George Washington sent it to North Carolina in 1789 as an inducement to the hesitant colony to join a new union, and it was snatched away in the chaos following a tumultuous Civil War to restore that same union.
In the years that followed, North Carolina's missing copy of the original Bill of Rights passed from a Yankee soldier's rucksack to an Indianapolis family to a Connecticut antiques dealer. It hung in a bank building, a library, even a nursing home, and was secreted around the country in apparent attempts to sell it to the highest bidder.
This month, the long, strange trip of the prized parchment valued at up to $40 million came full circle when it was carried by federal marshals back into the same Greek Revival capitol from which it was taken.
"North Carolina's stolen Bill of Rights may have been out of state for nearly 140 years," Gov. Michael Easley declared as he took custody of the fragile animal skin, "but never out of mind."
Tarheel tenacity was, in part, behind Washington's decision to send the 13 original states handwritten copies of the Bill of Rights.
North Carolina and Rhode Island refused to ratify the Constitution until certain individual rights were guaranteed. What Washington sent them by courier was a list of 12, 10 of which would become known as the Bill of Rights. (Notably, the rights to free speech, religion and the press that we know as the First Amendment were No. 3 on the original list.) It was signed by John Adams, the first vice president.
In April 1865, with Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's "march to the sea" turning its sights on Raleigh, Gov. Zebulon Vance ordered the state's archives moved out of the city. Apparently, the order didn't include the Bill of Rights.
Gen. Judson Kilpatrick's 3rd Cavalry Division took Raleigh on April 13, a day before the nation's attention would turn to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
Newspaper accounts tell of a state capitol in confusion, with troops ransacking records and seizing strategically valuable lighthouse lenses that had been stored by the Confederates in the building's rotunda.
Capitol historian Raymond Beck says Union soldiers apparently used old state records to wrap these lenses for transport to Washington.
Beck thinks one of those soldiers "recognized the document and its value and slipped it inside his shirt or jacket and made off with it."
In 1877, the secretary of state and treasurer of North Carolina apparently learned that the document was in Indianapolis and traveled there in an unsuccessful attempt to get it back.
The case lay dormant for two more decades, when the Raleigh News & Observer reprinted an article from the Indianapolis News. The headline blared: "Stolen Historical Relic Taken From the Capitol Here by a Yankee."
According to the article, a News reporter found the Bill of Rights hanging on a wall at the Indianapolis Board of Trade Building. Charles A. Shotwell, a wholesale merchant, told the reporter he had purchased the document from a Union soldier from Tippecanoe, Ohio, who had been in Sherman's army.
"I believe it cost me $5," he said. The reporter described the document as 28 inches wide and 32 inches long.
"It is perfectly preserved, the ink in some places still a jet black, but for the most part a rusty brown; the handwriting is admirably plain, free from all flourishes and regular as copper plate."
After receiving an appeal from his North Carolina counterpart, Indiana Secretary of State William D. Owen offered to do what he could to broker the document's return.
"Mr. Shotwell is a stranger to me," he wrote, "but my judgment is, that with genteel and courteous treatment, he will not be unreasonable in the matter."
Apparently, the Tarheels were not genteel and courteous enough.
Nothing more was heard until 1925, when a representative of the Shotwell family offered to sell the document to the state for a "reasonable honorarium," explaining that Shotwell had obtained it "in the belief that it was contraband of war."
Robert House, chairman of North Carolina's historical commission, was curt in his reply, saying the state would not ransom its own property.
"So long as it remains away from the official custody of North Carolina," he wrote, "it will serve as a memorial of individual theft."
Over the next seven decades, the document was displayed prominently in a bank building, a library, over the Shotwell mantel and in a nursing home where one family member lived out her days.
The Shotwell heirs made several attempts to sell the document, but reputable auction houses backed out over questions about the chain of title.
In 1995, Washington attorney John Richardson wrote a letter to Betty McCain, North Carolina's secretary of cultural resources, to negotiate the sale of "the article." It was all very cloak-and-dagger.
Richardson said the sellers were insisting upon anonymity and warned that "they are nervous and, if they believe their identity may be disclosed against their will, they might act in a manner which will not be in any of our interests." (It was later revealed that he was acting on behalf of Wayne Pratt, a Connecticut antiques dealer and guest appraiser on PBS's "Antiques Road Show.")
Richardson told McCain that his clients had received estimates of $3 million to $10 million for the document. Again, the state refused to deal.
In early 2000, Pratt and Robert Matthews, a Connecticut real estate and software investor, bought the document from the Shotwell heirs for $200,000.
Later that year, four men and a woman showed up at the offices of the First Federal Congress Project at George Washington University with a large cardboard box. Project director Charlene Bickford and her team had been working to collect and document all correspondence to and from the nascent government, and the visitors -- who declined to identify themselves -- wanted her opinion of their parcel.
Bickford examined the document in the ornate gold frame with the cardboard backing and immediately recognized it as a Bill of Rights, with the distinctive handwriting of one of the clerks of the first Congress.
"It looks very much like an original copy," she told the visitors, advising them that five states no longer had their copies. New York's and Georgia's were lost in fires, while North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Maryland were all believed to have had theirs stolen.
On March 18, 2003, a courier sat inside a Philadelphia coffee shop awaiting a call. He had a cell phone and a large cardboard box.
Pratt's people had contacted the National Constitution Center, then under construction in Philadelphia, about purchasing an original copy of the Bill of Rights. What he didn't know was that the center had alerted authorities.
When the courier finally got the call to bring the document upstairs for authentication, the FBI was waiting.
Comparing the handwriting from Washington's transmittal letter to docketing on the back of the Bill of Rights, experts have concluded that this is North Carolina's original copy. Pratt surrendered his interest to the state, but Matthews continues to fight for his half. Though North Carolina now has the document in its possession, the actual ownership is still an open question in federal court.
Attorney Michael Stratton says the state abandoned the Bill of Rights when it seceded, and that U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle's Aug. 4 order transferring custody to the state was a "renegade" act that violated three of the rights the parchment guarantees. He plans to sue the state to get either the document or the money.
For now, the faded, flaking artifact sits in a vault at the state archives, just a block from the old capitol.
Gov. Easley would like to see someone try to take it again.
As he told reporters: "We've got the Highway Patrol locked and loaded."