The Removal of the Remains of James Smithson

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  • This commentary by Smithsonian Secretary Samuel Pierpont Langley offers details of why and how the remains of James Smithson, founder of the Smithsonian Institution, were relocated from a cemetery on the Heights of San Benigno in Genoa, Italy, to the Smithsonian Institution Building in Washington, D.C.
  • Langley begins by recounting that Smithson died on June 27, 1829, and was buried in a Genoan cemetery belonging to the English Church. He refers to himself as "the Secretary" throughout the narrative as he continues by mentioning a visit to the Smithson grave in 1891, when he gave the English Church Fund money to invest to care for the grave in perpetuity, and two later visits to place bronze bas-relief tablets of Smithson in the church and at the tomb.
  • During his last trip, Secretary Langley was made aware of the probability that the cemetery might be closed; he received actual notice of its upcoming closure by Italian authorities, who needed the site for expansion of a nearby quarry, in a November 1900 letter from the Committee of the British Burial Ground, which asked if the Smithsonian wanted relocation of Smithson's remains to a new cemetery there or be conveyed to the United States.
  • Langley includes full-text wording of subsequent correspondence exchanges with the Committee, William Henry Bishop, U. S. consul in Genoa, and himself, in conjunction with actions taken by the Board of Regents to resolve the situation. At its December 1903 meeting, the board adopted a resolution appointing Regent Alexander Graham Bell to take charge of relocating Smithson's remains from Genoa to Washington.
  • Mr. Bell and his wife traveled to Genoa later that same month, and with Consul Bishop's assistance in making arrangements, disinterred Smithson's remains, transferred them from a wooden coffin to metal casket, placing it in the cemetery's mortuary chapel until January 2, 1904, when the casket was enclosed in a coffin of strong wood and covered with the American flag by Bishop. Langley quotes remarks made on the occasion by Bishop, Bell and a representative of the British Burial Ground Committee.
  • Under Bells' continued charge, Smithson's remains were placed on board the steamer Princess Irene and arrived in New York on January 19, 1904. The remains were received by Bell and Secretary Langley, transferred to a Navy ship and accompanied by Bell, arrived at the Washington Navy Yard on January 23.
  • On Monday, January 25, the remains were transported with ceremonies to the Navy Yard Gate, and, accompanied by the Assistant Secretary of State, the British Ambassador, the Smithsonian Regents, Secretary Langley, and President of the Board of Commissioners of the District of Columbia, were conveyed to the Smithsonian Institution Building. The coffin, draped in American and British flags, was placed in the Center of the Main Hall.
  • Langley includes remarks made by Bell at the ceremony as Bell addressed U. S. Senator and Smithsonian Regent Frye in behalf of the Board of Regents, along with Frye's reply; ceremonies conclude with a prayer by Reverend Randolph H. McKim. Langley ends by stating that the remains rest temporarily in a room which contains the few personal relics of Smithson, until their final disposal by the Regents.


  • Bishop, William H
  • Frye, William Pierce
  • Bell, Alexander Graham 1847-1922
  • Smithson, James 1765-1829
  • McKim, Randolph H (Randolph Harrison) 1842-1920
  • Langley, S. P (Samuel Pierpont) 1834-1906
  • Regents Smithsonian Institution
  • Smithsonian Institution Building Main Hall
  • Smithson Memorial Tablet
  • Smithsonian Institution Building (Washington, D.C.)


Smithsonian History Bibliography

Citation information

Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections (Quarterly Issue) Vol. 45


Reprinted from Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections (Quarterly Issue), Volume 45; shown as No. 1449.

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,


April 11, 1904


  • Smithson Bequest
  • Burial
  • Smithson, James
  • Memorials
  • Cemeteries
  • Smithson tomb
  • Exhumation
  • Death and burial
  • Princess Irene (Ship)
  • Cemeteries--Italy
  • Smithson, James--Death and burial


  • Genoa (Italy)
  • Italy


Board of Regents

Physical description

Number of pages : 9; Page numbers : 243-251

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