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And the Search for a Proper Memorial

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The Exhumation and Journey to America

image of Smithson's skull

US Consul to Genoa, William Henry Bishop, holding Smithson's skull during exhumation. SI neg. # 71-57-2

Late in 1903 Alexander Graham Bell embarked for Italy with his wife, arriving in Genoa on Christmas Day. During a pelting winter storm on the last day of the year, Smithson's remains were exhumed under Bell's direct supervision. Present throughout and undeterred by the inclement weather, Mrs. Bell "pluckily took a great variety of photographs of the place and ceremonies," according to a witness' account.

On January 7, 1904, before the casket was sealed for its journey to the United States, Mrs. Bell placed a wreath within fashioned from the leaves of a Cypress tree from Smithson's grave. The Bells then left the port of Genoa aboard the German steamship Princess Irene with its precious cargo.

Procession from the Navy Yard, January 25, 1904.Procession from the Navy Yard, January 25, 1904. SI neg. # 82-3232

The Bells arrived in the United States on January 20, after a fourteen day voyage. At the direction of President Roosevelt, the Princess Irene was escorted to the pier at Hoboken, New Jersey by the U.S.S. Dolphin. Smithson's coffin was then transferred to the Dolphin for the final leg of its journey to the Washington Navy Yard.

After brief ceremonies on the dock on January 25, 1904, carriages carrying Bell, Langley, and other dignitaries and the caisson bearing the coffin were escorted through the streets of southwest Washington by a squadron of the United States Cavalry.

Upon his arrival at the Smithsonian Building, Bell symbolically handed over Smithson's remains to the Institution with the words:

Smithsons Coffin in the Regents Room

Smithsons Coffin lying in state in the Regents Room of the Smithsonian Building, 1904. SI neg. # 15883

"And now... my mission is ended and I deliver into your hands ... the remains of this great benefactor of the United States.”

Draped in the U.S. and British flags, the coffin had been placed in the center of the Great Hall for the short but impressive ceremony; afterwards it lay in state upstairs in the old Regents' Room of the South Tower where his few personal effects had been on exhibit since 1880.

With Smithson's journey at an end, Smithsonian officials then embarked on a journey of their own: to erect a permanent monument to honor the Institution's patron.

Go to "The Search for a Proper Memorial"

This exhibit is based on an unpublished paper: "Smithson's Personal Effects, Proposed Memorial, and Crypt," by Richard E. Stamm, Smithsonian Institution, 1995.

© Smithsonian Institution, 2008