FBI returns stolen Charles Darwin letter to Smithsonian (Photos)

WASHINGTON — A letter written by famed naturalist Charles Darwin is back at the Smithsonian Archives more than 40 years after it was stolen by an intern.

The letter went missing from the Smithsonian Institution Archives in the late 1970s, said FBI Art Crime team agent Marc Hess. Investigators recovered the historical artifact following a public tip alerting the bureau to its whereabouts in February.

The letter, dated by Darwin in 1875, was part of a collection of correspondence and documents relating to North American geology.

During the short time the intern was employed at the Archives, that person took the letter, returned it and then took it again, said Effie Capsalis with the Smithsonian Archives.

“The letter was in the process of being archived — it had been received from a collection. And this individual thought, ‘Hey, this hasn’t been archived yet. I’ll just put this in my pocket and go home with it,” Hess surmised.

Hess and his team reached out to the Darwin Correspondence Project in Cambridge, England and verified its authenticity.

Despite being outside the Smithsonian’s care, the letter was well preserved, Hess said.

The letter has an interesting attribute where Darwin crossed out part of the letterhead to indicate his new address.

“To see that personal touch where he crossed out the name of one city and wrote in the next, it really brought home the fact this is a real piece of history we’re holding here,” he said.

Darwin wrote the letter to American geologist Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden to thank him for sending two field studies of the American West, including a region that later became Yellowstone National Park.

“The Smithsonian was at the forefront when so much groundbreaking science that was beginning to happen in America, tracking expeditions exploring places that were not yet national parks. For us, it’s an important record in terms of conservation history and science history,” Capsalis said.

The letter will not be put on display and is in the same vault that houses the draft will that founded the Smithsonian, she said.

The letter reads:

May 2nd
Dear Sir,
I am much obliged to you for your kindness & for the honor which you have done me in sending your Geological Report of the Yellowstone River & your Preliminary Field Report on the Colorado & New Mexico. I had heard of your Geological researches on the Colorado & was anxious to see the conclusions at which you had arrived, & I am therefore especially obliged to you for having sent me your works.
With much respect & my best thanks, I remain,
Dear Sir,
yours faithfully
Charles Darwin

Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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