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Clarence museum begs thief on the inside to return century-old wedding dress

This was a criminal caper more than 100 years in the making, an Agatha Christie mystery mixed with "Say Yes to the Dress" that was tailor-made for the History Channel.

Someone got into the Clarence Historical Society museum and made off with a handful of items, highlighted by a hand-stitched wedding dress dating back to the early 20th century.

And here's the most intriguing part: The heist was an inside job.

Whoever took the dress knew the code that deactivated the alarm and had a key to get in the door.

Still, nearly a month after the burglary, no one has been charged and the dress remains missing, to the frustration of museum officials.

"It's like if someone broke into your own home and took something," said Doug Larkin, the society's president. "You'd be devastated."

It was Larkin and his wife, Sandy, who discovered the theft.

They were at the town-owned museum building at 10465 Main St., near Clarence Town Park, on the morning of July 28 to carry over items from the society's nearby genealogy library.

Sandy Larkin was the first to notice the display mannequin for the 1912 dress had been stripped bare.

"I heard her scream," Doug Larkin said. "She said the dress was gone."

The wedding dress is off-white, long-sleeved and cinched at the waist, with a lace overlay and flower embellishment. It was made more than a century ago for a member of a prominent town family that Larkin declined to identify. He said the family that donated the dress to the museum likely isn't aware their item is missing.

The thief or thieves also took a recently donated ceramic doll and some tchotchkes such as wooden models of homes. Larkin said he can't recall anyone stealing something from the museum before this.

Larkin said he called the Sheriff's Office right away. Working with Amherst Alarm, officials determined that someone using the code deactivated the security alarm at 9:46 p.m. July 25. The thief then used a key to open the door, Larkin said.

At around 4:30 p.m. July 26, troopers checked on an unlocked door at the museum building, Larkin said, and a Clarence parks security employee reactivated the alarm an hour later.

Larkin said the museum building did not have a surveillance video system in place at the time.

Larkin said the universe of people who both knew the code and had access to a key is a small one and includes members of the society's board and town parks workers.

"There's not a lot of people," he said.

'You can't replace something like that'

The Sheriff's Office confirmed it received a report of the crime, which was first reported by the Clarence Bee, and its investigation continues.

Larkin said the museum never had the dress appraised but that its theft is far more than a financial loss.

"You can't replace something like that," he said.

The burglary came four months after the museum reopened following extensive renovations to the building that started its life as a Church of Christ in 1849 and later hosted several restaurants before becoming home to the museum in the early 1990s.

The town replaced the roof, installed new windows, repainted the exterior and made other improvements between September and March.

Larkin said the museum has since moved the dress-less mannequin from its normal display location to a back office.

Larkin's daughter, Sara, put a plea on the society's Facebook page seeking the dress' return, "no questions asked." It can be dropped off at Clarence Town Hall or at the Clarence Chamber of Commerce offices on Main Street.

"I'm hopeful," Doug Larkin said. "I'm not optimistic."

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