Rare Letters Stolen From Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace By Historian Recovered

A historian who once headed the Theodore Roosevelt Association has pleaded guilty to stealing three rare letters -- one written by Abraham Lincoln and two by George Washington -- stored in a vault at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site.

Edward J. Renehan Jr., of North Kingston, Rhode Island, later resold the letters for nearly $100,000 through a Manhattan gallery, according to federal authorities. He faces up to a decade in prison and fines of $250,000, plus restitution, when sentenced later this summer.

The Lincoln letter had been written March 1, 1840, while the Washington letters were written on December 29, 1778, and August 9, 1791, respectively.

“The National Park Service is in the business of preserving the natural and cultural resources of this nation, and that includes historic documents such as the ones that were sadly stolen by someone who placed personal profit over their commitment to protect priceless property that belongs to the American people,” said NPS supervisory special agent Jeffrey Pascale.

Mr. Renehan also is being prosecuted for the theft of a third rare letter. It was that discovery that led the Theodore Roosevelt Association to check for items that might be missing from their collection. That ultimately led to the federal investigation into Mr. Renehan.

Investigators were able to recover the letters -- two in the Los Angeles area and the third in Connecticut.

Comments

Wow, this gives historians a bad name! And Theodore Roosevelt had their collection in a vault, no less. Meanwhile, at Blue Ridge Parkway, it has taken years to get the archives into a safe place with proper climate control, security, and organization. I've just written about this over on the Blue Ridge Parkway blog at: http://www.blueridgeparkwayblog.com/super-scenic-motorway-a-historians-parkway/history/adventures-of-blue-ridge-parkway-archives

Just goes to show that our rare national archival treasures -- the raw materials of history -- need as much attention, funding, and care as our natural treasures do.

Anne Mitchell Whisnant, Ph.D.
Historian & Author of Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History
Chapel Hill, NC


DEAR ANNE AND OTHER HISTORIANS AND CURATORS:

Your point is valid as far as it goes, but consider the real situation.

More than, or in addition to, the 'bad name for Historians' issue is the rest of the complicate situation in the background of this case. What a case study in what the park service needs now from its leadership !

The Historian, according to various news accounts, mostly in Newsday, was at one time a member of the Board of the Theodore Roosevelt Association, and later (perhaps at the time the alleged crime may have happened) was the acting executive director of that organization.

The National Historic Site was the gift OF THE THEODORE ROOSEVELT ASSOCIATION. The collection, in the park service vault, true, but the portions of the collection allegedly looted CONTINUED TO BE OWNED by the Association. The Association has money it regularly dispenses to park projects, and we all know park managers are amazingly hard up for cash. Just a few years ago, in the other site donated by the Association -- Sagamore Hill -- the park service only got half way through installing a new and major permanent exhibition when the poor superintendent (in more ways than one) was told by the park service exhibit people they had run out of money and were stopping work! Had the Association not bailed this superintendent out, there would have been no opening. So, the superintendent's need the Association.

Best of all, the Historian in question was said, by one of the newsarticles, to have been carrying a letter from the previous, respected executive director allegedly authorizing the Historian to remove the documents for study !

Finally, not in the articles, a few years ago there was a major brawl between the Association and the park superintendent over how the relationship between the park service and the Association should be governed, including how the endowment money should be used and directed. Well, the executive director was extremely well regarded and a known scholar, who had been in his job for a very long time (he recently passed away, which is why the Historian of this story assumed the job). Anyway, the two park superintendents, for this Site and for Sagamore Hill were both pretty new and neither was distinguished as a historian, nor particularly groomed to move in the kind of circles the Association membership does. This conflict quickly went over the head of the superintendent to the Regional Director to the Director of the National Park Service. Even though the superintendent had the agreement of the government attorney on the issue, the Director quickly got the Regional Dirctor to get the superintendent to back down. Imagine the government appointing a superintendent that is not experienced enough to deal with elevated people and organizations and historic objects to command the necessary respect of the same high officials ejudicating a conflict between the park and the Association about who is in charge.

The park superintendent learns a lesson to avoid further conflicts, having been disempowered in public (at least, before the park staff, the Regional Director, the Director and staff, and the leadership of the Association). So, all the park staff learned what happened to their boss -- many steps ABOVE them on the food chain -- and learned it was not healthy to challenge the Association. [PLEASE NOTE, I am NOT saying the Association would have wanted the park service to react this way, or especially for the park staff to react in fear, as the Association has for the most part a wonderful and praiseworthy record. The problem is the way the little person at the bottom reacts when the park service boss or the washington leaders just want a problem to go away without understanding it.]

So, imagination yourself, as a GS-5 park interpreter when a long-known, and well-regarded Historian with good credentials on Theodore Roosevelt and an Officer of the Association comes into the library of your Site to study THE RECORDS OF THE ASSOCIATION, and is equipped with a letter on Association letterhead authorizing the Historian/Official access to the records, even to take them home. And remember, this site has so few people that sometimes, when only one person is out sick, they actually have (inappropriately) locked the front door to prevent anyone coming in while conducting tours, because each tour must be accompanied by a ranger because all the original Roosevelt objects are out and visible in the house. You would have no ability to sit in the library, to watch the Historian.

And, when the Historian goes home, having been in and out of the Site for years, after working with THE ASSOCIATION'S collection, can you imagine that GS-5 ranger asking to go through the Historian's bag, flip through the Historian's books looking for loose pages, open up the Historian's note pad to verify that no hstoric documents were taken?

Well, of course he should, and the park service and the Association should have agreed on a system and followed it. But so soon after the Association rolled the superintendent, who was going to propose those rules??

Well, my guess is NOW we get the rules and the operations agreement, and the agreements will be supported by all the bigwigs who before did nothing to support the park when it asked for help.

Will the Roosevelt Birthplace Historic Site get the staff it needs to manage the collection and provide interpretation to the public?

This site was originally dedicated specifically for education programs -- do you suppose that now there will be calls, rather than fund the park by providing the needed staff, to just move the collection to some nameless vault no where near the place of Roosevelt's birth??

Do you suppose the leadership of the park service and the leadership of the Association moved proactively to identify one of the "Centennial" projects we hear so much about from the Secretary and the Director, to make sure this site is properly managed? Or, will they just nail the little guy for failing to follow park proceedure, and make the problem go away?