A Midnight Burglary at the Ephrata Cloister
This post is part of a series of blogs completed for EAMC 606: Cities on a Hill: Material Culture in America’s Communal Utopias. This class examined the history and material culture of intentional communities throughout American history using Winterthur’s collections as well as field studies.
Under the cover of night in March 1929, burglars broke a 200 year old lock to gain entry into the historic Ephrata Cloister, a Germanic religious community in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The Cloister was founded in 1732 and is now owned by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The unidentified perpetrator(s) made off with a host of rare antiques that included “…several priceless corner cupboards, a square pottery umbrella stand, a dough tray and several smaller antiques….” Though the loot consisted of a relatively small number of objects, newspaper accounts reported that the, “relics of the Cloister cannot be purchased and are almost priceless. Warnings have been broadcast to all dealers to be on a lookout for relics believed to have come from the Cloister which are offered for sale.”
The Ephrata Cloister Sister’s House and Meetinghouse. Photo by the author.
The targeting of Ephrata suggested that the perpetrators were, “well versed in antiques” as they sought out, “only the most valuable relics.” The desirability of antiques from Ephrata was heavily influenced by the collecting practices of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which began collecting Pennsylvania German objects during the late 1800s—including objects from the Ephrata Cloister. A number of private collectors in the region similarly contributed to the public’s interest in objects from the Cloister.
A hanging cupboard, c. 1755-1765, from the Ephrata Cloister, now in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of J. Stogdell Stokes, 1928. Photo Courtesy, Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Three days after the thefts were widely reported in the press, members of the Cloister made a correction to the story. There was to be no investigation into the matter, nor were antique dealers to be on the lookout for the objects, they pled with the public. The members of the cloister did not wish “any scandal nor suspicion cast against innocent people.” The Lebanon Daily News also detailed how this wasn’t the first theft at Ephrata. In fact, visitors had been taking objects from the Cloister for years as they were escorted through on tours.
The thefts, which were seemingly never solved, shocked the public, who revered the Cloister as a colonial-era site that spoke to the origins of the Commonwealth. It also had great import for the future of the Cloister. By April 1929, less than a month after the thefts were reported, state legislators had introduced a bill to purchase the property in an attempt to save it from its state of disrepair and preserve its “relics,” indicating the importance of the thefts on Ephrata’s preservation as an historic site. In 1941, the property was conveyed to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which still owns it today.
The thefts and subsequent response by the public and government indicates the importance of the Ephrata Cloister—its buildings and its objects—to the history and identity of the Pennsylvania German community in Pennsylvania. It also speaks to the craze for early American objects in the 1920s, bolstered by large auctions like the Reifsnyder and Flayderman sales, that prompted individuals to seek out antique objects any way they could. Unfortunately for the Ephrata Cloister, the craze for antique objects resulted in the loss of their community’s valuable—and irreplaceable—material culture.
By Trent Rhodes, WPAMC Class of 2018
 “Valued Antiques Stolen: Priceless Furniture Taken From a Building at Ephrata, Pa.” The Nebraska State Journal, Lincoln, Nebraska, 19 March 1929, Page 1.
 “Burglars Cut Wire Guards in Famous Old Buildings and Carry Off Rare Pieces,” The Evening News, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 19 March 1929, Page 15.