This is a guest post by Rebecca Boggs Roberts. Rebecca is a program coordinator at Smithsonian Associates, writer, and the former program director for the Historic Congressional Cemetery.
In 2003, an unidentified man called the Historic Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. and asked the cemetery manager, “Would you be interested in getting William Wirt’s head back?” The answer, of course, was yes, but the mysterious caller hung up without providing more details.
Hardly a household name now, William Wirt was prominent in his day. Born into a relatively prosperous Maryland family in 1772, Wirt was orphaned as a boy. With the help of some generous patrons, Wirt received a classical education, read for and was admitted to the Virginia Bar. He led a distinguished legal career and eventually served as U.S. Attorney General for Presidents James Monroe and John Quincy Adams. Wirt is widely credited with turning the job into a position of national influence, and remains the longest-serving attorney general in U.S. history. Yet when he died in 1834, he left his wife and children in substantial debt. He was buried in an undistinguished grave at Congressional Cemetery.
In 1853, Wirt’s son-in-law built a grand family vault near the highest point of Congressional’s central hill, a huge, square granite column atop a sizable underground tomb. Wirt’s name was carved in large letters at eye level. It remains the largest and most visible monument on the property. William Wirt’s skeletonized remains were reinterred in the new vault, along with those of his daughter Agnes, who died in 1830. Also interred in the vault were Wirt’s daughter Ellen (1853), wife Elizabeth (1857), grandson Louis (1863), granddaughter Lizzie (1866), son-in-law Louis (1877), and daughter Liz (1885). The underground crypt is accessed by a small locked door on the east side of the monument. Opening this door allows you to move the heavy capstone that covers an opening at ground level. With the capstone out of the way, access to the vault is gained by climbing down a metal ladder. The crypt itself has three stone shelves for coffins. William Wirt’s coffin was originally placed on the middle shelf.
After the mysterious 2003 phone call, the cemetery manager, who had no reason to believe William Wirt was missing his head, decided to investigate. He went out to the Wirt family vault and confirmed that the lock had been broken off the door, but the breakage did not look recent. Someone had shoved a heavy slab of granite in front of the door to keep it closed, but the cemetery manager did not know when this had occurred. And with the granite in the way, he could not get down into the vault to see if Wirt’s skull was missing.
After a lot of confusion and unreturned phone calls, the story came out. The skull was just one of at least forty skulls that had been collected by a man named Robert L. White. When White died in 2003, the expert who appraised his estate found an old metal box painted with gold block letters reading “Hon. Wm. Wirt.” The skull was inside. It was the appraiser who set in motion the process of returning the skull to the cemetery.
How Robert White obtained Wirt’s skull is still an open question. Why he collected Wirt’s skull is easier to surmise. White was, by all accounts, an avid collector of many things, many of which had only a tangential connection to someone mildly famous. He had John D. Rockefeller’s golf clothes. He had the Oscar statuette won by the cinematographer of Wuthering Heights. He had a seltzer bottle signed by two of the Three Stooges.
In addition to all the vaguely historical flotsam and jetsam, White seems to have had a special fondness for human skulls. White’s business card reads “Robert L. White, Baltimore’s #1 Head Hunter.” On the reverse it reads “Serious Collector of: Human Heads, Shrunken Heads, Mummified Heads, Skulls – Scalps, Atrocity Items, Famous Locks of Hair, Egyptian Art, Historical Items.”
When you combine a fascination with skulls with an interest in curios from minor historical figures, it’s not hard to see why William Wirt’s skull was appealing to Robert White. Interestingly, he collected other Wirt memorabilia too, including several of his letters, a lock of his hair, and a ninth edition copy of Wirt’s biography of Patrick Henry. (side note: some believe Patrick Henry’s famous line “Give me Liberty or Give me Death” was actually invented by Wirt. Thomas Jefferson filed his copy of Wirt’s Henry biography under “fiction”.)
But no one ever accused Robert White of being a thief. It’s safer to bet that White bought Wirt’s skull for his collection. Perhaps surprisingly, it is entirely legal to sell and possess human bones in the United States. There are some exceptions; the bones of Native Americans are federally regulated, for instance, and certain municipalities (like New Orleans) and states (New York, Georgia, and Tennessee) have local restrictions. But by and large, when human skulls are for sale, it’s legal to buy them. Most buyers seek skulls for educational purposes, so price is driven more by quality than the identity of the skull. When Robert White was buying, a skull could be had for $100-$600. Since then, prices have tripled, because the two biggest sources of human bones, India and China, have both banned exports. If White discovered the existence of Wirt’s skull through his connections in the ‘head hunting’ world, he could have simply purchased it legally, and without breaking the bank.
