Michael Kintner Corbett kept valuable pieces of American history locked away for years in a mouse-infested and concealed crawlspace of his attic in Newark, Delaware. Some of the historical items laid there for nearly 50 years.
But, the FBI eventually uncovered his secret when they paid him a visit.
On May 24, 2017, Art Crimes Special Agent Jake Archer led a team of FBI agents to Corbett’s Newark home to execute a search warrant.
- A History Burglaries
- Nowhere is Safe
- The Recovery
- The Case
- A Historic Moment
- Everything is Back to Where it Belonged!
During the search, they discovered a hidden upper room and a safe tucked away in the basement. This discovery put an end to a 50-year-old mystery. This mystery spanned six states, 16 museums, and many historical firearms.
Its origins trace back to the earliest days of America. According to Archer, the string of museum burglaries is “one of the largest of its kind that we’re aware of.”
The 73-year-old Corbett spent only a single day in jail after the arrest.
On March 13, Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution had a ceremony. But laughter and audible relief of the curators interrupted the ceremony frequently.
The historical firearms that Corbett hid for years were returned to their rightful places – entrusted back to the public. The Daniel Boone Homestead, the Museum of Connecticut History, and the Beauvoir Museum in Biloxi, Mississippi, were all set to receive their respective firearms.
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The Hershey Story Museum in Pennsylvania was ready to receive a volcanic pistol which has a significant historical background. It was used during a Civil War battle where Oregon Senator Everett Baker lost his life. He was the only sitting U.S. senator to have died in battle. This firearm is one of several recovered ones returned to their respective museums.
Among the recovered guns is a Colt Whitneyville Walker. Rumour has it that somebody stole it from Connecticut. This particular firearm is worth approximately one million dollars! Undoubtedly, the return of historical items holds immeasurable value, both monetarily and culturally.
President Thomas Stockton of the Stone House Museum in Belchertown, Massachusetts, expressed his excitement for the return of an 18th-century powder horn. He referred to it as a “thrilling” recovery.
The returned objects are important to the museums and to the communities they serve. These historical artifacts provide a tangible link to the past. It also allows us to connect with real people, places, events, and ideals.
They are as significant now as they were when their original owners first used them. Assistant U.S. Attorney, K.T. Newton, acknowledged the significance of these objects. He stated they are “as important and significant to us now” as they were to their original owners many years ago.
A History Burglaries
In some cases, the repatriated firearms had been missing for up to 50 years.
During the 1970s, museums in various states faced a string of unexplained burglaries. These museums were robbed of a collection of historic pistols that went missing over ten years, starting in 1968. A rifle from the Daniel Boone Homestead in Birdsboro also disappeared during this time.
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In 1971, a series of robberies occurred in several Connecticut museums. It resulted in losing a Colt Whitneyville Walker revolver – a rare firearm that gun collectors covet worldwide. Recognized as the world’s first six-shooter, it was custom-made by Samuel Colt. Another Colt Walker revolver of the same make was sold at an auction in 2018 for a staggering $1.8 million. The loss of this firearm in 1971 was a devastating blow to the Connecticut and Texas communities. Why? Because it held immense historical and cultural value.
Nowhere was Safe
The U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, lost a pair of Luger pistols. They were gifted to General Omar Bradley, the last five-star general of the United States.
These thefts occurred before security cameras became commonplace. Back then, fingerprints were rarely taken from the scene. Often, museums were unaware that their collections had been stolen for extended periods. It left the cases cold and the stories of the stolen items as sad memories for museum curators.
For President R. Scott Stephenson of the Museum of the American Revolution, his search for a set of Revolutionary War pistols began at age 10. It was when he first saw their pictures in a schoolbook from the 1960s. Sadly, the firearms were missing from the museum that he would eventually run.
But now, after over 50 years, he can finally hold them in his hands.
The detectives followed the leads from those anonymous phone calls. They eventually led them to John James, a suspect in the thefts. James was a former volunteer at the Valley Forge Historical Society.
