Spiro T. Agnew's monkey skin cape haunts its keepers.
A gift to the vice president of the United States from the president of Kenya in 1971, the cape now rests folded in a long yellow box at the University of Maryland archives, along with an unusual assortment of other objects from Agnew's political life.
There's a painting of Agnew that archivists refer to as "beaver teeth," because of the woody hue the artist chose for his subject's incisors. It hangs next to another portrait of the former vice president made entirely of tiny bird feathers -- a gift from Suharto, the former president of Indonesia. Then there's the painting of Agnew as a circus clown with orange hair and a cocked top hat.
An inflatable Agnew punching bag, a set of "S-T-A" branding irons and a plaque from the 1972 "Salute to Ted Agnew Night," featuring special guest Frank Sinatra and master of ceremonies Bob Hope, are also entombed in the 10-by-17-foot storage room at the university's Hornbake Library in College Park. More generic, though equally curious, are the Asian folding screen that lights up when plugged in, a miniature Apollo rocket and a bronze Buddha statute.
Less explicable are the ornate wooden structures that archivists suspect might be African birthing chairs and a small wooden box that is covered with some sort of animal pelt and contains a single golf ball.
Jennie Levine, who oversees this area of the archives, says she prefers wading through the diaries of 19th-century women. But she and others entrusted with the Agnew collection have a special relationship with the memorabilia of the former Maryland governor and disgraced vice president. Few outside the staff have ever seen it. Rumor has it that earlier archivists would wear the cape while going about their work cataloguing and organizing other items in their care.
"A conservationist who came in suspected it was treated with DDT," said Levine. "So we don't put it on."
Over the course of his political career, Agnew amassed closets full of mementos, gifts, and commemorative items. What value he might have imagined they'd have for future generations is anyone's guess.
But high-level public officials can be spared such decisions as what to keep and what to pitch. Just leave it for someone else to sort though. That is just what Agnew did.
His items landed at the archives in 1974 and in several other shipments before he died in 1996. The objects arrived in boxes along with his papers, which are now one of the archives' most important collections.
Researchers dig through the documents for insight into Richard M. Nixon's vice president, who resigned in 1973 after pleading no contest to tax evasion charges stemming from bribes he allegedly took while governor of Maryland. But so far, no one has mined any of the other memorabilia that might offer a different kind of portrait of the man.
Undiscovered are dozens of gifts that Agnew collected from foreign dignitaries during state visits and exotic presents sent by his fans. Some are homemade, like the bust with Agnew's head on one side and Nixon's on the other, and the intricate robot penholder with swiveling body parts made from bolts, screws and other garage castoffs.
The public is largely unaware of the discoveries that University of Maryland archivists have made, including several of the taxidermic variety. Levine once opened up a box containing something black and white. "I started pulling and the next thing I knew I had this full-sized zebra skin sitting on the desk. It was all crinkled up and hard," she said.
Archivists often uncover strange objects with little historical value among the papers of historical figures. At the Library of Congress, an unknown person's ashes were once found in an envelope, said Marvin Kranz, a manuscript historian. And a reader once discovered a packet of cocaine marked "1884" in the papers of Carl Koller, a friend of Sigmund Freud.
The library usually returns such finds to the donor or passes them on to museums, unless they have "historical resonance," Kranz said. Occasionally, it keeps some. The cocaine is in its vault. It also has a moldy piece of cake from the Civil War-era wedding of Tom Thumb, a dwarf performer in P.T. Barnum's American Museum.
Maryland archive officials who arrived after Agnew's collection say they generally decline donations of objects they deem of little historical value. Even though some of Agnew's stuff doesn't quite meet their archival principles, they acknowledge, they can't just pitch it. They would first have to contact Agnew's relatives.
Though it is unusual for archives to dispose of items in collections, Levine said, in the 30 years the university has warehoused the Agnew memorabilia, archivists have made only a cursory inventory of them.
Agnew's staff kept records of the gifts on notecards, but some of the cards are missing and archivists have never matched the objects to the cards. The collection has not been a high enough priority to have researchers track the origins of all the objects and catalog them, Levine said. So the objects sit in the storage area taking up space, of which the archives never have enough.
"For the most part, it's sort of a novelty," says Levine, flicking off the light and closing the door to the storage room. "But I'm sure there's a research project in here somewhere."