Fun Facts: The Surprises You Find When Writing Wikipedia With the Archives

In this episode: Where thy body lies: Mr. Smithson Goes to Washington

James Smithson as Oxford Student, 1880, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 10192 or AI-10192. My primary goal as Wikipedian In Residence here at the Archives is to improve content on Wikipedia about the Smithsonian by utilizing the Archives’ resources. I've been able to learn a lot about the people and places that have shaped the Smithsonian into what it is today. It's one of the fun aspects of being a researcher: discovering little nuggets of factual gold that I can put into my "If I'm ever on Jeopardy" tool belt. In this series of blog posts I'd like to share some of that archival gold with you.

Crypt of James Smithson, by Unknown, 1905, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, MAH-17041. One of my favorite discoveries is about James Smithson. Smithson left his estate to the United States in order to found an educational institution, which eventually became the Smithsonian Institution. He never visited the United States . . . at least not while he was living. Smithson's remains are located at the Smithsonian Castle, where millions of visitors have walked past his crypt since it was placed there in 1905.

Tomb of James Smithson in Italy Smithson was originally buried in Genoa, Italy, where he lived and died. When the burial site in Genoa was to be relocated, one of the Board of Regents at the Smithsonian decided to take action. Who was that board member? Well, it was Alexander Graham Bell. Yes, THAT Alexander Graham Bell, the guy who invented the telephone.

Bell requested that Smithson's remains be moved to Washington, DC. His request was approved, and in 1903 Bell and his wife, Mabel Gardiner Hubbard, went to Genoa and exhumed the body. It arrived by boat in Washington on January 20. Five days later it was escorted, by the United States Calvary, to the Castle where it was placed in the Board of Regents room.

Regents' Room with James Smithson's Coffin This is where it gets extra creepy: Smithson's remains sat in the Board of Regents room from January 25, 1904 until being entombed on March 6, 1905. Yes, for over ONE YEAR his remains hung out in the Board of Regents room at the Castle.

Now Smithson lies in rest at probably one of the most visited grave sites in the United States, in the chapel room in the Smithsonian Castle. This story leaves me with one question: did the ghost of Smithson also come to Washington? Which leads me to think . . . if there is ever a Smithsonian history costume party, I think I have a costume idea.

Read more about the life and story of James Smithson at his newly expanded Wikipedia article, and on the Archives' website.

 . . . in our next installment of Fun Facts I'll introduce you to the Queen of Malacology.

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