By Tim Pearce, Curator of Collections, Section of Mollusks
A rare opportunity for Carnegie Museum of Natural History occurred in early May when we adopted an extensive mollusk collection. Although the mollusk specimens had been well cared for, their existence at the Nebraska State Museum, University of Nebraska, was little known to mollusk researchers over the past 100 years, so they were seldom used. The curator recognized that for the foreseeable future, the museum will have priorities other than mollusks, so would not have resources to properly work up the collection. I was very excited when he contacted me about the possibility of transferring the collection to Carnegie Museum. At Carnegie Museum, we have the expertise to identify, update names, catalog, and make the information available on the internet, so it will be available to researchers around the world.
The collection has an excellent collection of freshwater mussels. Carnegie Museum had four lots of freshwater mussels from Nebraska, now we have more than 158 lots. Also included are many marine and terrestrial mollusks from pre-Castro Cuba, and most of the collection is pre-1929.
Carefully packing the collection into 60 boxes took two of us seven days. We are very grateful to the kindness and generosity of the museum director and curator for lodging us and providing access to the collection, even over the weekend.
We drove the collection to Pittsburgh in a rental truck. Given that I consider each shell to be as valuable as a Picasso, every time we hit a bump, I thought, “Oh, my poor Picassos.”
As we drove, we recalled the odd black leather case about 2 by 3.5 inches in size that we came across tucked away at the back of a drawer in the mollusk collection. Inside the case, we found a shell, a cone shell to be exact, and a small carefully folded paper wedged beside the shell. The unfolded paper was a letter dated July 23, 1938, which read, “Sirs, 30 years ago I stole this shell. Have had pecks of bad luck. Am returning the shell and hope the bad luck will end.” The letter was signed with the man’s first and last name, and his address.
What was going on in his life in 1908 that prompted him to steal the shell? When did he make the connection between the theft of the shell and bad luck (that comes in pecks)? Did his luck improve after the return of the shell? We can only wonder.
The shell and the intriguing letter in their case continue to reside with the museum in Nebraska as part of the historical record; I consider it to be a priceless artifact.
Timothy A. Pearce, PhD, is the head of the mollusks section at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.