History in Custody
The U.S. Marshals Service Takes Possession
of North Carolina's Copy of the Bill of Rights
At times, the
U.S. Marshals Service is entrusted with objects of national and historic
importance. Agency personnel transported numerous artifacts of national
importance during our Bicentennial exhibit, including Belle Starr's
saddle and Geronimo's Arrest Warrant. The U.S. Marshals' Office of Asset
Forfeiture had custody of Muhammad Ali's World Boxing Championship
Rings. In the past year, the agency's involvement in the secure
transport of important historical documents have increased. The Northern
District of Illinois ensured the safe transfer of rare letters from
President Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth from the National
Archives to the Newberry Library in Chicago. The U.S. Marshals are given
a unique opportunity to safeguard national treasures and have flawlessly
committed themselves. There is no greater example of this commitment
than the recent seizure of North Carolina's copy of the Bill of Rights.
U.S. Marshal Charles Reavis of the Eastern District of North Carolina
applied for a Application and Affidavit For Seizure Warrant to U.S.
District Judge Terrence W. Boyle on March 13, 2003. Under a violation of
Title 23 of the United States Code, Section 15, Marshal Reavis was to
retrieve some stolen items. However, this was not any typical seizure.
The property was one of the rarest documents in American history: North
Carolina's copy of the Bill of Rights, only one of fourteen handwritten
original documents that define the first ten amendments to the U.S.
Constitution. The document was identified by specific markings on the
back of the parchment. According to the Charlotte Observer, three
secretaries wrote the fourteen copies of the historic document on a
large pages measuring 34 by 28 inches. Once finished, George Washington
sent out a copy to each of the original thirteen colonies and one to
Congress. Also seized were two related letters from George Washington to
North Carolina Governor Samuel Johnson. According to the affidavit
accompanying the warrant, the handwritten document was being sold by a
New York collector through an auction gallery. Both Federal and North
Carolina officials were determined to retrieve it - and Judge Boyle
agreed -the document belonged to the people of North Carolina.
The astounding story of the missing copy of the Bill of Rights started
in April 1865. General William Tecumseh Sherman's men marched through
North Carolina battling General Joseph Johnston's Confederate army. When
Johnston's men fell back beyond the state capitol of Raleigh, Sherman's
men quickly moved in. An unnamed Ohio soldier posted at the North
Carolina Office of the Secretary of State in Raleigh took the valuable
parchment home at the close of the Civil War. Similar confiscations by
souvenir-seeking soldiers took place throughout the final months of the
conflict, but few were of this national magnitude. The soldier returned
to his home in Ohio and sold it the following year for five dollars to a
gentleman named Charles A. Shotwell. In 1876, North Carolina officials
traveled to Indianapolis, Indiana as they believed the copy of the Bill
of Rights found its way there. They returned empty-handed. In 1897,
state officials discovered that Shotwell had possession of the document.
He refused to return it, and nothing more was heard until 1925.
"It was like a kidnapping," Marshal Reavis said.
For fifty-nine years, Charles Shotwell preserved the document in his
home. When the old gentleman finally decided to part with it, a
colleague named Charles I. Reid contacted the North Carolina Historical
Commission to offer it for sale. No monetary amount was discussed in
the March 25, 1925 letter. The possessor wished "any reasonable
honorarium." However, it was clear that North Carolinian officials felt
it was stolen property subject to return, and the offer was rejected.
One state official remarked that the missing document represented a
"memorial of individual theft" from the people of North Carolina.
The North Carolina copy of the Bill of Rights resurfaced again in 1995
when a Washington, D.C. attorney, representing several unnamed
individuals, contacted the North Carolina Department of Cultural
Resources. The individuals claimed the document had a worth between 3
and 10 million dollars. As tempting the offer may have been, state
officials could not use North Carolina tax dollars to buy it. The
Charlotte Observer reported that New York collector Wayne E. Pratt
contacted a Philadelphia museum and tried to sell the copy to them. The
collector asked for four million dollars, and the offer was relayed to
Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell. In turn, North Carolina Governor Mike
Easley was notified.
Working through U.S. Attorney Roy Cooper, state officials decided to
seize the document through a federal sting operation. The copies were
examined by the First Federal Congress Project in Washington, D.C., a
part of the George Washington University, and found to be authentic. The
collector signed official contracts at the Philadelphia museum. During
this process, it was found Mr. Pratt offered the documents to North
Carolina in 1995. Once the document returned to North Carolina, it was
entrusted to the custody of Marshal Reavis. In the subsequent Civil
Action No. 5:03-CV-204-BO, "Verified Statement of Interest of State of
North Carolina," it was determined that "North Carolina had no knowledge
of and did not consent to any acts subjecting the property to forfeiture
and is therefore an innocent owner ... . Marshal Reavis and his
deputies in the Eastern District of North Carolina are proud to be
entrusted with an object of such historic importance.
"To be holding a piece of the fabric of the formation of this country
... and to be charged with the protection of it ... it's sacred."