Getty / Hulton Archive / Staff
Getty / Hulton Archive / Staff

5 Priceless Items Stolen From Presidential Libraries

Getty / Hulton Archive / Staff
Getty / Hulton Archive / Staff

Where’s Nicolas Cage when you need him? Though these thefts may not be quite as exciting as the search for the Declaration of Independence in National Treasure (2004), they’re still valuable pieces of presidential history that have disappeared from under the noses of museum curators and archivists at presidential libraries around the country.

1. GEM-STUDDED SWORDS AND DAGGERS, HARRY S. TRUMAN LIBRARY

A black and white picture of a dagger and scabbard on a woven background. The scabbard is ornate and bejeweled, as is the hilt of the dagger.
The National Archives

There's no shortage of priceless historical documents at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri, but the thieves who broke into the building at 6:30 a.m. on March 24, 1978, went for something a little more gaudy. With a single guard on duty, they smashed the museum’s glass entrance doors, then made a beeline for a case in the lobby that housed bejeweled swords, a scabbard, and a dagger—gifts from the Shah of Iran and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. The dagger and scabbard were studded with diamonds, rubies, and emeralds, and one sword included diamonds and gold (the other was mainly silver and steel). The weapons, which are still unaccounted for, have an estimated value of over $1 million.

2. ROCKING CHAIR, JOHN F. KENNEDY LIBRARY

When John F. Kennedy died, the Kennedy family entrusted his secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, to store a vast number of his documents and personal items. The family intended to sort through them all and eventually decide which items to donate to the Kennedy Library and which to keep for themselves. Instead, Lincoln absconded with thousands of pieces of memorabilia, from pens used to sign bills to the rocking chair the president used in the Oval Office. Lincoln sold or gave numerous items to collector Robert L. White, who kept some and sold some—including the Cuban Missile Crisis Map, the planning map JFK used during the 1962 missile scare. After White’s death in 2003, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) reached a settlement with his estate to reacquire many of the items.

3. OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE PORTRAIT, FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT LIBRARY

Franklin Delano Roosevelt admired the work of artist Ellen Emmet Rand so much that he asked her to paint three portraits of him; the last hung in the White House. Harry Truman later replaced the portrait with a different likeness of FDR, and sent the Rand piece to Roosevelt's son, John, who in turn donated it to the FDR Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York. As far as we know, the painting hung without incident for decades. In 2004, the artist's grandson, Peter Rand, visited the library to research a novel he was writing about stolen historic documents that passed between FDR and Winston Churchill during WWII. Oddly enough, he was about to discover a missing historic object of his own.

While Rand was visiting the museum, he asked to view the famous portrait painted by his grandmother. That's when the library director made an embarrassing discovery: The 5-foot-by-4-foot painting was gone. After checking their records, the Roosevelt Library determined that the portrait had been on loan to the National Archives in Washington D.C., but was returned in 2001. Upon its arrival, staff decided to leave the painting in the 250-pound shipping crate to protect it while the museum was going through some renovations. It hasn’t been seen since. Peter Rand says the director of the museum speculated that it had been stolen or accidentally thrown out—but he thinks it's pretty hard to accidentally discard a 5-foot painting stored in a 250-pound crate. Either way, the disappearance has earned FDR's likeness a spot on the National Archives' Lost and Stolen Documents list.

4. INAUGURAL ADDRESS, FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT LIBRARY

In 2011, an employee at the Maryland Historical Society caught Jason Savedoff shoving documents into his jacket while his partner in crime, presidential collector Barry Landau, distracted employees. A few days after their arrests, NARA archivists and FBI officials raided Landau’s apartment—and described what they found as “Toys ‘R’ Us for historians.” They eventually recovered approximately 10,000 stolen items, including seven copies of FDR’s 1937 inaugural address stolen from his presidential library in Hyde Park. Among the speeches was the rain-streaked copy the president actually read at the event, marked with edits and notes in his own hand. Historical documents from George Washington, Marie Antoinette, Isaac Newton and more were also found in Landau’s possession. He ultimately received a 7-year prison sentence for his crimes; Savedoff was given 12 months.

