News & Politics

The FBI Has Recovered a Charles Darwin Letter Stolen From the Smithsonian More Than 30 Years Ago

Portrait of Charles Darwin by John Collier via National Portrait Gallery.

A letter written in 1875 by Charles Darwin that was stolen from the Smithsonian Institution more than 30 years ago has finally been recovered, the FBI says.

The document, in which the naturalist thanked American geologist Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden for sharing field studies of the western United States, including area that eventually became Yellowstone National Park, went missing in the mid-1970s and turned up last after a tip to the FBI’s Art Crime Team. The letter was part of the collection of George Perkins Merrill, the late-19th and early-20th century geologist who was a curator at the National Museum of Natural History.

Merrill’s papers were turned over to the Smithsonian in the mid-1970, but the letter was swiped before it could be added to the archives’ inventory.

In the letter, dated May 2, 1875, Darwin—who 16 years earlier published On the Origin of Species—was particularly interested in Vandeveer’s work on the Yellowstone and Colorado rivers:

May 2nd

Dear Sir,

I am much obliged to you for your kindness & for the honour 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

The letter was found in the Washington area. FBI spokesman Andrew Ames says there will be no criminal charges, as the statute of limitations has expired. The letter has been returned to the Smithsonian Institution’s archives.

Darwin letter
Charles Darwin’s letter. Image via FBI.

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Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.