The Smithsonian Institution is often called America’s attic, and within its vast collections can be found items ranging from mundane to utterly unique. Over 150 million items are contained within the Institution’s collections, scattered throughout its many museums, affiliated museums, temporarily displayed at other locations on loan, or carefully stored. It should be no surprise that, considering the size of the collections, an accurate inventory has been elusive at times. In 2010 an independent study revealed discrepancies in the Smithsonian’s inventories that indicated approximately 10% of items claimed by the Smithsonian were unaccounted for; that is, they were missing. Across the 19 museums operated directly by the Smithsonian, the number could be much higher.
The Smithsonian fields queries from collectors, salvagers, and archaeologist both professional and amateur, evaluating items and documents for their authenticity and historical significance. In doing so it runs into the occasional, shall we say, quack. These queries and of course the spread of unconfirmed reports across the internet have led to the belief of items in the institution’s care which are wholly unfounded. Others seem to be true. Since only a tiny percentage of the Smithsonian’s collections are actually on display, there is an opportunity to assign to them the holding of objects which cannot be confirmed visually by a visit to one of their facilities. Denials of possession from the Institution’s docents are treated with a conspiratorial wink. Here are 10 items believed to be in the possession of the Smithsonian, and whether or not such possession is true.
10. John Dillinger’s sex organ
Where and when the story of John Dillinger’s improbably large penis being housed in the Smithsonian Institution began is elusive. It has been debunked by writers and fact checkers, denied by the Institution itself, and still the story won’t go away. The Smithsonian has for years maintained a form letter denying its possession of Dillinger’s member, which it sends in response to queries regarding its existence and asking for confirmation of its size. During the 1960s the story was spread further to explain that the organ was actually on display at the Institution, with hundreds claiming to have personally examined it as it lay pickled in a jar of formaldehyde. Embellishments to the story had the organ displayed, in its jar, in the office of J. Edgar Hoover before it found its way into the nation’s attic.
The story of Dillinger’s penis being, shall we say, larger than life began shortly after photos of the dead criminal awaiting his autopsy were seen by the public. A large bulge in the sheet covering his lifeless body was the culprit. Dillinger had more than his share of admirers in the Depression years, including those who admired his many known trysts with attractive women. How the item in question moved from his autopsy room to a place in the Smithsonian, and why it did, are both questions with an array of answers, none of which can be confirmed. But nobody has been able to prove that the item doesn’t exist in the Smithsonian’s collections either, though the museum has long maintained that it has no record of possessing the curious article.
9. George Washington’s missing bed
Within the inventory of the collection held by the National Museum of American History is George Washington’s bed, which he slept in while at home on his Mount Vernon Plantation. During an inventory review in the early 21st century the inspectors reported that parts of the bed in question, surely significant as it was likely the bed in which the Father of His Country breathed his last, were missing, and had been for many years. The Smithsonian responded that the bed had in fact never been delivered to the Institution, and although it was not in their material position, they knew where it was. It was on display in Washington’s bedroom, at Mount Vernon, where visitors could view it when touring the estate.
Technically the bed is in the possession of the Smithsonian, though there is dispute over whether the Institution ever had physical custody of the bed. The bed and another item in the Smithsonian’s collections – George Washington’s uniform – can be used to answer another often debated feature regarding the Virginian. Washington’s height has been reported as being as tall as 6-foot-6 by some historians, with others stating he was just over 6-feet tall. Washington indicated the latter when ordering suits from London tailors. Measurements of the uniform, and the longer than average length of the mattress of the Mount Vernon bed, indicate his height was 6-foot-2; not a giant, but considerably taller than the average height for his day.
8. A steam engine lost in the Titanic disaster may be owned by the Smithsonian
Hiram Maxim was a British inventor (though he was born in America) who held a multitude of patents, including one for the invention of a better mousetrap. He is most famous for the advances he made in automatic weapons. Among his interests was the invention of a heavier than air flying machine, powered by a steam engine. When the aircraft experiments ended in failure, Maxim donated the engine, which was of his own design, to the Smithsonian Institution. The engine was shipped to the United States in the hold of the new White Star Lines steamer, RMS Titanic. Although the ship’s manifest did not specifically list a shipment made by Maxim, unidentified crates and cartons arriving at the docks just prior to departure could have included the engine.
Officially the Smithsonian has not confirmed ownership of the engine. Nor has it denied it. Numerous items from the wreck of Titanic have been displayed by the Smithsonian; however, the Institution insists that the items were recovered from the surface following the sinking, or were washed ashore. The Smithsonian has steadfastly refused to accept or display items retrieved from the actual site of the wreckage of Titanic, citing the principle of sanctuary. The Smithsonian does hold a patent model of a steam pump donated by Maxim in 1874. The possession of the Maxim pump and the letters covering the donation lost on the Titanic have been confused into the belief that a steam engine retrieved from Titanic’s wreck is in the Smithsonian’s collections.
7. John F. Kennedy’s brain has been rumored to be held in the Smithsonian’s collections
During the autopsy on the body of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, his brain, or rather what was left of it, was placed in a steel box and put in the custody of the Secret Service. It was taken to the White House, where it remained until 1965, when it was transferred to the National Archives for safekeeping. During an inventory of medical evidence from the Kennedy assassination, conducted in 1966, the National Archives could not locate the late President’s brain. Besides giving fuel to the conspiracy theorists who speculated on the reasons for the brain’s disappearance, it revealed a mystery which has yet to be solved more than 50 years later (what happened to the portion of skull and brain matter retrieved by Jackie Kennedy from the trunk of the limousine remains unknown as well).
Rumors regarding the reason Kennedy’s brain vanished into seemingly thin air abound, with some speculating that it was ordered by Robert Kennedy to prevent the press from learning the truth regarding the number of physical ailments suffered by his brother, from the drugs used to treat them. Others believe the brain was hidden from public sight, as it were, to prevent the revelation that JFK had been hit from the front during the fatal shooting. Was the President’s brain transferred to the Smithsonian for safekeeping? If so the fact has never been confirmed by either the Kennedy family, the National Archives, or the Smithsonian Institution. It’s possible that the box was simply lost, though how likely such an event could be is subject to debate as well.
6. Ghosts might be found in the Smithsonian in several of its buildings
For those who believe in the supernatural and the haunting of ghosts, the Smithsonian Institution is a natural place to expect the visitations of the dead. In the past, reports by employees and visitors of spectral visitors have been common. As early as 1900, the Washington Post reported on ghostly visitors, former officials of the institution returned in the night to keep watch over the work they had supervised in lives long since ended. The Post reported that several Smithsonian watchmen had encountered the spirits of former – and deceased – secretaries who vanished when approached and spoken to. They were described as being attired as they had been when they were at their jobs in life.
It wasn’t only human ghosts reported by the Post. Numerous residents in the vicinity of the Castle, as well as those going about their business in the city’s evening hours, told of hearing the disembodied screams of birds and other animals emanating from the building. The newspaper recounted their claims of the sounds coming from exotic birds and animals which had been sacrificed to fill the Institution’s taxidermy collections. The residents were reported as being near desperation in their attempts to silence the unearthly wail of one bird in particular. Over the decades, ghosts have been reported in other buildings housing the Smithsonian collections, including in the Museum of Natural History. Ghost sightings became so common that in the 1940s Secretary Alexander Wetmore dictated that all employees had to vacate the premises by midnight.
5. The Smithsonian has a storage facility to protect meteorites from contamination
When the early Apollo missions went to the moon, the astronauts were quarantined upon their return to earth, to prevent possible contamination exposure from the lunar mission spreading to the general population. After Apollo 14 the quarantine period was eliminated. In the 21st century, the Smithsonian Institution operates a quarantine system which protects meteorites recovered from Antarctica from earthly microbes. The storage center consists of a clean room, with an atmosphere of nitrogen (an inert gas) which ensures that the specimens recovered from the Antarctic are not exposed to the risks present in the air which we all breathe to sustain life.
The clean room and other complex support facilities for the Smithsonian’s collections are located in the Museum Support Center (MSC) operated by the Institution at Suitland, Maryland. Inbound donations to collections are examined and prepared at the facility, which includes a facility to ensure that all biodegradable material is examined for and treated for pest contamination, in order to protect both new and existing collections. For example, a piece of wood from Noah’s Ark, long rumored to be in the Smithsonian’s possession, would be required to undergo examination and possible treatment to prevent it from infesting other items held by the museum (the Smithsonian officially denies holding a piece of Noah’s Ark). The MSC is not open to the public, and visitors and staff are subject to extensive security.
4. The Hope Diamond and its curse may be encountered at the Smithsonian
The presence of the legendary Hope Diamond within the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History is well known, and it is one of the most popular exhibits of the entire collection. The curse of the Hope Diamond might be encountered there as well. According to the curse, anyone possessing the diamond, no matter for how short a time, suffers from misfortunes great and small. The curse was in truth a fable embellished by Pierre Cartier as a sales pitch, adding to the stone’s notoriety. In 1911 Evalyn Walsh McLean bought the stone, and her own succession of unfortunate events added to the luster of the curse (her husband abandoned her, her son was killed in an auto accident and her daughter died of an overdose).
