5 Priceless Items Stolen From Presidential Libraries

Getty / Hulton Archive / Staff
Getty / Hulton Archive / Staff

Where’s Nicolas Cage when you need him? Though these thefts may not be quite as exciting as the search for the Declaration of Independence in National Treasure (2004), they’re still valuable pieces of presidential history that have disappeared from under the noses of museum curators and archivists at presidential libraries around the country.

1. GEM-STUDDED SWORDS AND DAGGERS, HARRY S. TRUMAN LIBRARY

The National Archives

There's no shortage of priceless historical documents at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri, but the thieves who broke into the building at 6:30 a.m. on March 24, 1978, went for something a little more gaudy. With a single guard on duty, they smashed the museum’s glass entrance doors, then made a beeline for a case in the lobby that housed bejeweled swords, a scabbard, and a dagger—gifts from the Shah of Iran and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. The dagger and scabbard were studded with diamonds, rubies, and emeralds, and one sword included diamonds and gold (the other was mainly silver and steel). The weapons, which are still unaccounted for, have an estimated value of over $1 million.

2. ROCKING CHAIR, JOHN F. KENNEDY LIBRARY

When John F. Kennedy died, the Kennedy family entrusted his secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, to store a vast number of his documents and personal items. The family intended to sort through them all and eventually decide which items to donate to the Kennedy Library and which to keep for themselves. Instead, Lincoln absconded with thousands of pieces of memorabilia, from pens used to sign bills to the rocking chair the president used in the Oval Office. Lincoln sold or gave numerous items to collector Robert L. White, who kept some and sold some—including the Cuban Missile Crisis Map, the planning map JFK used during the 1962 missile scare. After White’s death in 2003, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) reached a settlement with his estate to reacquire many of the items.

3. OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE PORTRAIT, FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT LIBRARY

Franklin Delano Roosevelt admired the work of artist Ellen Emmet Rand so much that he asked her to paint three portraits of him; the last hung in the White House. Harry Truman later replaced the portrait with a different likeness of FDR, and sent the Rand piece to Roosevelt's son, John, who in turn donated it to the FDR Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York. As far as we know, the painting hung without incident for decades. In 2004, the artist's grandson, Peter Rand, visited the library to research a novel he was writing about stolen historic documents that passed between FDR and Winston Churchill during WWII. Oddly enough, he was about to discover a missing historic object of his own.

While Rand was visiting the museum, he asked to view the famous portrait painted by his grandmother. That's when the library director made an embarrassing discovery: The 5-foot-by-4-foot painting was gone. After checking their records, the Roosevelt Library determined that the portrait had been on loan to the National Archives in Washington D.C., but was returned in 2001. Upon its arrival, staff decided to leave the painting in the 250-pound shipping crate to protect it while the museum was going through some renovations. It hasn’t been seen since. Peter Rand says the director of the museum speculated that it had been stolen or accidentally thrown out—but he thinks it's pretty hard to accidentally discard a 5-foot painting stored in a 250-pound crate. Either way, the disappearance has earned FDR's likeness a spot on the National Archives' Lost and Stolen Documents list.

4. INAUGURAL ADDRESS, FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT LIBRARY

In 2011, an employee at the Maryland Historical Society caught Jason Savedoff shoving documents into his jacket while his partner in crime, presidential collector Barry Landau, distracted employees. A few days after their arrests, NARA archivists and FBI officials raided Landau’s apartment—and described what they found as “Toys ‘R’ Us for historians.” They eventually recovered approximately 10,000 stolen items, including seven copies of FDR’s 1937 inaugural address stolen from his presidential library in Hyde Park. Among the speeches was the rain-streaked copy the president actually read at the event, marked with edits and notes in his own hand. Historical documents from George Washington, Marie Antoinette, Isaac Newton and more were also found in Landau’s possession. He ultimately received a 7-year prison sentence for his crimes; Savedoff was given 12 months.

5. CLASS RING, LYNDON B. JOHNSON LIBRARY

The Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library

In 1963, the Coast Guard Academy class of '64 managed to score a pretty important commencement speaker: President John F. Kennedy. Obviously, Kennedy's assassination put a stop to those plans—but Lyndon B. Johnson kept his predecessor's commitment. To thank him, the Coast Guard Academy presented LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson with customized class rings made of 14-carat gold with yellow sapphire settings. The president's ring was gifted to the LBJ library in 1970. In 1989, renovations struck again—the ring and several other items went missing while pieces of the museum collection were relocated during museum remodeling. It still hasn't been determined whether the items were stolen or misplaced.

