Digging Up James Smithson


The government went into full ceremonial mode as the ship carrying the remains churned across the Atlantic. A U.S. Navy dispatch vessel, USS Dolphin, was sent to meet the steamer in New York Harbor. As Bell and the remains approached, the Dolphin fired salutes, and when the coffin was winched aboard the Dolphin, it was draped with an American flag. Bell, too, boarded the vessel and accompanied the remains on the final leg of the journey to Washington, D.C.

Aboard the Dolphin, Bell wrote the speech he would give when the ship docked in the capital: “I am deeply moved by the honor and dignity bestowed me to perform the mission of bringing to this country the remains of the late James Smithson. As you are aware, James Smithson, [in his] love for our American vivacity and spirit, bequeathed his entire fortune to the United States … in order that his name might be perpetuated among the earth’s greatest benefactors…. It is needless for me to say that as his sole heir and the proud possessor of Smithson’s great and generous benefactions, it behooves us at this time to provide an appropriate resting place for his remains, such that will honor him who has so highly honored us.”

The U.S. Navy ordered “as large a force of Marines as may be available” to form a parade along with the Marine Band as Smithson’s casket was lifted from the Dolphin’s deck and carried to the gate of the Navy Yard, where a troop of the 15th Cavalry waited to escort the bones across town. The British ambassador himself and most of the regents accompanied the funeral procession through the streets of Washington to the Smithsonian.

BY FEBRUARY 1904 the remains of James Smithson were finally inside the institution that owes its existence to his bequest. It took time for Congress to grant approval for the American reburial of the British citizen. With the casket in temporary storage at the Smithsonian Castle, official sentiment had turned slightly against the whole enterprise. The writer of a Washington gossip column in a New York newspaper noted that the remains of the benefactor were still lying dishonorably in a room at the Smithsonian months after their arrival. “Could he have had his ‘say’ about it, it seems to me that Mr. Smithson would not have chosen to have had his coffin opened at this late date and its contents talked about on two continents. At any rate, the pitiful evidences of decay are entitled to the respect of silence.”

The job of creating a respectful resting place for the benefactor was taken up by Smithsonian officials. The board of regents formally recommended that a Smithson memorial be funded by Congress and began taking proposals from architects and artists. Suggestions ranged from a massive shrine that would have dwarfed the Lincoln Memorial to finding use for a Syrian sarcophagus that had been donated to the Smithsonian years before. In the end Congress balked at funding anything elaborate, and the regents requested the original sarcophagus from Genoa. When it duly arrived, it was placed in a special Mortuary Room, constructed to the left of the entrance to the Castle. There, on March 6, 1905, in a small ceremony following a meeting of the regents James Smithson’s remains were re-interred.

Eternal peace wouldn’t settle around the bones just yet. In the mid-1970s the Smithsonian, motivated by continuing curiosity about Smithson’s life, reopened the tomb, nearly obliterating the benefactor forever. Smithsonian workers with a blowtorch accidentally set the velvet material around the bones on fire. Unable to use a fire extinguisher that would scatter the fragile remains across the room, the workers took mouthfuls of water from a nearby fountain and spit on the small conflagration. The bones were then removed and laid before a forensic expert.

Dr. J. Lawrence Angel, curator of the Physical Anthropology Department of the Smithsonian, examined the bones using state-of-the-art forensics. He studied the skeleton and produced a 10-page report, noting first that the transfer of the bones from the grave to the American resting place “had not been especially orderly.” The skull and jaw rested at one end of the sarcophagus, but the rest of the bones were jumbled together with old brass coffin nails and masses of dirt and plaster, all “commingled irregularly like fruit in a cake.”

Once the bones were separated from the debris and the skeleton reassembled, the examiner surmised a life story. The most interesting conclusion was that Smithson had suffered malnourishment in early childhood. His adult stature was not what it should have been and “certainly below” that of the English upper class at the time. He stood somewhere between 65 and 67 inches tall, far shorter than the five-foot-ten-inch guess made by Bell and his companions in Genoa.

Smithson was a slight man, so slight as to seem “feminine,” the examiner wrote. He had been right-handed. He was quite possibly a heavy drinker. His dental state was appalling—not unusual for his time. He was missing 17 teeth at death, lost to painful periodontal disease. The wear on one tooth indicated he might have smoked a pipe. Certain peculiarities of the right little finger suggest he may have played the harpsichord, the piano, or a stringed instrument such as a violin.

The bones, though delicate, also reflected a hardy outdoor life, with wear on the knees indicating someone who spent time working on the ground. His hands were those of a man used to rough work, with fingers gnarled from repetitive use of tools. These intimate details confirmed some things already publicly known, and added new questions. Malnourishment? Feminine bones? Intriguing certainly, but no inspection of his crumbled remains, regardless how exacting, could completely illuminate the story of his life and motives.