A staff-favorite story in the Smithsonian’s history is that of the Megatherium Club — a revolving group of young naturalists who made the Castle their temporary home in between expeditions to the outer reaches of the United States. Who could not be intrigued by this photo of the Club where they look to be sharing a joke, or a plan? They were absolutely up to something; sack races, beer-drinking, and serenading the daughters of the Smithsonian’s Secretary, Joseph Henry. They coined themselves after the extinct giant sloth, the Megatherium, which was the latest paleontological discovery of the day.
Lately, the club’s notoriety has grown. The Washington Post did a story on one of the founding members, Robert Kennicott, who died tragically at the age of 30 while on expedition to Alaska in 1866. Smithsonian forensic anthropologists and an archivist came up with a new theory for his death which had previously been thought to be suicide. Now Kennicott’s bones are on display in the National Museum of Natural History’s “Objects of Wonder” exhibit along with assorted specimen he collected; a red fox, a Northwest territory headdress, brachiopod fossils, and more.
Sidedoor, a podcast which the public behind-the-scenes at the Smithsonian, is featuring the Megatherium Club in the first episode of season two. Tune in to hear our own Pamela Henson, Smithsonian historian, share what we know about this fascinating bunch.
Before you wander off, I’ll leave you with Kennicott’s description of the Megatherium Club which can be found in Richard Stamm’s wonderful book on their home, The Castle: An Illustrated History:
"It is at five o’clock, when the Megatherium takes up its pretty, that the most interesting character of the animal are seen – Then it roars with delight and makes up for the hard work of the day by much fun and conduction…Vulgar outsiders who think the Megatheria must be rather dry sticks…are caused to open their eyes very wide when they are allow to see the Megatheria taking its prey or on a frolic..."
- Sidedoor Podcast
- "Partying Like It's 1855," Smithsonian Mobile
- "Robert Kennicott (1835-1866): Early Smithsonian Scientific Explorer and Collector," National Museum of Natural History