The National Archives has a special Archival Recovery Team dedicated to tracking down items like these, which go missing more than you might imagine. The team has managed to return quite a few artifacts to their rightful homes, including a letter from Abraham Lincoln and a high school yearbook belonging to Ronald Reagan. With any luck, some of these other pilfered pieces of history will eventually re-grace their presidential library displays.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

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Why Does the Supreme Court Have Nine Justices?

Front row, left to right: Stephen G. Breyer, Clarence Thomas, (Chief Justice) John G. Roberts, Jr., Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel A. Alito. Back row: Neil M. Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Front row, left to right: Stephen G. Breyer, Clarence Thomas, (Chief Justice) John G. Roberts, Jr., Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel A. Alito. Back row: Neil M. Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Fred Schilling, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States // Public Domain

Some facets of the U.S. government—like presidential terms and post offices—were written into the original Constitution after (often lengthy) deliberations by the Founding Fathers. The number of Supreme Court justices was not one of those things.

The document did establish a Supreme Court, and it stated that the president should appoint its judges; it also mentioned that a “Chief Justice shall preside” if the president gets impeached. Since it was left up to Congress to work out the rest of the details, they passed the Judiciary Act of 1789, which outlined an entire court system and declared that the Supreme Court should comprise one chief justice and five associate justices. As History.com explains, they landed on six because the justices would have to preside over federal circuit courts, one of which was located in each state. Traveling wasn’t quick or easy in the horse-and-carriage days, so Congress wanted to minimize each justice’s jurisdiction. They split the courts into three regions, and assigned two justices to each region.

According to Maeva Marcus, director of the Institute for Constitutional History at George Washington University Law School, the even number of justices was a non-issue. “They never even thought about it, because all the judges were Federalists and they didn’t foresee great disagreement,” she told History.com. “Plus, you didn’t always have all six justices appearing at the Supreme Court for health and travel reasons.”

Over the next 80 years, the number of Supreme Court justices would fluctuate for two reasons: the addition of federal circuit courts, and presidents’ partisan motives. John Adams and his Federalist Congress reduced the number to five with the Judiciary Act of 1801, which they hoped would prevent Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson from getting to fill a seat after he took office that year. By the following year, Jefferson’s Congress had passed another judicial act that returned the number of justices to six, and they upped it to seven after forming another circuit court in 1807.

The nation grew significantly during the early 19th century, and Congress finally added two new circuit courts—and with them, two new Supreme Court seats—during Andrew Jackson’s presidential tenure in 1837. Republican Abraham Lincoln then briefly increased the number of justices to 10 in order to add another abolitionist vote, but Congress shrunk it to seven in 1866 to keep Andrew Johnson from filling seats with Democrats. As soon as Republican Ulysses S. Grant succeeded Johnson, Congress set the number back to nine, where it’s remained ever since.

Sketched portraits of the U.S. Supreme Court justices through 1897.Popular and Applied Graphic Art Print Filing Series, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

In 1911, Congress did away with circuit courts altogether, so the number of Supreme Court justices stopped being contingent upon their expansion (though each justice does still oversee a region to help with occasional tasks). As for presidents shifting the number to serve their own goals, it’s now looked down upon as “packing the court.” When Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to increase it to 15 in the 1930s to push his New Deal through the Supreme Court, the Senate opposed the bill by a whopping 70 to 20 votes.

In short, the depth of the Supreme Court’s bench changed a lot in America’s early years not only because the country was expanding, but also because the federal government was still testing out its system of checks and balances. And though presidents do still appoint justices based on their own political party, we’ve gotten used to the idea that the Supreme Court is, at least ideologically, supposed to be unbiased. If Congress and the president kept up the habit of adding and subtracting justices at will, it would tarnish this ideal.

“If Congress increases the size of the Supreme Court for transparently partisan political reasons, it would cement the idea the justices are little more than politicians in robes, and that the court is little more than an additional—and very powerful—arm through which partisan political power can be exercised,” Steve Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, wrote for NBC News. “Indeed, that Congress has not revisited the size of the court in 150 years is a powerful testament to just how ingrained the norm of nine has become—and how concerned different political constituencies have been at different times about preserving the court’s power.”

[h/t History.com]