Recovering North Carolina’s Bill of Rights

Author: 
Fay Mitchell

The caper and recovery of North Carolina’s Bill of Rights started more than a century ago and involved soldiers, citizens, antique dealers, governors and the FBI.

A triumphant Union soldier seeking the spoils of war started it…well really, it started more than 200 years ago when North Carolina insisted on the addition of a Bill of Rights to protect individual liberties before ratifying the newly written constitution of the emerging United States. President George Washington sent for approval handwritten copies of the Bill of Rights to each of the 11 states, plus North Carolina and Rhode Island, which had yet to ratify the constitution.

It was North Carolina’s copy of the Bill of Rights that was stolen by a Union soldier in spring 1865 in the waning days of the Civil War. It would be 138 years until the purloined parchment would come back home, and five more years, in 2008, until the document was declared to be the exclusive property of North Carolina.

Union forces were occupying Raleigh and the Capitol grounds as the Civil War drew to an end. The Bill of Rights was removed from the State Capitol where it had been kept with the state’s archival records. A solider took the document home to Tippecanoe, Ohio and in 1866 sold it for $5 to Charles Shotwell of Troy, Ohio.

A newspaper story about Shotwell caught the attention of North Carolina Secretary of State Cyrus Thompson in 1897. Thompson tried to have Shotwell return the document as a public record that belonged to the people of North Carolina. Shotwell refused to give it up without payment. In 1925 an agent associated with Shotwell’s son again tried to sell the document to the state, but the secretary of the N.C. Historical Commission refused, insisting that the document was the rightful property of North Carolina. The document subsequently disappeared.

For 70 years the document’s location was unknown, but in 1995 Washington, D.C. attorney John L. Richardson offered to sell it to North Carolina again. Once again North Carolina held to principal and refused to buy what was rightfully the property of the state. It was later discovered that Richardson’s unnamed client was antiques dealer Wayne Pratt, a frequent guest on the PBS television series, “Antiques Roadshow.” Pratt had bought the Bill of Rights from the Shotwell heirs in 2000.

In 2003, Pratt tried to sell the document to the new National Constitution Center in Philadelphia for $4 million, claiming its origins could not be verified. However, the center contacted the First Federal Congress Project at George Washington University, which verified that the document was without question North Carolina’s copy of the Bill of Rights. Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, who served on the center’s board, contacted North Carolina Governor Mike Easley, proposing that the two states share the cost of the purchase. North Carolina again refused an offer to buy back its copy of the Bill of Rights.

Governor Mike Easley had Attorney General Roy Cooper to work with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Raleigh to obtain the stolen document. The FBI set up a sting operation including agent Robert Wittman, who specialized in recovering valuable documents and works of art. National Constitution Center President Joseph Torsella agreed to cooperate and drew up a check for $4 million to pay for the stolen Bill of Rights. They met John Richardson, who continued to represent the seller, Wayne Pratt, at a Philadelphia law firm where Wittman pretended to be a wealthy philanthropist. Richardson inspected the paperwork and the check, then made the call to have the Bill of Rights delivered to him. After an antique dealer associated with Pratt inspected the document, someone in the room gave the signal for the five waiting FBI agents to seize the document.

The Bill of Rights was later flown back to Raleigh on the jet of then FBI Director Robert Mueller. While Pratt relinquished his claim on the document, his business partner, Robert V. Matthews, continued to claim co-ownership. In January 2004, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina ordered that the document be delivered to the State of North Carolina but should be held by U.S. Marshals until the case was over. In August 2005, North Carolina was awarded possession of the document and in March 2008, a Wake County Superior Court ended all remaining claims to the document and declared North Carolina to be the exclusive owner of its original Bill of Rights.

The document toured seven cities in North Carolina in 2007 and now is housed in the vault of the State Archives of North Carolina.