Historian Pleads Guilty to Stealing Lincoln and Washington Letters

Historian Edward Renehan admitted to stealing a March 1, 1840, letter written by Lincoln and two by Washington,
one written on Aug. 9, 1791 and one written and signed on Dec. 29, 1778.  Renehan later sold them to a New York gallery for $97,000, according the U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan.  He is the author of a number of books, the most recent being Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.  The Newsday snippet included a short reference to Renehan's bipolar disorder which was undiagnosed during 2005 and 2006 at the time of the thefts. I want to quote Renehan's own thoughts on this very serious mental disorder:

I was diagnosed as "type 2" bipolar (aka, manic depressive) in 2007.
This is a progressive biochemical disorder from which I've evidently
suffered for a very long time, perhaps even since adolescence, and
which had reached a grave critical mass in recent years. I am currently
under treatment, on meds that my doctor and I are fine-tuning, and I am
slowly learning how to cope more efficiently and constructively than I
have in the past. (In the meantime, I continue to pick up the shattered
pieces from one of my last great, extended hypo-manias.) I only mention
the bipolar issue because I approve of the movement of sufferers who
are "outing" themselves, discussing the disorder, and thus working to
remove the stigma that surrounds it.

Information about bipolar disorder can be found here.  This crime comes with a maximum 10-year prison sentence, but I do hope that given the circumstances the court will be lenient.

8 responses... add one

Kevin,

Thanks for posting this. Bipolar disorder is definitely not something to be taken lightly and something everyone should be aware of. It’s suprising how many people are affected by it (both directly and indirectly).

If you don’t mind me posting the link, the Depression & Bipolar Support Alliance is one of the best websites for more information. Their discussion boards are awesome too because they are not only for those who are bipolar but also their friends and family. http://www.dbsalliance.org/

The above situation is most unfortunate but it seems like he’s doing much better, judging by his webpage. I agree with you and hope he continues to get better. Bipolar isn’t something that’s easy to overcome, but it can definitely be done.

I’ve never known anyone who was bipolar, but two people close to me have suffered from schizophrenia and depression respectively. I know from experience that mental disorders can be so overpowering that they literally take over the lives of those who are afflicted with them. Thus, I too hope the court will be lenient.

I don’t want to sound unsympathetic, but I would like to insert a word of caution into this discussion. I have had some experience with mental health issues (my ex-wife), and I have come to believe that Americans are far too medicated. Doctors will prescribe anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications to just about anyone who comes through thier doors. Personal responsibilty and learning to live with our own human emotions takes too much effort. Everyone wants a quick fix, and we expect that we should feel happy all the time. Doctors don’t even know for sure how all these meds work or what thier long term effects are. Notice the reference to “fine tuning.” All this is particularly distressing when it comes to our children, whose brains are still developing. My son went to the emergency room a few years ago for stomach pains. He was eighteen at the time. The doctor prescribed anti-depressants. Having seen what they had done to his mother, he elected not to take them. Later it turned out he had a rare stomach problem that required surgery.

By the way, Kevin, on a note related to Civil War memory, my wife and I are on our way from Missouri to Oregon. (I have an NPS summer seasonal position at Fort Vancouver.) We are in our fifth wheel at an RV park a few miles outside of Fort Laramie, Wyoming. At the entrance, the Stars and Stripes floats on the breeze. As we were setting up, I looked to the back of the park, where the owners’ mobile home sits, and flying from the front porch is the Confederate battle flag (well, ok it’s not square, but you know what I mean). The park’s owners apparently moved here from Florida. Isn’t it amazing that these people don’t see the contradiction? But, of course, it’s been that way since the nineteenth century.

Bob, — First, have a great time on your trip. As to your other point we agree that there are important questions that need to be asked about the medication of our children. That said, I think we have to be very careful to maintain distinctions between various mental disorders. Bi-polar disorder is not simply to be understood as a case of depression. The disease has been studied extensively and although this does imply that individuals have not been mis-diagnosed it doesn’t tell us anything about the present case. Again, I point you to the link in the post from the National Institute of Mental Health. There is no reason to think that Mr. Renehan’s situation has nothing to do with his disease.

My bigger concern is that we have yet to take mental disease more seriously. Many of us are still wedded to a pre-scientific language of souls and free will that fails to shed any light on how the brain functions and shapes behavior.

I am not entirely sure that the court should be more lenient given Renahan’s condition. I have a few friends and acquaintances who are bipolar, so to some extent I understand the challenges they face, but stealing historical documents and selling them on eBay isn’t something that should be taken lightly. My bipolar friends know the difference between right and wrong, and when they have moments where they overreacted or had an episode they do try to rectify any damage they may’ve caused (by apologizing or whatnot). They are still very aware of their actions, at least after the episode has passed.

Perhaps I am just biased though, because I haven’t been a fan of Renahan’s for reasons related solely to his scholarship and not to his personal difficulties.

Obviously, I can’t comment on your problems with R’s scholarship or the condition of your friends. I am not even suggesting that we take the act of stealing historical documents lightly, but it is the case that bipolar disorder often leads to erratic behavior and that should not be ignored in this case. Renehan did in fact apologize.

To be honest, I am not sure what point you are trying to make.

I didn’t mean to imply that his condition should be ignored, simply that his condition shouldn’t automatically lead to a more lenient sentence and that it doesn’t completely excuse such action (although it might explain his reasoning at the time). I meant no disrespect to anyone who is bipolar.

Thanks for the clarification. I’m also not sure how a diagnosed case of bi-polar disorder ought to effect a sentence, but it is clear to me that it cannot be ignored. In other words, if we are consider the crime w/o reference to the bi-polar than we are ignoring a salient fact.

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