The Hope Diamond was donated to the Smithsonian by Harry Winston in 1958. It was delivered, believe it or not, by registered mail, and the mailman who made the delivery also suffered a run of bad luck, though he refused to accept that it was caused by the curse. Visitors to the Smithsonian are not afforded the opportunity to handle the diamond, merely to view it, and are thus evidently immune to the curse which according to some resides in the Institution within the stone. In the sixty-some years the stone has been in the museum’s possession it has certainly not brought ill fortune. Millions of visitors have gone to the museum to view the diamond, despite the protests of many when the museum accepted it, who feared that the curse would be extended to the nation.
3. You can learn a lot from a dummy
During the late 1980s a series of Public Service Announcements were produced by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The PSAs appeared in print in magazines as well as in commercials for airing on television. Two talking crash test dummies were created as partners for the campaign, Vince and Larry. Vince was voiced by character actor and comedian Jack Burns, who had earlier appeared as Deputy Barney Fife’s replacement on The Andy Griffith Show. Larry, who was often a foil for Vince’s mistakes, was voiced by Lorenzo Music, later the original voice of Garfield. The two demonstrated the proper use of seat belts and the consequences of failing to wear them properly.
“You Could Learn a Lot from a Dummy” was their catchphrase, and became a part of the lexicon in the late 1980s. Eventually they were replaced by other dummies, and they were so popular that a line of action figures featuring crash test dummies was marketed by toymaker Tyco in the early 1990s. They even became the basis for a one hour television special. Crash test dummies are still used to demonstrate the proper use of seat belts and children’s car seats, but Vince and Larry were retired long ago. Larry’s head, the only part of him known to still exist, is within the collection of the Smithsonian Institution, though as of early 2019 not on public display. Photos of the head, somewhat battered, are visible on the Smithsonian’s website, where one may still learn a lot from a dummy.
2. The model of Lincoln’s patented device is a replica
Visitors to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History are able to see one exhibit which is truly unique. On display is a model depicting the invention of a system to raise riverboats over sandbars on the inland rivers, which were not yet improved with dams to allow continuous navigation. It was an invention of Abraham Lincoln’s, the only president in US history to be awarded a patent. Never put into production, the device nonetheless proved workable in theory, and on the Smithsonian website there are comments which describe the ease with which the design could be modernized, using materials unheard of in Lincoln’s day.
The model was commissioned by Lincoln — he did not make it with his own hands — and at any rate the model on display is not the original he submitted. That model resided at the Patent Office during Lincoln’s tenure in the White House, a place to which he frequently resorted as president, escaping the cares of his office. By 1978 it was deemed too fragile for display, and the currently displayed model was built to replace it, though the original remains in the possession of the Smithsonian. Lincoln is not often linked with American infrastructure, though he was a railroad lawyer, a supporter of the Transcontinental Railroad, and of the improvement of rivers and streams. A visit to the display may serve to remind that the 16th President was a multi-faceted man, far from the country lawyer as he is all too often portrayed.
1. Missiles guided by pigeons along for the ride might have worked
During the Second World War missiles were, for the most part, a point and shoot weapon, which were unguided once in flight. It took Yankee ingenuity, in the form of psychologist B.F. Skinner, to come up with the idea of using pigeons riding inside the missiles to guide them to their target. Relying on their pecking instinct and rewarding them with food, Skinner trained pigeons to peck at the images of enemy ships, planes, tanks, and other equipment. Pecks on the center of the screen maintained the weapon on course, pecks off-center led to signals which caused the missile’s fins to change alignment and alter the course of the weapon in flight. The pigeons rode in a capsule which was attached to the nose of the missile. Obviously, it was a one-way trip.
The pecking pigeons project was pursued for months before it became clear that the guidance technology of the weapons available at the time – the speed with which course could be altered – was too slow to keep up with the little peckers, and the project was abandoned. As evidence that such a project actually existed, the Smithsonian in its collection has a capsule in which a pigeon would have flown, attached to a missile as he guided it to its target by pecking away at the image he had been trained to recognize. The capsule can also be viewed on the Smithsonian’s website, along with a description of the project. Skinner later claimed that the project would have been successful, and was only abandoned because, “no one would take us seriously.”
Stuff in “America’s Attic”