Despite never having visited America, James Smithson (1765-1829) bequeathed his entire fortune to the United States to begin the Smithsonian Institution, “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”
So how, then, did the bones of an Englishman who had never once been to the United States end up in the nation’s capital? By a very strange turn of events…
When Smithson died in 1829, he was buried in a British cemetery in Genoa, Italy, where he would remain for 75 years. It took the United States Congress until 1836, seven years after Smithson’s death, to accept the legacy which totaled $500,000 dollars, equivalent to 1/66th of the US budget at the time. It was another eight years of debate in Congress before President James K. Polk signed an Act of Congress which officially established the Smithsonian Institution.
In 1901 the British Consul in Italy informed the United States that the cemetery in Genoa, including Smithson’s tomb (which the Smithsonian Institution had been working to maintain and preserve since the mid-1800s), was to be relocated in 1905 to make room for the expansion of a stone quarry at the foot of the hill the cemetery sat upon. When the news of the cemetery’s relocation reached the Board of Regents, there were varying opinions on the .
Smithsonian Regent Alexander Graham Bell (yes, that Alexander Graham Bell, the one who invented the telephone) was adamant that Smithson’s remains be brought to the United States to be reinterred at the Smithsonian, but the other Regents resisted. After two years of campaigning for Smithson’s exhumation, the Board of Regents finally agreed.
On Christmas Day of 1903 Alexander Graham Bell and his wife Mabel arrived in Genoa, and on December 31, under the careful supervision of Bell, Smithson’s remains were disinterred. On January 7, 1904 Smithson’s and ready to join the Bells on their return to the United States. Inside the coffin, Mrs. Bell, who was present at the exhumation and the sealing of the , included a wreath made from the leaves of a Cypress tree from Smithson’s original gravesite. The Bells, along with Smithson’s coffin, boarded the German steamship Princess Irene at the port of Genoa for their return trip to the United States.
After a fourteen day passage, the Princess Irene arrived in the United States and was escorted by the USS Dolphin to the pier at Hoboken, New Jersey on January 20. Smithson’s coffin was transferred to the USS Dolphin, which took it to Washington Navy Yard, arriving on January 25. Upon their arrival the United States Marine band, who had been sent by President Theodore Roosevelt, performed. A brief dockside ceremony commenced before Bell, Secretary Langley, other officials, and Smithson’s coffin were taken to the Smithsonian Building (now known as the Smithsonian Castle), escorted by a squadron of the United States Calvary.
When they arrived at the Smithsonian Building Bell symbolically handed over Smithson’s remains, saying “And now… my mission is ended and I deliver into your hands … the remains of this great benefactor of the United States.”
After a short ceremony in the Great Hall, where Smithson’s coffin was draped with both the American and British flags, the coffin was taken to the old Regents’ Room, located in the South Tower. Some of Smithson’s personal effects had been on exhibit in the Regents’ Room since 1880.
Getting Smithson’s remains to the United States was merely one of a myriad of challenges involved in finding a final resting place for Smithson’s remains.
The Smithsonian Board of Regents originally recommended that Congress fund the memorial and, as a result, while in the planning stages, some very elaborate plans for Smithson’s memorial were created. Congress seemed rather unwilling to fund the memorial, however, making most of the proposed designs obsolete. In the end it was one of two designs sent to the Smithsonian by Gutzon Borglum that was selected. Borglum’s design used the original grave marker and plaque from Smithson’s Italian gravesite.
There was a small problem with Borglum’s design, however. Although Smithson’s remains were transported to the United States, the grave marker was still in the Italian cemetery. The grave marker was packed in and shipped to the United States on December 8, 1904 on the Princess Irene – the same ship which originally brought Smithson to the US.
After renovations were done to create a mortuary chapel in the room to the left of the north Entrance of the Smithsonian Building, Smithson was moved from the Regents’ Room and entombed on March 6, 1905. Many people think that Smithson’s remains are held inside of the grave marker, but they are not. Smithson’s coffin is actually held in a sealed vault underneath the grave marker.
in 1974, Smithson was once again exhumed, this time to be studied by Dr. J. Lawrence Angel, Curator of Physical Anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History. In the 48 hours that Smithson’s skeleton was unsealed from the coffin, Dr. Angel discovered a number of things that give us a greater understanding of Smithson’s life – Smithson was 5 feet 6 inches tall, he had an extra vertebrae, he smoked a pipe, he died of natural causes, and, based upon the development of his shoulders, he was likely an avid fencer. Not groundbreaking details exactly, but it’s still quite a lot considering that Smithson had been dead for 145 years at the time!
Although James Smithson’s remains have not left his tomb since 1974, his ghost is reported to be a frequent visitor to the Castle…