Before reinterring the skull with the rest of Wirt’s remains, the cemetery had to confirm that it was, in fact, William Wirt’s skull, the labeled metal box notwithstanding. Cemetery officials sought the expertise of anthropologists at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Preliminary examination of the skull determined that it belonged to a Caucasian male. Anthropologist Douglas Owsley was originally doubtful the skull was Wirt’s, since it retained an almost full set of teeth, which would have been unusual for a sixty-two-year-old man in the 1830s.
When the anthropologists moved the granite slab blocking the vault door and descended the metal ladder (now missing several rungs), it was immediately clear that the Wirt vault had been vandalized. Bones and coffin debris were scattered across the brick floor of the crypt. A male buried in a lead lined wooden coffin had been pulled off of the middle of the three stone shelves. Two of the three coffins on the bottom shelf had also been vandalized. Amid the remains of the lead lined wooden coffin in the center, the team found a metal nameplate with the inscription “William Wirt 1772-1834”. Most of the postcranial bones of the skeleton were present and in decent condition, although the skull was missing. Upon further examination, the anthropologists determined that “similarities in bone preservation, color, adhering rootlets and dark brown soil, physical size, and sex affirmed association between the post-cranial bones and the skull from the metal box” (Smithsonian Report 2005: 7). They felt confident saying the skull did indeed belong to William Wirt. It, and the other remains in the crypt, were reinterred in new boxes, and the granite block was shoved back into place against the broken door.
A mystery remains about just when and how the skull was stolen from the vault. It was thought that White had the skull in his collection for about 18 years before his death. But who knows how long the lock on the vault door had been broken? One explanation is that the Wirt vault was vandalized some time in the 1970s or early 1980s, when the cemetery was in serious decline and vandalism to the gravestones was not uncommon. But perhaps the theft occurred much earlier, during the skull collecting fad of the early part of the twentieth century. Skull collecting has never been entirely a mainstream hobby, but it has persisted across time and place, experiencing periodic spikes in popularity. The twentieth century fad was connected to the early days of physical anthropology, and the introduction of craniology. Craniology (or craniometry) is the comparative study of the size and shape of skulls. It has its roots in phrenology, an early nineteenth century fad that suggested a person’s character traits could be judged by measuring bumps on his skull. Craniologists claimed a more scientific pursuit: classifying human races by the differences in their skulls. Almost universally, the study of craniology was undertaken with the goal of proving the superiority of Caucasians. Despite this frankly racist imperative, craniologists did amass and curate huge collections of human remains, many of which continue to be useful objects of study to contemporary physical anthropologists. Perhaps Wirt’s skull was stolen with the intent of codifying his genius.
One piece of supporting evidence for this theory is the box the skull was resting in. The Smithsonian investigation determined it to be a metal document box dating to the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. It was closed with a lock decorated in art nouveau style, dating somewhere between 1890 and 1920. There is no proof, of course, that the box dates to the time of the theft. But the fact that it is so much older than the assumed date of the grave robbing is curious.
Also at issue is the question of why William Wirt was targeted. If the thieves were just after a few skulls they could sell for a couple hundred dollars, why risk the tallest hill in the cemetery and rob the most prominent grave? If they sought artifacts associated with Wirt, why leave the engraved coffin plate behind? If they were looking for some bones with historical cache, why not rob the grave of J. Edgar Hoover, who people had actually heard of in the 1970s? He was buried in his family plot at Congressional in 1972. The last time anyone but an eccentric like Robert White would value the skull of William Wirt was back in the days of phrenology and craniology.
The answer to who stole William Wirt’s skull will remain a mystery. And even if it was not craniology that led to Wirt’s skull being taken, craniology did have some role in getting him back to his grave. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, where anthropologist Douglas Owsley and his colleagues work, still curates the skeletal collection begun by craniologists in the nineteenth century. And it was data from that collection, and others like it, that allowed Owsley to determine the sex, ancestry, and age at death of the skull in question.