A Letter Written by Charles Darwin, Twice Stolen, Returns to the Smithsonian

After being snatched by an intern in the mid 1970s, the missive written by the scientist returns to Washington

Stolen Darwin Letter
Front and back of the letter written by Charles Darwin to Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden on May 2, 1875 FBI

A letter written by Charles Darwin in 1875 has been returned to the Smithsonian Institution Archives by the FBI after being stolen twice.

“We realized some time in the mid-1970s that it was missing,” says Effie Kapsalis, head of web, new media and outreach for the Smithsonian Institution Archives. “It was noted as missing and likely taken by an intern, from what the FBI is telling us. Word got out that it was missing when someone asked to see the letter for research purposes,” and the intern replaced the letter. “The intern likely took the letter again once nobody was watching it.”

Decades passed. Finally the FBI received a tip that the stolen document was located very close to Washington, D.C. Their art crime team recovered the letter but were unable to press charges because the statute of limitations had expired. The FBI worked closely with the Archives to determine that the letter was both authentic and definitely Smithsonian's property.

The letter was written by Darwin to thank an American geologist, Dr. Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, for sending him copies of his research into the geology of the region that would become Yellowstone National Park. Hayden undertook a series of expeditions in the American West between the 1850s and 1870s, discovering many dinosaur fossils which remain today in the collection of Smithsonian. Inspired in part by Darwin's "Origin of Species," Hayden spent years working to establish a timeline of Cretaceous Era stratigraphy by studying the fossils of invertebrates and plants and noting how they changed over time.

“What people don't realize is that Smithsonian was involved in early expeditions in North America,” says Kapsalis. “A lot of the field notes from the time of Darwin are in our collections. You can basically use those documents to determine what species were present at that time.”

The letter is in fairly good condition, in spite of being out of the care of trained conservators for so long.

“It was luckily in good shape,” says Kapsalis.” We just have to do some minor things in order to be able to unfold it. It has some adhesive on it that has colored it slightly. But nothing that will prevent us from using it. Then we will digitize it and that will be available online. That's one of our goals. Items that are of high research value or interest to the public, we try to get them online.”

It would now be difficult for an intern, visitor or any other thief to steal a document like this. “Archival practices have changed greatly since” the '70s, says Kapsalis. “We keep our more high value documents in a safe that I don't even have access to.”

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