Northwest Facade of SI Building

The Mischievous Megatherium Club: After Hours

Learn more about the Smithsonian’s development through the Megatherium Club’s members, as well as an upcoming website all about them!

The creation and design of the Smithsonian Institution Building, commonly known as the “Castle”, is no mystery; however, the stories of some of the early individuals involved in the formation of the Smithsonian’s collection are less commonly known. We need to ask who collected the specimens and produced research on the objects that visitors now see when they enter Smithsonian museums. With the help of correspondence, and even some skeletons, we finally get more of the scoop on the Smithsonian’s original scientists and their informal association—the Megatherium Club.Smithsonian Explorers, The Megatherium Club

The Megatherium Club was named after a giant, extinct sloth that once roamed South America. The men believed that they possessed the same “beastly” qualities as the sloth and assumed it an appropriate title. Organized heavily by William Stimpson and Robert Kennicott, the club set forth on building the institution’s collection during the mid-1800s for Secretary Joseph Henry and Assistant Secretary Spencer Baird. While the members were undoubtedly intelligent visionaries, spending much of their time on expeditions and research, they also lived another life that was a bit more rambunctious—a life that took place in the Castle.

Passed down from Smithsonian employees are stories from when the men lived in the Castle and spent their nights drinking, having sack races down the corridors, and serenading Secretary Henry’s daughters. To confirm their behavior, and provide insight into the personal qualities of the members, we have a letter from the files of Hiram Kennicott (a relative of Robert Kennicott) that contains an amusing “eggnog” story. Apparently, being the smart, yet rowdy, group that they were, the Megatherium members decided to keep hens at the Castle with the hopes of cutting costs on food and alcohol. Innovating, the members made eggnog with the surplus of eggs—after all, they shouldn’t go to waste! Due to the behavior that would surface from drinking, and reports given to the Bairds about the mischief going on in the Castle after hours, the members decided to give up the hens. In fact, it was voted upon by the men that Miss Lucy Baird should be selected to take them.Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy Exhibit, U.S. National Museum

Further, in Kennicott’s letter from February 17, 1863, Folks at Home, he wrote of twenty-one members (though, there are definitely other honorary men and women to add to the list) and their character, labeling many of them “P.B”s (perfect bricks) and mentioning their warm-hearted nature. Though it cannot be confirmed, there is a girl referenced in the letter, and a possible love interest of Kennicott’s, “He [Mr. Gavit] rendered himself further agreeable to us by bringing his very pretty daughter to the S.I. several times when I’m afraid I didn’t refuse quite as decidedly as I might have done to spend some time showing her about the Institution. She is exceedingly young and natural though very clever and caused a sad interruption in the work room and kept me away from my working den also – by spending several hours in the work room this afternoon. She was by acclamation elected an Honorary Member of the Megatheria, at Prof. Baird’s suggestion..”

Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy Exhibit in the South-East Range of USNM

While we may never know completely what went on after hours, we at least get to envision the types of parties and incidents that happened in the Castle during the time of the Megatherium Club. In the near future, we will be launching a website with the information we do have about them. Perhaps in time more information will surface, but for now we’ll just have to picture these Megatheria as wild scientists and perfect bricks.

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