Archivists Recover Stolen Documents

Archivists at the Texas State Library and Archives Commission (TSLAC) recently recovered legal documents stolen years ago. The Archives and Information Services Division of TSLAC maintains a webpage detailing the types of documents known to be missing from the State Archives, and a Houston lawyer contacted Assistant Director Laura Saegert to notify her of the six-page item for sale through an online bookdealer. Archivist Tiffany Criswell was tasked with investigating the online images and comparing the descriptive information to in-house databases listing Texas Supreme Court files. The red “M number” stamp was the key detail in identifying the papers as state property.

The documents are from the 1845 state Supreme Court case, James M. Johnston v. James Perkins.

State Archivist Jelain Chubb notified the bookdealer of the status of his merchandise, citing Texas Government Code §441.192 that allows TSLAC to demand the return of items removed from state agencies in an unlawful manner. (More information about the sale of government records is available here.) The bookdealer was very cooperative and quickly returned the documents to the archive. After receiving the package, Tiffany began the process of restoring the papers to their rightful place in the repository.

Archivist Tiffany Criswell opens the package containing recovered legal documents from a bookdealer.

Archivist Tiffany Criswell with a recovered legal document. She will prepare the papers for storage in the repository.

Legal documents from nineteenth century court cases are typically folded, sealed, and tied with ribbon. In order to flatten the documents without damaging the paper, Tiffany will humidify them in a crate placed over a pail of water. After humidification, she will carefully smooth out the pages and place them in a press for about a month.

Typical court case document packet from the 1800s.

This simple humidification chamber will loosen the folds in the paper and allow the archivist from to flatten the pages for storage in archival boxes.

Hundreds of documents have been returned to the State Archives through this recovery process, legally referred to as replevin. If you discover documents that may belong to TSLAC, visit https://www.tsl.texas.gov/arc/missingintro.html to learn more. We are always eager to locate missing items and restore, preserve, and make them freely available to the public in fulfillment of our role as custodians of government records.

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