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"New" Hunley papers recovered - allegedly stolen by clerk of courts

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Postby TMSmalley » Fri Apr 01, 2005 8:19 am

The Associated Press
By DEBRA LEMOINE
Florida parishes bureau

A man who once worked in the St. Tammany Parish clerk of court's office has been accused of stealing historical documents - including the handwritten will of Horace L. Hunley, the inventor of the famed Confederate submarine.

Thomas Valois allegedly admitted to the thefts and was charged with possession of stolen property and injuring public records Wednesday, according to sheriff's spokesman James Hartman.

Capt. Hunley died Oct. 15, 1863, when his submarine, the CSS H.L. Hunley, sank in the harbor of Charleston, S.C., during a test dive. Four months later, Hunley's submarine made naval history when it rammed a torpedo attached to a spar into the side of the USS Housatonic and sank the Union warship. The Hunley went down in history as the first submarine to sink an enemy warship.

In addition to the Hunley papers, Valois allegedly stole land sale records for the Covington Cemetery, an 1870 loyalty oath, survey maps, an inch-thick hard-bound minute book of 1905 meetings of the Covington Bank and Trust, five sets of election results between 1826 and 1841, and several criminal records from the 1880s.

Hunley owned a plantation in Covington and served as a state legislator and as the deputy customs collector in New Orleans, according to the Friends of the Hunley, a South Carolina commission set up to preserve the submarine.

The submarine sank in Charleston Harbor and was not found until 1995. It was recovered from the water in 2000.

Sheriff's deputies recovered the documents from the estate of Valois' ex-wife, who died Feb. 28. Valois worked as an archivist for the clerk's office from 1988 to 1993 and was an amateur historian.

Hartman said Valois told deputies he took the Hunley documents and other parish records - enough to fill a four-drawer filing cabinet - from the 1800s and early 1900s for his writing projects.

Valois remained in jail Thursday. Hartman said Valois had a history of arrests on thefts, burglary and domestic battery charges.

The discovery of the Hunley papers came as a pleasant surprise for Malise Prieto, the current clerk of court for St. Tammany Parish, a New Orleans suburb known for picturesque small towns and mansions.

Shortly after taking over as clerk of court nearly a decade ago, Prieto said she was accused by a Mandeville resident of destroying the Hunley will and succession records because a Prieto was listed as owing money to the submarine inventor.

In response, Prieto said she called for an inventory of the entire parish archives, but the records never turned up.

"We jumped through hoops going through every archive file," Prieto recalled. "Sometimes old files get stuck behind each other. We searched for months."

Nine years ago, Prieto had just started her term as the St. Tammany Parish clerk of court when Mandeville resident John Hunley, no relation to Horace, couldn't find the papers in the parish archives. He thought she destroyed the documents because a Prieto is listed as owing money to Horace Hunley, Prieto said.

In response, Prieto said she called for an inventory of the entire parish archives, but the records never turned up.

"We jumped through hoops going through every archive file," Prieto said. "Sometimes old files get stuck behind each other. We searched for months."

Capt. Horace L. Hunley died Oct. 15, 1863, when his submarine, CSS H.L. Hunley, sank in the harbor of Charleston, S.C., during a test dive, according to the Friends of the Hunley. Four months later, Hunley's submarine made naval history when it rammed a torpedo attached to a spar into the side of the USS Housatonic and sank the Union warship. The Hunley went down in history as the first submarine to sink an enemy warship.

Moments later, the Hunley itself sank again in Charleston Harbor. This time, the submarine wasn't found on the harbor bottom until 1995. It was recovered from the water in 2000.

Hunley owned a plantation in Covington and served as a state legislator and as the deputy customs collector in New Orleans, said the Friends of the Hunley.

His will and succession documents -- outlining his descendants and parents and inventorying the entire estate -- were filed in the St. Tammany Parish Clerk's Office.

Prieto had given up on finding Hunley's handwritten documents in the parish's basement archival room but kept Hunley in the back of her mind for the past nine years. She even visited the museum dedicated to Hunley's famous invention during a trip to Charleston.

"The minute that my department was told some old documents were found, I thought, 'Maybe the Hunley's there,'" Prieto said.

On Tuesday, Prieto opened a box at the office of the deceased woman's estate attorney. Prieto found a manila folder with the word "submarine" written on it under a stack of papers.

She found the Hunley documents inside the folder in its original jacket from the Clerk's Office, Prieto said.

Deputies from the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office arrested on Wednesday the ex-husband of the deceased woman, Thomas Todd Valois, 39, of Covington. Valois is an amateur historian who worked as an archivist for the Clerk's Office from 1988 to 1993, Sheriff's Office spokesman James Hartman said.

When confronted with the discovery, Valois confessed to taking the documents, Hartman said.

Deputies quoted Valois as telling them he took the Hunley documents and other parish records -- enough to fill a four-drawer filing cabinet -- from the 1800s and early 1900s for his writing projects, Hartman said.

Valois was booked into the St. Tammany Parish Prison on counts of possession of stolen property and injuring public records.

No bail had been set as of Wednesday evening, Hartman said. The parish has 72 hours to set a bond amount, he said.

Valois, who has a history of arrests on thefts, burglary and
domestic battery, had left personal items, such as his clothes and the stolen documents at his ex-wife's house, Hartman and Prieto said.

Prieto said there is a black market for historical documents, but she believes Valois probably took them for personal use because he kept them for so long.

She also said there was no real pattern to what he took other than the fact that the documents are more than 100 years old. There were entire books removed or sometimes just single sheets sliced from books from the archives, she said.

The recovered papers with the most historic significance are the Hunley documents, she said.

Among the recovered documents are the land sale records to create the Covington Cemetery and an 1870 loyalty oath and a 1874 pension application by War of 1812 veteran and former Judge Jesse Jones, and hand-drawn and colored survey maps, Prieto said.

Also recovered are an inch-thick hardbound minute book of 1905 meetings of the Covington Bank and Trust, five sets of election results between 1826 and 1841 and several criminal records from the 1880s, Prieto said.

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Tim Smalley
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