An 1847 decision by the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents and building committee led to unforeseen disastrous results. In order to reduce construction costs of the Smithsonian Building (now known as the Castle), architect James Renwick Jr’s plans for the interior were considerably altered by replacing iron beams and brick vaults with wooden columns and rafters.
On the evening of February 29, 1850, as the wooden structure was being erected inside what is now the Great Hall, the floor began to sink. Within seconds a huge portion of the structure collapsed into the basement. Miraculously, no one was injured although several people had just passed through the room on their way to the Library in the West Wing after attending a lecture in the East Wing. A special committee was established by the Regents to examine the cause of the collapse and it concluded that “…the interior of the main building is defective in the kind of materials originally adopted….” The Regents decided that the remaining wood structure would be removed and the interior rebuilt using more durable and fireproof materials as originally intended by the architect.
By late March, workmen were busily engaged in removing the damaged woodwork from the cavernous space. Twenty-six year old William H. Page, a sailor in the US Navy, was among them, working high atop a scaffold on the morning of March 29. Although forewarned that he was standing in a dangerous and precarious position, Page lost his balance and fell, striking his head on a large piece of timber. The National Intelligencer reported that he “… so dreadfully fractured his skull as to cause almost instant death.”
Page was buried in Congressional Cemetery on March 31 by the society of Odd Fellows. However, less than two and a half months later, according to cemetery records, a Miss Ann Page had his grave opened to have a child named Rebecca F. Smith buried with him. Could Ann have been William’s sister? The 1850 US Census for the District of Columbia lists an Ann Page, age 30, sharing a house with two other young women, Mary Allen, age 20, and S. Smith, age 35; could the little girl have been William’s daughter? Unfortunately, the answers to these questions might never be known. The census was recorded after both deaths and the reference to the relationship is itself circumstantial.
Page’s violent and tragic demise was the first death to occur within the building; the second in 1862 was Will Henry, the only son of Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry, followed by scientist Fielding B. Meek in 1876 and finally by Henry himself in 1878. It is perhaps no wonder that the building is rife with ghost sightings and strange occurrences after the midnight hour. Some of the alleged sightings were thought to be of Meek, but most have been of James Smithson, the Institution’s benefactor and namesake, whose remains are interred in a specially constructed chamber at the north entrance to the building. Night watchmen have reported doors opening and closing by invisible hands, books moving off the shelves in the Library, and lights going on and off in the middle of the night while the building was closed and presumably uninhabited. Strange sightings, unseen presences, and ghostly screams heard in the building prompted one Castle staffer to host a séance or two in the Regents’ Room in the 1980s.
Stories have appeared in the local press as early as 1900 telling of strange footsteps in the lonely corridors of the building created by unseen feet while husky voices break the night stillness. Night watchmen at the time claimed that they came face to face with the spirits of both Joseph Henry and Spencer Baird still supervising the affairs of the Institution. To this day, guards and staffers alike continue to feel the presence of unseen individuals and to hear breathy utterances in offices, towers, and darkened hallways during and after hours.
Smithsonian Institution Building, The Castle, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Historic Pictures of the Smithsonian Institution Building, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Deconstructing a Mystery: Rare photo proves to be the earliest ever taken of the Smithsonian Castle, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
A Castle of Curiosities mobile app, Smithsonian Institution Archives