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Lost Rights: The Misadventures of a Stolen American Relic Hardcover – July 2, 2010

4.4 out of 5 stars 23 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. This remarkable American story by Howard, executive editor of Bicycling magazine, follows the long, shadowy trail of a single document, North Carolina's wayward copy of the Bill of Rights. With ratification of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution in 1789, 14 elegantly handwritten copies were drafted, one for each of the original states and one for the federal government. Seventy-six years later, at the end of the Civil War, it is believed a soldier with Sherman's army pilfered North Carolina's copy and carried it home to Ohio. The following year it ended up in the possession of Indiana businessman Charles Shotwell, who bought it for only $5. After 134 years in the Shotwell family's possession, the document in 2000 was purchased for $200,000 by a boastful Connecticut antique collector and an ethically dubious business partner, both hoping to sell it for millions. How the parchment ended up back in North Carolina state archives is an intricate tale involving high-powered antique dealers, businessmen, historians, manuscript experts, auction houses, elite attorneys, governors of three states, the FBI, a U.S. Attorney's office, and Philadelphia's National Constitution Center. The tale pulsates with dynamic personalities greatly affected by their connection to one of the rarest, most influential and valuable documents in American history. Howard has produced a marvelously compelling read. (July)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


“David Howard’s Lost Rights is an epic ride through American history, a colorful page-turner in which the hero is a 220-year-old piece of parchment coveted by an eccentric cast of fast-talking antiquarians and innocent patriots, nerdy record-keepers and special agents in a cinematic showdown. Howard goes deep, creating an astounding narrative weave that captures not just the strange journey of the Bill of Rights, but the modern-day country of hucksters and heroes it has wrought. A truly wonderful read!”
– Michael Paterniti, author of Driving Mr. Albert

"It would be difficult to find a more astonishing journey than the one David Howard traces in LOST RIGHTS. From a defeated and terrified Southern town at the end of the Civil War to a gleaming high rise in Philadelphia nearly 150 years later, Howard explains in riveting detail how one of our most treasured historical artifacts miraculously survived the avarice of men."
—Candice Millard, author of The River of Doubt

"In this tour de force of antiquarian sleuthing, David Howard gamely follows a circuitous trail through distant centuries and rarefied subcultures. LOST RIGHTS not only entertains and enlightens us; it challenges our rockbed assumptions about what we think we have, and what we think we know."
—Hampton Sides, author of Blood and Thunder and Ghost Soldiers

"LOST RIGHTS has it all—a historic heist, hidden treasure, deception, skullduggery, lawyers, guns, money, cheap picture frames and one very valuable piece of parchment. David Howard’s true-life tale of an original Bill of Rights stolen, lost, found and scammed reads like a thriller set backstage at Antiques Roadshow."
—Bruce Barcott, author of The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw

"David Howard's LOST RIGHTS reveals—and untangles—a fascinating web of secrets and lies. At the story¹s heart lies nothing less than the best intentions and the worst impulses of all humanity. With his compelling narrative, larger-than-life characters, and sharp reporting, Howard lights the darkest corners of this twisted journey of one of America's most sacred relics."
—Susan Casey, author of The Devil's Teeth

“Here's a detective story of the ages, and for the ages. Dave Howard's investigation is almost as remarkable as the story it uncovers!”
—Bill McKibben, author Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet


Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (July 2, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618826076
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618826070
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.6 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,158,818 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

A native of tiny Andover, Connecticut, Howard has over the last 20 years has been a newspaper reporter, freelance writer, full-time magazine editor, and now author. Right out of college he worked as a reporter at a small daily covering the cop beat, but a turning point came in the late 1990s, when Howard signed on with a buddy looking for editorial help with his alternative biweekly newspaper, Connecticut's Waterbury Observer. There, Howard wrote magazine-length stories about all sorts of characters, and was hooked.

In 1999 he moved down to New York City to launch into a full-time freelance writing career. At first, in an abject struggle for survival, Howard briefly held down a freelance fact-checking gig for Working Mother magazine and even considered an offer to write a guidebook to Manhattan strip clubs. But then things took off, and he began writing for national publications: Backpacker, Men's Journal, Outside, The New York Times, Travel + Leisure and the late, great National Geographic Adventure, to name a few. He hunted down stories in adventurous places like Nicaragua, Guatemala, Israel, Lebanon and Hungary. He wrote the New York City guidebook he was better suited for--about outdoor pursuits such as kayaking and rock climbing. In 2004, Howard landed a job as an editor at Backpacker, where, while learning how to light a campfire when all the wood is wet, he was part of a small team that won two National Magazine Awards--the first ever for that title. And that led, in 2008, to his current job at Bicycling.

