Delaware attic held secret to historic museum burglary spree — and a million-dollar gun
For untold years in the mouse-infested secret crawlspace of an attic in Newark, Delaware, a man named Michael Kintner Corbett kept priceless American history locked away from the world.
That is, until the FBI came calling.
On May 24, 2017, FBI agents led by art crimes Special Agent Jake Archer followed a search warrant into the hidden upper room of Corbett’s Newark residence and to a safe tucked in the basement.
In the process, the agents broke open a 50-year mystery spanning six states, 16 museums and dozens of historic firearms whose provenance spans the entire history of America — a rash of museum burglaries Archer calls “one of the largest of its kind that we’re aware of.”
In the end, 73-year-old Corbett would serve just a single day in prison.
But after a long and cheerful repatriation ceremony at Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution on Monday, March 13 — broken often by laughter and the sound of curators’ ill-contained relief — those historic firearms are finally going home and back into the public trust.
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To the Daniel Boone Homestead. To the Museum of Connecticut History. To the Blair and Delaware County museums in Pennsylvania, and the Beauvoir Museum in Biloxi, Mississippi.
Pennsylvania’s Hershey Story museum — yes, the one with all the chocolate — is bringing home a volcanic pistol from a disastrous Civil War skirmish that saw Oregon Sen. Everett Baker fall in battle, the only sitting U.S. senator ever to do so.
At least one of the recovered guns, a Colt Whitneyville Walker stolen from Connecticut, might be worth as much as a million dollars.
But whatever their monetary value, these historic items are “priceless and irreplaceable” to the museums and the communities they belong to, said President Thomas Stockton of the Stone House Museum in Belchertown, Massachusettes, who called an 18th-century powder horn a "thrilling" recovery.
“These objects, as with everything being returned today, connect us with the past — with real people, places, events and ideals — in ways that are as important and significant to us now as they were when they were held and used by their owners many years ago,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney K.T. Newton, who headed the prosecution.
Museum burglaries stretched from Mississippi to Massachusetts
The firearms repatriated Monday had been lost for 50 years in many cases.
Museums from Pennsylvania to Connecticut to Mississippi were dogged by a series of mysterious burglaries throughout the 1970s.
For a decade beginning in 1968, a trove of historic pistols disappeared from the Valley Forge Historical Society Museum, onetime keeper of Pennsylvania’s revolutionary history. A rifle from the Daniel Boone Homestead in Birdsboro also went missing.
In 1971, a multi-museum spree in Connecticut led to the loss of a painfully rare Colt Whitneyville Walker revolver: the holy grail of gun collectors everywhere, inscribed into the 19th-century history of Connecticut and Texas as the world’s first six-shooter. The guns were made specially by Samuel Colt for legendary Texas Ranger Samuel Walke; another gun from of the same make fetched $1.8 million at auction back in 2018.
The U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, was disabused of a pair of Luger pistols once granted as a gift to America’s last five-star general, Omar Bradley, after being seized on the World War II battlefield in Tunisia.
The museum thefts occurred before the ubiquity of security cameras. Fingerprints often weren’t taken from the scene, said Newton, the assistant U.S. attorney. In some cases, museums didn’t know for days, weeks or years that their collections had been pilfered.
The cases instead sat cold. They turned into the sad stories museum curators told themselves about things gone lost.
From the age of 10, President R. Scott Stephenson of the Museum of the American Revolution had seen pictures of an old group of Revolutionary War pistols in a schoolbook from the 1960s. For about as long, the pistols had been missing from the museum he would later run.
“I have literally been looking for half a century at pictures of these weapons,” he said. “And now I'm going to have them in my hand.”
A 14-year investigation that began with a false tip
The cold case of those guns went hot in 2009, when Upper Merion Township, Pennsylvania, detectives Andrew Rathfon and Brendan Dougherty caught an unusual tip.
“An elderly gentleman came into our station, and he thought he had seen a gun for sale at an antique gun show," Rathfon said. The man believed the gun had been stolen, long ago, from the Valley Forge Historical Society.
That tip wasn’t true, it turned out.
But it was the spark that led Rathfon and Dougherty to begin a cold-case investigation that would last 14 years and cross state lines.
Rathfon and Dougherty looped in Stephenson at the Museum of the American Revolution, gathering information on missing historical items. They pored over dead case files and museum records.
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The detectives learned of anonymous phone calls made long ago to the curator of the Valley Forge Historical Society, from “a man who said he knew someone who knew an attorney who had information about some stuff stolen from the museum in the 70s,” according to an account by Assistant U.S. Attorney Newton.
