Now for some treasures that were partly hidden. By partly hidden, I mean that the item was in plain site but its nature or importance required research to discover. Here our historical knowledge, refined eye for important pieces, love of manuscripts and sheer hard work made the difference in determining that something nice was more than nice but was significant. The categories of “in plain sight” and “partly hidden” are related and sometimes it is hard to draw the line between them, as many pieces in plain sight require at least some knowledge or research to make them come alive. Yet though it is a matter of degree, they merit separate treatment.
We found a good, partly hidden letter of Napoleon that, after research, turned out better than good – it was his original order to invade the Iberian Peninsula, which led to his first confrontation with Wellington and drained the French Army of personel and resources. Another time, we came across a Chicago police form signed by Al Capone. That much was obvious. However, we were able to determine that it was his prison intake form for his final imprisonment, likely rescued from the trash when those forms were periodically disposed of by the city. Capone seems to have had a sense of humor, filling in the space asking for his occupation with words conjuring up the St. Valentine’s Day massacre – “garage business.”
Sometimes discoveries are exciting because there are no other similar items outside of public institutions. When we saw the previously mentioned letter of Robert E. Lee to George Meade dated July 4, 1863, we knew it was a gem just on the face of it, as that was the day after the Battle of Gettysburg ended. Research revealed that the letter crossed the battle lines at Gettysburg before the Confederate retreat, that it related to Pickett’s Charge, and most importantly, that it was the only Lee letter from Gettysburg in private hands. A similar and perhaps even more important find was a U.S. Supreme Court decision on Constitutional law signed by Chief Justice John Marshall in 1816. We recognized right away that this was a rare document but wondered how it got out of the National Archives. Extensive research proved that prior to 1836, Supreme Court decisions were not deposited in the National Archives – they were sent to the legal reporters to be typeset for publication. Perhaps for this reason, very few originals of these early Supreme Court decision have survived. Ours turned out to be the only such decision signed by Marshall known to remain in private hands.