Digging Up James Smithson

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The American inventor prevailed. Armed with hand-copied family trees of Smithson, showing the distance between the benefactor and the French family, and a wallet full of lira, Bell went into cloak-and-dagger mode, playing spy, diplomat, and grave robber at once. Since the dead man had bequeathed his entire estate to the U.S., Bell argued that the country—not the relatives—legally owned his bones. He told the Italians he was in Italy as a representative of President Theodore Roosevelt (not technically true—the president didn’t interest himself in the mission until Bell was already on his way back to America). Throwing around bribe money and the president’s name, Bell finally obtained all necessary permissions and overruled the French claim.

With legalities concluded, Bell proceeded directly to the gravesite. He passed a tall marble column dedicated to Christopher Columbus, a Genoan native, and farther on, “La Lanterna,” the grimy black lighthouse on a rock jetty that had symbolized Genoa since the Middle Ages. Soon, the carriage turned up a steep, narrow street enclosed between stucco walls that only partially obscured the medieval palazzi behind them, properties offering grand views of the famous harbor.

At the top of the twisting road lay a tiny rectangular cemetery, no more than 50 feet wide and surrounded by high white walls crowned with sparkly bits of broken glass. Towering cypresses lined the long gravel walkway that separated the tombs from a classical white chapel with portico and pillars. Smithson was interred in the most conspicuous tomb in the cemetery. The body rested inside a sarcophagus surrounded by an iron fence half buried in weeds and debris. A cenotaph of white marble on a pedestal, bore the inscription:

JAMES SMITHSON, ESQ.

Fellow, Royal Society, London

Who Died at Genoa June 26, 1829.

Age 75 Years.

On the other side of the monument a few lines were carved into the marble: “This monument is erected and the ground on which it stands is purchased in perpetuity by Henry Hungerford, Esq., the deceased’s nephew, in token of gratitude to a generous benefactor and as a tribute to departed worth.” Hungerford was a frivolous dandy who went by the name Baron Eunice La Batut. He traveled about Euope, lodging in various hotels, before his early death in his late 20s. The erection of the tomb was one of the most serious tasks he’d ever undertaken. His intention to mark his uncle’s resting place “in perpetuity” was not to endure.

Snow and a bitter, wet wind stung the small disinterment party as they assembled on the promontory above the sea. The graveside witnesses included the Bells, the American consul, and a few representatives from the British and Italian governments. They were joined by three Italian laborers—the cemetery gardener, a Genovese architect charged with opening the tomb, and a metal-worker named Paolo Parodi, who would transfer the remains to a metal casket and solder it shut for the journey across the Atlantic.

The tomb was opened with as much dignity as possible given the weather and the desolation of the cemetery. Bell himself recorded, with scientific detachment, the sight that greeted the assembled party as the stone lid was lifted from the sarcophagus. “I was surprised at the remarkable state in which the remains were found,” he wrote. “The skeleton was complete. The bones have separated but they did not crumble when exposed to air as I had feared they would. As the stone slab covering the grave was removed, it looked as though the body was covered with a heavy blanket, under which the form was outlined. I could not explain this until the discovery was made that in the passage of time the casket had crumbled to dust. It was this dust which lay like a rug over the remains.” Bell lifted the skull out of the casket and held it aloft, examining it. For a few moments, he was eye to eye-socket with the remains of a fellow man of science whose Enlightenment-era ideal of bringing knowledge to the masses had resulted in the creation of the United States’ first scientific institution.

BELL HAD ADVOCATED moving Smithson’s bones to the U.S. several years before his trip, but there had been little interest in the halls of Congress. Bell was indignant that the government would not attempt to rescue the bones of the man responsible for the Smithsonian Institution. Probably the official disengagement had to do with the lack of public support for the Smithsonian itself. The institution, by 1903, was spending large sums—$450,000 annually— without much to show in return. It was involved in an elaborate system of exchange of scientific research with other nations, but its museums and public outreach were nascent compared to today, where every year 30 million people visit 19 great collections (soon to be 20, when the Museum of African American History and Culture is completed). 

Bell had a few powerful supporters, however. Chief among them was his son-in-law Gilbert H. Grosvenor, the first editor of National Geographic Magazine. Grosvenor wrote articles about the imminent demise of the bones, illuminating the story of the lonely benefactor in the process. The coverage prompted a public response that in turn persuaded the regents to agree that Bell should go abroad to save Smithson’s remains. Grosvenor’s campaign continued while Bell and Mabel were in Italy. The editor penned outraged articles noting that the American authorities still had not organized a proper reception for the bones. With just days left before the entourage arrived, Grosvenor took his case directly to President Roosevelt, who authorized a hero’s welcome for them.