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Have you seen South Carolina’s missing sword?

Newspapers trumpeted the disappearance of South Carolina's oldest relic in 1941. What happened to the ceremonial sword remains a mystery today.

CHARLESTON, S.C. (CN) — Greg Walter has been dealing in antique swords for almost 25 years. The online retailer has seen it all — jewel-encrusted daggers, battle-scarred sabers and German Zweihänders. He recently purchased a 19th Century smallsword used in the court of Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico, whose brief and turbulent reign ended in front of a firing squad.

But among those thousands of blades, he can’t say he’s encountered the most important relic to have gone missing in South Carolina — the Sword of State. The approximately 4-foot weapon with a silver hilt and wavy blade disappeared more than 80 years ago from the Senate, where it was wielded daily in ceremonies.

Pleas for the sword’s return before the state’s tricentennial celebration went unanswered. A recent $100,000 reward has turned up nothing.

Theories abound about what happened to the blade. A relic hunter might have sneaked it out of the Senate in his pant’s leg. It might have disappeared after a practical joke went awry.

One antique dealer joked it was likely sitting in a senator’s attic.

Nonetheless, the search continues.

“I’d love to be able to find it,” Senate Sergeant At Arms Chuck Williams said. “That would be tremendous for our state.”

The ceremonial sword dates back to 1704, when Governor Nathaniel Johnson sent a receipt to the provincial Commons House of Assembly for a “Sword of State … to be made use of for the public service,” according to research by historian Nic Butler.

The sword’s origins are murky. The governor spent 26 British pounds on the weapon, or a few thousand in today’s dollars, but it’s unclear where it came from.

Walter, the owner of AntiqueWeaponStore.com, said it was unlikely the blade was made locally. Sword smithing was a highly specialized craft and European guilds closely protected their techniques. It was more common in the Colonial Era for European blades to be imported and mounted on their hilts by a local smith, which may have been the case with the Sword of State.

It was an unusual weapon. The hilt was more typical of a rapier, but the flamberge blade resembled that of a two-handed sword, albeit shorter, Walter said.

“It is possible that the SC sword could have used a cut down German 2-handed sword blade,” he wrote in an email.

Butler said in an email the sword’s unusual design might have had some special meaning to the governor who commissioned it. Johnson’s coat-of-arms includes a sword with a similar wavy, or flamberge, blade, raising the question of whether he chose the weapon to match his family crest.

While South Carolina is the only state with its own sword, ceremonial weapons are not unheard of in American government. The U.S. House of Representatives approved the creation of a ceremonial mace in one of its first resolutions. Pursuant to House rules, the sergeant-at-arms can be called upon to wield the weapon against unruly members.

The South Carolina State House. (Wikipedia image via Courthouse News)

South Carolina’s House of Representatives also has a ceremonial mace, which has itself twice gone missing. It was taken by British sympathizers during the American Revolution and again in 1971 by a disgruntled former Statehouse employee, who was arrested in Florida after FBI agents found the weapon in the trunk of his car, according to news reports.

The Sword of State belonged to the office of the governor for decades and was wielded by law enforcement officials during inaugurations and other civic occasions in the English colony, according to Butler.

After the American Revolution, custody of the sword was transferred from the governor’s office to the South Carolina Senate, where it hung from the front of the senate rostrum during daily sessions and was carried by the sergeant-at-arms on all state occasions.

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Newspapers trumpeted the disappearance of South Carolina's oldest relic on Feb. 3, 1941: “Senate’s ancient sword vanishes."

The sword was discovered missing the day before when the Senate’s sergeant at arms, Zed Hope, was called upon to escort the president of the Senate to the House for a joint session, according to news reports.

Lawmakers originally thought it was a practical joke, but after a thorough search for the weapon failed, Columbia detectives were called to investigate. Area antique dealers were put on alert and museums across the country were notified.

A porter said he thought he’d last seen the weapon four days prior, but others said they had not seen the sword in the chamber for a week.

Hope was at a loss to how a person could carry away the sword unnoticed, according to reports.

The former Columbia barber was elected by senators in 1933 to serve as sergeant at arms. He treated the Senate like it was “something scarcely less than sacred and its house a virtual temple,” according to a 1942 newspaper article.

He scrubbed the Senate floor and shined its banisters. He sought appropriations to improve the building and was the first sergeant at arms to don a uniform.

Hope never recovered from the theft of the sword, the article states. It was initially believed someone hid the weapon to tease the sergeant at arms, but when it failed to reappear, officials believed it was stolen.

The Charleston museum donated a cavalry saber to replace the stolen artifact. In 1944, British Ambassador Lord Halifax learned about the theft and sought to secure a replacement for the Senate. In 1951, Sir Oliver Franks presented to the governor a British-made blade etched with the state seal and yellow jessamine. The sword remains in use today.

Rumors abound about who stole the sword and why they did it.

In 1959, the Associated Press reported that the prevailing theory was that a relic hunter pilfered the sword fully aware of its value. A Senate clerk theorized that a group of sightseers huddled around the sword while one of their number swiped the sword and shoved it inside his pants leg.

It may seem unlikely that a 4-foot sword could be hidden in someone’s trousers, but Williams said it wasn’t so outlandish. High-waisted pants and overcoats were fashionable for men at the time, which would have made it easier to conceal the unwieldy item.

Authorities hoped the sword could be recovered to celebrate South Carolina’s 300th anniversary in 1970. No such luck. They continued to believe the thief was a souvenir hunter, perhaps a soldier at the then-newly activated Fort Jackson.

In 1971, the state’s ceremonial mace was stolen. The symbol of authority for the South Carolina House of Representatives was reported missing Feb. 4 by the house clerk, newspapers reported. Someone jimmied the locked display case and absconded with the solid silver weapon, according to news reports.

State police officers swarmed over the statehouse, dusting the empty display case for fingerprints and questioning employees, newspapers reported.

FBI agents recovered the weapon three weeks later in Gainesville, Florida. It was found among the possessions of Charles C. Norton, the former chief security guard at the State House.

Norton was charged with housebreaking and grand larceny. He pleaded guilty to the crime and was sentenced to three years in prison.

The story of the lost sword continues to beguile South Carolinians.

Julian Wilson, a Columbia businessman and son of U.S. congressman Joe Wilson, announced in 2021 he was offering a $100,000 reward to “the anonymous person responsible for the sword’s return.”

The reward remains unclaimed, Wilson said. As a South Carolinian and history buff, seeing the sword’s return to the state would mean a lot to him, he said.

On Thursday, Williams completed his fourth session as sergeant at arms. He worked for the Senate for 30 years before being elected to the office. He had hardly started the job before he first heard about the missing relic.

There was hope the sword might be found squirreled away somewhere when the statehouse underwent renovations in the 1990s, but the sword wasn't found, Williams said. He holds out hope it might be gathering dust in someone’s home.

“Maybe great granddaddy came about getting this thing, and maybe it was misplaced or taken, and then it’s put in somebody’s attic,” he said.

Butler said his research didn't develop any clues to the weapon's whereabouts, but he believes the internet could help crack the cold case.

"It's far easier to find obscure resources today than it was 20 years ago, and the web allows remote researchers to collaborate in ways that our grandparents could only imagine," he said.

Information about the sword can be submitted to the FBI's tipline.

Wilson can be contacted at [email protected].

Follow @SteveGarrisonPC
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