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Many believe the Smithsonian Castle is haunted. The Institution's founder, James Smithson, is said to be among the otherworldly visitors. (Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives)

Urban Legends About the Smithsonian

Ever since its inception, the Smithsonian has been the subject of wild rumors about the Hope Diamond, Noah’s Ark and more

Fact: The Smithsonian does not own any personal effects of John Dillinger.

Backstory: According to some, a morgue photograph of the sheet-shrouded corpse of John Dillinger suggests nature was rather generous to the gangster. Newspaper editors fearing scandal prudently refused to run the image. However, a popular rumor arose asserting that the gangster’s organ was in the collections of the Smithsonian. This myth has proved so pervasive that the Smithsonian has created a form letter to respond to curious minds: “In response to your recent query, we can assure you that anatomical specimens of John Dillinger are not, and never have been, in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution.”

Myth #8: There is a subterranean archive center underneath the National Mall.

Fact: The Smithsonian’s storage facilities are mostly located in Suitland, Maryland.

Backstory: The notion that a labyrinthine network of storage space exists beneath the Smithsonian museums, under the National Mall, may have started with Gore Vidal’s novel The Smithsonian Institution and was most recently popularized by the movie Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. Unfortunately, no such storage facility is to be found. The archive center depicted in the film is based on the Smithsonian’s storage facilities in Suitland, Maryland. However, there is a staff-only accessible underground complex of passageways that connect the Freer, the Sackler, the Castle, the African Art Museum, the International Gallery and the Arts and Industries Building.

There is also a tunnel that connects the Castle with the Museum of Natural History. Built in 1909, it is technically large enough to walk through; however, a person has to contend with cramped spaces, rats and roaches. A quick jaunt across the National Mall is the preferred means of traveling between the two museums.

Myth #9: The Smithsonian owns a steam engine that was lost on the Titanic.

Fact: While the museums cannot confirm this story, one thing is certain: the Smithsonian will not acquire or display artifacts culled from the Titanic wreck site.

Backstory: Inventor Hiram Maxim—who developed technological wonders such as the machine gun and the mousetrap—supposedly donated a steam engine used in a failed flying machine to the Smithsonian. The equipment was allegedly shipped from Britain to the United States aboard the ill-fated RMS Titanic. However, the ship’s cargo list—published in the New York Times in conjunction with the liability hearings that followed from the disaster—does not include any records of shipments made by Hiram Maxim. The Times article does state that “The cargo consisted of high-class freight, which had to be taken quickly on board and which could be just as quickly discharged.” Specifically listed are articles such as fancy foodstuffs and spirits, but it seems possible that a last crate of machinery could have been loaded on board.

Abiding by the sanctuary principle, the Smithsonian honors the site as a memorial to those who perished and will not disturb the remains of the disaster. While Titanic artifacts—such as articles of mail—have been on view at the Smithsonian, they were pieces retrieved from the surface of the North Atlantic.

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