A search warrant for James’ home in 2013 helped uncover stolen historical artifacts. It included many of the missing firearms.
James was eventually convicted of stealing the artifacts. His sentence was a total of 28 months in prison. In a joint effort, many law enforcement agencies and museum curators tracked the missing items.
Detectives Rathfon and Dougherty’s investigation into the missing historical items led them to an anonymous letter sent to Vermont. It contained photos of stolen pistols and pellet horns. Thanks to “lucky breaks and confidential sources,” they tracked down missing museum items in the region. It led them to Corbett’s address in Delaware. But, since the address was outside their jurisdiction, they teamed up with FBI Special Agent Archer to continue the investigation.
Corbett grew up to be a successful real estate developer and an art collector. Interestingly, he’s renowned for his vast collection of rare books, antiques, and firearms. Appointed by the then-New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, Corbett served as a Delaware River Port Authority commissioner.
Corbett’s defence attorney claims he was a history enthusiast and collector with various jobs. Barry Gross mentioned that Corbett knew the history and stories behind each gun and the soldier who once carried it. He claimed that Corbett did not intend to sell the weapons but to simply own them. Gross also noted that a significant part of the historic weapons found at Corbett’s property were obtained legally from flea markets and estate sales.
The given statement is true. Michael Kintner Corbett admitted to possessing stolen property and entered a plea bargain in December 2022. He was sentenced to one day in prison, 14 months of house arrest, and ordered to pay a $65,000 fine. Corbett provided information about other stolen historic items as part of the plea bargain. It included the Colt revolver from Connecticut and pistols taken from the Valley Forge museum.
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In summary, the authorities did not prove that Michael Corbett was the thief responsible for the museum thefts. But they did find stolen items from the museum in his possession. Corbett himself had been arrested and charged with burglary in the past. Yet Assistant U.S. Attorney Newton stated that she could not legally prove he was the serial thief.
At the Museum of the American Revolution, few were interested in the fate of Michael Corbett. The focus was on American cultural heritage items. “This is a source of great pride for our FBI team, for me, and I’m sure for everyone in this room,” said Jacqueline Maguire, head of the FBI’s Philadelphia field office.
A Historic Moment
U.S. Attorney for Eastern Pennsylvania, Jacqueline Romero, was spellbound as she saw the historical weapons displayed.
“It’s hard to put into words just how incredible this is. The sheer breadth of what we see here, representing our American history, is truly breath-taking,” Romero said. “Together with our partners, we are able to return 50 artifacts of our cultural heritage.”
As a junior high student, Kevin Steele, the District Attorney for Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, reflected on his school field trips to the former Valley Forge museum.
“As a kid, I remember going to the museum and being disappointed that I couldn’t see some of these pieces because they had been stolen before my time,” he said with a chuckle. “And that was a long time ago. So, this has been a long time coming.”
Jennifer Matos, Administrator of the Museum of Connecticut History, announced that the Colt Whitneyville Walker revolver would finally be returned. To ensure safe arrival, it went under the custody of two members of the Connecticut State Patrol.
“We are not taking any chances,” she said with a smile.
Everything is Back to Where it Belonged!
One after another, curators representing various museums stood up to share the stories behind each item. Alex MacKenzie, the representative of the National Park Service, proudly spoke of an 1842 single-shot pistol that would be returning to its home at the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts. He described it as a product of “government works back when ‘good enough for government work’ was a very high bar.”
James Lowe, the Blair County Historical Society curator, explained that each returned weapon tells a story. A story about a Pennsylvania resident who crafted it and another resident who carried it. They bear witness to the founding of the country and nation.
Irene Coffey, a librarian, held up a humble flare gun. She acknowledged that the items returned to Nitre Hall might not be as historically significant as some other weapons. But she expressed gratitude for remembering “we little people” to a round of applause.
The return of the historic artifacts after so many years gave ZeeAnn Mason a lesson. “It gives you hope,” she said before the ceremony. “The fact that we recovered these objects 50 years later means there’s always hope.”