The Creation of the Smithsonian

I found this story in a BBC article here, around the time that the Smithsonian Museum was celebrating its 250th anniversary.

The article reads, “Inside a small crypt near the entrance of the Smithsonian castle on Washington’s National Mall is a memorial to James Smithson, an English scientist who is roundly praised for never having fathered any children. If he had, his vast fortune would not have been given to America to found the research organisation that bears his name – the Smithsonian Institution.”


Smithson in his Oxford regalia, looking scientific and–I’m not going to lie–pretty damn fine.

Here’s how the museum came to be: James Smithson was the illegitimate son of the 1st Duke of Northumberland. Smithson was born in 1765 in Paris (because all the best aristocratic debauchery happens in Paris, so obviously that’s where a Duke would have a child out of wedlock. It’s a scientific fact. You can trust me–I’m a doctor). Eventually he became a British citizen.

Although Smithson was acknowledged by his aristocratic family and inherited a great deal of money from them, he was still illegitimate and was therefore unable to find a wife of appropriate rank or wealth to suit his own status. There is also, of course, the speculation that he may have been gay, but I don’t know remotely enough about him to wager a guess. Plus, it’s none of our damn business.

Regardless, he never had any children, but he did have a half-brother (by his mother, not by the Duke), who had a son. Smithson’s nephew was named Henry Hungerford, and he was the sole heir in Smithson’s will.

Smithson included one caveat: if Henry Hungerford also died without issue, the entirety of Smithson’s fortune would be sent to the United States of America in order to found an institution “for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men”. It was to be called the Smithsonian.

Yeah, like that could ever happen. As far as legacies go, this one was pretty unlikely.

Smithson died in 1829, and Henry Hungerford inherited. But then, only six years later, young Hungerford died, as well, with no children.

So in 1835, President Andrew Jackson was informed of a rather odd bequest: the United States had been a very unlikely beneficiary in the will of a pseudo-aristocratic British scientist and all-around lover of knowledge, and the stars had aligned just so. The US was about to get a whole boat-load of money in order to create a center of learning.

Now, WHY exactly did Smithson bequest the money to the US? I haven’t the foggiest damn clue. He never visited America and, as far as I’m aware, had no connection to it or particular interest in it at all. The article doesn’t say. And don’t forget, Smithson lived through the American Revolution AND the War of 1812, so it’s not like the counties were on the most tremendous of terms or anything. Maybe he just really wanted to make a huge difference and saw the budding American nation as the place to leave the biggest footprint. I don’t know. It doesn’t help that all of his papers were destroyed in a fire in 1865.

Of course, there was one major problem: the money was across an ocean and subject to foreign laws and procedures. For the bequest to actually read the US, it would have to be tried in a case in Chancery.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the bureaucratic red-tape POPPYCOCK that was nineteenth-century Chancery, you should really read Dickens’s 1852 novel, Bleak House. Chancery was famous for decades- or centuries-long court cases. Spoiler alert: in that book, Chancery manages to actually kill an otherwise healthy young man through the power of its paper-pushing bullshit).

So the chances of the US actually getting the money were pretty much zero.

Except that the Chancery court case only took two years. Which is a fucking miracle.

Then, of course, someone had to physically bring the money over. It’s not like they could wire it. Over $500,000 worth of gold was put on a ship, in the hands of an American lawyer. The ship sailed during a very stormy season. There was a good chance that the ship would sink and Smithson’s money would sink slowly to the bottom of the ocean while Celine Dion crooned in the background.

But that didn’t happen. The ship survived all the storms and arrived in the US. And then Congress sat around on its ass, letting the money grow dusty, until they finally passed the Act to Establish the Smithsonian Institution in 1846.

In 1903, American inventor Alexander Graham Bell thought it was a real shame that Smithson had never visited the US. So Bell decided that the US should exhume Smithson’s body (which was buried in Italy), and bring it to the States.

Please enjoy this picture of US Consul William Henry Bishop holding James Smithson’s skull.



His body was shipped to America, where it arrived safely. Only . . . people didn’t know what to do next. So his body sat in a conference room for over a year while the Smithsonian Board of decided what to do with it.

Guys. Figure that shit out before you dig up a corpse and ship it halfway around the world. SERIOUSLY.

They couldn’t figure out what to do without either seriously depleting their dwindling funds, or without shaming some of the other monuments nearby (an original plan for a monument would have dwarfed the Lincoln Memorial, and no one was really comfortable with that). So they rather shabbily converted a janitor’s closet at the Smithsonian into Smithson’s final resting place, and that’s where his crypt remains to this day.


I hope his ghost haunted the guy who made that decision and said, “You dragged me from sunny Italy for THIS?”

Of course, I’m not just being flippant–many people claimed to have seen Smithson’s ghost roaming around the Smithsonian. So, in light of these stories (and while his boss was away), the curator of the Smithsonian in 1973 impulsively decided to exhume Smithson AGAIN. On the basis of ghost stories.

Workmen took out the casket, which they discovered was made of metal and soldered shut. The curator told them to use their flashlights to bust the casket open. In doing so, they managed to catch the silk lining inside the casket on fire.

Now, before this astonishing lapse of judgment gets even worse (because it does), I’d like to point out that I have no idea what he was hoping to accomplish. So there’s a ghost, presumably. I could understand MAYBE moving the entire casket elsewhere. But why do you feel the need to open it? was he concerned that Smithson wasn’t really death? Wouldn’t that just anger the ghost? It’s like this guy has never read a ghost story or seen a haunted house movie IN HIS LIFE.

Okay, right, are you guys ready for this to get worse?

So, we have Smithson’s monument all mangled to shit, his casket broken open, his 150-year old skeleton exposed to all and sundry, and now everything is ON FIRE.

Then, “He didn’t want them to ruin the silk by using an extinguisher so he told them to fill their mouths with water and come back to spray it down. So they did it.”

The silk is already ruined. It’s on fire. And if you, A CURATOR, were so concerned with preservation, why did you have random workmen bust open a sealed relic with improper tools, without any authorization to do so?

And now, to cap things off, a whole group of people are just spitting on James Smithson. Congratulations. This might be the worst thing I’ve ever written about on this blog.

So while his bones were exposed, they decided to make the best out of a terrible situation and send his body to the lab for testing. Apparently he was in pretty decent shape when he died in 1829. Good to know.

From what I gather, he was put back into his original crypt (and I hope to hell the curator got fired), and is still there today. His ghost was last seen during a seance held in the Smithsonian in the ’80s.

The end.

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3 Responses to The Creation of the Smithsonian

  1. “And now, to cap things off, a whole group of people are just spitting on James Smithson. Congratulations. This might be the worst thing I’ve ever written about on this blog.” OMG I’m laughing so hard my cats are looking at me funny.


  2. Sissy says:

    OMG I can’t even stop laughing. What an awful situation.


  3. Pingback: BizarreVictoria: Celebrating 3 Years | BizarreVictoria

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