The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Time capsule found under Lee monument found to have books, envelope — but no Lincoln photo

Historians on Dec. 22 opened a time capsule that was found underneath the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Steve Helber/Reuters)

RICHMOND — So, no ultrarare photo of President Lincoln in his casket.

Not even a trove of pro-Confederate propaganda.

But the Robert E. Lee monument time capsule that Virginia historians opened Wednesday produced its share of mystery and intrigue — along with three waterlogged books from the late 1800s, a pamphlet or two, a ghostly photo and a British coin.

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) lent a hand Wednesday afternoon as conservators Chelsea Blake and Kate Ridgway finally peeled up the lid of the small lead box after several hours of prying at its seams. Workers had discovered the box Friday while dismantling the 40-foot stone plinth that once supported the state’s statue of Lee on Monument Avenue. Northam ordered the statue taken down in September, calling it a symbol of racism.

Even before the top of the box came off — live-streamed and before a crush of media cameras — experts had begun to doubt that this was the official time capsule placed beneath the Lee memorial in 1887, three years before the statue was unveiled.

“It’s all wrong!” exclaimed Dale Brumfield, a local historian and author who has researched the time capsule. Or as Julie Langan, the state director of historic resources, put it: “There are anomalies.”

The dimensions of this box, carefully removed Tuesday from a 1,500-pound slab of granite, are smaller than the one documented in the historical record. It is also made of lead, instead of the expected copper. And there’s no sign of a florid inscription that was supposedly carved into the box’s side.

Blake and Ridgway had spent hours Wednesday working to loosen the seal around the lid of the 4-by-8-by-11.5-inch container. They used a variety of small tools, held in a mug labeled, “Trust me, I am a conservator,” to chip off hard mortar and then carefully bend back a lip of lead.

Shortly after 3 p.m., as Northam donned gloves to lift the lid of the time capsule and place it onto a red tray, it became obvious that this was not the artifact historians expected. Some of the publications inside the box bore dates after the official time capsule was said to have been placed.

“We have questions,” Ridgway said later, after the waterlogged items were separated and set out for drying.

The objects inside included “American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac” of 1875; a copy of “The Huguenot Lovers: A Tale of the Old Dominion,” which records indicate was published in 1889; and an unlabeled maroon-colored book that was too wet to open.

There was also a soggy envelope containing a photograph from a studio on Broad Street in Richmond, at least one pamphlet describing a waterworks project on the south side of Richmond dated 1888 and a Victorian-era British coin.

What did it all mean? Brumfield quickly developed a theory.

“It’s a vanity project,” he said. The Huguenot book — a Victorian romance — was written by one Collinson Pierrepont Edwards Burgwyn, who also happened to be the Richmond engineer who designed the circle around the Lee statue. The waterworks pamphlet bore his name, too.

Protesters transformed Richmond’s Robert E. Lee memorial. Now they mourn the loss of their most powerful icon of resistance.

And the photograph, which conservator Sue Donovan painstakingly unstuck from beneath a wet sheet of paper or cloth, showed the faded image of a man with a mustache. On the back was written, “James Netherwood, the master stonemason.” Netherwood, Brumfield said, constructed the elaborate granite pedestal of the memorial.

Because this time capsule was not in the historical record, and because it was found about 20 feet up inside the pedestal, Brumfield reasoned that the builders might have placed it on their own to honor themselves. “So this is kind of like an ego trip,” he said.

Maybe. Langan, the historic resources director, said historians have to go to work now to study and understand the objects. Left unanswered: Where is the official time capsule that received extensive press coverage more than 130 years ago?

Its contents were said to have been assembled by community members and included some 60 items, most of which lauded the Confederacy, Lee or Richmond’s status as the rebel capital. Most tantalizingly, the accounts suggested that one item included was an image of Lincoln in his casket. If it was an authentic photograph, that would be an extremely rare find — very few are known to survive.

None of the items discovered Wednesday appeared on the list of the contents of that box, as published at the time.

“I’m wondering, was the contemporary account a red herring?” Langan said. “Was something put into the time capsule that was later removed? … That will take time to determine.”

Northam condemned the Lost Cause legacy of the monument but said opening the time capsule was “an important day for the history of Richmond and Virginia,” because it “gives us an idea what folks were thinking about at this time of our history.”

Across town, as conservators did their slow work in the state lab, crews cleared the final granite slabs from atop the Lee memorial site. The 40-foot-stone plinth, which was covered with graffiti and became an international symbol of the 2020 protests over racial inequity, has been dismantled and put into storage.

The city of Richmond is about to take ownership of the site from the state but had asked that it be cleared first.

Devon Henry, who owns the construction company that has removed most of Richmond’s Confederate memorials, said his workers were careful to look out for signs of another time capsule after failing to find one in September. The ground remains filled with granite boulders and rubble, he said, and the official time capsule could still be there.

“We think we have an idea where it’s at,” Henry said, based on the Masonic tradition of burying time capsules on the northeast corner of a structure. “It just depends on what exploratory exercises the state wants to do at this point.”