Smithsonian's strange allure Old bones, new mysteries

October 29, 1993|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- Inside a crypt at the doorway of the Smithsonian Castle, inside a deep, lidded tub of white stone, rest James Smithson's bones.

The founder's relics have long been an object of superstition and curiosity, even here in the Smithsonian Institution, a place of 139 million curiosities.

The coming of Halloween to Washington, and a newly published murder mystery only adds to the strange allure.

"Mr. Smithson's Bones" is part history, part fact, and part the wild musings of author Richard Timothy Conroy. He retired from his job at the Smithsonian five years ago to ponder and reinvent the arcana of the place.

Reports of museum spirits, Mr. Conroy said, "have not been appropriately documented."

But there really is more than a kernel of truth in "Mr. Smithson's Bones." In the book, the first clue that something is awry is the discovery that the remains of Smithson, a peripatetic English scientist, have strayed from his crypt.

And these bones really have had a life of their own, said Mr. Conroy. Smithson, whose studies are said to have included the chemical analysis of a lady's tear, died in Europe in 1829. But in 1904, his bones crossed the ocean to reside here. In subsequent years, when they were temporarily removed from the tomb for analysis, two esteemed museum patriarchs died.

Maybe, Mr. Conroy suggests, they lost "the protection of the bones."

One was old Dr. Charles Greeley Abbot. From an aerie in the castle tower, he used to dance to Viennese waltzes and monitor solar radiation. He died at age 101, but Mr. Conroy figures he, like Smithson, may still be here.

"I've heard people say there is some presence lurking in the tower," Mr. Conroy said. "I wouldn't be surprised."

This day, Mr. Conroy's back for a visit, telling his odd stories and signing his books. His former colleagues hover, sipping sherry and speculating that the characters -- eccentric and ribald and felonious as they may be -- seem awfully familiar.

"We're thrilled to read about ourselves. It's great fun," said Francine Berkowitz, director of the Smithsonian's Office of International Relations, who understands the intricacies of things like getting human bones through customs. "We're not afraid of getting murdered. We're afraid of being the murderer."

But back when Mr. Conroy first started spinning out his "penny dreadfuls," at a lunch table in the Smithsonian Commons, folks were a little more wary. "People believed I was a civil servant gone a bit peculiar."

Now, two books later and another on the way, they realize what he was up to.

Mr. Conroy came to the Smithsonian in 1969, on loan from the State Department, after years as a globe-trotting foreign service officer. He left behind Vienna and Belize and dealing with spies and defectors.

At the Smithsonian, he used his consular experience to unravel the weird entanglements of Smithsonian scientists traveling abroad. But he found himself suffering from anxiety. In search of a way to relax, he started scribbling. He created his protagonist, Henry Scruggs, a tea-drinking, skirt-chasing Smithsonian functionary with a mind for intrigue.

"I would simply imagine the worst possible thing and then I would stand back and let it happen," he said. "Mr. Henry Scruggs . . . would take all the blame."

Mr. Conroy was indoctrinated into this strange world when he was just a child.

His mother died when he was 10 and after that, he spent his summers wandering the place. He remembers the Smithsonian of his youth as a wild jumble of unlabeled bones and machines and relics.

In some ways, it was better then, he said. "No programmed information. You happen upon things out of context; they are inherently mysterious."

It's closing time at the Castle. But this is a hard place to leave. As the guard's keys jingle, a few last visitors peer into the crypt.

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