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The FBI Sting Operation that Saved the Bill of Rights

September 25, 2014

TIME

On Sept. 25, 1789, Congress approved the Bill of Rights, and 13 copies were dispatched to the 13 American states for ratification. The past 225 years have been pretty tame for most of the original copies, but one of the yellowed parchment sheets — the version destined for North Carolina — ended up on a much longer journey than its drafters could have imagined, involving shady collectors, an FBI sting operation and a theft masked by the fog of war.

Things started out so calmly: the North Carolina document spent a relatively placid 75 years in the state archives in Raleigh after the state quickly ratified the amendment. A state clerk placed it among archival papers in the Capitol building, and it stayed in Raleigh until near the end of the Civil War.

Then, in 1865, North Carolina’s copy of the Bill of Rights began a long and unexpected…

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