In her illuminating and dramatic biography The Stranger and the Statesman, Nina Burleigh reveals a little-known slice of social and intellectual history in the life and times of the man responsible for the creation of the United States' principal cultural institution, the Smithsonian.
It was one of the nineteenth century's greatest philanthropic gifts -- and one of its most puzzling mysteries. In 1829, a wealthy English naturalist named James Smithson left his library, mineral collection, and entire fortune to the "United States of America, to found ... an establishment for the increase & diffusion of Knowledge among men" -- even though he had never visited the United States or known any Americans. In this fascinating book, Burleigh pieces together the reclusive benefactor's life, beginning with his origins in the splendidly dissipated eighteenth-century aristocracy as the Paris-born bastard son of the first Duke of Northumberland and a wild adventuress who preserved for her son a fortune through gall and determination.
The book follows Smithson through his university years and his passionate study of minerals across the European continent during the chaos of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Detailed are his imprisonment -- simply for being an Englishman in the wrong place, his experiences in the gambling dens of France, and his lonely and painstaking scientific pursuits.
After Smithson's death, nineteenth-century American politicians were given the task of securing his half-million dollars -- the equivalent today of fifty million -- and then trying to determine how to increase and diffuse knowledge from the muddy, brawling new city of Washington. Burleigh discloses how Smithson's bequest was nearly lost due to fierce battles among many clashing Americans -- Southern slavers, state's rights advocates, nation-builders, corrupt frontiersmen, and Anglophobes who argued over whether a gift from an Englishman should even be accepted. She also reveals the efforts of the unsung heroes, mainly former president John Quincy Adams, whose tireless efforts finally saw Smithson's curious notion realized in 1846, with a castle housing the United States' first and greatest cultural and scientific establishment.
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Nina Burleigh is a journalist and the author of A Very Private Woman: The Life and Unsolved Murder of Mary Meyer. Burleigh's journalism career covers twenty years of local and national politics, law, crime, and popular culture. She has traveled widely in the United States, covering American elections, and in the Middle East, reporting from inside Iraq during the 1990s for Time and other publications. Her articles have appeared in Time, People, US Weekly, the Washington Post, Elle, and New York magazine. Burleigh lives in New York and Paris with her husband, Erik Freeland, a photographer, and their children.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Body Snatchers
Alexander Graham Bell did not spend the Christmas season of 1903 in the festive tradition. Instead the inventor of the telephone and his wife, Mabel, passed the holiday engaged in a ghoulish Italian adventure involving a graveyard, old bones, and the opening of a moldy casket. They had traveled by steamship from America at their own expense and made their way down to the Italian Mediterranean by train. The entire route was gloomy, as befit their mission. The feeble European winter sun dwindled at four o'clock every afternoon and rain fell incessantly, but the Bells were undeterred. There was little time. They were in Europe to disinter the body of a minor English scientist who had died three-quarters of a century before and bring it back to America.
The couple arrived at Genoa a few days before Christmas and checked into the Eden Palace Hotel perched on the edge of the medieval port. The hotel was a pink, luxurious resort in summer, but in winter, drafty and exposed. The city itself spilled down the steep hillsides to the edge of the sea, a shadowy warren of fifteenth-century cathedrals and narrow, twisting alleys that had seen generations of plague, power, and intrigue. Once an international center of commerce and art, with palazzi and their fragrant gardens stretching to the water's edge, Genoa in winter at the turn of the twentieth century was a grim place with a harbor full of black, coal-heaped barges.
A steady rain had been falling on France and Italy for days, in Genoa whipped almost vertical by the tramontane, icy winds that blow down from the Alps into the Mediterranean in the winter. Mabel Bell had been hoping to alleviate the dolefulness of the duty by touring the city, but because of the weather she was unable to walk the alleys and visit the pre-Renaissance palazzi once inhabited by Genoa's doges. She was forced to sit in the grand lobby of the Eden Palace Hotel, watching the palms beyond the rattling panes get thrashed in the wind, and wait as her husband sorted through the tangled bureaucracy involved in disinterring a body in Italy.
The Bells had come to Italy in haste because the remains of James Smithson -- minor eighteenth-century mineralogist, bastard son of the first Duke of Northumberland, and mysterious benefactor of the Smithsonian Institution -- were in peril. Seventy-seven years before, Smithson had, for unknown reasons, bequeathed his fortune -- the equivalent of fifty million dollars in current money -- to the United States to fund at Washington, D.C., an institution, in his words, "for the increase & diffusion of Knowledge among men." Now the bones of this strange and still little-understood man were about to be blasted into the oblivion of the Mediterranean Sea. Smithsonian officials had tried in early years to learn more about the obscure Englishman, but their attempts were largely fruitless and they abandoned the effort by 1903. To make matters worse, almost all of Smithson's personal effects and papers had been destroyed in a fire at the Smithsonian in 1865. To lose his bones to the sea would put an ignominious coda on the stranger's murky life story.
The old British cemetery where he was buried occupied a picturesque plot of ground on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean, but it was adjacent to a vast marble quarry. Blasting work to expand the port had been under way for years. The surface of the graveyard belonged to the British, but the hundreds of vertical feet of earth below extending to sea level belonged to the Italians. In 1900 the owners of the marble quarry had informed the British consulate that by the end of 1905 their blasting for marble would finally demolish the cemetery. When the Bells arrived, some coffins had already been dislodged from their graves, tipped over, and crashed into the gaping void below. The Italians were soon to evict all of the English dead in similar fashion.
By 1903 Alexander Graham Bell was fifty-six years old and one of America's foremost scientists, a genuine celebrity whose name caused audiences to cheer and applaud. The telephone he'd invented in his youth had changed the world radically in ways that he and his contemporaries understood and the American people appreciated. He had become a wealthy man because of the phone, but he never stopped inventing. He was responsible for a variety of "firsts," including the first hydrofoil, the first respirator, the first practical phonograph, and the first metal detector (the last designed in frantic haste to locate the assassin's bullet in President James Garfield), and he was involved with early experiments in flight. Bell was devoted to science as a kind of spiritual calling, and in his later years, his white beard and dignified bearing, coupled with his sonorous voice, gave him a Mosaic air. When he realized his aerodrome, a watercraft on pontoons, was not airworthy, he wrote: "There are no unsuccessful experiments. Every experiment contains a lesson. If we stop right here, it is the man that is unsuccessful, not the experiment."
Bell's interest in the fate of Smithson's remains was purely altruistic. He was already wealthy and regarded as an American hero, and he had nothing to gain in terms of stature by making the journey himself. The old bones obviously held some scientific interest for him, but forensic anatomy was not one of his known interests. Rather, Bell, as a man of science, felt a certain spiritual kinship with the little-known scientist who had squirreled away a fortune to give to the United States. The idea of the benefactor's bones being upended into the Mediterranean Sea had piqued him. He was the only member of the Smithsonian Board of Regents sufficiently moved to do anything about it ...
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