Around the Mall & Beyond | People & Places | Smithsonian
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Around the Mall & Beyond

On the 26th of April, 1947, Evalyn Walsh McLean, the mining heiress, died at her Georgetown mansion that overlooked Washington, D.C. She was 60 years old.

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Naturally one of the first things her staff thought of was the famous Hope Diamond, the largest deep blue diamond in the world and probably Mrs. McLean's most spectacular possession.

What to do with it?

Someone called Frank Murphy, an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court: Would he take the responsibility for the thing and the rest of Mrs. McLean's jewelry collection?

Certainly, Murphy said. He knew the McLeans well. Late that night he arrived, collected the jewels, jumped into a taxi . . . and paused.

"Mr. Murphy didn't know where to go, because this was then 11 or 12 o'clock at night. He thought the best thing for him to do was just cruise around the city in a taxicab all night, and this is what he did."

These are the words of the late Edward P. Henderson, a former curator in the National Museum of Natural History's Department of Mineral Sciences, in a delightful oral history interview that I found in the Smithsonian Archives.

The interviews, boxes of them, the recollections of Smithsonian curators, are a treasure. And Pamela M. Henson, a historian with the archives who conducted the interviews, is an indefatigable explorer into the memories of some quietly remarkable people. Henson, who has a doctorate in history and the philosophy of science and a background in biology, had pointed me to Edward Henderson as just one of several dozen colorful Smithsonian curators of the past.

"The next morning," Henderson continued, "why, he went into the Riggs National Bank and he said he wanted to deposit this material. Naturally, the bankers said, 'Are they securities or what. . . ? What is this stuff?'

"'Well, one is the Hope Diamond.'

"Then they said, 'How do [we] know it's the Hope Diamond?'"

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