As Halloween approaches, I am reminded of a May 13, 1900, article (see the scan at the bottom of this post) on the National Museum in the Washington Post that reported on “Shades of Scientists Who Walk There Nightly,” (shades was an old term for ghosts). The U.S. National Museum was then housed in what is now known as the Arts and Industries Building. The guards and staff who worked late reported that the deceased but devoted scientists of earlier eras continued to walk the halls of the Museum at night, guarding over their collections. Foremost among these was Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823-1887), the first Smithsonian curator and second Secretary of the Smithsonian.
A naturalist since childhood, Baird brought his collections with him when he came to the Smithsonian in 1850 and dedicated his career to creating a great national museum at the Smithsonian. The Post asserted that long after he had died, Baird “continued to supervise the affairs” of the Museum he devoted his life to. Indeed, Night Watchman Lynn reported seeing him repeatedly but that when spoken to, he vanished.
They also reported that an ominous-looking bird would nest nearby each year and sing a mournful song all through the long hours of the night. The Post wrote, “He wails away the summer nights, jarring against the sound of laughter and song, until it is conceded that only the spirit of some one of the birds – those that gave up life the sake of science and now fill the cases of the Smithsonian – could, for so many years, harass the souls of those about the grounds.”
The Museum could be a frightening place, even without apparitions. On one occasion, a Colonel Boynton’s diving suit had been sent to the Museum. Employees studying it inflated it with bellows and placed it within the fountain at the central rotunda of the building. They left it there overnight, where it was encountered in the shadows by a night watchman who fled the building reporting a suicide.
The Post also reported on a French gentleman visiting the Museum who stayed past closing time to purchase souvenirs. As night fell, the front doors had already closed when the watchmen discovered him and attempted to lead him to the side door. He spoke little English; they spoke no French, so he was alarmed as he was led away. As they crossed from the American history hall to the anthropology hall (pictured at right), the Frenchman was confronted by a shadowy array of Native Americans that he perceived to be on the warpath, aiming for him. It took three strong guards to subdue him and carry him, rigid, out the west door into the fading sunset.
At another time, a photographer was granted special permission to photograph a Japanese warrior mannequin carrying a spear. The mannequin had to be removed from its case and so work was done after the Museum closed. When the photographer completed his work, the warrior was left outside the case, to be returned in the better light of the morning. But no one had bothered to tell Night Watchman Donald, so the Post wrote, “It was in the gloaming, when he fell to cogitating upon the beauties of his surroundings. The water in the great central basin gurgled and babbled ominously. The spirit of a Mozart, Chopin, or Mendelssohn swept the strings of the ancient musical instruments with slow and plaintive sweeps, while the god of other nations bowed and beckoned him to kneel at their shrine.” Turning suddenly, he was confronted with the fearsome warrior towering above him, ready to strike and, “He thinks he forgot his official dignity for a brief space of time, which he spent in climbing the stairs for a safer vantage ground.”
There is no report of how many of the ancient “shades” moved across the Mall with the collections to the new Museum of Natural History when it opened in 1910. Sometimes the apparition turned out to be an eccentric employee who had taken up residence in the building, as I wrote in an earlier blog. But the specimens continued to catch the unwary off-guard. One of my favorite stories came from the taxidermist Watson Perrygo (pictured at left). Ever the practical joker, he rigged an old discarded snake specimen in the Taxidermy Studio by placing a hose through its body and attaching it to the steam line for the radiator. When a new and unsuspecting employee or visitor came to the Studio for the first time, Perrygo would sidle over to the radiator and twist open the steam valve. The large snake would rise up and hiss at the startled employee, often sending them flying from the building.
The recent film Night at the Museum II: Battle of the Smithsonian brought many of these old tales back to mind, as security guard Larry Daley infiltrated the Smithsonian at night to rescue artifacts shipped by mistake from another museum. At the Natural History Museum, the Easter Island head came to life at night along with a giant octopus and many other specimens and artifacts. Click here for information on movies set at the Smithsonian. Even in the 21st century, visions of museums in the dark of night continue to inspire tales worthy of Halloween night.
Pamela Henson, Historian, Smithsonian Institution Archives