Rathfon and Doughtery also found another anonymous letter sent to Vermont, which contained photos of stolen pistols and pellet horns. With a few "lucky breaks and confidential sources," Rathfon said, the detectives tracked missing museum items all over the region.
This long and dogged trail led them to Corbett’s address in Delaware, outside their jurisdiction, and to the office door of FBI Special Agent Archer.
After serving a warrant at Corbett’s home in 2017, the FBI agents discovered a trove of historic weapons. But none were the weapons that had spurred the detectives’ investigation in the first place.
In fact, they didn’t know where all of the weapons had come from. For that, they had to trust Stephenson at the Museum of the American Revolution, using photos and descriptions to track the objects' rightful homes all over the country.
The effort took years.
“They had already done amazing work,” Archer said of the two detectives. “But when we learned the scope, we realized there was a lot more work to be done.”
The written record on Michael Kintner Corbett is a little thin.
The 73-year-old Pennsylvania native grew up as a great fan of history, said his defense attorney, Barry Gross of Philadelphia.
“He was a collector, and also had a series of other jobs over the years,” said Gross, who noted that Corbett was the sort of history aficionado who knew the background of each gun, and the story of each soldier who once carried it.
Corbett never intended to sell the guns, Gross said, only to “have them.”
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A “great number” of the historic weapons officers found at Corbett’s property were obtained legitimately, Gross said, from flea markets and estate sales.
But some were not.
Corbett admitted this to the court, in a December 2022 plea bargain for possession of stolen property that left him with a one-day prison sentence, 14 months of house arrest and a $65,000 fine to pay.
As part of the plea bargain, Corbett led authorities to a number of other historic items, including the Colt from Connecticut and a number of pistols taken from the Valley Forge museum.
Authorities did not prove, however, that Corbett was the thief.
“We do know that a number of firearms and other items stolen from the same museum at the same time were found in his home,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Newton said. “We also do know that in the distant past, Michael Corbett himself had been arrested and charged with a burglary … at the General Mansfield house, the headquarters for the Middlesex County Historical Society in Connecticut.”
But she can’t legally prove that he was the serial thief, she said.
“I will leave you to your own conclusions,” she said.
Ecstatic curators bring historic firearms home after 50 years
But at the Museum of the American Revolution on Monday, few were concerned with the disposition of Michael Corbett.
“These are American cultural heritage items going back to American institutions today,” said Jacqueline Maguire, head of the FBI’s Philadelphia field office. “This is a huge source of pride for me, for our FBI team, and I'm sure for everyone in this room.”
Looking at the historical weapons laid out on the table behind her, U.S. Attorney for Eastern Pennsylvania Jacqueline Romero professed a loss for words.
“It's just pretty incredible. I’m a little bit speechless as well, at describing the wealth of what we see here from our American history,” Romero said. “We and our partners are returning 50 pieces of our cultural heritage.”
Kevin Steele, the district attorney for Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, remembered field trips to the former Valley Forge museum when he was a junior high school student.
“We didn't get to see a lot of these pieces, because they were stolen before I was in junior high school,” he said, laughing. “And I'm pretty old. So this has been a while coming.”
The Colt Whitneyville Walker revolver, perhaps the most monetarily valuable single piece on display at the ceremony, will return in the custody of two members of the Connecticut State Patrol to the Museum of Connecticut History, said Jennifer Matos, that museum's administrator.
“We are not taking any chances,” she said, smiling. “We want to make sure it arrives.”
Curator after curator, from museum after museum, stood in front of the room to tell the stories of each item.
Alex MacKenzie, of the National Park Service, proudly declared an 1842 single-shot pistol bound for its home at the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts to be the product of “government work back when ‘good enough for government work’ was a very high bar.”
Each weapon returning to the Blair County Historical Society in Altoona, Pennsylvania, said curator James Lowe, tells the story of a Pennsylvania resident who crafted that weapon and another resident who carried it and bore witness to the founding of the county and nation.
Librarian Irene Coffey, holding up a humble flare light, acknowledged that the items returned to Nitre Hall in Pennsylvania’s Haverford Township might not be as historically significant as muskets from the French and Indian War, or Lugers owned by a five-star general.
But thank you for not forgetting “we little people,” she said, to applause.
ZeeAnn Mason, chief operating officer for the Museum of American Revolution, drew a simple lesson from the return of the historic artifacts so many years later.
“It gives you hope,” she said before the ceremony. “When 50 years later we are able to recover these objects, it means there’s always hope.”
Matthew Korfhage is a Philadelphia-based reporter for the USA Today Network. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @matthewkorfhage.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: After 50 years, guns found in Delaware repatriated to 16 museums