A long-missing letter written by America’s favorite 18th-century immigrant/orphan/Treasury secretary has been found, and the federal government is taking legal action to return it to Massachusetts.
The 1780 letter from Alexander Hamilton to the Marquis de Lafayette was stolen from the Massachusetts Archives decades ago and resurfaced only last year, when an auction house in Virginia contacted the FBI.
“My Dear Marquis,” Hamilton wrote, in less tightly rhymed stanzas than you might expect if you know the eponymous Broadway show, “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.”
Hamilton signed the letter “Yr. Most Obedt, A Hamilton, Aide de Camp.”
The mystery of the letter’s disappearance begins around 1940, when Harold E. Perry, a seemingly unassuming clerk at the state archives, stole pages of valuable documents that included letters signed by George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Paul Revere. Perry was meticulous in covering up the heist, destroying the catalog cards for the stolen papers and clipping the index page of the bound book where the letters were kept, according to a Globe article. In fact, the public didn’t learn that the documents were missing until a decade later, when Perry was arrested in 1950.
A “scholarly little man,” as the Globe described him at the time, Perry lived alone in Cambridge as something of an eccentric, rarely changing his clothes, according to an investigator. He was in poor health and told a prosecutor that he knew he would eventually be discovered, but that he had stolen the documents as a devoted collector, not someone hoping to make a quick buck. The detective who first interviewed him at his home “found him surrounded by papers and documents, most of which were worthless,” a Globe reporter wrote.
For years, the archives didn’t know that the letters were missing — which wasn’t uncommon.
“Lots of documents ‘migrated’ out of institutional collections,” said Seth Kaller, a dealer in historic documents. “Some of them with proper authority, some of them because they were just thrown out, and a small minority because they were actually stolen.”
Perry’s looting became public when the state attorney general sent a letter to police and rare book dealers in Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia, explaining that his office was “presently investigating the loss or theft from the Massachusetts Archives of a great many valuable historical documents which are irreplaceable.”
Perry was arrested and received a suspended one-year sentence for the theft of a rare book from Harvard’s library, in part because he promised to help track down the documents he had filched from the state archives. And over the next few months, the state was able to recover at least six papers from cities along the East Coast, including a letter from Washington.
But there were dozens more that had already been sold to rare document dealers across the country.
The Hamilton letter was probably of relatively little interest to Perry in 1950, especially compared to the rest of his stolen loot. But since Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “Hamilton” opened in 2015, the once-forgotten founding father has become a bona fide American star, with ardent fans across the country eager to see his original papers. In 2017, a collection of Hamilton letters and documents sold for $2.6 million. The Virginia auction house estimated that the 1780 letter to Lafayette would sell for between $25,000 and $35,000, according to the complaint.
“This is not one of the top 10, but it is excellent,” said Kaller, who purchased more than 100 documents at the 2017 Hamilton auction. “It’s all in Hamilton’s hand, it’s to the Marquis de Lafayette, who’s a famous figure. It’s an important moment, and they’re talking about important things: the French fleet that very soon afterwards helped win the Revolutionary War.”
It’s not clear where the Hamilton letter traveled after Perry’s theft. Decades later, it appeared in the Florida home of Stewart Crane, who had inherited it from his grandfather, R.E. Crane, an avid
collector of Americana and rare documents. Stewart Crane recently died in Greenville, S.C.
He prized the Hamilton letter, according to his son-in-law, William Swent, storing it away from sunlight in the center of his home. After Crane passed away, the family sent his collection north to The Potomack Company, an auction house in Virginia. A researcher at the auction house saw that the letter was listed as a “missing original” from the state archives.
“The next thing we know, we got a call from the Potomack folks telling us that the FBI had seized the Hamilton letter,” said Swent, who is a lawyer and is representing his family in the matter. “Before that, we had no idea. I’m sure even the original purchaser, R.E. Crane, had no idea of that story.”
Now the FBI is holding the letter in Boston.
On Wednesday the US attorney filed a forfeiture complaint in federal court in Boston naming “Letter from Alexander Hamilton to the Marquis De Lafayette Dated July 21, 1780,” as the defendant. Officials at the state archives declined to comment, except to say they had been working to retrieve the document for several months. The US attorney’s office also declined to comment.
Once the federal government officially notifies the family, they will have 35 days to claim possession of the letter.
Swent said the family would consider donating it to the archives if they could come up with a financial agreement about a reimbursement or tax deduction.
“Even in the context of having had the thing taken by the FBI, it’ll always be part of our family lore, to have held it for as long as we did,” Swent said.
Perry, that scholarly little man who snipped some of the nation’s most precious letters from their bound books and ferreted them away to sell, surely couldn’t have seen any of this coming: his arrest, a musical sensation about the author of a little letter he stole, the FBI seizing the fragile page — but then, of course, in the end, you have no control over who lives, or dies, or tells your story.