York County wants historic book back

Greg Gross

York County officials are working to have a nearly two-century-old court ledger returned after it mysteriously turned up for sale on an auction website.

The County Court of Common Pleas ledger from about 1820 was somehow removed from a county building, possibly decades ago, and nobody noticed it was missing until a county employee saw it for sale on eBay.

"We did not know it was missing," said Carl Lindquist, the county spokesman. "There was never a report of it being missing."

Now that the county knows the book is missing, officials want it back, since it technically belongs to taxpayers.

"All we're looking to do is recover it," Lindquist said, adding the county has no intention of filing criminal charges. "We're hoping for a voluntary resolution."

The county has reached out and heard back from the seller, who agreed to not sell the book while the two sides sort through the issue, he said.

The book: The leather-bound, handwritten ledger contains about 225 pages of court cases from 1819 to 1821 and includes a sort of Who's Who of York in the early part of the 1800s.

Names such as Thaddeus Stevens, an outspoken opponent of slavery; James Buchanan, who was president from 1857 to 1861; and Adam Wolf, presumably an ancestor of Gov. Tom Wolf, are listed in the book as being involved in legal disputes, according to the eBay ad that was still visible as of Thursday.

The eBay seller, who couldn't be reached for comment, was asking $1,600 for the book.

"There is no fair price. It's taxpayer property," Lindquist said when asked what he believed to be the value of the book. "We will not compensate."

Such historical documents were stored in the former courthouse, the current county administration office at 28 E. Market St., in York City, for decades until about 10 years ago. That was when the building underwent a massive renovation and the documents were moved to a more secure and dedicated archives building on the county complex in Springettsbury Township.

"Government records are created by taxpayer funds and belong to taxpayers," said Christy Depew, director of the archives. "If the docket is kept in private hands, a useful historic resource would remain inaccessible."

A mystery: How the book fell into private hands remains a mystery and  officials can only speculate about when and how it was taken from county property.

One theory is a county employee, or someone working in the legal system, borrowed the book and simply forgot to return it, perhaps leaving it on an office bookshelf or with other documents. The person may have later packed up the book with other belongings and took it home, where it laid for decades until descendants rediscovered it.

It's possible the ledger was taken about the time it was written, but no one knows for sure.

"It could have been pilfered decades ago," said Commissioner Chris Reilly.

In his five years as county spokesman, Lindquist said he's never dealt with county records going missing or coming up for sale.

But that doesn't mean it hasn't happened in the past.

"This has happened before," Lindquist said. "It's not a common occurrence by any means."

— Reach Greg Gross at ggross@yorkdispatch.com.