Digging Up James Smithson

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Alexander Graham Bell did not spend the Christmas season of 1903 in the festive tradition. On the contrary, the inventor of the telephone passed the holiday engaged in a ghoulish Italian adventure involving a graveyard, old bones, and the opening of a moldy casket. Accompanied by his wife, Mabel, he had traveled by steamship from America at his own expense and made his way down to the Italian Mediterranean by train. His destination was Genoa, and his goal was to disinter the body of a minor English scientist, who had died three-quarters of a century before, and bring the remains back to America.

At the time of Bell’s trip, the ancient city of Genoa spilled down steep hillsides to the edge of the Ligurian Sea. The town was a shadowy warren of 15th-century cathedrals and narrow, twisting alleys that had seen generations of plague, power, and intrigue. Once an international center of commerce and art, with palazzi and their fragrant gardens stretching to the water’s edge, Genoa in winter of 1903 was a grim place, its harbor full of black, coal-heaped barges.

When Bell arrived, rain had been falling for days, whipped almost horizontal by the tramontane, icy winter winds that blow down from the Alps into the Mediterranean. Bell had come to Italy in the off-season because the remains of James Smithson were in peril. Smithson—an 18th-century mineralogist and illegitimate son of the 1st Duke of Northumberland—was important to the United States. His will of 1826, pending no heirs, bequeathed his estate to the young country for the founding of an educational institution devoted to “the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” Smithson died in 1829, and in 1848 Congress established the Smithsonian Institution. 

The old British cemetery where he was buried occupied a picturesque plot of ground on a cliff overlooking the sea, but it was adjacent to a vast marble quarry. Blasting work to expand the port had been underway for years. The surface of the graveyard belonged to the British, but the hundreds of feet of earth beneath it, descending to sea level, belonged to the Italians. In 1900 the owners of the marble quarry had informed the British Consulate that by the end of 1905 their blasting for marble would finally demolish the cemetery. 

Now the bones of this enigmatic man were about to be blasted into the Mediterranean. Smithsonian officials had tried in early years to learn more about their benefactor, but without success. To make matters worse, almost all of Smithson’s personal effects and papers had been destroyed in a fire at the Smithsonian in 1865. 

In 1903 Alexander Graham Bell was 56 years old and one of America’s foremost scientists, a genuine celebrity whose name caused audiences to cheer and applaud. The telephone he’d invented in his youth had changed the world radically and in ways that the American people appreciated. Although Bell had become wealthy because of the phone, he never stopped inventing and was responsible for a variety of “firsts,” including the first hydrofoil, the first respirator, the first practical phonograph, and the first metal detector (the last designed in frantic haste to locate the assassin’s bullet in President James Garfield). He also participated in early experiments in flight. 

Bell was devoted to science as a kind of spiritual calling, and in his later years his white beard and dignified bearing, coupled with his sonorous voice, gave him a Mosaic air. When he realized his aerodrome, a watercraft on pontoons, was not airworthy, he wrote: “There are no unsuccessful experiments. Every experiment contains a lesson. If we stop right here, it is the man that is unsuccessful, not the experiment.”

Bell’s interest in the fate of Smithson’s remains was altruistic, for he had nothing to gain in terms of stature by making the journey. The old bones obviously held some scientific interest for him, but forensic anatomy was not one of his specialties. As a man of science and a member of the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents, Bell felt a certain kinship with the obscure scientist who had amassed a fortune to give to the United States, a country he had never visited. It seemed wrong to Bell that the bones of the institution’s benefactor would be dynamited. It turned out he was the only Smithsonian regent sufficiently concerned to take action.

The inclement weather affected Bell’s already fragile health. As he wrote in his notes, “I caught cold in the train from Paris, and this has been aggravated by chilly rain on Christmas Day without wraps. Am therefore keeping indoors as much as possible.” Health issues aside, as soon as he and Mabel arrived in Italy, they realized their business was going to be more complicated than anticipated. A Byzantine bureaucracy had to be satisfied before any digging could begin. 

“There seemed to be no end to the red tape necessary to remove the body,” Mabel wrote in her journal. “A permit to export the body beyond Italian limits, a permit to open the grave, a permit to purchase a coffin, permits from the National government, city government, the police, the officers, etc., etc. Alec felt very anxious that the whole matter should be kept very quiet and that we should leave with the body as soon as possible. He said that once we were on the ship, we were safe with the remains and it was necessary to be very sure that Washington would sustain him in any trouble that might arise.”

Just when they had completed paperwork with the Italians, a new hurdle arose. Distant relatives of Smithson’s—a French family that had tried for generations to extract some of his legacy from the United States—opposed removal of the body.