More than 50 official 19th century U.S. presidential pardons are missing and potentially being sold on a black market, the News4 I-Team learned.
The pardons handwritten by U.S. presidents and officially delivered to convicts vanished from the National Archives. Many were lost from a theft two decades ago at a National Archives facility in Philadelphia and are actively being pursued by agency investigators.
The pardons include several written to freed prisoners by former Presidents Ulysses Grant, James K Polk and John Tyler. Though the recipients are unknown figures of the 1800s, including thieves, counterfeiters and booze-runners, the pardons are a valuable underground commodity because they include authentic signatures of former presidents.
“They're historical items," National Archives investigator Mitch Yockelson said. "They belong at the National Archives, which means they belong to the American people."
Illegal sales of the pardons have been attempted through online marketplaces and at antique shows or stores, Yockelson said.
A longtime National Archives employee took a large number of pardons from the Philadelphia offices and later pleaded guilty to theft and served a federal prison sentence. But many of the pardons had disappeared into a black market before the worker was charged, said former FBI agent Bob Wittman, who cracked the case.
"This man’s job is to protect this material, and here he is taking it," Wittman said.
Thefts of historical records are often “inside jobs” executed by employees or patrons with close ties to the organization holding the documents, Wittman said.
Among the document stolen from the Philadelphia offices is a handwritten pardon from President Tyler, a Virginian who was the first vice president to assume office after the death of a president in 1841 following William Henry Harrison's death a month into his administration. The pardon was delivered on parchment to former U.S. Postal Service letter carrier Frederick S. Fisher of the Philadelphia Post Office who was convicted of stealing $5 from a parcel in Pennsylvania.
The underground value of the pardon is enhanced because both President Tyler and the prisoner are lesser known figures in U.S. history, Yockelson said.
“This is one of the reasons these things are taken," he said. "A thief will say this is something that I can sell, because it is obscure. It's unique."
Anyone with tips or information to share with federal investigators should email MissingDocuments@nara.gov.
Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Jeff Piper.