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The Great Presidential Pardon Heist

Awarded by the Commander-in-Chief, presidential pardons override previous rulings handed down by any other federal judge or court. Some presidents are more generous with pardons than others, but overall, they’ve been granted with increasing frequency since Washington issued the first 16, including two for participants of the Whiskey Rebellion. By contrast, Barack Obama pardoned, commuted, or otherwise granted clemency to 1927 people.

Despite the increasing number, receiving a pardon is no easy task. First, there’s a required waiting period of five years. Applicants must write an essay about why they are seeking clemency, including documentation; they also need at least three character references, and they have to go through a “very thorough” federal review. And that’s just for starters.

However, if you’re determined to get a presidential pardon, there are other ways to go about obtaining one (though we don't recommend it)—as long as you don’t care whose name is on the certificate. Just ask Shawn Aubitz.

Some time in the middle of his 14-year career as a curator with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Aubitz realized he was sitting on a gold mine: The files, letters, maps, and photographs he handled every day could command big bucks from the right collectors. From 1996-1999, he pulled off the historical heist of the century simply by surreptitiously slipping documents into his briefcase. Over the three-year period, Aubitz made off with hundreds of items, including 64 pardons and 316 photos taken by astronauts.

Though the number is rather staggering, the thefts weren’t discovered until 2000, when a National Park Service employee noticed a suspicious item for sale on eBay and notified the National Archives about the auction. The National Archives Office of the Inspector General quickly took action and discovered a total of four National Archives documents on eBay. The items were traced to Aubitz, who pled guilty to the crimes in 2002. In court, Aubitz blamed his actions on “a compulsive need to amass collections for self-esteem and approval,” but also admitted that his motives were financial—he used more than $200,000 in ill-gotten funds to pay his credit card debt. Aubitz served 21 months in prison for his crimes and paid $73,793 in restitution.

Because Aubitz provided the names of his buyers, many of the pilfered items were recovered, such as a warrant for the seizure of Robert E. Lee's estate during the Civil War. Many are still missing, however, including pardons issued by 10 presidents, from James Madison to Rutherford B. Hayes. So, history buffs, if you’re not totally sure about the origins of that Andrew Jackson-signed pardon hanging on your study wall, contact NARA at MissingDocuments@nara.gov.

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Courtesy Sotheby's
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You Can Buy the Oldest Surviving Photo of a U.S. President
Original image
Courtesy Sotheby's

The descendent of a 19th-century U.S. Congressman has discovered a previously unknown presidential portrait that is likely the oldest surviving photograph of a U.S. president, The New York Times reports.

Previously, two 1843 portraits of John Quincy Adams were thought to be the oldest photographs of a president still around. Currently hanging in the National Portrait Gallery, one of them was found on sale at an antique shop in 1970 for a mere 50 cents. Now, an even older photo of the sixth president has been uncovered, and it’ll cost you more than 50 cents to buy it.

Adams sat for dozens of photographs throughout his life, so it’s not entirely surprising that a few more surviving portraits would be uncovered. At the time this newly discovered half-plate daguerreotype was taken in March 1843, Adams had already served out his term as president and had returned to Congress as a U.S. Representative from Massachusetts. The photo was taken by Philip Haas, who in August of that same year would take other daguerreotypes that we previously thought were the oldest surviving photos. (Despite his apparent willingness to be photographed, Adams called them “all hideous.”)

John Quincy Adams sits in a portrait studio in 1843.
Courtesy Sotheby's

After having three daguerreotypes taken that day in March, Adams gave one of them to his friend and fellow Congressman Horace Everett, inscribing it with both their names. Everett’s great-great-grandson eventually found it in his family’s belongings and is now putting it up for sale through Sotheby’s.

It isn't the oldest picture of a U.S. president ever taken, though. The first-ever was actually a portrait of William Henry Harrison made in 1841, but unlike this one, the original has not survived. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art owns a copy of it, which was made in 1850.)

The head of the Sotheby’s department for photographs, Emily Bierman, told The New York Times that the newly discovered image is “without a doubt the most important historical photo portrait to be offered at auction in the last 20 years.” (She also noted that the former POTUS is wearing “cute socks” in it.)

The daguerreotype will be on sale as part of a photography auction at Sotheby’s in October and is expected to sell for an estimated $150,000 to $250,000. Start saving.

[h/t The New York Times]

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Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain
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This Just In
Lincoln’s Famous Letter of Condolence to a Grieving Mother Was Likely Penned by His Secretary
Original image
Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain

Despite his lack of formal schooling, Abraham Lincoln was a famously eloquent writer. One of his most renowned compositions is the so-called “Bixby letter,” a short yet poignant missive the president sent a widow in Boston who was believed to have lost five sons during the Civil War. But as Newsweek reports, new research published in the journal Digital Scholarship in the Humanities [PDF] suggests that Lincoln’s private secretary and assistant, John Hay, actually composed the dispatch.

The letter to Lydia Bixby was written in November 1864 at the request of William Shouler, the adjutant general of Massachusetts, and state governor John Albion Andrew. “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming,” it read. “But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.”

Unknown to Lincoln, Bixby had actually only lost two sons in battle; the others had deserted the army, were honorably discharged, or died a prisoner of war. Nevertheless, word of the compassionate presidential gesture spread when the Boston Evening Transcript reprinted a copy of the 139-word letter for all to read.

Nobody quite knows what happened to Bixby’s original letter—some say she was a Confederate sympathizer and immediately burnt it—but for years, scholars debated whether Hay was its true author.

During Hay’s lifetime, the former secretary-turned-statesman had reportedly told several people in confidence that he—not Lincoln—had written the renowned composition, TIME reports. The rumor spread after Hay's death, but some experts interpreted the admission to mean that Hay had transcribed the letter, or had copied it from a draft.

To answer the question once and for all, a team of forensic linguists in England used a text analysis technique called n-gram tracing, which identifies the frequency of linguistic sequences in a short piece of writing to determine its true author. They tested 500 texts by Hay and 500 by Lincoln before analyzing the Bixby letter, the researchers explained in a statement quoted by Newsweek.

“Nearly 90 percent of the time, the method identified Hay as the author of the letter, with the analysis being inconclusive in the rest of the cases,” the linguists concluded.

According to Atlas Obscura, the team plans to present its findings at the International Corpus Linguistics Conference, which will take place at England’s University of Birmingham from Monday, July 24 to Friday, July 28.

[h/t Newsweek]

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