Sometime between 1937 and 1945, a former employee of the Massachusetts state archives made off with a historic treasure trove.
Dozens of documents and letters detailing the Revolutionary War written by George Washington, Paul Revere, Benjamin Franklin, and Benedict Arnold, among others, vanished in the theft.
While the discovery — and an arrest — was made in 1950, it was only last year that federal investigators got word that one of the long lost dispatches, a 1780 letter by Alexander Hamilton, was found.
Now, with the document in FBI possession, Massachusetts prosecutors are working to get it back where it belongs, they say.
This week, U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling’s office filed the initial paperwork to set in motion the legal process of reacquiring it after the letter turned up at a Virginia auction house in November, according to court files obtained by Boston.com.
We have just received advice from New York through different channels that the enemy are making an embarkation with which they menace the French fleet and army. Fifty transports are said to have gone up the Sound to take in troops and proceed directly to Rhode Island.
The General is absent and may not return before evening. Though this may be only a demonstration yet as it may be serious, I think it best to forward it without waiting the General’s return.
We have different accounts from New York of an action in the West Indies in which the English lost several ships — I am inclined to credit them.
I am, My Dear Marquis, with the truest affection.
Y. Most Obed.
Aide De Camp
Hamilton, an orphan who became a member of Washington’s wartime staff in 1777, would go on to become the country’s first Secretary of the Treasury and a renowned legal mind.
In all that’s changed in the United States during the decades since the letter was stolen, so too has the prominence of Hamilton’s stature as a Founding Father.
The extremely popular Broadway musical based on his life, “Hamilton,” launched in 2015, which catapulted the historical figure to mainstream stardom more than two hundred years after he was shot and killed in a duel.
Auctioneers estimated the letter could have gone for between $25,000 and $35,000, according to the legal complaint. (It is not mentioned if Hamilton’s ascension to celebrity status is a factor in the estimated value.)
After the stolen items were reported missing in 1950, efforts to retrieve the papers saw mixed results.
Then-state Attorney General Francis Kelly sent a letter to rare book and document dealers on Feb. 27 that year, telling them to be on the lookout.
Unlike today’s hefty price tag, some at the time speculated that the goods wouldn’t rake in much for potential sellers.
“How much would the documents earn for a thief? Probably very little,” reads an Associated Press report from March 18, 1950.
Said thief could expect “only about 10 percent” of what a dealer would charge, the then-director of the Harvard University Library told a reporter. Another expert claimed an “ordinary” Washington letter was worth $800, and others, with more historically significant contents, could garner over $1,000.
According to court filings, some documents, though not all, have been recovered over the years.
But on Nov. 15, an auction house in Alexandria, Virginia received the Hamilton letter from a potential seller in South Carolina.
A researcher there then went on Founders.archives.gov — a website maintained by the National Archives and The University of Virginia Press that’s often used to verify document authenticity — learned that it was missing from the Massachusetts archives, and contacted the FBI, the complaint says.
Prosecutors say the family that sought to sell the letter believes a late relative received it from a dealer in Syracuse, New York during the 1940’s.
“When the relative died, his collection, including (the letter), was divided among his children,” the filing says.
No charges in the civil case have been filed against the family. Rather, on Wednesday, prosecutors in their complaint listed the letter itself as the defendant — a process used in federal forfeiture cases.
Procedurally, a potential owner of an item up for forfeiture has up to 60 days to file a claim once a public notice is posted or up to 35 days after receiving the notice, whichever is earlier, court documents show. How exactly the case proceeds depends upon what happens within that period.
Correction, May 20: A previous version of this story incorrectly listed the website for the government’s archives. Boston.com regrets the error.