Massachusetts Gets Stolen Hamilton Letters Back, Federal Court Rules

Photo: Courtesy Secretary of the Commonwealth

BOSTON (WBZ NewsRadio) — A letter sent from Alexander Hamilton to the Marquis de Lafayette is now safely back in the Commonwealth after it had been missing for at least 76 years.

The letter warned the Marquis of British troop movements that threatened French troops stationed in Rhode Island during the Revolutionary War in 1780, and was forwarded to the Massachusetts Council.

State officials say an employee of the archives named Harold Perry, a "kleptomaniacal cataloguer," stole the original letter and sold it off sometime between 1938 and 1946. The judge's decision said the letter eventually came into the hands of Stewart R. Crane, who inherited the letter from his grandfather R.E. Crane.

An auction house in Virginia alerted the FBI about the letter when the Crane estate tried to sell it in 2018, leading to a federal seizure.

Since then, the Crane estate and Massachusetts had been locked in a legal battle over the documents until this past week when the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling. The case was officially titled United States of America v. Letter from Alexander Hamilton to the Marquis de Lafayette, because the property, not a person is the defendant in a civil forfeiture case.

The judge in the case, Bruce M. Selya, said the letter ruled that the document was the clear property of Massachusetts under an 1897 state public records law. Selya tore a hole in the estate's argument that the family came by the letter in good faith, calling it "not burdened with many hard facts."

"Hamilton scarcely could have imagined that it would someday become the focal point of a civil forfeiture action. But truth often outpaces imaginings,” he wrote.

Attorney General Maura Healey called the ruling "a resounding victory," and Secretary of the Commonwealth Bill Galvin said he was “very pleased that this Revolutionary War letter has finally been returned to its rightful owners."

The letter is now secured in the Massachusetts Archives again and will be on display at the Commonwealth Museum in the future, according to the Secretary's office.

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