Inside a Dumpster, California Man Finds Trove of Ancient Books Owned by Thomas Jefferson

Max Brown thought the books looked old and interesting, so he scooped them out of the trash.

Max Brown doesn't usually dumpster dive, but on a day in 2014, he was scavenging through a Nevada garbage bin for a community service project when he spied old 1980s-era cassette tapes.

He scooped them up, and saw underneath a pile of very old books. He gathered as many as he could, and scampered out of the receptacle as it began to rain.

Thus began a journey of many stops and starts that would ultimately connect him to people he'd never before met, and to one of the country's founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson.

The ancient and well-worn books sat in his South Lake Tahoe home for some six months before he and a friend carefully turned the manuscript's fragile pages. They also found old notes and family photos.

The Jefferson volume was dated 1621. - Max Brown

Inside one of the books was a handwritten note: "From the library of Thomas Jefferson." The tome was one of two volumes written by French Catholic theologian and philosopher Pierre Charron. The books were written in French. The publication date was 1621.

"I didn't think it was real," he said of what appeared to be Jefferson's signature. "I tried to verify it." Indeed, he sent copies of it to Jefferson experts. It was not the third president's signature. But months of painstaking research revealed the books did indeed once belong to Declaration of Independence author. 

Archived records showed the volumes were purchased by the American hero in 1814, Brown told

"That's when I began to get really excited," he said. Jefferson "had also written his initials on the bottom of some pages," Brown said. He assumed they were reference marks to passages Jefferson found meaningful.

He informed historians at Monticello, Jefferson's historic Virginia estate, that the books had once been owned by the patriot. 

The books were old and extremely fragile. - Max Brown

The volumes were in a sorry state, polluted by black mold and damp. He ultimately sold them to an auction house for $8,000. He's never regretted it, he said, because the historical artifacts would only have further deteriorated if he had held onto them.

There were other treasures in his dumpster haul. 

One of them was a very rare 19th century Bible belonging to generations of a Shaker family. The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, known as the Shakers for their ecstatic dancing during worship services, were a separatist group of believers who lived a celibate, segregated existence with men and women living in separate buildings. 

Pacifists known for their fine furniture and cooking, the group has virtually died out after years of declining members. 

The Bible Brown discovered carried the records of births, baptisms, weddings and funerals. Brown was able to contact descendants of that midwest family, whose members had no idea Shakers were part of their lineage.

The volume is currently on exhibit in a local museum, Brown said. 

Handwritten notes were also found inside the ancient tomes. - Max Brown

The 37-year-old husband and father said it remains a mystery how the treasures ended up in a community dumpster in Nevada's Incline Village.  

"I do believe that somebody didn't know what they had," said Brown, who operates a winter sports gear business with his wife. He also heard that an antique bookstore had recently closed in the area, so perhaps the volumes were tossed because they were considered unsalvageable.

"I have no idea," he said.