Librarians researching the history of the Deschutes Public Library recently discovered a forgotten, unsolved crime — the theft of a collection of rare artifacts stolen from the library’s basement 50 years ago.
The lost collection of weapons, books and mementos belonged to early Bend resident James Anthony Mitchell, a Civil War veteran and pastor in the Presbyterian church.
Nate Pedersen and Erin Weaver were compiling historic newspaper articles about the library for exhibits when they came across a Jan. 29, 1969, article describing the brazen burglary into the locked basement. Other than the basement door, there was only one way in.
“Leading into this room from the outside was a small window, hardly big enough for a slim youngster,” the article read. “There is a possibility some small person was lowered into the room.”
The Mitchell collection included guns, such as an 1866 Winchester, muzzle loaders from the frontier days and several antique bayonets and swords. The collection contained old books, some dating to 1620. The items in the collection were meant to be part of the city’s first museum.
The librarians’ discovery raised questions about the life of Mitchell, who is unfamiliar to local historians.
“I didn’t know of him at all,” said Pedersen, a member of the Deschutes Historical Society.
But Pedersen and Weaver learned a lot about Mitchell by reading the old newspaper clippings from The Bulletin.
Mitchell grew up in Illinois and enlisted at 17 to fight in the Civil War. He fought in Sherman’s March to the Sea, a famous battle in Georgia in 1864. Mitchell later became a missionary and traveled across Europe for more than a year. During his travels, Mitchell collected souvenirs from places all over the globe.
A Bulletin article from July 19, 1923, described Mitchell’s collection as “a wealth in war implements of every civilized nation.” His collection contained swords, firearms, maps, tapestries, Native American relics, stones, hides, flags and books.
The collection included Civil War relics, such as a letter a soldier wrote to his son in April 1863, a poster celebrating the fall of Vicksburg, Mississippi, and a National Union Party ticket for the 1864 presidential election when Abraham Lincoln was a candidate.
Mitchell moved from Los Angeles to Bend in 1905. He reportedly divorced his wife and left her and their five children in California.
As a worldly person, Mitchell brought rich culture to the Central Oregon frontier town. He put on and starred in Shakespearean plays, including “The Merchant of Venice” and “Macbeth.”
He hosted lectures, similar to modern day TED talks or History Pub talks at Bend’s McMenamins Old St. Francis School. He gave lectures on the catacombs in Italy and one talk in 1910 titled, “What is the trouble with Portugal?”
Having such a cultured person in the isolated High Desert community must have been a treat for the local residents, Pedersen said. Many people at that time could not afford to travel the world by train and transatlantic ships, he said.
“It was probably really attractive to Bend residents to hear about places in the world they would never get a chance to visit,” Pedersen said.
Mitchell, who served as the Presbyterian Church pastor in Bend without pay, died of heart failure at 64 in 1911. He was found kneeling at his bedside. He appeared to be praying. Newspaper headlines at the time read, “Pastor Dies in Prayer,” and “Dies on Knees.”
The city purchased Mitchell’s collection from his estate for $187 in 1912. The collection changed hands over the years from the Ladies Library Club to the American Legion, and pieces were lost along the way. In 1922, the city formally gave the collection to the library, where many pieces sat in storage in the basement until the burglary in 1969.
No pieces of the collection remain today.
“It’s totally gone,” Pedersen said. “The burglary was the last straw.”
If any longtime Bend residents remember the burglary or know where the stolen items are being kept, the Deschutes Historical Museum wants to hear from them, Pedersen said.
“It would be really interesting if anyone had anything,” Pedersen said. “ My guess is whoever stole it, sold it underground to a collector, and it disappeared into someone’s private collection.”
A part of the collection was Mitchell’s scrapbooks that would have contained souvenirs and pictures of his travels as a missionary and his life in Bend. Such photos would be treasured by local historians, more than the weapons and books, Pedersen said.
“From the historical perspective,” Pedersen said, “that’s a goldmine.”
But despite everything the two librarians learned about Mitchell, one big question remained: What did Mitchell look like? So far, no one has found a photograph.
— Reporter: 541-617-7820, firstname.lastname@example.org