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Friday, October 27, 2017

Flashback Friday: Smithsonian Hauntings

Joseph Henry, first Smithsonian Secretary
Smithsonian Institution Archives, image # MAH-10603. 
As Halloween approaches, the mind wanders to ghostly hauntings and where better than a museum to find a ghost? There are plenty of skeletons in Smithsonian closets and rumors of hauntings abound.

Though several people have claimed sightings of Joseph Henry, our first Secretary, haunting the Smithsonian Institution Building, or Castle, it’s unlikely he would walk those grounds. Henry was so deeply skeptical of spirits and hauntings that he once offered $1,000 if someone could levitate a table into the air. In addition, Henry never particularly liked the Smithsonian Institution Building, considering the maintenance of a building a hindrance to the work of furthering scientific research.  It’s highly unlikely that his spirit would take up residence in a building he though was “a fantastic and almost useless building.

Fielding Meek's Cat, Smithsonian Institution Archives, image # 92-15019.
Another Smithsonian Scientist, Fielding Meek, happily called the Smithsonian Castle home. He lived with his cat in a tiny room under the stairs in the North Tower of the Smithsonian Institution Building from 1858 until his death. An extremely introverted and deaf paleontologist, he became increasingly isolated as he lost his hearing in his later years. His isolation can be felt in his caption for a sketch of his cat “This is all the family I have.” Perhaps he haunts his former home in search of company?

Spencer F. Baird,
Smithsonian Institution Archives, image # MAH-10735
Many rumors swirl about Smithsonian staff who loved their collections so much they could not bear to part with them, even in death. Perhaps none is as persistent as Spencer F. Baird, the Smithsonian’s second Secretary and founder of the U.S. National Museum. In 1900, The Washington Post reported that most of the night watchmen had reported seeing Secretary Baird supervising the collections to which he was so devoted.  Night watchmen, as you can imagine, have seen more than their fair share of strange sightings at the Smithsonian, but some are more otherworldly than others. Donald, one of the night watchmen, turned a corner in the museum and had a run-in with a fearsome Japanese warrior who towered above him, spear and all. After fleeing to higher ground on the second level of the building, in the morning he discovered that his warrior ghost was just a mannequin removed from his case so that it could be photographed. 

Robert Kennicott in his Field Outfit,
Smithsonian Institution Archives, image # SIA2011-0145
Around the Smithsonian, it is not unusual for an old mystery to come back to haunt us. Here at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, Robert Kennicott, one of the Smithsonian’s earliest explorers, was the most recent to raise goosebumps.  Kennicott died mysteriously on an expedition in Alaska. Our colleagues over at the National Museum of Natural History have analyzed his bones to understand how he lived and died.  While many researchers have scoured his personal papers and Smithsonian records in search of an answer, our archivists made a serendipitous discovery that sheds a little more light on his death. This Halloween, the Smithsonian has taken Kennicott's skeleton out of our closet and you can visit him yourself in the Objects of Wonder exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History.

Lisa Fthenakis, Program Assistant
Smithsonian Institution Archives 

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