The Mysterious Death of Robert Kennicott

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I was lucky enough to spend a week in Alaska last month, kayaking in Prince William Sound and hiking in the Chugach Mountains. Having planned my trip to entail the most nights camping in the outdoors as possible, I feel as though I had an intimate view of the Last Frontier. (To the outdoor enthusiast, I must say Alaska is no folly.) But it was only upon my return that I discovered that Robert Kennicott, a naturalist and explorer with ties to the Smithsonian, is partly to thank for Alaska's admission to the United States.

Sandra Spatz Schlachtmeyer, a writer who researched the life and death of Kennicott for her recently published book A Death Decoded: Robert Kennicott and the Alaska Telegraph, quotes an admirer of the explorer who once said, "Robert Kennicott is largely responsible for our purchase of Alaska. Without his knowledge of that mighty region, contained in a score of reports to the Smithsonian, we should never have known enough about Alaska to want it."

Kennicott made two expeditions to the Yukon, in 1859 and 1865. His missions on the two trips were to assess the economic advantages (harvestable forest, viable shipping harbors, etc.) the U.S. stood to gain from the purchase of Alaska, to collect wildlife and anthropological specimens for the Smithsonian Institution's collections and to expand the reach of the telegraph. Though Kennicott wrote some of the first accounts of the area and Smithsonian scientists continue to compare current animal specimens to those he contributed, the explorer's story has been largely lost in time. He died a mysterious death in 1866 at the age of 30 while on his second Alaskan expedition.

Robert Kennicott (1835-1866), explorer and naturalist, in his field clothes. Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Archives.

Hoping that the Smithsonian would want to take part in demystifying the death of Kennicott, the director of Kennicott's family home, The Grove, in Glenview, Illinois, contacted Douglas Owsley, a forensic anthropologist at the National Museum of Natural History, to conduct an autopsy in 2001. They were exhuming the naturalist's casket and thought it a good time to put the mystery to rest. Owsley agreed. In Kennicott's time, it was rumored that he committed suicide by ingesting a lethal dose of strychnine, a substance used to kill the animal specimens he collected. But the director of the Grove had his doubts.

"We were going to let the remains talk to us," says Owsley. After what he calls the "Cadillac treatment" of tests, Owsley and his team ultimately ruled that Kennicott died of natural causes, from heart failure. He suspects the explorer had long QT syndrome, a heart rhythm disorder that has caused many athletes to die suddenly during competition. What is particularly interesting about the case, as Owsley will tell you, is how modern forensic science, when combined with century-and-a-half-old documents describing a man's death and the events leading up to it, can provide an answer to a previously unanswerable question—or, in this case, set the record straight.

"There is not a department in this museum that doesn't have a Kennicott specimen. He contributed Indian artifacts, bird specimens, frogs.... He's just an important guy," explains Owsley. "I like giving him a fair recognition of what happened."

In her book, Schlachtmeyer alternates between presenting the results of the forensic investigation and reconstructing the story of Kennicott's telegraph expedition. All proceeds of A Death Decoded, available at the National Museum of Natural History's store, go directly to the Smithsonian.

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