John William Rooney: Now France wants him for stealing copy of a treaty

Historians in the News

In the late 1980s, a history professor from Marquette University named John William Rooney walked into the French National Archives in Paris and walked out with a copy of the 1814 Treaty of Fontainebleau, a woven paper with red wax seals and a green silk cord through which Napoleon Bonaparte agreed to give up the French empire and accept exile.

The opportunity to steal a major piece of history, Rooney said, was too tempting to pass up.

"If you were to stand in front of the pyramids of Egypt, you might pick up a chip, too," he said last week during an interview in which he admitted stealing the document.

But the decision is continuing to haunt him more than 15 years later.

In 2002, a federal court in New York convicted Rooney of conspiracy to transport stolen property after his friend, Marshall Lawrence Pierce, put the treaty up for auction. Rooney was placed on probation and ordered to pay a fine. The American Embassy in France returned the document to the archives

Rooney thought that was the end of his legal trouble. But in November, a Paris court agreed to try him and Pierce on charges of receiving stolen goods. The case, which will be heard sometime this year, means that Rooney - now 74, retired and living in Wauwatosa - could be sentenced to up to three years in prison, according to the French newspaper Le Monde.

"We are looking forward to seeing them punished for this major crime to our patrimony," a spokesman for the French Ministry of Culture said in an e-mail interview.Rooney, who was born and raised in Birmingham, Ala., attended Huntingdon College in Montgomery before doing graduate work at a Belgian university, he said.

He was hired by Marquette in 1971. A professor of 19th century history, Rooney made an impression on students and colleagues alike, said James Marten, chair of the university's history department.

"He was very flamboyant," Marten said. "He had a real following among some students."

Read entire article at Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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