Author traces N.C.'s stolen Bill of Rights

Staff WriterJuly 15, 2010 

  • David Howard will read from "Lost Rights" at 3 p.m. Sunday at Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh.

The FBI sting operation in 2003 that recovered North Carolina's missing original copy of the Bill of Rights, and the years of legal wrangling that followed, made for a long run of front-page news. But of course there was a story deeper than the scratch-the-surface limitations of daily newspaper deadlines.

David Howard tells that story in "Lost Rights: The Misadventures of a Stolen American Relic." The newly released book is both an American history lesson and a detective story; it brings to life characters who had been merely names in news accounts.

And there are plenty of familiar names here from the administrations of former Gov. Mike Easley and former U.S. Attorney Frank Whitney, from politicians to lawyers to federal agents. But the real characters are the out-of-state conspirators who hoped to make millions by selling a document that was such a hot potato - priceless yet worthless, as one historical record expert described it.

Fourteen handwritten copies of the Constitutional amendments were drafted for each of the original states and one for the federal government. This one was probably stolen by Union troops when Sherman arrived in Raleigh in 1865. There was no question that if it surfaced, North Carolina would fight to get it back.

The most compelling of the conspirators was a talented antiques dealer in Connecticut named Wayne Pratt. It turned out Howard, currently the executive editor of Bicycling magazine, was in the right place to write this book, having connections in Connecticut and living in Pennsylvania, where much of the drama unfolded.

Still, Howard spent years and traveled tens of thousands of miles following a piece of paper that had been missing for 138 years. He will read Sunday at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh.

Q: How did you get involved in this?

I was freelancing in the spring of 2003 for a Connecticut magazine, where I grew up. The editor called me. Word had just come out that Wayne Pratt was involved. He's a well-known character in Connecticut. I was instantly fascinated by the story. It was so bizarre sounding: A Bill of Rights somehow had gotten out into the marketplace. It seemed as strange as somebody saying they had claimed the Golden Gate Bridge.

Q: You did a tremendous amount of research, but you also had access to key players. Was there a single person who proved to be the most important?

Wayne Pratt's story had never been told. By the time he was willing to talk about it, most journalists had moved on. He was still very reluctant. It took three to four months to convince him to go through the whole thing with me. That proved to be the turning point of the whole project.

Q: Was there someone you would have liked to have talked to but didn't?

The one real character I would have loved to have tracked down is Bob Matthews [Pratt's friend and business partner, who split the $200,000 cost of buying the document]. He has pretty much shut out the media. I was very lucky to have a 100-page deposition on file in the courthouse [the federal court in Raleigh]. That gave me a lot of material to work with: his mindset, what he was saying about what happened. He turned on his best friend, went to Raleigh and told them "It was not me, it was him." They turned into bitter enemies.

Q: So, they knew there were legal problems, but they decided to ignore them in hopes of selling it?

They thought they were going to make a lot of money. That was the No. 1 motivation. No. 2 was Pratt really believed he could pull off this scheme he had cooked up, which was to pretend he didn't know where the document really came from. He came very close to pulling it off. He had such an extensive background and was considered such an authority, he was used to passing off stories and have people accept them. In this case, antique furniture turned out to be a vastly different field than historic documents.

Q: It's surprising that we hadn't protected our historic records until relatively recently.

That was for me the single biggest shock of the whole process. I was amazed a single copy of the Bill of Rights had gotten out and was being bought and sold. I finished the project surprised that more Bill of Rights haven't turned up.

We were a young country focused on the future. It took awhile for us to realize if we don't save these things we're not going to be able to tell the story of what happened accurately. We've turned 180 degrees now, where everybody is fully aware of these things and a single document can nearly sell for millions. To anyone who cares about history it's a harrowing experience.

craig.jarvis@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4576

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