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Mystery Man

Very little was known about the Englishman who left a fortune to create the Smithsonian, until Heather Ewing came along.

Bob Capazzo

When Hurricane Ernesto hit Greenwich on Labor Day weekend 2006, the lights went out in Angie and Ted Ewing’s house. “My computer screen went black,” says their daughter Heather, an architectural historian and first-time author then completing the final pages of The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian. The lights flickered on again, triggering laughter at disaster narrowly averted. Five minutes later, they went out and stayed out.

Undaunted, Heather foraged in the dark for candles, setting them up on the dining room table. “I finished the book, writing in longhand by candlelight,” she says, her blue eyes twinkling at how very eighteenth century that was, the perfect grand finale to a quest that took her back two hundred and fifty years.

Cut to April 15, 2007, and another impossible storm. But neither gale-force winds nor flooded roads — courtesy of a spring nor’easter — could stop Greenwich residents from driving to Bobbie and Rich Hopkins’s barn in Riverside to hear Heather talk about her book, just published by Bloomsbury, U.S.A. Drenched, but determined to be there, this audience was an apt metaphor for the kind of tenacity that fueled Heather’s six-year search to solve a centuries-old mystery: Who was this enigmatic Englishman who bequeathed his fortune to a country he’d never set foot in? James Smithson’s gift of $508,318.46, worth many millions today, was used to fulfill its benefactor’s wish, to endow what would become the world’s largest museum and research complex, “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men,” the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

The history behind the Smithsonian dates back to 1835, when Andrew Jackson, then president, was informed of the mysterious bequest. The gift provoked heated debate in Congress. Just who was this chemist and mineralogist, purported to be the illegitimate son of a duke? After years of sound and fury, in 1846, Congress passed an act accepting the gift. Construction of the first building was completed in 1855. A mere ten years later, in a strange twist of fate, a massive fire destroyed the top story of the “Castle,” as the building was called. Two hundred manuscripts of Smithson’s research papers, decades’ worth of diaries and a carefully documented collection of rare mineral specimens were reduced to ash. Also lost in the fire was any clue to the man himself.

“We knew James Smithson had died in 1829 and had been buried in a cemetery in Genoa, Italy,” says Heather, “but otherwise, we had very little biographical information.” After graduating from Yale, Heather worked at the Smithsonian as architectural historian. “I co-authored a history of the Castle,” she says, “that barely mentioned its benefactor who was imaginable only as a caricature, a periwigged effete.”

The paucity of material fascinated Heather and led to a pursuit of James Smithson when she was studying in London in 2001. Pam Henson, a Smithsonian historian, had suggested that whatever might be learned about him would be found in England, home of his ancestors. “So I decided to poke around a bit,” Heather says. It was the start of a journey back in time, an attempt to look at Smithson’s world through his eyes wherever possible.The more she learned, the more convinced Heather became that the portrait of Smithson that had evolved since the fire of 1865 — a loner, an eccentric, a friendless man who wasn’t even a very good scientist — was wrong. She set out “to build a three-dimensional picture that would weave him back into the times in which he lived” and shed some light on why he chose to leave his fortune to the U.S.

The known facts were sketchy; some were intriguing. Smithson had been exhumed and reburied twice, the first time by Alexander Graham Bell who, on the last day of 1903, despite a blinding snowstorm, removed the body from a condemned cemetery in Genoa and ceremoniously delivered it to the Smithsonian. The most prominent architects and sculptors in the nation were invited to create a suitable memorial; very grand plans were proposed, but none materialized. Instead, a modest crypt was created using the original sarcophagus from Genoa.

In 1973 the body was exhumed a second time to allow forensic anthropologists to examine Smithson’s bones, an exercise that almost created a second inferno when blowtorches used to unsolder the coffin ignited the casket’s silk lining. “A nearby water fountain saved Smithson from absolute extinction,” Heather says. “The workmen raced down the hall to the water fountain, filled their mouths with water, then raced back to use it to put out the fire.”

The world now knew that Smithson was a relatively vigorous man in his sixties when he died, five-foot-seven inches tall with a wide brow, strong hands and a long torso. “He smoked a pipe and had five abscessed teeth at the time of his death,” Heather says, “but his voice still appeared silenced for eternity.”

Heather set out to define Smithson the man, recreating what she soon began to regard as his lost world by identifying the people in his social and scientific networks. She started at Oxford’s Pembroke College, which he attended in the 1780s and where he was part of an avant-garde group interested in the “quite non-gentlemanly field of chemistry.”

There are “some tantalizing excerpts” from the diaries lost in the 1865 fire that Heather found in an article published while Congress was still debating whether or not to accept the gift. In one, a nineteen-year-old James Smithson describes his expedition to Fingal’s Cave, just discovered on the remote Hebridean island of Staffa. Soon a place of pilgrimage for painters and poets, it’s still regarded as one of the geological wonders of the world. “Keats called it ‘this Cathedral of the Sea’ and Turner painted it shrouded in mist and great swells of water,” Heather says. “Smithson was among the first scientists to explore and study it.”

The guest registers of the Royal Society in London, England’s oldest and most prestigious scientific body, proved a rich source of colleagues.

Smithson was inducted when he was twenty-two, and his social and academic circle turned out to be a virtual who’s who of cutting-edge European scientists between the 1780s and 1820s, a time of incredible excitement about new discoveries. To Heather, that meant their papers and letters had very likely been preserved.

She was soon tracking her quarry through the archives and private libraries of Europe, following hundreds of leads, traveling from England, France and Italy to Denmark,Finland and beyond. Slowly, letters from Smithson to his friends and associates emerged, as did mentions of him in their correspondence. “He went by the name of Macie (his mother’s name at the time of his birth) until he was thirty-five,” Heather says, “so that made the search doubly difficult.” It soon became clear that, far from being a scientific dabbler, Smithson was a respected member of the Royal Society’s inner circle of chemists.

Back in the archives of the Smithsonian, Heather met someone who would become a key mentor. Now emeritus curator of meteorites at the National Museum of Natural History, Dr. Roy S. Clarke Jr. dates his interest in James Smithson back to his hiring interview fifty years ago with then secretary Leonard Carmichael. “He told me that, like Smithson, I was a chemist who analyzed minerals. He charged me with maintaining the same high standards and making the world aware of Smithson’s contributions.” Dr. Clarke’s doctoral thesis on meteorites confirmed that William Thompson, one of the names Heather had turned up, was indeed a Smithson friend and colleague.

“So I knew I was on the right track,” she says. Calling cards left at a hotel in Paris where Smithson was staying had survived the fire; they provided more names to be investigated. Smithson’s bank records were a treasure trove of clues; city directories showed where he lived at different times and who his neighbors were.

Dr. Peter Barber, head of map collections at the British Library where Heather was a Fellow from 2002 to 2003, was impressed by her approach to research. “She immediately grasped the role maps could play in providing a spatial context for Smithson’s activities,” he says, “and, through that, a sense of his day-to-day life. What did he live near? What streets did he walk routinely and what would he have seen around him?” Along with energy and enthusiasm, Heather came prepared with lists to track down. Soon, a chronological database was connecting the dots; a “Circle of Smithson” file stored short bios of all the people she’d found. “Slowly,” she says, “all these scattered fragments began to make sense.”

She followed Smithson’s footsteps and doggedly pursued him through ever more obscure archives. “Fortunately, I am fluent in French and Italian,” she says, “but it was a struggle to decipher documents in gothic-style German.” In Denmark — where Smithson was imprisoned as a spy, “vibrating between existence and the tomb,” for two years during the Napoleonic Wars — she learned to recognize the Danish words to or from Smithson to flag pertinent material in letters. “I had those letters translated,” she says, “and discovered that Smithson’s release, signed by Napoleon in 1810, was in response to pressure from the international scientific community.”

Ironically, Heather’s native tongue presented another kind of difficulty: reading the archaic English script. Even more baffling was the language of eighteenth-century science, Smithson’s passion. Heather turned to Steven Turner, curator of physical sciences at the National Museum of American History, for help in deconstructing concepts as well as recreating some of the experiments. “I was able to explain some of the scientific technology and put his work into context,” he says, praising Heather for consistently resisting the temptation to cast Smithson in modern terms.

Three years of frustrating visits to the archives at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris are a tribute to Heather’s legendary tenacity. “They would allow only one hundred researchers daily; you had to book well in advance and then could request just five documents,” she says, “even though I was coming all the way from London.”

Thermometers hit 108 degrees in Paris one August day in 2003; inside the old building, there was no air conditioning. Sweat dripping down her back, Heather finally hit pay dirt.

“I found my eighteenth-century doppelganger, an Inspector Clouseau clone, a French detective who tracked Smithson through several countries, convinced he was a spy,” she says. “I was pretty much needle-in-a-haystacking it, just sitting there melting away — and then I saw it!”

Ecstatic, she spent the day handcopying the ten precious pages of very dense French script, then went home and typed it all out. “It was an incredible window into the past,” she says, “because this detective wrote down every detail, for the wrong reasons, of course. But I could literally see Smithson [the alleged spy] through his eyes.”

Heather’s research produced information about Smithson’s parents that offers insight into his decision to give his fortune to the fledgling United States. Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie, Smithson’s mother, prided herself on a lineage dating back to Henry VIII. She had a hair-trigger temper, which fueled the multiple vindictive lawsuits she launched throughout Her lifetime. Life with mother, Heather surmises, must have been chaotic, the antithesis of reason.

Hugh Smithson, the first Duke of Northumberland and Smithson’s biological father, was one of the most prominent and wealthy men in the country. He had had several dalliances, including an affair with the widowed Mrs. Macie. “It would be something like having a Hollywood dad today,” Heather says, “one who does not acknowledge your existence.” After his mother died, Smithson changed his name from Macie to Smithson, but in his mind and soul, the stigma remained. Except in one arena.

“Science was the closest thing the eighteenth century had to a meritocracy,” Heather says. “It was a world where he was valued for his intellect, not looked down upon because of the circumstances of his birth.” To Smithson, a lifelong bachelor, America was the right beneficiary for the fortune he had diligently accrued. He saw it as a society governed by science and reason, a place where his name would “live on in the memory of men … when titles … are extinct or forgotten.”

At the Hopkins’s barn that stormy April day, Heather joked that her book originally had 40,000 footnotes, reduced to 20,000 by her publishers. “So much had to be supposition,” she says, “I wanted the documentation to be impeccable.”

According to Dr. Clarke, it is; her conclusions make complete sense. “I’ve been waiting since before you were born to read this book,” he told Heather after a final review of her manuscript. “I’m quite sure,” she replied, “that’s the nicest thing anyone will ever say to me.”

Close runners-up? An unqualified “Superb !!!” from Jonathan Yardley, the famously hard-to-please Washington Post book critic followed by a standing ovation from four hundred staffers who attended the presentation she gave at the Smithsonian.

“This has been an extraordinary odyssey,” Heather says, pleased that the publication of her book will reaffirm its benefactor’s vision at a critical time in the Smithsonian’s history. Somewhere — at long last visible through the mists of time, his reputation finally reclaimed — James Smithson is smiling.