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

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)

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Myth #10: James Smithson’s remains are housed in the sarcophagus in the Castle.

Fact: His body resides in the Tennessee marble pedestal beneath the sarcophagus.

Backstory: James Smithson, British scientist and founder of the Smithsonian who never set foot on American soil, died during a trip to Genoa, Italy. His remains were initially interred in the San Beningo cemetery, his gravesite marked with an elaborate sarcophagus (the one on view in the Castle). In 1904, the cemetery was going to be lost due to the enlargement of a nearby quarry, so the Smithsonian Board of Regents decided to collect Smithson’s remains and bring them to the United States.

Smithson was last disinterred in 1973. James Goode, former curator of Castle Collections, said it was because of ghost sightings. Officially, however, the reasons were more scientific: to mount a complete study of the coffin and the skeleton itself. Also, it was thought that documents about his life might have been buried with him. No written material was found with the remains, but a copy of the examination of the bones by the Smithsonian’s physical anthropologist Larry Angel (1962-1982) was filed inside the coffin before it was sealed and returned to the crypt.


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