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Stolen 22 Years Ago, Two Priceless Charles Darwin Notebooks Mysteriously Returned in Pink Gift Bag

On two leather and copper-bound field notebooks, Charles Darwin jotted down a variety of musings that formed his theory of evolution. Held at Cambridge University Library for decades, in the year 2000 they were stolen.

22 years later, as mysteriously as they disappeared, they were returned—bound in saran wrap in exactly the same condition as they left, and in the same archive box, though this time it was placed inside a pink gift bag and left outside the librarian’s office.

Inside, the box was wrapped in parcel paper with a note from the individual, uncaught by CCTV cameras. It read, “Librarian / Happy Easter / X.”

Cambridge University Library

“My sense of relief at the notebooks’ safe return is profound and almost impossible to adequately express,” said Librarian Dr. Jessica Gardner, who found them outside her offices on the 4th floor landing of the university library building. “Along with so many others all across the world, I was heartbroken to learn of their loss and my joy at their return is immense.”

A Cambridgeshire Police spokesman said, “We share the university’s delight that these priceless notebooks are now back where they belong. Our investigation remains open and we are following up some lines of inquiry. We also renew our appeal for anyone with information about the case to contact us.”

Whodunit

An intriguing, and now slightly less-tragic heist, the notebooks were lifted after an internal request to remove them from the Library’s strongroom for photographs. Two months later during routine inspections, they were found to be missing, and after combing through the 10 million unit-archive, the police concluded they had probably been stolen.

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The books essentially contain the thoughts and observations Darwin was making as he worked out his theory of evolution. One page includes the “Tree of life,” a spindly sketch of a tree with each branch marking different lineages of animals and plants that helped him visualize the concept he was formulating.

Cambridge University Library

About 15 months ago, Gardner wrote an impassioned plea, widely shared on social media, for the notebooks to be returned. The short space of time between then and their recovery, she admits, could be related.

When they did arrive, Gardner was forced to wait an agonizing five days to remove them from the plastic wrap, during which police inspected them. After they were opened a team from the Library set out to verify their authenticity.

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“Darwin uses different types of ink in the notebooks,” explains Prof. Secord, Director of the Darwin Correspondence Project, and one of the on-hand academics with experience of the notebooks. “For example, on the famous tree of life page, there is both a brown ink and also a grey ink. Those kind of changes are quite difficult to forge convincingly.”

“You can see the tiny bits of copper that are coming off where the hinges are located,” he told the BBC. The paper type is the right sort of paper.”

Cambridge University Library

They will be returned to the strongroom, hopefully with changed locks, and kept there until July 9th when they will be displayed as part of an exhibit called “Darwin in Conservation.”

(WATCH the BBC video for this story below.)

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