Urban Legends About the Smithsonian

Ever since its inception, the Smithsonian has been the subject of wild rumors about the Hope Diamond, Noah’s Ark and more

Many believe the Smithsonian Castle is haunted. The Institution's founder, James Smithson, is said to be among the otherworldly visitors. (Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives)

(Continued from page 1)

Myth #4: The Smithsonian discovered Egyptian ruins in the Grand Canyon.

Fact: It didn’t.

Backstory: On April 5, 1909, the Arizona Gazette ran the following headline: “Explorations in Grand Canyon; Mysteries of Immense Rich Cavern Being Brought to Light; Jordan Is Enthused; Remarkable Find Indicates Ancient People Migrated from Orient.” The article includes testimony of one G. E. Kincaid who says that he, traveling solo down the Green and Colorado Rivers, discovered proof of an ancient civilization—possibly of Egyptian origin. The story also asserts that a Smithsonian archaeologist named S. A. Jordan returned with Kincaid to investigate the site. However, the Arizona Gazette appears to have been the only newspaper ever to have published the story. No records can confirm the existence of either Kincaid or Jordan.

Myth #5: Betsy Ross stitched the Star-Spangled Banner.

Fact: Mary Pickersgill stitched the flag that inspired the National Anthem.

Backstory: The making of the first standard of the United States is popularly attributed to Betsy Ross, a professional flagmaker who has become a national folk hero. The legend stems from Ross’ grandson, William J. Canby, who, in 1870, wrote down a story a relative had told him in 1857­—well after Ross’ death. The account goes that in spring 1776, George Washington approached Ross with a rough sketch of a flag and asked her to make a national standard. With the United States preparing to celebrate its 100th anniversary, the story about the birth of the national flag captured imaginations. There is, however, no documentation that links Ross with making the first flag, and the events described in Canby’s account take place a year before the passage of the Flag Act—the legislation that dictates the style and substance of the national flag. Visitors to the National Museum of American History sometimes ask if the Star Spangled Banner—currently on display after extensive conservation efforts—is an example of Ross’s work. That flag was stitched by Mary Pickersgill and flew over Fort McHenry during the 1814 Battle of Baltimore, inspiring Francis Scott Key to pen the poem that became our National Anthem.

Myth #6: The Smithsonian Castle is haunted.

Fact: The only souls that haunt the Castle are tourists searching for food and information.

Backstory: Tales of otherworldly inhabitants stalking the Smithsonian’s hallowed halls have been floating around for over a century. The Institution’s founder, James Smithson, is said to be among these otherworldly visitors. Another rumored ethereal presence is paleontologist Fielding B. Meek, who lived in pitifully small rooms in the Castle with his cat. His first residence was under one of the Castle’s staircases before an 1865 fire forced him to move to one of the towers, where he died in 1876. “Many ghost stories have swirled about,” says the curator of the Castle collection Richard Stamm, “but in the 34 years I have been in this building, no ghosts have ever shown their faces to me!”

Myth #7: The Smithsonian owns something that once belonged to John Dillinger.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus