Tracking History: Author Tells Story of Stolen Document
“I‘d be hard-pressed to make this up,” says David Howard, author “Lost Rights: The Misadventures of a Stolen American Relic,” the incredible story of the 138-year journey of North Carolina’s missing copy of the Bill of Rights. “It sounded so wacky right from the start.”
What began as an anonymous act of vandalism and theft by a Union solider in 1865 ended after a twisted, sometimes madcap journey in 2003, in an FBI sting when a renowned antique furniture dealer and celebrated appraiser on PBS’ “Antiques Roadshow” tried to sell the historic parchment for $4 million.
At The Country Bookshop’s “Meet the Author” event on Monday, July 19, at 2 p.m., in the auditorium at North Penick Village in Southern Pines, David Howard promises “an action-paced presentation that covers some of the key twists and turns in the extremely twisty-turny story. It’s a story for anybody interested in a good yarn.”
“Lost Rights,” which came out this month, has already received rave reviews. The New York Times calls it “Antiques Beach Reading … one of this year’s page turners.” “David Howard’s true-life tale reads like a thriller set backstage at ‘Antiques Roadshow,’” wrote another critic. “It’s a quest fit for Indiana Jones,” wrote a third.
“It’s a “marvelously compelling read,” according to Publishers Weekly in the starred review of their Pick of the Week. “It is an intricate tale involving high-powered antique dealers, businessmen, historians, manuscript experts, auction houses, elite attorneys, governors of three states, the FBI, a U.S. Attorney’s office, and Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center. The tale pulsates with dynamic personalities greatly affected by their connection to one of the rarest, most influential and valuable documents in American history.”
More than two centuries ago, the Bill of Rights, now treasured as “freedom’s laundry list” and the “firewall to tyranny,” was denounced as “flimsy bromides” by opponents to North Carolina’s proposed Declaration of Rights. So committed was the state to the “great principles of civil and religious liberty, and the unalienable rights of the people” that in August 1788, North Carolina refused to join the Union if guarantees of individual freedom weren’t added to the Constitution.
More than a year later, the 11 states that had already ratified the Constitution, along with North Carolina and Rhode Island, which had not, each received a copy of the 1789 Proposed Amendments to the Constitution of the United States. The 12 amendments, composed by James Madison, were handwritten in longhand on parchment and signed by Vice President John Adams as president of the Senate. Triumphant in its quest for what would one day be known as the Bill of Rights, North Carolina finally voted to become one of the United States in December 1789. (The first two of the 12 amendments —federal representation based on population, and the salaries of members of Congress — were not approved.)
The 1789 Proposed Amendments was stored in the secretary of state’s office in Raleigh until that fateful day 76 years later, when a souvenir-hunting Union soldier from the 94th Ohio Volunteer Infantry under General Sherman’s command ransacked the State House and took the document as a “spoil of war.” Although the U.S. government had issued a “no-looting” directive in 1863, and the U.S. Army added a special order in June 1865, a “sort of legal dragnet, intended to round up the souvenirs collected by Sherman’s troops,” one of the rarest and most treasured artifacts in American history would not be returned to the state of North Carolina for 138 years.
“The extent of the complexity and drama (of the saga) weren’t clear at the beginning,” says Howard, a newspaper reporter who became a freelance journalist in 1996. He got the assignment from Connecticut Magazine to cover the story of the 2003 FBI sting, which involved major players based in that state, including the “larger-than-life” antiques dealer and PBS “Antiques Roadshow” celebrity appraiser Wayne Pratt, a “major force in the world of antiques,” and his friend and partner in the Bill of Rights purchase and attempted sale, multimillionaire Bob Matthews, a fast-talking real estate developer in Nantucket and West Palm Beach, Fla.
In December 2005, more than 2 ½ years after the Bill of Rights was returned to North Carolina, Howard was amazed that no one had really figured out what happened for all those 138 years that it had been missing.
“I had a gut feeling there might be a book in this,” he says.
Over the next three years, Howard crisscrossed the country, interviewing anyone who had ever been in contact with the “holy relic,” as archivists call it, tracking down evidence which allowed him to piece the story together. He was the only journalist Wayne Pratt ever talked to, meeting with him a dozen times just weeks before Pratt’s sudden death in 2007.
“It was gumshoe stuff,” Howard says. “There was a lot of feet on the pavement physically chasing after information. I literally retraced the movements of the object. It was like peeling the layers of an onion. In the beginning I was not even aware of how many people’s hands it passed through. It was a really challenging story to write because it involved a lot of people with a lot of money.”
North Carolina’s Bill of Rights was purchased in 1866 for $5 by Charles Shotwell from a former Ohio solider. He admired “all that fancy writing as a remarkable piece of penmanship.” When he returned to Indianapolis, he mounted the parchment on cardboard, framed it, and hung it in his home. Throughout his life, Shotwell asserted the document was “contraband of war” and lawfully his, even when North Carolina’s secretary of state asked for its return in 1897.
After his father’s death in 1925, Shotwell’s son attempted and failed to sell the document to North Carolina, even for a “reasonable honorarium.” The state had and continues to have a strict “no-compromise, no-negotiating policy” and demanded its return. But North Carolina’s copy of the Bill of Rights stayed with the family for another 70 years until Shotwell’s granddaughters attempted to sell it in 1991 for an asking price of $3 million.
In 1995, their representative cut the price to $2 million and offered it to North Carolina, again without success. Over the next four years the sisters dropped the price to $1 million, then $500,000. Finally, in 2000, Wayne Pratt and Bob Matthews bought it for $200,000. Their dream of flipping it for $5 million set them on a crooked path that lead right into an FBI sting three years later. It is considered “one of the greatest recoveries of historic information and intellectual property the FBI had ever made.”
David Howard, a native of Andover, Conn, graduated from Marietta College in Ohio. After writing for Connecticut Magazine, he became a full-time freelancer, writing for Backpacker, National Geographic Adventure, Men’s Journal and Travel + Leisure, among others. In 2004 he became an editor at Backpacker, where his team won two National Magazine Awards, the first ever for the magazine. In 2008 he moved to Bicycling magazine, where he is now executive editor. He lives in Emmaus, Pa., with his wife, Ann Quigley, and their son, Vaughn.
For information, call The Country Bookshop at (910) 692-3211.
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