5. CLASS RING, LYNDON B. JOHNSON LIBRARY

Paperwork from the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library that provides details about Johnson's missing rings.
The Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library

In 1963, the Coast Guard Academy class of '64 managed to score a pretty important commencement speaker: President John F. Kennedy. Obviously, Kennedy's assassination put a stop to those plans—but Lyndon B. Johnson kept his predecessor's commitment. To thank him, the Coast Guard Academy presented LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson with customized class rings made of 14-carat gold with yellow sapphire settings. The president's ring was gifted to the LBJ library in 1970. In 1989, renovations struck again—the ring and several other items went missing while pieces of the museum collection were relocated during museum remodeling. It still hasn't been determined whether the items were stolen or misplaced.

The National Archives has a special Archival Recovery Team dedicated to tracking down items like these, which go missing more than you might imagine. The team has managed to return quite a few artifacts to their rightful homes, including a letter from Abraham Lincoln and a high school yearbook belonging to Ronald Reagan. With any luck, some of these other pilfered pieces of history will eventually re-grace their presidential library displays.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Fox Photos/Getty Images
arrow
presidents
10 Facts About Dwight D. Eisenhower
Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

One of the most popular U.S. presidents in history, Dwight David Eisenhower won the presidency twice on the back of national adoration for his leadership in WWII as General of the Army. Eisenhower served as president from 1953 to 1961, during which time he significantly expanded the highway system, created NASA, and put five justices on the Supreme Court. Here are 10 facts about the Ike we like.

1. HIS BIRTH NAME WAS SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT, AND MIGHT HAVE BEEN CONFUSING.

We all recognize him as Dwight D. Eisenhower, but his birth name was David Dwight. The future president shared his father’s first name, but wasn't called a "junior" because he had a different middle name. Instead, his mother inverted the two monikers to avoid the confusion of having two Davids in one house and of having people mistakenly calling him "junior." His high school yearbook (and their family’s Bible) has his name written as David Dwight.

2. “IKE” IS THE ENTIRE FAMILY’S NICKNAME.

Speaking of names, it’s easy to assume that his nickname (as in “I like Ike”) came from his first name. But the nickname stems from Eisenhower, and it’s the nickname the whole family went by. All seven Eisenhower boys used it (Edgar was “Big Ike” while Dwight was actually “Little Ike”). Dwight was the only one still using the nickname by WWII.

3. HE NAMED CAMP DAVID AFTER HIS GRANDSON.

The Presidential getaway in Maryland was called “Shangri-La” by President Franklin Roosevelt after it was converted from a WPA-built government employee camp to a working retreat for the commander-in-chief. In 1953, Eisenhower renamed it Camp David, honoring both his father, David Jacob, and his 5-year-old grandson, Dwight David. It would later be the location of Eisenhower's meeting with Soviet Union head Nikita Khrushchev to discuss the Cold War in 1959.

4. HE QUIT SMOKING BY SURROUNDING HIMSELF WITH CIGARETTES.

Eisenhower smoked three or four packs of cigarettes a day, picking up the habit while he was a student at West Point and quitting only a few years before he became President. His initial attempt involved excising tobacco and the related accoutrements from his daily life, but it didn’t work, so he went in the other direction. “I decided to make a game of the whole business and try to achieve a feeling of some superiority when I saw others smoking while I no longer did,” he said. The politician crammed cigarettes and lighters into every nook of his office. “I made it a practice to offer a cigarette to anyone who came in and I lighted each while mentally reminding myself as I sat down, ‘I don’t have to do what that poor fellow is doing.’"