Lost Rights is his first book. It began with a call from his friend Charley Monagan at Connecticut Magazine in 2003, which makes this journey to publication a particularly long one: more than seven years in all. Howard traveled up and down the East Coast and out to the Midwest several times unraveling the story, wheedling and cajoling key sources over the course of several years for interviews. Most of them eventually agreed. For this, and for the many other interesting and serendipitous and enriching things that have happened, Howard is grateful. He lives in Emmaus, Pennsylvania.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Lost Rights is an enjoyable read. When the Declaration of Independence was first proposed to the original 13 states North Carolina objected stating that it didn't go far enough to protect personal freedoms. This led to the Bill of Rights which secured those freedoms. It was adopted and one of three government clerks wrote out a copy for each state and a 14th copy for the Federal government. During the Civil War one of Sherman's soldiers stole North Carolina's copy and took it back home to Ohio. He quickly sold it and it was handed down through three generations of one family for the next 134 years. That's the Cliff Notes version but Howard provides a very detailed, sometimes almost too detailed, account of the document's journey back to North Carolina. There's a salty cast of characters who play their parts along the way. Howard gives us a behind the scenes take on the world of rare documents buying and selling. I was saddened to read that far too many state and federal documents have been lost, destroyed by accident, war, and carelessness and worst of all stolen, sometimes by the people charged with protecting them though for the most part that's an anomaly. Ironically in order to provide the provenance of this particular Bill of Rights several seemingly valueless documents were required. A careful documents clerk's distinctive markings clinched it as North Carolina's copy. Howard emphasized that though this physical object is important more important are its words and what they mean for us as a country and individuals. He includes a quote from a fellow journalist, Mark Bowden, who said, "Any nation is, at heart, an idea."

I recently read Wittman's book "Priceless" about his career in the FBI specializing in stolen art objects and his account of his part in recovering this Bill of Rights dovetails with Howard's though Howard's is far more detailed.
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Format: Hardcover
From Civil War battlefields to the hot lights of the Antiques Roadshow set to a true crime ending I won't spoil, Howard gives you a front row seat to the action. The Bill of Rights itself also becomes a character, and it shapes every scene its in. If you've ever looked at a family heirloom and wondered its value or the road it has traveled to get where it is, you must read this book.
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Format: Hardcover
If a story has interesting characters and a compelling plot narrative, especially that happens actually to have happened, and a setting which blends the familiar with the mysterious, the result simply can't be bad. David Howard introduces the uninitiated to the arcane world of rare manuscripts, including the dealers, archivists, collectors and thieves who handle them. Unlike the historically bereft "National Treasure" film, this far more interesting narrative course of events was all too real. Mr. Howard's comprehensive research and good endnotes demonstrate interest in getting the details right. He also demonstrates the right level of detachment and perspective; he obviously cares greatly about the story and the value of an original (1 of 14) Bill of Rights, even questioning the meaning of the value and how it does or does not relate to a price which might be paid.

Somehow, however, something is still missing. To be fair, the story is so compelling that I stayed up late to finish it. But it seems that just a few small tweaks to the organization of the story would launch the book from a good historical read into the realm of really compelling tell-all-your-friends greatness.
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Format: Hardcover
In 1789, fourteen engrossed (i.e., handwritten) copies of the Bill of Rights were made and distributed, one to each colony and one to the Federal Government. David Howard's book, "Lost Rights", recounts the peripatetic history of North Carolina's version after it was stolen from the Raleigh statehouse by Union soldiers at the end of the Civil War in 1865. An enthralling story.

With many downsides. A book like this, with so many characters and sites and events, deserves an index. The characters can be gathered, fairly obviously, into a few groups (the inheritors of the document, the consortium that tried to aquire it, the people they tried to sell it to, the officials of North Carolina who tried to reclaim it legally), so a grouped cast of characters would be very helpful. There are no illustrations, though the text mentions the appearance of the document itself, the revered signatures of Adams and Muhlenberg, and especially the similarity of various docketing notes, upon which much of the point of the tale depends; reproductions would allow the reader to make the comparisons for himself. There are many irrelevant background tales, and the story bounces around through 150 years of history like a ping-pong ball on a tympani, so you are always trying to recall where you are. Also some stylistic solecisms.

But still, Howard has a wonderful story to tell: the hectic hegira of the North Carolina Bill of Rights ends with an FBI "sting" in Philadelphia that snags the parchment and the rather unscrupulous seller; and at the end, it raises very relevant questions about provenance and ownership of antiquities. After all, after centuries or millennia of buying and selling, stealing and swapping, losing and finding, who really "owns" any artefact?

Howard's consistent objectivity with a cast of odd personalities in an odd pursuit saved the book for me. Four.
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