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No need to wait for it: Stolen Alexander Hamilton letter now on display

This letter from Alexander Hamilton to the Marquis de Lafayette was stolen from the Massachusetts Archives decades ago. The letter, which was returned to the state, was put on public display at the Commonwealth Museum on Monday, July 4, for the first time since it was returned after a lengthy court battle. (AP)
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Finally, a chance to be in the room where it happens.

Nearly 250 years after Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s Founding Fathers, wrote a wartime letter to the Marquis de Lafayette, a French aristocrat and Continental Army general, the displaced dispatch is being shown to the public this Fourth of July after a protracted saga: from a heist to a private sale, a lengthy legal battle, and now, its homecoming.

The Revolutionary War-era document is the centerpiece of the annual July Fourth exhibit at Boston’s Commonwealth Museum, featured alongside Massachusetts’ original copy of the Declaration of Independence.

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Dated July 21, 1780, the letter by Hamilton — who has gained more attention in recent years after a smash Broadway musical — details an imminent British threat to French forces in Rhode Island. Hamilton, an aide to Gen. George Washington, opens with “My Dear Marquis,” giving an impassioned plea to warn others.

The letter was forwarded by Massachusetts Gen. William Heath to the president of the Massachusetts Council with a request for additional troops, according to the Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin, who announced the document’s unveiling.

“It illustrates, in a documentary fashion, how fragile the whole Revolutionary War effort was,” Galvin told NBC 10 Boston. “This wasn’t simply a done deal, it was all over, we said, ‘Britain, goodbye.’ ”

And it wasn’t a done deal for the letter after it made it into the Massachusetts State Archives.

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A “kleptomaniacal cataloguer” at the archives stole the letter during World War II, along with other historical records, the government said in a court case about the document’s ownership. The employee was eventually arrested, but by then the stolen items had been sold to rare documents dealers throughout the country.

The letter was sold by a New York dealer to a man named R.E. Crane around 1945, Crane’s descendants said in court filings, and it was passed down through the family.

It was not until 2018, after the death of Crane’s grandson, that the family contracted a Virginia auction house to sell the letter along with other historic documents. Curators estimated that the letter from Hamilton, a prolific writer who was later the nation’s first treasury secretary, could be worth $35,000 or more.

But then a researcher at the auction house read online that the letter was missing, and the archives were contacted, followed by the FBI.

“Everyone’s first reaction was, ‘It needs to go back to where it should be,’ ” Elizabeth Wainstein, the owner of the auction house, told The Washington Post in 2019. “That was never a question.”

The government asked the estate to forfeit the letter, but the family contested that they came into possession of the document illegally, and they argued that the government had no claim to it. After a long legal war, the U.S. Court of Appeals sided with Massachusetts.

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And that is how the letter wound up back at the archives, now for you or anyone else to see, free of charge. No need to throw away your shot.