5. BOTH PARTIES WANTED HIM TO RUN FOR PRESIDENT.

In 1945, President Truman began nudging Eisenhower toward running for president, and two years later, promised to be his running mate on the Democratic ticket in the 1948 election. Eisenhower refused, claiming he had no ambition for the job, but by the 1952 election, both parties were begging him to be their candidate. The public didn’t know Eisenhower’s party affiliation until he declared himself a Republican in 1951, at which time the “Draft Eisenhower” efforts resumed and intensified on the GOP side. In January 1952, Congressman Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. submitted Eisenhower’s name to the New Hampshire Republican primary without Eisenhower’s permission, which forced the general to make a public statement. He declared that he wasn’t actively seeking the nomination, but that he’d serve if asked. After 25,000 showed up for a rally at Madison Square Garden and Eisenhower bested far right Senator Robert Taft in the New Hampshire primary, Eisenhower announced an official candidacy, saying, “Any American who would have that many other Americans pay him that compliment would be proud or he would not be an American.”

It turns out the Democrats were doomed as soon as Eisenhower said he was a Republican. He won against Adlai Stevenson in a 442 to 89 landslide. Not bad, considering he beat Stevenson again in 1956, 457 electoral votes to 73.

6. HE PRESIDED OVER DESEGREGATING THE MILITARY AND THE SCHOOLS.

President Truman started the process of desegregating the military in 1948, but President Eisenhower completed it by actively campaigning, using budgets as leverage, and declaring racial discrimination a national security issue. In a bold move, Eisenhower also briefly federalized the Arkansas National Guard and committed the 101st Airborne Division to protect nine black students as they attended, for the first time since Reconstruction, an all-white school in Little Rock after Governor Orval Faubus refused to comply with the desegregating court order handed down in Brown v. Board of Education.

7. ALASKA AND HAWAII BECAME STATES UNDER HIS WATCH.

After Arizona was admitted to the Union in 1912, the United States went 47 years with 48 stars on the flag. The United States had purchased Alaska from the Russian Empire in 1867 and annexed Hawaii in 1898, but it took Eisenhower campaigning on the issue of statehood and the right Congressional environment for both to make the leap from territory to state. Congress thought Alaska, with its oil riches, should come first, but Eisenhower was worried the new state would disrupt his plans to set up military installations close to Soviet Russia. Congress won out. Alaska was admitted January 3, 1959, and Hawaii eight months later on August 21.

8. HE WAS THE FIRST PRESIDENT CONSTITUTIONALLY PREVENTED FROM SEEKING A THIRD TERM.

Until Franklin Roosevelt, no President served more than two terms, but the man who dragged the United States out of the Depression and on to victory in WWII was elected to serve four. The Twenty-second Amendment was congressionally approved on March 24, 1947, in direct response to his electoral success. The states didn’t complete the ratification process until February 27, 1951. Since it passed while he was in office, President Harry Truman was grandfathered in (although it didn’t matter because he was profoundly unpopular by the end of his second term), so President Eisenhower became the first to be affected by the amendment. He was also the first to be affected by the Former Presidents Act, which gave him a lifetime pension, paid staff, and security detail.

9. HE LEFT ACTIVE DUTY TO BECOME PRESIDENT AND RETURNED TO ACTIVE DUTY WHEN HIS TERM WAS OVER.

Though he never saw active combat, Eisenhower’s military career spanned WWI and WWII. After graduating from West Point he served in logistics and, later, infantry units located stateside, and after the United States entered WWI, he trained tank crews in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He languished after the war, spending 12 years as a major, but he also served as chief military aide to then-Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur, and acted as commanding officer for the 15th Infantry at Fort Lewis and chief of staff to then-Commander of the Third Army General Walter Krueger during his climb up the promotion ladder to Colonel. By the attack on Pearl Harbor, Eisenhower was already a Brigadier General (one star) in a command role that would have kept him far from the battlefield.

Still, Eisenhower was one of only nine Americans to reach the five-star rank as General of the Army, the second-highest possible Army rank. As a rule, Generals of the Army never retire but remain on active duty status until they die. That's why President John F. Kennedy signed a Public Law on March 22, 1961 returning Eisenhower to active duty at his five-star rank following Ike’s presidential service. You may have seen the insignia of the General of the Army (five stars in the shape of the star) posted on highway signs commemorating Eisenhower’s military service and infrastructure expansion.

