Smithsonian Solves 150-Year-Old Mystery Death Of Collector And Puts Bones On Display

May 14, 2017
Originally published on May 15, 2017 9:34 am

In 1852, the Smithsonian was only 6 years old when curators started receiving specimens of frogs and birds from a teenager in Illinois.

That teenager's name was Robert Kennicott. He went on to become an accomplished naturalist and herpetologist and contributed hundreds of pieces to the Smithsonian during his life.

"He basically collected things that are in all of our departments," said Gene Hunt, a curator and paleontologist at the Smithsonian Institution. "He sort of pulls together all the departments of our museum, in one person."

Kennicott's story is actually a tragic one. He died at the age of 30, and for the past 150 years, the most logical deduction anyone had made was suicide. But now, the Smithsonian has solved the mystery — and Kennicott himself has become part of their collection.

Back in 1866, one of Kennicott's expeditions took him as far west as the Alaskan wilderness. He left camp early one morning but never returned for breakfast.

His colleagues went to look for him. When they found him, he was lying on the shoreline of the Yukon River, according to Doug Owsley, a forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

"The broad brim of his hat was resting against his forehead, and one of the things they noticed was that there was foaming around the mouth," Owsley said.

Kennicott carried a small vial of strychnine — a poison often used as pesticide, which he'd use on small animals he might want to preserve and collect — but it wasn't with him. So his colleagues figured he'd thrown the strychnine into the river after he'd taken a fatal dose.

That story started making its way into the history books, but it didn't make sense to the people who knew Kennicott or studied his life. By all accounts, Kennicott was a vivacious person who loved what he did.

"I think of him as a whirlwind," said Steve Swanson, director of the Grove National Historic Landmark, the site where Kennicott grew up. "He'd come into a room, he'd never sit down, he would tell his whole story, he'd be moving and gesturing all the time."

Swanson asked a team at the Smithsonian to dig up Kennicott's body. The team analyzed Kennicott's hair, his bones and his tissues. They also dug into his childhood records.

They found that there wasn't enough strychnine in his bones to justify the suicide hypothesis, and accounts of Kennicott's childhood fainting spells and other evidence led them to conclude that he actually suffered from heart disease.

But Kennicott's story isn't over — and in a way, he's now been resurrected. His bones are now on display at a new exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The collector has been collected.

When Steve Swanson saw the exhibit for the first time, it felt like the perfect final chapter.

"I thought to myself, 'God, that's right,'" Swanson said. "Kennicott, God bless him, [he] has come back. And he's come back to the Smithsonian, which was so dear to his heart."

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Let's turn now to a mystery that has taken scientists more than 150 years to solve. It involves the Smithsonian Natural History Museum and a skeleton. NPR's Scott Greenstone has the story.

SCOTT GREENSTONE, BYLINE: In 1852, when the Smithsonian Institution was only 6 years old and trying to build its collection, curators started receiving specimens of frogs and birds from a teenager in Illinois. That teenager's name was Robert Kennicott.

GENE HUNT: And he basically collected things that are in all of our departments - botany, vertebrate zoology, even paleobiology. He collected some fossils in there. And so he sort of pulls together all the different departments in our museum instead of one person.

GREENSTONE: That's Gene Hunt, a curator and paleontologist at the Smithsonian. Robert Kennicott's travels took him as far west as Alaska. On one of those Alaska trips in 1866, Kennicott left camp early and didn't come back for breakfast. His colleagues went to look for him.

DOUG OWSLEY: He was laying on the shoreline of the Yukon River, the broad brim of his hat was resting against his forehead. One of the things that they noticed is that there was foaming around the mouth.

GREENSTONE: Doug Owsley is a forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

OWSLEY: He carried a vial of strychnine for dispatching small animals he might want to preserve and collect, but that wasn't with him. So it was hypothesized that he'd taken that small vial and had thrown it into the river after he had taken a fatal dose.

GREENSTONE: That story started to make its way into the history books, but it didn't make sense to the people who knew Kennicott or studied his life.

STEVE SWANSON: I think of them as a whirlwind.

GREENSTONE: Steve Swanson is one of those people. He's director of the Grove National Historic Landmark in Illinois, the site where Kennicott grew up.

SWANSON: He'd come into a room, he'd never sit down and he would tell his whole story. He'd be moving and gesturing all the time.

GREENSTONE: Suicide just didn't fit with the stories of Kennicott's vivacious personality. Here's Harrison Kennicott, one of Kennicott's descendants.

HARRISON KENNICOTT: Yeah. It wasn't the kind of end of the story that anyone would want to hear about their ancestors.

GREENSTONE: The family and Steve Swanson wondered if there was a way to find out what really happened. Swanson asked a team at the Smithsonian to dig up Kennicott's body. The team analyzed Kennicott's hair, his bones, his tissue, even digging into his childhood records. Doug Owsley was on that team. Here's what they found.

OWSLEY: This is not a death by suicide. This is actually a natural organic heart disease problem.

GREENSTONE: Mystery solved. But Robert Kennicott's story isn't over, and in a way, he's now been resurrected. Steve Swanson just saw him.

SWANSON: And I thought to myself, God, that's right. Kennicott, God bless him, has come back.

GREENSTONE: Robert Kennicott's bones are now on display at a new exhibit at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, the place he loved so much. Scott Greenstone, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.