At the National Archives in Washington, D.C., inside a large bound book containing hundreds of historical letters, a valuable piece of correspondence from President Abraham Lincoln has remained missing for more than 100 years. Until now.
The former president's letter to the United States Treasury, possibly stolen from the government more than a century ago, was donated to the Archives Thursday by a private Arizona collector. Investigators found a record of its sale during the routine monitoring they conduct to look for missing or stolen documents.
"I want you to know how honored and proud I am to give this handwritten letter … to the people of the United States," said collector Lawrence Cutler at the presentation ceremony in the National Archives.
An Historic Tale of Political Corruption
The story begins with an incident of political corruption.
In 1861, President Lincoln appointed Robert Stevens, the son-in-law of Oregon Senator Edward Baker, to serve as head of the U.S. Mint in San Francisco as a favor to the senator, Lincoln's close personal friend.
After slightly more than two years, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase fired Stevens for dishonest business practices, including paying men who did not even work at the mint.
Just five days before delivering the Gettysburg address, President Lincoln wrote a letter to the Treasury Secretary after Stevens protested his firing. Lincoln was clearly unwilling to excuse Stevens from the charges, but he asked Chase to allow Stevens to review the evidence that led to his firing.
The letter, dated November 14, 1863, reads:
"Hon. Sec. of Treasury
My dear Sir
Mr. Stevens, late Superintendent of the Mint at San Francisco, asks to have a copy, or be permitted to examine, and take extracts, of the evidence upon which he was removed. Please oblige him in one way or the other.
Yours truly, A. Lincoln."
The letter was later indexed and bound to be preserved for official government records. Upon review of the book, only half of the paper on which the letter was written remained, with a torn edge exposing where the other half originally lived, Archives officials say.
The letter stayed missing from the public until Thursday when Cutler, a private collector from Scottsdale, Ariz., donated it to the National Archives.
Cutler, a former homicide investigator, purchased the document from a doctor in Florida. Officials say it is unlikely they will ever know how the document disappeared or who took it.
"[Today] we bring one more extremely valuable document into our holdings," announced James Hastings, director of access programs for the National Archives.
Collectors Pay Big Money for Historical Letters
Morgan Zinmeister, the senior conservator at the National Archives, will now carefully paste the letter into the book using a transparent Japanese paper, matching the torn edge of the newly obtained document to the one still in the book.
Although Cutler would not reveal how much he paid for the letter, he said similar documents have gone for as much as $78,000.
"This really was the cornerstone of my collection," Cutler said. "Certainly the most expensive and the most dear."
Cutler often loans the contents of his collection to museums and other venues so that the public can appreciate his artifacts. He also presents other valuable presidential documents to his wife's fifth grade class to help teach the students about American history. His collection includes other letters written by former presidents, including George Washington, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. Cutler hopes to add a letter from President Obama to his collection in the near future.
Despite much of the letter's mystery still remaining, this week's proceedings begin to answer some of those questions.
Cutler was pleased to present the document saying, "It is very important that it stay belonging to the people of the United States."