James Smithson never set foot in America during his lifetime.
It’s a mystery why the gentleman-scientist, who died in 1829, decided to leave $500,000 to a country he’d never visited. One theory: The illegitimate son of a British duke hated England’s rigid class hierarchy, and perhaps saw America as a meritocracy where science could take root and flourish.
Congress nearly rejected Smithson’s gift.
Congress viewed a gift from a British citizen with suspicion, and also fretted that creating a new national institution might interfere with states’ rights. One senator complained that it would set a bad precedent, and “every whippersnapper vaga-bond would send a gift to the United States in order to immortalize his name.”
Alexander Graham Bell brought Smithson’s body to D.C. on his own accord.
Without the permission of his fellow Smithsonian regents, Bell visited the Italian graveyard where Smithson was buried and had his bones and grave marker brought to D.C. in 1904. Smithson was re-interred in the Smithsonian Castle.
The engraving on Smithson’s tomb is wrong.
The epitaph, written by Smithson’s nephew, says Smithson lived to be 75. He only lived to be 63.
Workers accidentally set Smithson’s coffin on fire.
In 1973, workers opened up Smithson’s silk-lined coffin and found a sealed metal container inside. When they used torches to cut the metal box open, they set the coffin’s silk on fire. Smithson’s bones, unharmed, were sent to the National Museum of Natural History, where an anthropologist determined that they belonged to a short man who had probably smoked a pipe.
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