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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 In the past year, the agency's involvement in the secure transport of important historical documents have increased.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."