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The Purloined Past

July 2024
3min read

Sticky-fingered specialists have stolen thousands of documents from every size and sort of historical archive.

The list is impressive. It now consists of about three thousand items, including such diverse entries as the original typed manuscript of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, some papers and diaries of the late Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, genealogical and statistical records, maps, lithographs, and hundreds of signed letters, among them missives from George Washington, John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, and Davy Crockett.

Even more disturbing is the fact that the list is incomplete. Major thefts take place regularly, but the SAA cannot keep track of everything. Many archival institutions simply do not report lost or stolen articles—not merely out of embarrassment, but from fear that potential donors might have second thoughts about bundling up great-great-grandfather’s Civil War letters and giving them to an archive for safekeeping. Also, in many instances, losses go unreported because they remain undiscovered. Philip Mason, director of the archives at Wayne State University, has declared that the SAA register may represent as little as 5 per cent of actual losses.

Some people, as might be expected, steal for money. Perhaps the most notorious such thief was one Robert Bradford Murphy, a particularly slick operator who systematically looted the collections of at least one hundred institutions—including the National Archives—in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s and sold the material to manuscript dealers and collectors. When finally apprehended in Detroit by the FBI in 1963, Murphy had six suitcases stuffed with stolen papers, as well as shipping receipts for an additional fifteen cartons of material he had sent to Chicago. He got ten years in federal prison, but his kind has nevertheless increased. “Back then, there was one Murphy,” Mason asserts. “Now we don’t even know how many of them there are.”

Even so, professional thieves account for only part of the problem. Too few of today’s students are trained to respect or properly use original source materials; what they need, some simply take, with a casual ignorance of what they are doing. Then, too, some professional researchers, driven by a kind of proprietary arrogance, convince themselves that they alone truly “appreciate” such material, and it finds its way into the ubiquitous briefcase. Amateur genealogists sometimes stumble upon troves of personal history and spirit them away. (“If these are the family papers, then they belong to the family—right?”) Finally, there are the part-time, unprofessional thieves—graduate students, professors, and even archival employees in search of a little extra money.

The situation has become so serious that many large institutions have installed security systems quite as elaborate (though not always as effective) as the antibomb checkpoints of modern airports. Smaller organizations—local historical societies, and libraries, and the like—have neither the staff nor the resources for such protection. Many do not even realize the dimensions of the problem. The SAA does and, in an attempt to meet it head-on, created a security consultant service in 1975 with the aid of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. For the payment of a fee, such organizations can receive expert guidance in what to do to safeguard what they possess.

One can only wish the SAA Godspeed. Archival losses amount to hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—of dollars. But it is not money that is at stake here, not really. What is involved is at once more abstract and more signficant than money. For what these demented souls are doing when they steal their bits and pieces of precious paper is to sabotage our use of one of the tools necessary to the maintenance of a civilization—the tool of history.



It has long been recognized that some of the most serious crime in the United States is not staged on shadowy urban streets and acted out in violence; rather, it is what has come to be called “white-collar” crime, insidious, subtle, and pervasive, involving everything from simple embezzlement to complicated tinkerings with computers and losses of billions of dollars a year. There are, it often seems, few areas of endeavor not victimized these days by nonviolent scoundrels with larceny in their hearts.

That includes, appallingly enough, the field of history. Take, for example, the picture shown here. It is a copy of an 1848 daguerrean portrait of Edgar Allen Poe. The original daguerreotype is, of course, unique. In 1974 it was stolen from the archives of the University of Virginia and it has never been recovered. As the great ancestor of mystery and detective fictioneers—author of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter,” among other tales—Poe might have relished the curious irony of having had his own portrait snaffled off by person or persons unknown.

Others would not be amused, wryly or otherwise, and for good reason: there are thieves at work in the archives of America, sticky-fingered specialists in the art of purloining the past. Virtually every sort and size of historical archive has been robbed. Three times each year, the Society of American Archivists issues a register of mysteriously vanished documents in the mostly forlorn hope that it will aid in their recovery.

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