Thirty-six years ago, robbers took priceless items – three swords and two daggers and their scabbards, encrusted with jewels – from the Truman Library in Independence.
They are still missing, and a cable television show is trying to bring new attention to the issue.
“It’s, I guess, kind of a cold case,” museum curator Clay Bauske said.
Bauske is among those interviewed for tonight’s kickoff episode of “Brad Meltzer’s Lost History.” It’s on at 9 p.m. on H2; that’s channel 116 on Comcast cable. The series, with 10 episodes this season, is about lost historical artifacts such as the Wright Brothers’ original airplane patent and the targeting maps for the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“Where on Earth are Harry Truman’s swords?” Meltzer asks during tonight’s episode. The Truman segment on the hour-long show is the second of three. The first is about the flag hoisted above the wreckage of the Twin Towers in 2001; the third is about John Dillinger’s Tommy gun – which now has been found. During the show, Meltzer encourages anyone with information to pass it along. Among other things, you can go to history.com to do so.
The story of Truman’s swords, as related in the TV show, is of a brazen and well-planned daylight robbery. Early in the morning of March 24, 1978, one guard was on duty at the library, at the north end of the building. A woman got out of a car and walked around. The guard kept an eye on her – but perhaps she was meant as a distraction.
At 6:30 a.m., thieves broke the glass at the library’s front doors, facing U.S. 24 at the south end of the building. That set off an alarm, but the robbers needed little time. The guard came running down a long hallway. The thieves went to a double-door near the gift shop and locked it down with a four-foot length of chain and a padlock. The guard heard more glass breaking. He yelled. It didn’t do any good. The thieves were done in 45 seconds.
As with all presidents, Truman was given any number of gifts during his time in office. He had no desire to keep them, feeling that they rightly belonged to the American people and that he should not profit from that. And that was one reason, Bauske explains, to have a library, as a place to display and permanently protect those items. Over the years, Truman deeded those items over to the library.
For years, the library had swords in a display case on the wall in the library’s lobby, which is dominated by the Thomas Hart Benton mural, “Independence and the Opening of the West.” The swords and daggers were to the left of the mural, one a gift from the shah of Iran and four from Saudi Arabia.
They have never turned up. Meltzer calls them “the museum’s crown jewels,” and one expert on the show suggests their value could be more than $1 million. Meltzer calls them “extremely cool and worth an insane amount of money.”
The website of the National Archives has a section on its website about missing presidential items. There’s no price tag, but the swords would be highly valuable:
• A dagger and scabbard, given by Saudi Crown Prince Saud, is listed has having “a gold hilt with 4 diamonds of .5 carats each in the pommel, surrounding a 2.5 carat emerald. The lower grip has 15 small diamonds surrounding an oval 3 carat ruby. The scabbard is gold with 4 rubies at the throat and an 8.5 carat emerald over a 3 carat ruby surrounded by 12 small diamonds. At the tip is a 3 carat ruby surrounded by 12 small diamonds.” Another dagger and scabbard “has a gold hilt, steel blade, and is decorated with 9 diamonds on its grip. The scabbard is gold decorated with 4 diamonds. The belt has a gold buckle and woven gold thread.”
• A “presentation sword” from the crown prince “is 38" long, has gold grips and a gold chain connecting the hand guard with the pommel grip. It is decorated with 4 diamonds. The hand guard also has a diamond. The scabbard is gold and black leather decorated with 15 diamonds.” Another sword from the crown prince “is just under 38" long. It has a curved steel blade with ivory grips and a gold decoration chain leading from the hand guard to the pommel. It has multiple diamonds and rubies throughout both the grips and the scabbard.”
• The shah of Iran gave Truman a sword. “The primary materials are silver and steel,” the website says.
“I know” Bauske said, “that the National Archives is still actively looking for those things.”