value of Lincoln-related materials means that institutions large and small, all over the country have been victims of theft for the past 150 years. With this large number of thefts concerning Lincolniana, today is a good day for us to think about what it means to protect our collections. It’s also a good day to think about how archivists, historians, dealers, and other professionals have been instrumental in returning the documents to their institutions.

And for those more inclined to celebrate Darwin’s birthday instead of Lincoln’s on February 12, there are plenty of cautionary tales involving Darwin materials such as the Transy book heist in 2004 and a case in Nova Scotia of a returned “On the Origin of Species” last year.

Bryan Whitledge is the Reformatting and Imaging Manager at the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University. He is the co-chair of the Security Roundtable.