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Digging Up James Smithson

May 2024
11min read

Alexander Graham Bell traveled to Italy at the turn of the 20th century on an audacious mission to rescue the remains of the man whose legacy endowed the Smithsonian Institution.

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. 

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:


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.

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. 

Smithson was a total stranger to the nation when his money arrived—in 11 boxes of gold sovereigns—at the U.S. Mint in 1838. His intentions and mind-set when he wrote his will have been a matter of scholarly, psychological, and political conjecture for nearly two centuries. No one really knows if Smithson “appreciated the potentialities of the American people,” as one newspaper speculated. The bottom line is, no one knows if he thought about the American people at all. We only know he asked that his estate be used to build an institution bearing his name, in Washington, for the increase and diffusion of knowledge. Was he mad, radical, drunk, progressive, or just amusing himself? Did he have an egotistic, late-life fantasy about having his name carved into a building? Did he genuinely care about diffusing knowledge among the inhabitants of a fledgling nation in a distant land? Likely we will never have definitive answers. 

The story of Alexander Graham Bell’s quest to rescue Smithson’s bones is but one chapter in the saga of this mysterious man and his wondrous bequest, which, whatever the original motive, represented a victory for the forces of enlightenment, rational thought, and progress over the forces of ignorance, superstition, and greed. Today, the fruits of Smithson’s gift spread across the capital, the nation, and the rest of the world. 

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