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NC Bill of Rights Visits Wilmington

Courtesy of the State of North Carolina Archives and Records Section
NC original copy of the Bill of Rights.

Area residents get a chance to view an original copy of the Bill of Rights when the document goes on display in Wilmington through this weekend.

By Megan V. Williams

Wilmington, NC – After 140 years as a fugitive, North Carolina's original copy of the Bill of Rights is on a triumphal tour around the state.

The document goes on display Thursday through Sunday at Wilmington's Cameron Art Museum. According to North Carolina Office of Archives and History deputy director Jeffrey Crow, seeing this piece of history in person is a moving experience for many people.

"We had people in Fayetteville, when it was on exhibit there, who were literally in tears at the opportunity to see such an important document," Crow said.

The bill goes from Wilmington to Edenton, Raleigh, Charlotte, Asheville, and Greensboro. Crow says it will travel under state Highway Patrol protection.

Purloined History

For the past 140 years, North Carolina's copy of the Bill of Rights has been a test of the adage: possession is 9/10s of the law.

The document disappeared from the state capitol when General Tecumseh Sherman's troops stopped in Raleigh on their way back from the Civil War. North Carolina didn't hear from its Bill of Rights again until 1897, when an Indianapolis newspaper described the document hanging in the business of Charles Shotwell.

Shotwell reportedly said he bought the document from an Ohio soldier in 1866 for $5.

Numerous attempts by the state to get the document returned were unsuccessful. In 1925, Shotwell tried to the sell the Bill back to North Carolina, but according to Crow, his predecessor refused, saying the state wouldn't buy back its own property and that "'as long as it remained out of the custody of North Carolina, it was a monument to individual theft.'"

The Bill resurfaced in 1995, when a lawyer again tried to sell the document to state officials. This time, North Carolina turned to the FBI, mounting an undercover operation in 2003 that netted the Bill of Rights under the guise of a museum purchase.

In the legal battle that followed, a federal court ruling gave North Carolina possession of the document. Ownership is still being argued in the Wake County superior court.

Click here for more information about the Bill of Rights tour.