To Catch a Thief at the National Archives

With its stacks of yellowing historical documents and staff of earnest archivists and librarians, the National Archives doesn’t seem like a typical setting for intrigue. So workers at the Philadelphia branch have understandably been shaken by a whodunit that has unfolded in their normally placid corridors during the last few months.

The unusual crime began to unravel last September, when Dean Thomas of Gettysburg, Pa., had the sensation of déjà vu while reading an eBay offer for three Civil War documents from 1861 and 1862 that his brother was bidding on for him. Thomas, who publishes Civil War and American Revolution history books, got up from his desk and looked into one of his many black binders, the one that holds the letters he photocopied some 20 years earlier at the Philly National Archives. There, he found the same ones he was seeing on eBay, being sold by a private seller, “hchapel.” His brother won the bid on a Sunday night and the purchase went through for $298.88. Payment was to be delivered to Denning McTague of Philadelphia; his full address and contact information clearly printed. “It wasn’t very secretive,” says Thomas.

The next morning he called up an acquaintance at the archives and asked if there was a sale of original documents under way. There wasn’t, so Thomas called up the Archives’ Inspector General’s office. A quick search revealed that 164 documents were missing, and soon the National Archives Archival Recovery Team (ART) got to work. Like most of McTague’s other eBay clients, Thomas quickly returned his letters. Only three documents are still missing.

This week, McTague, a 40-year-old rare-books seller and unpaid intern at the Archives, pleaded guilty to one federal count of stealing government property. The pilfered documents include Civil War weapons orders; the May 4, 1865, telegram from the Secretary of War ordering gun salutes in honor of President Lincoln, whose funeral was being held that day, and a letter from the war's most famous cavalryman, James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart. McTague’s lawyer says he will face sentencing on July 12; the maximum sentence is 10 years and a $250,000 fine, but federal sentencing guidelines are much more lenient. U.S. Attorney Patrick Meehan says the stolen documents “are valued well into the tens of thousands. Their intrinsic value may be limited, but they are of incalculable value to historians.”

A team of special agents from the FBI and the National Archives broke into McTague’s rowhouse apartment on Oct. 16. Accompanying the seven agents were a computer forensics specialist and two Philadelphia archivists armed with document-sized plastic Mylar slipcovers, specialized acid-free folders, and boxes and other materials for storing antiquated material. The agents and the archivists all wore protective gloves as they searched the sun-drenched apartment, eventually finding what they were looking for in the wide, flat drawers of a desk designed to store maps: 80 original Civil War-era documents from the archives were recovered that morning, but another 80 were long gone, having been sold on eBay by McTague, a scholar with master's degrees in history and library science, and an avid collector of historical artifacts.McTague is described by one source close to the investigation as quiet and soft-spoken, befitting the typical image of a librarian or archivist. He owned a small company, Denning House, described on its Web site (now defunct) as a “Purveyor of Rare and Unusual Books, Maps, Manuscripts, Interesting Paper and Americana.” At the National Archives, he was tasked with organizing documents for the upcoming 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

At 40, he was unusually old to be an intern. But that didn’t arouse much suspicion. “There are lots of specialists who want to go back to school to get another degree, and many degrees require certain work experience,” says National Archives spokeswoman Susan Cooper. “McTague had several advanced degrees and perhaps he was interested in securing a permanent job at the archives.” The National Archives in Philadelphia usually have five interns at any given time--that number is now being reduced to two, says Cooper, and those interns will no longer have access to original documents without strict supervision. An internal investigation is also under way.

This isn’t the first theft. Former national-security adviser Sandy Berger was sentenced in 2005 for removing highly classified documents from the National Archives and then intentionally destroying them. “Whether it’s someone as high up as Sandy Berger or an unpaid intern, some people have an urge to steal,” says Ross Weiland, acting assistant inspector general for investigations at the National Archives. “We could put armed guards out there, but then what’s the point of an archive? The American public won’t ever see it.”

Weiland was one of the agents who searched McTague’s apartment that October morning: “Nothing was crumpled, stashed behind the toilet or under the floorboards,” he says. “But these letters are supposed to be stored in acid-free boxes in a room that is temperature-controlled.” Agents later questioned McTague at his other home in West Point, N.Y. He began to cooperate with authorities, eventually admitting that he had pilfered the documents by hiding them between the pages of a yellow notepad and simply walking out with them at the end of the day. Because he was a member of the staff he was not searched as he left.

The question that has puzzled both U.S. District Attorney Meehan and the National Archives reps: how could a specialist like McTague--one who had spent a lifetime of devotion to archived materials--have done this. “Archivists have a great emotional and intellectual fondness for their job,” says Weiland. “McTague was presumed to share that same attitude. Stealing and selling archives to the highest bidder--it’s just anathema to that mindset.”

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