The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: American History
December 17th marks the 112th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first flight in 1903, a relatively recent innovation in the scale of human history, but one that has so changed our world and cultural landscape.
It is probably not surprising that the largely self-taught Wright brothers would have reached out to the Smithsonian Institution as they researched ways to achieve human flight, especially considering then-Secretary Samuel P. Langley’s own interests in aviation—and ultimately abortive attempts to achieve manned flight himself with his Aerodrome. Wilbur’s first letter to the Smithsonian, dated May 30, 1899, respectfully requests information about Smithsonian publications on aviation and the possibility of human flight, which must have attracted Secretary Langley’s notice. A correspondence developed between them as both parties worked to build the first successful flying machine.
As their letters continued and it became clear they were competing to achieve the same goal, the Wrights became cagier—though ever cordial—about their developments. Letters from October 20 and November 7, 1902, make it clear they were wary of sharing information with Secretary Langley, dissuading him from visiting them at Kitty Hawk and making excuses to avoid paying a call to him in Washington on their way back to Ohio. Langley’s responses largely survive in letterpress copies, which I glimpsed during a recent digitization project focusing on his records related to aviation.
All came to a head when the Wrights announced their success. Langley was bitterly disappointed to have been beaten, and matters did not improve when the Smithsonian displayed one of Langley’s aircraft as having been capable of flight before the Wright brothers’ achievement. Eventually a reconciliation took place, and the 1903 Wright Flyer today features prominently at the National Air and Space Museum. More details on the dispute can be found on our website.
"The Wright Brothers: The Invention of the Aerial Age," National Air and Space Museum
"1903 Wright Flyer," National Air and Space Museum
Record Unit 7003, Samuel P. Langley Papers (1866-1906, 1909, 1914, 1942), Smithsonian Institution Archives.
James Smithson, founding donor of the Smithsonian Institution – what do you think his astrological sign was? Leo or Virgo? Pisces or Taurus? We don’t know and probably never will because we don’t know when he was born! Even the year of his birth was a source of confusion until extrapolated from school records. Initially, Smithsonian officials thought he was born in 1754 because the inscription on his gravestone says: “Sacred to the memory of James Smithson Esquire, Fellow of the Royal Society, London, who died at Genoa the 26th June 1829, aged 75 years.” We know the inscription was prepared by Smithson’s nephew because the reverse reads, “This monument is erected and the ground on which it stands is purchased in perpetuity by Henry Hungerford. Esq., the deceased’s nephew….” And these officials thought his closest relative would know his age – perhaps he did, perhaps he didn’t – or perhaps he provided the wrong age deliberately…
We now believe that James Lewis Macie, later know as James Smithson, was born in France in the first half of 1765. Why the secrecy? He was the illegitimate child of an English gentlewomen, Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie, and the recently elevated Sir Hugh Smithson, who was married to Elizabeth Macie’s cousin, Elizabeth Percy. The two probably met at Bath, a fashionable English resort near Elizabeth Macie’s home of Weston. In addition to children with his wife, Hugh Smithson fathered several other children with other women, notably Philadelphia and Dorothy Percy. James Macie spent his early years in France but then returned to England for his education. He completed his studies at Pembroke College, Oxford, graduating with a master’s degree in science in 1786.
In 1801, after both his parents had died, James Macie changed his name to James Smithson, adopting his father’s name, although not allowed by the courts to not inherit his father’s titles. After a life devoted to science, James Smithson died at Genoa, Italy, June 26, 1829. He left his estate to his nephew, Henry James Dickinson (later Hungerford), the son of his brother Henry Louis Dickinson. That nephew arranged for the monument, listing his uncle’s age as 75 years. Did he not know how old his uncle was or was the age misrepresented to cover up Smithson’s illegitimacy? The nephew died a few years later, in 1835, leaving no record of his knowledge about his uncle. Upon his death, a peculiar clause went into effect, leaving the remaining estate to the people of the United States to found an Institution for the increase and diffusion of knowledge. When the cemetery in Genoa where he rested closed, Smithson’s remains were brought to the United States by Alexander Graham Bell.
