COLUMBIA - For more than 230 years, a silver sword with an unusually wavy blade was a symbol of power in South Carolina. It was passed down from Colonial assemblies through secessionist leaders, kept safely in its place in the state Senate chamber.
Read more about South Carolina's missing Sword of State at the FBI website
But that sword - carried by the sergeant-at-arms, adding solemnity to state occasions - hasn't been seen in more than 70 years.
In February 1941, Sergeant-at-Arms Zed Hope couldn't find it to lead the Senate into a joint legislative session with the House. The sword may have been gone for up to a week by then, and the disappearance caused little initial uproar: Senators assumed it was someone playing a prank on Hope, who was always uptight about losing the sword, House Clerk Charles Reid said.
But the culprit never came forward and the sword's fate is unknown. Reid has a number of theories. Was it melted down for its silver? Did the thief realize the sword's value and the likelihood it would draw attention if sold and throw it into a river or lake? Was it stolen by a private collector long since dead? Was the sword taken as a joke, but the prankster panicked and never brought it back?
"Maybe it is just sitting in someone's attic and they don't realize exactly what it is or just how valuable it might be," Reid said.
The sword isn't the only symbol of South Carolina to disappear. The state mace has disappeared twice, once taken by British sympathizers during the American Revolution and again in 1971 by a disgruntled former Statehouse employee. But the 257-year-old solid silver staff with gold burnishing has safely made it home both times and remains at the front of the South Carolina House whenever legislators are in session.
South Carolina has a replacement sword, donated by a former British ambassador to the U.S. But what happened to the original Sword of State remains a mystery.
Just one photo of the original sword is known to exist, a poor-quality picture from a newspaper that shows little detail of the double-edged flamberge blade, designed in the 18th century to look like flames or the cross guard with its finials attached in opposite directions. The photo is online in the national stolen art database at the FBI's website.
The first sword's origins are a mystery, too. The sword has no markings to indicate it was forged in Europe, so some experts think it was made in what was then called Charles Town by a local silversmith. Others think Lowcountry artisans were not skilled enough to make such a complex blade, according to a history of the sword kept at the Legislature.
The sword is first mentioned in the journal of the Commons House of Assembly of South Carolina in May 1704. After the Colonial leaders, the Lords Proprietors, were overthrown in 1719, the sword was used by His Majesty's Council for South Carolina. The sword also preceded the entrance of John Rutledge after he was elected president of South Carolina, following the state's decision to adopt its own constitution and leave Great Britain in 1776, and sat at the front of the state Senate for the next 165 years until it quietly disappeared, according to legislative historians.
Columbia Police were called in, according to newspaper accounts, but the department has no records of any investigation.
South Carolina didn't go without a Sword of State for long. The Charleston Museum donated a Civil War cavalry sword, which was used for a decade. In 1951, E.F.L. Wood, the 1st Earl of Halifax, gave South Carolina a sword etched with the state flower and state seal by craftsmen in London. That sword is in use today.
The sword's partner, the state mace, has its own vanishing story. The scepter-like wand was made in London in 1756 and was bought by the Commons House of Assembly of South Carolina for 90 guineas.
British sympathizers, angry at South Carolina's decision to revolt, stole the mace and tried to sell it to lawmakers in the Bahamas. They refused, and the mace wasn't seen publicly until 1819, when a South Carolinian became president of the Bank of the United States and found the mace in a bank vault.
The mace stayed in South Carolina until February 1971, when a House clerk opening the chamber for the day discovered the door to its case pried open and the mace missing. State Law Enforcement Division Chief J.P. Strom took over the investigation personally, starting by checking on employees and former workers. A former security chief for the Statehouse came under suspicion when SLED agents discovered he suddenly left his job as a police officer in Florida and hadn't been seen since, according to SLED's files from its investigation.
The mace was found three weeks after it was stolen in Charles Norton's trunk as he was in a veterans' hospital suffering from a psychological breakdown. Strom told reporters he fired Norton because he associated with the wrong kind of people when he wasn't working. Investigators also learned later that Norton had duplicates made of keys to the House and Senate chambers and other rooms of the Statehouse before he left.
Strom got his picture in the paper triumphantly carrying the mace over his head as he walked down steps off a plane. Norton pleaded guilty to housebreaking and grand larceny and was sentenced to three years in prison and four years of probation. His lawyer explained why he stole the mace as he entered his guilty plea.
"He was wallowing in a sea of self-despair," public defender John Williams was quoted as saying in newspaper articles from the time. "He felt he had been unjustly relieved of his duties and apparently did this thing to try to embarrass those who released him."
This undated image released by the South Carolina Legislature shows the South Carolina's original Sword of State in Columbia, S.C. House Clerk Charles Reid said this is the only known photo of the sword, which disappeared from the state Senate chambers in 1941 and hasn't been seen since. (AP Photo/South Carolina Legislature)×
FILE - This Dec. 6, 2006 file photo shows South Carolina's official mace in front of under South Carolina House Speaker Bobby Harrell in the House chambers in Columbia, S.C. The 257-year-old mace has disappeared twice, but been recovered and brought back both times. (AP Photo/The State, Gerry Melendez)×
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