Removal of James Smithson's Coffin, 1903, by Mabel Bell, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Image no. 2002-12196.

“The Proper Thing to Do": James Smithson’s Journey to Washington

On the 190th anniversary of the death of Smithsonian founding donor James Smithson, we’re taking a look back at his posthumous journey, led by Alexander Graham Bell, to his final resting place in Washington, D.C.

Today marks the 190th anniversary of the death of Smithsonian founding donor James Smithson in 1829. Though we have touched on topics related to his death in the past, today’s blog will detail Smithson’s posthumous journey to the United States.

In the late nineteenth century, Smithsonian’s Board of Regents consistently took actions to preserve Smithson’s resting place in Genoa, Italy, where he died at age 64. In 1880, the group authorized the U.S. Consul in Italy to care for the monument at Smithson’s gravesite, and Secretary Langley added further funding in 1891. A few years later, the Board arranged for three plaques to be created in Smithson’s honor to be placed at his grave, the Protestant chapel in Genoa, and Pembroke College at Oxford, Smithson’s alma mater.

Tomb of James Smithson in Italy

If the Board had prioritized such respect for Smithson’s memory in the past, why, then, was news about the destruction of his gravesite met with such a lukewarm response? In 1901, when the British Consul in Italy informed the Smithsonian that the cemetery where Smithson was buried needed to be relocated, the Board did not consider the matter a priority. 

Fortunately, Board member Alexander Graham Bell (yes that one!) took the lead and set out on a mission to bring Smithson to his final resting place in Washington, D.C.

On Christmas Day 1903, Bell and his wife, Mabel Bell, arrived in Genoa. Following days of negotiations and securing permits, the exhumation of James Smithson finally began on December 31 at 11 o’clock in the morning. The group found that Smithson’s coffin had crumbled, but his skeleton was well preserved.

Removal of James Smithson's Coffin

For days, Smithson’s casket remained in the mortuary chapel at the cemetery, guarded day and night by gardener Giovanni Battista Firpo.  On January 2, 1904, Bell, U.S. Consul William Henry Bishop, and other witnesses placed an American flag, the seal of the consulate of the United States, and a wreath of leaves from Smithson’s gravesite over his casket before sealing the wooden coffin shut.

At the ceremony, Bell spoke, “It is with feelings of deep emotion that I undertake the transportation of the remains of James Smithson from the cemetery where they have so long reposed to their last resting place in the United States.”   

Following the small service, the group transferred Smithson’s remains to the Princess Irene, which set sail from Genoa on January 7. Upon arrival in New York on January 20, the coffin was transferred to the U.S.S. Dolphin, which escorted the Princess Irene to Washington, D.C.

Steamship Used to Carry James Smithson's Remains to the US

After this whole journey, Bell wanted to ensure Smithson received a grand homecoming, for it was the “proper thing to do.” That’s where President Theodore Roosevelt came in.

Editor of National Geographic, and Bell’s son-in-law, Gilbert Grosvenor went over the heads of Smithsonian’s Board of Regents and requested support for a reception directly from President Roosevelt.

On January 25, 1904, the Marine band greeted the travelers with a rendition of “Nearer My God to Thee,” and the United States Calvary escorted the group from the Navy Yard. The coffin was draped with American and British flags. Finally, when the procession arrived at the Smithsonian Institution Building, or the “Castle,” Bell symbolically delivered Smithson’s remains to the Smithsonian Institution.

Cortege Bringing James Smithson Remains to Smithsonian

Today’s visitors to the Smithsonian are now able to pay their respects to the Institution’s founding donor by visiting his crypt in the Castle.

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