The Smithsonian has established that James Smithson was born in 1765 so this year is the 250 anniversary of his birth. We don’t know his birthday, so we get to celebrate the anniversary all year long! Happy 250th birth anniversary, James Smithson! We remain grateful for your generosity!
James Smithson, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Smithson’s Crypt, Smithsonian Institution Preservation
It was recounted as a “soul-depressing” sound, a monotonous wail, a “dolorous note” in the night. Residents took up arms against the apparition in a “tragic” appeal to put an end to the noise—for a watchman, a gun, for a boy, a slingshot. The phantom noise lingered on. The only explanation? This bird with the “weird” cry terrorizing the town was the disturbed spirit of another winged creature who had given up its life “for the sake of science and now fill[s] the cases of the Smithsonian.”
The Smithsonian was full of things that went bump in the night, according to one vivid 1900 Washington Post article, which detailed DC residents’ desperate attempts to quiet this bird’s wail. Though the spirt of the bird on display was thought to have flown the coop, the story also details other strange and spooky happenings within the museum’s halls itself. In 1900, those apparitions would have been located in what is now known as the Arts and Industries Building, then called the US National Museum. Museum watchmen told the Post that they had seen all sorts of disquieting sights after the museum’s doors had shut to visitors: Haunted bronze animals that “assume a livelier air by night,” joining the screeching bird in making the night “hideous” for those they encountered. The scrape of formless feet, or voices calling out. Masks that moved about in their cases.
Staff at the museum after-hours also claimed to be working alongside the ghosts of past Smithsonian scientists who incorporeally supervised the collections they had once been so devoted to. The most active ghost, the Post reported, was that of the Smithsonian’s first curator and its second Secretary, Spencer Fullerton Baird. Nearly all the Smithsonian’s night watchmen had reported spotting Baird, though his figure disappeared if a passersby tried to chat with him. The spirt of Baird’s predecessor, Secretary Joseph Henry, was a frequent visitor too, according to the watchmen. Henry was often spotted, “fully clothed in the garments he wore in life,” walking through the exhibits before returning to his post—the museum’s statue in his likeness.
Some other popular stories ended up being less about haunted spirits and more about human error. A night watchman, for example, once fled the building, thinking he had witnessed a suicide in the building’s central fountain. The body he saw turned out to be a diving suit. There is also the tale of the evening guard who thought a Japanese warrior mannequin had come to life, sending him hurrying up the stairs “for a safer vantage ground.” The mannequin, though, had just been moved out of its case to be photographed.
The incident with Jesse Beach, a spirited Museum Aide in the Department of Geology, became another Smithsonian tall tale. In her later years Beach actually moved into the Museum of Natural History, where she liked to wander through the halls at night. Beach, with her long white hair and nightgown, was often mistaken as a ghost by new evening guards. Or things got a little more awkward, as was the case with one guard who accidentally walked in on her taking a bath in the geology lab. Thanks to Beach’s nighttime wanderings, Smithsonian Secretary Alexander Wetmore required museum staff to start going home by midnight—aside from his ghostly predecessors, of course.
Stories from the Museum of Natural History, Unearthed, The National Museum of Natural History Unearthed
Urban Legends About the Smithsonian, Smithsonian Magazine
Phantoms of Museum, The Washington Post, May 13, 1900.
- October is here and with it comes American Archives Month! [via Smithsonian Collections Blog]
- At the National Musem of American History - Three new collections that represent Latinas from Los Angeles, California. [via O Say Can You See? blog, NMAH]
- Aspiring artist? The National Portrait Gallery's Teen Portrait Contest runs through the end of October, so turn in your submissions today! [via NPG]
- You may have heard, but scientists have discovered the presence of water on Mars! [via AirSpace blog, NASM]
- Out this week - The Federal Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Toolkit, a "tool that provides information and resources to help federal agencies use the power of public participation to help solve scientific and societal problems." [via NARAtions blog, NARA]
- A new exhibit at Throckmorton Fine Art in New York, Mexican Photography: Women Pioneers I, presents black-and-white images from some of Mexico’s most celebrated female photographers. [via Lens, NYT]
- For fans of DC - A video visualizing early Washington, DC. [via Ghosts of DC]