When Samuel L. Morison of Crofton was charged this week with stealing documents from the U.S. Navy's archive in Washington, it was a rare event for the facility.
"There has not been a theft like this in recent memory," said Paul Taylor, a spokesman for the Naval History and Heritage Command, from whose collection Morison allegedly took three boxes of files used by his grandfather, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Samuel Eliot Morison.
Theft is a very real danger within the quiet rooms of the nation's historical research facilities. Archivists are always on the lookout for looters posing as researchers to make off with valuable papers and artifacts.
On the National Archives' website, the organization lists more than 100 documents and artifacts missing from its collection. The items include letters written by Abraham Lincoln, World War II target maps of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a U.S. Coast Guard Academy ring given to Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.
Though it's not clear that all of those items were stolen — some could be lost or misplaced — the National Archives has a security force devoted to stopping thefts.
When breaches do occur, a team of six criminal investigators and one archivist works to hunt down the missing objects. According to a March report by the National Archives' Office of the Inspector General, the team monitors the sale of historical objects by going to antique shows and auctions around the country.
Federal agents recovered some of the Navy's stolen documents during a raid of Morison's house in May, according to charging documents. They found others through a bookseller who had bought them from Morison, authorities said.
An investigation is still underway to determine how the documents were smuggled out. Taylor said the Navy archive keeps visitors under close watch. But after discovering the thefts, the archive hired new staff so visitors are not left alone while employees locate documents for them, Taylor said.
Baltimore was the site of one of the nation's highest-profile thefts of historic items. In July 2011, archivists at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore caught Barry Landau and an associate pilfering documents from its collection. Landau was sentenced to seven years in prison.