10. HE MADE OVER 200 PAINTINGS.

After showing interest in the craft when his wife Mamie sat for a portrait, then-president of Columbia University Eisenhower received a paint kit from the artist Thomas E. Stephens. Still, it wasn’t until he was 58 (and when Winston Churchill encouraged him) that Eisenhower took up painting seriously as a hobby. The former President made at least 250 paintings, but had a self-deprecating sense about his art. At an exhibition of his work at the Huntington Hartford Museum in 1967, a reporter asked Eisenhower about the symbolism of one of the works. Eisenhower replied, “They would have burned this sh*t a long time ago if I weren’t the President of the United States.”

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Harris & Ewing, Inc., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
arrow
Big Questions
Can a Person Refuse a Presidential Pardon?
Harris & Ewing, Inc., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Harris & Ewing, Inc., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Presidential pardons have been in the news lately, which has led to an onslaught of questions about just how far a president's pardoning powers extend—and what would happen if the person being offered the pardon declined it altogether? Is such a thing even possible, or does the pardoned individual in question have no choice in the matter? Believe it or not, it's an issue that has come up a few times over the past two centuries—and the answer isn't exactly a clear-cut one.

To fully answer the question, first an important distinction has to be made between commutation and pardoning. Both are part of the pardoning powers given to the president, but differ in levels. Speaking to ABC News, Randy Barnett, a professor at Georgetown University, explained that "Pardon is an 'executive forgiveness of crime'; commutation is an ‘executive lowering of the penalty.'" And the answer to the question depends on that distinction.

UNITED STATES V. WILSON

In 1833 the Supreme Court heard the case of the United States v. George Wilson. On May 27, 1830, Wilson and co-conspirator James Porter were both sentenced to death after being convicted of robbing a U.S. postal worker and putting the carrier’s life in jeopardy. While Porter was executed just over a month later, on July 2, 1830, Wilson managed to escape the sentence. President Andrew Jackson decided to pardon Wilson for the death penalty charge on the understanding that he had yet to be sentenced for other crimes (for which he was looking at a minimum of 20 years). For some reason Wilson waived the pardon, possibly because of confusion about what case he was being tried for at the time and what cases the pardon was for.

In 1833, the Supreme Court ultimately weighed in on the issue, ruling “A pardon is a deed, to the validity of which delivery is essential, and delivery is not complete without acceptance. It may then be rejected by the person to whom it is tendered, and if it be rejected, we have discovered no power in a court to force it on him.” (Strangely, the details of whether or not Wilson was ever executed are lost to time.)

BURDICK V. UNITED STATES

This right of refusal was affirmed in 1915. George Burdick, city editor of the New York Tribune, refused to testify regarding sources for articles on alleged custom fraud by invoking his Fifth Amendment rights [PDF]. President Woodrow Wilson then gave a pardon to Burdick, protecting him from any charge he may incriminate himself of during his testimony. The idea behind the pardon was to force Burdick to testify, under the theory that he could no longer be convicted for any acts he may reveal. But Burdick rejected the pardon, continued to invoke his rights, and was found guilty of contempt.

The Supreme Court ruled that Burdick was within his rights to refuse the pardon and as such he did not lose his Fifth Amendment rights.

BIDDLE V. PEROVICH

A 1927 ruling added a new wrinkle to the pardoning issue. In 1905, Vuco Perovich was sentenced to hang for murder, which President Taft commuted to life imprisonment a few years later. Perovich was then transferred from Alaska to Washington, and later to Leavenworth. Perovich eventually filed an application for writ of habeas corpus, claiming that his commutation was done without his consent. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that "the convict’s consent is not required."

This ruling has led decades of legal scholars to wonder if the Perovich ruling overturned these earlier cases, with Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. arguing “Whether these words sound the death knell of the acceptance doctrine is perhaps doubtful. They seem clearly to indicate that by substantiating a commutation order for a deed of pardon, a President can always have his way in such matters, provided the substituted penalty is authorized by law and does not in common understanding exceed the original penalty" [PDF].

In other words: You may be able to refuse a pardon, but you would not be able to refuse a commutation.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios