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Two Smithsonian Scientists Retrace the Mysterious Circumstances of an 1866 Death and Change History

Smithsonian Magazine

It all began with the opening of the cast iron coffin. Because it was an air-tight environment, the scientists hoped to find Robert Kennicott’s body in good condition, with well preserved clothing, soft body tissue, hair, fingernails and toenails. All of those things would allow for a variety of chemical tests to be done, and to answer questions that the skeleton alone could not.

Kennicott was born in 1835, and grew up on the prairie north of Chicago. While he was still a teenager, and the Smithsonian was only six years in the making, he was already sending extensive specimens to the Washington, D.C. institution.

By the time Kennicott was 21, he was one of the founders of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, and Spencer Baird, the Smithsonian’s assistant secretary, was training him and recruiting him to begin collecting specimens for the institution.

Kennicott’s skeleton, now held in the research collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, along with some of the many objects he collected, will go on view in the upcoming exhibition “Objects of Wonder,” opening March 10. The museum’s research collection is the most extensive in the world, and contains more than 145 million artifacts and specimens. Kennicott contributed hundreds of pieces during his short life, and the exhibition examines how scientists use the museum’s collections to illuminate understanding of nature and human culture. But Kennicott will be there also, in bones, if not in spirit, too.

In photos, Kennicott has flowing hair, piercing eyes and strong features. He stares intently into the camera, wearing what looks like trapping gear—or thoughtfully off to the side in his Western Union uniform.

Portraits of Robert Kennicott show him dressed (left) for his first expedition north through Canada to Fort Yukon, c. 1860 and in his Western Union uniform in San Francisco just before he departed for his final expedition in July 1865. (National Anthropological Archives, The Grove Archives, Glenview Park District, Glenview, Illinois)

If a movie were ever made about the life of the young swashbuckling scientist, the consensus around the physical anthropology department at the museum is that the moody and intense actor, Johnny Depp, should play his character.

“All of the women in our office believe that,” laughs Kari Bruwelheide, a physical and forensic anthropologist at the Natural History Museum. She sits in her office, surrounded by various skeletons laid out neatly on a long table, some still in labeled plastic bags. “Robert was a special person, and somewhat emblematic of curators at the Smithsonian even today, because he was so dedicated to his work. It was everything to him. It was not necessarily a job but a way of life that began when he was just a child, and continued until his death at the age of 30.”

Bruwelheide says the objects Kennicott collected are still used today to conduct research.

“It’s like everything comes full circle and it’s a wonderful story,” she muses.  Bruwelheide and her colleague, Doug Owsley, curator and the museum’s division head for physical anthropology, were tasked at the request of Kennicott’s family and the museum, with finding out how Kennicott died in 1866. Owsley and Bruwelheide’s work on the Kennicott case is being published this month in a volume by Cambridge University Press. 

“The skeleton itself was beautifully preserved. He had no fractures, no healed injuries in life. He was described as relatively frail, but he had excellent bone density and excellent muscle markings,” Bruwelheide says, but adds that it did not offer any clues to Kennicott's cause of death. (Smithsonian Institution )

There were rumors that he had committed suicide, but Kennicott’s family wasn’t so sure. In 2001, Owsley and Bruwelheide traveled to his boyhood home, The Grove in Glenview, Illinois, to open Kennicott’s casket and determine the cause of his death. The Grove is now a national landmark education and nature center. Owsley and Bruwelheide were excited to help solve a mystery involving a man who contributed so much to science in life—and in death.

“He epitomizes the young person who is enthralled with natural history and follows his passion and is mentored by scientists which is exactly what we do today,” Bruwelheide says. “His story took place at the very origins of the Smithsonian Institution.”

Kennicott came to the Smithsonian in 1858, and lived at the institution’s iconic red brick castle on the National Mall, the Smithsonian’s only building at the time. He lived with other naturalists and they formed a fraternity-like group called the Megatherium Club. Using the imaginary call, "How! How!" of their mascot, an extinct ground sloth, they played games at night among the collections, running three-legged sack races through the great hall, drinking ale in the cellar and sharing smoked oysters. The club's motto was "Never let your evening's amusement be the subject of your morning's reflections."

Kennicott, one club member recalled, was "always bubbling over with fun." 

Kennicott (top left) lived with other naturalists at the Smithsonian in 1858 and they formed a fraternity-like group called the Megatherium Club. (Smithsonian Institution Archives)

A year later, Baird sent Kennicott on a three-year mission through central British America (now Canada) that ended at Fort Yukon in western Russian America (now Alaska). He traveled by dogsled, canoe and on foot, and brought back hundreds of animal and plant specimens, as well as Native American clothing and weapons, and compiled some of the earliest dictionaries of tribal languages. Kennicott’s exploration and the papers he sent home after his final expedition played a major role in the United States’ eventual purchase of the Alaskan Territory.

“He collected everything that fascinated him, from mammals (230) to birds (282) to eggs to fossils. . . . He was just kind of the Renaissance naturalist of that time period,” says Bruwelheide, who calls the Kennicott case “the most complicated and interesting mystery we have ever encountered.”

The mystery begins with Kennicott’s death on May 13, 1866. He had been on another long mission to the Yukon—this time for the Western Union Telegraph. He was the only person who had lived in Russian America, and was to help that company find a route to lay a cable connecting the United States with Europe via the Bering Strait. Kennicott and two fellow naturalists also planned to collect rare specimens, but they arrived just below the Arctic Circle as winter began in 1865. They made a grueling trip to Fort Nulato on the Yukon River, 500 miles from any other fort, in temperatures as low as 60 below zero.

By spring, Kennicott intended to begin his own work as a naturalist. But he didn’t show up for breakfast that day, and his men found him dead by the bank of the river near the fort. Rumors began that he had committed suicide by swallowing the strychnine he often carried to preserve specimens. His friends spent eight months on a journey to bring Kennicott’s body back. He was buried in January 1867 at The Grove, in an airtight metal coffin.

Owsley and Bruwelheide, two of the world’s foremost experts in examining the contents of iron coffins, were the obvious choice for solving the mystery. Not only had the two already helped identify those killed in the Waco siege and in the terror attacks of 9/11, they’ve been involved with mummies, Civil War soldiers and are currently working on early Jamestown inhabitants.

“I think it is absolutely one of our most challenging cases because it required so much research. This continued tracking of all of these leads, pulling information out of letters, it has continued for years. It’s very methodical and very systematic,” Owsley says. “I can’t think of any investigation that has been so comprehensive. It is how we work. We don’t take on every project we’re asked to investigate as we do it so carefully and very methodically. But from my perspective, we look at it as to whether it is a good question.”

The scientists had Kennicott’s bones but they also had a huge trove of historical information thanks to Sandra Spatz Schlachtmeyer. The skilled archivist amassed so much historical information about Kennicott, from eyewitness accounts of his death to communications from his family and friends, that she was inspired to write a book, A Death Decoded: Robert Kennicott and the Alaska Telegraph. Her work gave the anthropologists an extraordinary tool in helping to decode the physical findings they had to work with.

“Her research was incredibly important to our final analysis,” Bruwelheide says.

“Strychnine was present, but it wasn’t the factor responsible for his death,” Owsley says with conviction, after an intensive study of the bones (above, Kennicott's skull) and the historical record. (Smithsonian Institution )

The faceplate on Kennicott’s airtight coffin unfortunately had been broken, and although his face could be seen, it had been partially filled with water.

“But when we first opened it, we did notice there was a lot preserved. All that fabulous hair. It’s hard to describe seeing something for the first time after 100 years,” Bruwelheide recalls. “In this case, the clothing that he was buried in was still mostly intact. You could see the gold that was in the buttons on his coat. The moment of opening it up was really an exciting moment with the hope that we could answer the question that the family wanted us to answer—what was his cause of death?”

Among the questions the forensic anthropologists and two pathologists on the case had to answer, were if Kennicott hadn’t committed suicide, what types of medical conditions might he suffer from?

Owsley notes that the two years of research uncovered information he calls “critical” to understanding Kennicott’s childhood history as well as evidence of fainting spells he had had that pointed to possible heart disease. Also, eyewitness accounts of the condition of Kennicott’s body when it was found by the river, discounted the rumors that he had poisoned himself with strychnine.

“The body was found 500 yards from the fort. His positioning—how the brim of his hat was resting against the top of the head—his arms were folded,” Owsley explains. “There was no comment on the disturbed movement of the earth around him. If you had purported strychnine poisoning, really strong muscle spasms would have been in evidence.”

It had been rumored that Kennicott had rheumatic fever, which could lead to the scarring of heart tissues. Bruwelheide says it is also a cause of death for young adults who suffered from that illness as children. She hoped that the tissues of Kennicott’s heart were preserved, but they were not. Then the scientists moved to chemical analysis.

“The skeleton itself was beautifully preserved. He had no fractures, no healed injuries in life. He was described as relatively frail, but he had excellent bone density and excellent muscle markings,” Bruwelheide says, but adds that it did not offer any clues to his cause of death. “We decided to do several tests looking at the composition of his bones, his hair, his fingernails and his toenails to see if we could identify any poisons that might correlate with the rumors of suicide or more importantly, the use of medications in his lifetime.”

Kennicott “collected everything that fascinated him, from mammals (230) to birds (282) to eggs to fossils. . . . He was just kind of the Renaissance naturalist of that time period,” says Bruwelheide, who calls the Kennicott case “the most complicated and interesting mystery we have ever encountered.” (Smithsonian Institution Archives)

Archival research of communications between Kennicott and his family indicated that he suffered from fatigue, heart conditions and depression. That meant he began taking mercury at a young age, which was a common treatment for depression at the time. Bruwelheide pointed out that President Abraham Lincoln also took mercury, which stimulated bodily organs and increased the heart rate though it is known today as a toxin. 

“A lot of the techniques we used in our forensic casework are the same ones that you would use to look at materials that are potentially hundreds of years old, things like analyzing the hair for certain drugs and heavy metals,” Bruwelheide explains, adding that they were looking not only for mercury but the strychnine Kennicott was known to carry on his collecting trips to get specimens of the animals. It was used as an insecticide to preserve the skins on the hides. At the time it was also used as a medical treatment in various forms to treat several of the conditions Kennicott said that he suffered from in his letters. Kennicott’s father was a medical doctor who had prescribed strychnine to other patients, and it was known that Kennicott carried a personal vial with him.

Lead was also a big health factor in the 1800s as it is today, and can be ingested accidentally or it enters the body through other ways. Bruwelheide says in addition, scientists looked at arsenic, a toxin that was not only common in medical use at the time, but more importantly was used by Kennicott and his men to preserve specimens. So the scientists had to decipher toxins he was exposed to during his life and discover whether they contributed to his death, as well as figure out whether they were used to preserve Kennicott’s body for a journey of thousands of miles back to Illinois.

“What we found was there was a high level of mercury—not enough to contribute to his death but he was ingesting mercury during his life. . . .You have few opportunities to evaluate medical use in the 19th century and this was a rare test where we could actually do that,” Bruwelheide says. “The lead contamination was post-mortem. He did have extremely high levels of lead but we believe that came in through the coffin environment.”

Not only were coffins at that time painted on the inside with a lead white paint, but the Western Union uniform Kennicott was wearing and such coats and blankets at the time were treated with lead acetate as a water proofing mechanism. The scientists also discovered that Kennicott had high levels of strychnine, particularly in his brain tissue, and found that he had ingested it during his lifetime. But the peaceful position of his body when it was found made it unlikely that he had used strychnine in a suicide.

“Strychnine was present, but it wasn’t the factor responsible for his death,” Owsley says with conviction.

The descriptions of Kennicott’s behavior prior to his death were very consistent with periodic evidence related to heart disease. Just before he left San Francisco for Alaska on his final expedition, Kennicott lost consciousness briefly. A colleague, William Dall wrote that: “while sitting on his bed, talking to one of his companions, the color suddenly left his cheeks and he fell back pulse less for several minutes on his bed.” That condition, Bruwelheide explains, is suffered by people with heart disease, and usually results in eventual death.

“So those historic incidents we were able to interpret and piece together . . . determine that it was heart conditions that eventually led to his death,” Bruwelheide says. “That’s not to say he didn’t ingest the toxins during his life, but he had no intention—we believe—of ending his life.”

“This is what I love about this work! It’s really a mystery that you are tasked to solve and you don’t know what types of analysis you are going to need to solve the case,” Bruwelheide explains. “You go down various avenues, not just looking strictly at bone studies or at chemical analysis, but you incorporate historic documents, historic research . . . even mortuary practices and you combine all of these different kinds of information to solve this mystery you are presented with.”

Owsley stresses that without the huge innovations in their field, some of the research they are doing now, including examinations of the 17th-century settlers in Jamestown, would be impossible.

“We’re able to figure out their diet, whether they were born and raised in Europe and came over here and promptly died, whether someone born over there came here and lived for 20 years. We can track people back to their homes by testing oxygen isotopes, determine their drinking water, how much wheat they ate versus corn,” Owsley says. “It’s just a wealth of knowledge we have today—the ability to image and different types of radiography—so unbelievable! It’s a world that when you really get into it – that’s fascinating.”

Objects of Wonder: From the Collections of the National Museum of Natural History” is on view March 10, 2017 through 2019.

Two closely related bee species discovered far apart in Panama and northern Colombia

Smithsonian Insider

Our studies of the genetic relationships between these bees tells us that they originated in the Amazon about 22 million years ago and that they moved north into Central America before 3 million years ago.

The post Two closely related bee species discovered far apart in Panama and northern Colombia appeared first on Smithsonian Insider.

Tyttocharax madeirae

NMNH - Vertebrate Zoology - Fishes Division
Specimens 1,2 ,3 photographed by S.H. Weitzman & R. Kanazawa 11 May 1977. See TFH. Feb 1959, H. Schultz, A Fishing Trip to the Urubu River, lover Amazon. pp8-22.

Unanticipated Effects of Stand Dynamism on Amazonian Tree Diversity

Smithsonian Libraries
We assessed a general hypothesis of tropical tree diversity that predicts that species richness will be positively correlated with stand dynamism. Our analysis was based one of the largest and longest-running datasets on Amazonian trees (226510 cm diameter at breast height), with data collected over a 23-yr period within 66 1 ha plots spanning a large (1000 km2) landscape. Within these plots, maximum tree-species richness (329 species/ha) and Fisher's 03B1 values (227.5) were among the highest ever recorded. Contrary to the diversity-dynamism concept, tree species richness in our landscape was significantly and negatively associated with stand dynamism (measured as the mean rate of annual tree turnover). Because of this unexpected finding, we critically re-evaluated the relationship between stand dynamism and tree diversity across the Amazon basin and the tropics as a whole. With the inclusion of additional data we found that the relationship between stand dynamism and tree diversity becomes non-significant at larger spatial scales. Abstract in Portuguese is available at

Uncle Ng and Chinese Muk'yu Music

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
Uncle Ng Comes to America cover
Uncle Ng Comes to America cover

The China Folklife Festival program team is deep in the process of preparing for this summer’s activities. Our minds (and computers) are full of new information about the artists who will be traveling to Washington from the various regions they represent—from Inner Mongolia to Guizhou Province.

But two weeks ago, we turned our attention closer to home for a moment to celebrate a new publication, Uncle Ng Comes to America, at the Silk Road Cafe on Mott Street in the heart of New York’s Chinatown. This book documents the experiences and art of Ng Sheung-Chi (1910-2010), a masterful singer and prolific composer of muk’yu, a type of narrative song from southern China.

Muk’yu is sung in a Toisan dialect that was spoken by most if not all of the Chinese immigrants to the United States before 1965. The subject matter of the songs is adapted from historical events, folk tales, and personal experiences. It is typically sung without musical accompaniment by one person or a small group, and its rhyming verses are subject to variation and improvisation.

Ng Sheung-Chi (a.k.a. Uncle Ng) grew up in a farming family in Toisan County, in Guangdong Providence. He learned to sing muk-yu as a child, and he continued to sing it from the street corners and parks of New York after he emigrated in 1979. In 1991, the Asian American Arts Centre produced a documentary about Ng called Singing to Remember. In 1992, he was recognized as a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Eleanor Yung with Uncle Ng’s third son, Tak Ming.
Eleanor Yung with Uncle Ng’s third son, Tak Ming.
Photo by Sojin Kim

Uncle Ng Comes to America: Chinese Narrative Songs of Immigration and Love is co-edited by Eleanor Yung, founder of the Asian American Arts Centre, and Bell Yung, music professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh. It includes a DVD of the 1991 documentary and a CD of Ng’s songs.

At the book party in Chinatown, a group of supporters—including some of the Singing to Remember documentary team, local residents, Chinese American press, Asian American artists and activists, as well as Ng’s family—gathered to watch excerpts from the documentary, hear from his daughter about her experiences, and listen to his son Tak Ming Ng sing several verses of muk’yu.

Bob Lee, who initiated this project and produced the video, recalled how Ng performed a new composition, “Song for Receiving the Fellowship in Washington, D.C.,” at the 1992 National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellows awards ceremony and received hearty applause for a line directed to the chairman and Congress members. Here is an excerpt of his lyrics translated:

Today I win the American National Heritage Fellowship,

I was so lucky that my name was on the final list.

I competed as a member of the Chinese community,
It is also an honor for all the Chinese.

Today I come to receive the fellowship,

I am singing all the way along.
I grin with delight and boundless joy.

Many thanks to the chairperson and the officials,

I hope you all get promotions.

And I respectfully wish everyone strength and health,

I wish the people wealthy and the country powerful,

And I hope China and America will unite in this world,
Prospering together for ten thousand years.

Live-Song for Receiving the Fellowship
Bob Lee (left) with Uncle Ng’s second son and daughter, Tak Wing Ng and Soping Ng.
Bob Lee (left) with Uncle Ng’s second son and daughter, Tak Wing Ng and Soping Ng.
Photo by Sojin Kim

“It is a testimony to Uncle Ng not only as a singer of unheralded folk music in its pristine form, but also of the Asian American Arts Centre’s tenacity to its local cultural goals,” Lee said of the book. “Now, in terms of the Chinese facet of the Asian American experience, the transformation from traditional village culture to contemporary art innovations can be glimpsed.”

Today, as the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage anticipates this summer’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival, we look forward and look back to honor the artists and organizations, both close to home and far afield, who have sustained the ingenuity and relevance of Chinese traditions into the present.

Sojin Kim is a curator at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is currently co-developing the China: Tradition and the Art of Living program for the 2014 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Audio recorded by Brooks Williams of Harmonic Ranch and used with permission from the Asian American Arts Centre.

Under the Summer Sun, the Corn Belt Is the Most Biologically Productive Place on Earth

Smithsonian Magazine

Rainforests, whether in the Amazon, Southeast Asia or Central America, are hotspots of organic productivity, teeming with life. Fueled by abundant rain and a reliable stream of nutrients, the Amazon blooms year-round. For a brief period each summer, however, the ingenuity of humankind trumps even the mighty rainforests at biological production. At the peak of the growing season, says NASA, the Midwest U.S. corn belt is the most productive place on Earth—there's more photosynthesis going on here than even in the Amazon.

When plant cells photosynthesize, part of the energy they produce is emitted as fluorescent light. By measuring the strength of this fluorescence from space, scientists can get a measure of plant productivity—as they did in a recent study. NASA has a video explaining in more detail the process of fluorescence, and how the image above was put together:

The difference between the corn belt productivity's and the Amazon's is the incredible amount of inputs that go into creating growth in the U.S. We have to draw on vast resources to power unnatural temporary growth in a concentrated area. But, for a short period of time, it means we can produce far beyond what natural ecosystems like the Amazon can muster.

H/T Climate Central

Understanding the Gospel of Nat Turner

Smithsonian Magazine

On August 27, 1831, the Richmond Compiler asked: “Who is this Nat Turner?” At the time, Turner was hiding in Southampton, Virginia, not far from the site where he launched the most important slave revolt in American history. Nat Turner’s Revolt, which had taken place just five days earlier, had left more than 50 whites dead; by the time the trials finished, a similar number of suspected rebels were either killed extra legally or condemned and executed.

Even when Nat Turner was captured, on October 30, 1831, the Compiler’s question had remained unanswered. As a result, a white lawyer, Thomas R. Gray, arranged to go to the jail where Turner was held awaiting his trial and take down what Turner described as “a history of the motives which induced me to undertake the late insurrection.”  Over the last decade, scholars working with other sources and doing close textual analysis of The Confessions of Nat Turner have become increasingly confident that Gray transcribed Turner’s confession, with, as Gray claimed, “little or no variation.” 

While The Confessions of Nat Turner remains the ur-text for anyone who wants to understand Nat Turner, this 5,000-word account creates as many questions as it answers. As a result, the document has become a springboard for artists who want to imagine the life of the most famous American to rebel against slavery.  In 1967, the novelist William Styron published a novel based upon Turner’s Confessions.  The novel both won immediate acclaim including a Pulitzer Prize and caused an uproar, as black scholars including John Henrik Clarke took issue with the way that Styron imagined that the rebel leader was inspired in part by his frustrated sexual longings for a white woman.    


The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood: A New History of the Nat Turner Revolt

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This week, a new re-imagining of Nat Turner’s story hits the big screen as Birth of a Nation opens in theaters nationwide.  Filmmaker and actor Nate Parker portrays Southampton’s most famous son as a “warm, encouraging preacher,” in the words of the New Yorker’s Vinson Cunningham.  Nate Parker portrayal highlights the religiosity of the slave rebel leader whose personal Bible has been put on display for the first time at the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture.   But what do we really know about Turner’s religion? 

Fortunately, Turner’s Confessions, recorded by Thomas R. Gray, provides important clues to Turner’s central religious beliefs.

Most slaves could not read.  Some of them owned Bibles anyway, which could then serve as tangible reminders of the “Good News” contained within. Turner, on the other hand, learned how to read as a child, and his Bible was the book that he knew intimately.  When captured after the revolt, Turner readily placed his revolt in a biblical context, comparing himself at some times to the Old Testament prophets, at another point to Jesus Christ. In his Confessions, Turner quoted the Gospel of Luke twice, and scholars have found many other passages in which his language echoed the language of the Bible including passages from Ezekiel, Joshua, Isaiah, Matthew, Mark, and Revelation. Like many 19th-century American Protestants, Turner drew his inspiration and much of his vocabulary from the Bible.

While Turner valued the Bible, he rejected the corollary that scripture alone was the only reliable source of guidance on matters religious and moral.  Turner believed that God continued to communicate with the world.  Turner describes two other ways that God communicated with him. First, God communicated directly to him: at one point, “the Lord had shewn me things that had happened before my birth.” At another point, “the Holy Ghost had revealed itself to me.” On May 12, 1828, “the Spirit instantly appeared to me.” When asked by Gray what Turner meant by the Spirit, Turner responded “The Spirit that spoke to the prophets in former days.” Turner saw himself as a modern prophet.

Turner believed that God also communicated to him through the natural world. His neighbors saw stars in the sky, not realizing that according to Turner, they were really “the lights of the Saviour's hands, stretched forth from east to west.”  More often Turner looked at prodigies—or unusual natural phenomena—as indirect messages from God.  In a field one day, he found “drops of blood on the corn as though it were dew from heaven.”  When he saw “leaves in the woods hieroglyphic characters, and numbers, with the forms of men in different attitudes, portrayed in blood,” he was reminded of “figures I had seen in the heavens.” 

The most consequential signs appeared in the months prior to the revolt. In February, Southampton, located in southern Virginia, experienced a solar eclipse, which Turner interpreted as a providential signal to start recruiting potential rebels. With the eclipse, “the seal was removed from my lips, and I communicated the great work laid out for me to do, to four in whom I had the greatest confidence,” the first conspirators to join his plot. In August, a sun with a greenish hue appeared across the eastern seaboard. Turner immediately understood this peculiar event as a signal from God that the time to begin the revolt had arrived. 

Turner’s views on private revelation were not unlike those of his contemporaries Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, and William Miller, the father of the Adventist movement. Turner’s views were clearly unacceptable to the whites who controlled Southampton’s interracial churches.  Throughout the region, Protestant churches run by whites ministered to both whites and blacks.  Often these churches’ black members met separately from its white members, but on communion day the entire church black and white came together to commemorate Jesus’s last supper.  When Turner tried to join one of these churches, the church refused to baptize the religious slave who saw himself as a prophet.

Although it is not surprising that whites rejected Turner’s religious views, they were also suspect in the black community. In part, this was because at one point his vision seemed too close to the proslavery religion that most slaves rejected.  While he was in his 20s, Turner ran away from his owner.  When he was in the woods, the Holy Spirit appeared to Turner and ordered him to “return to the service of my earthly master—‘For he who knoweth his Master's will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes, and thus, have I chastened you.’”  When the slaves heard Turner quote the slaveholders’ favorite passage from Luke, the slaves themselves rejected Turner’s claims to prophesy.  “The negroes found fault, and murmurred against me, saying that if they had my sense they would not serve any master in the world.” 

This was not the only time that the religious Turner found himself at odds with the men who would join his revolt.  In the spring of 1831, when Turner and his co-conspirators were deciding the day for the revolt, the rebels selected Independence Day with its obvious political resonances.  Turner, who saw the revolt in Biblical terms, never reconciled himself to this date. As July 4th approached, he worried himself “sick” and postponed the revolt.  Likewise, on August 21, 1831, Turner met for the first time rebels whom he had not personally recruited.  He asked Will—who would become the most enthusiastic of the rebels—why he joined the revolt. Will responded “his life was worth no more than others, and his liberty as dear to him.” Will professed no loyalty to Turner and gave no hint that he believed in Turner’s religion.  Perhaps for similar reasons, when blacks referred Turner at the trials, they called him Captain Nat or General Nat, instead of alluding to his religious position as a preacher or a prophet.

Perhaps Turner’s religious separation from the black community can help make sense of perhaps the most surprising thing about Turner’s religion: the only disciple that Turner named in his Confessions was Etheldred T. Brantley, a white man.  While there was a tradition of white anti-slavery in the region—only five years before the revolt, Jonathan Lankford was kicked out of Black Creek Baptist church for refusing to give communion to slaveholders—it seems unlikely that Brantley, who was not involved in the revolt, was converted by Turner’s antislavery.  Instead it seems more likely that Brantley was drawn by Turner’s millennialism, Turner’s ability to convert Brantley’s heart, and Turner’s success in stopping the outbreak of a disease where blood oozed from Brantley’s pores.

Turner always understood his revolt in religious terms.  When Turner was locked in prison, facing a certain date with Southampton’s executioner, Gray asked, “Do you not find yourself mistaken now?” Turner responded, “Was not Christ crucified[?]”  For Turner, but not necessarily for everyone who joined his revolt, the Southampton Revolt was part of an unfolding modern biblical drama.

Patrick H. Breen teaches at Providence College.  His book, The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood: A New History of the Nat Turner Revolt, was published by Oxford University Press in 2015. 

Underwater Images Give First Glimpse of Newly Discovered Brazilian Reef

Smithsonian Magazine

Last year, scientists got a shock when they realized that a gigantic coral reef had been hiding in plain sight at the place where the Amazon River and the Atlantic Ocean meet. The discovery was a reminder to look more closely at seemingly familiar places—and a tantalizing opportunity to learn more about a little understood ecosystem. And now, the reef has finally come to life with the first underwater photographs taken of the site, reports Damian Carrington for The Guardian.

The images were taken by environmental organization Greenpeace. The group’s Esperanza ship began documenting the microbiome at the Amazon Coral Reef along with a team of researchers eager to uncover the mysteries of the once-secret reef. As reported last year, the reef's presence had been suspected but not confirmed until 2016.

Located where the Amazon River meets the Atlantic Ocean on the northern coast of Brazil, the reef is unusual both for its muddy, river-mouth location and its previously unstudied ecosystem. Typically, river mouths are considered terrible places for reefs—the water is muddy and is fresh, not salty. As a result, many river mouths aren’t capable of supporting coral at all. But the Amazon Coral Reef is different. It’s particularly intriguing to scientists because of the unique environment in which its wildlife thrives. Deprived of light, oxygen and the conditions that allow for photosynthesis, the reef’s corals are home to many animals that have yet to be studied.

But if a planned oil exploration gets underway, the reef—and efforts to understand it—could be in danger. As Claudio Paschoa of Marine Technology Reporter explains, the area has been designated for upcoming oil exploration and oil will soon be produced close to the reef. Exploration rights were auctioned off in 2013, three years before the discovery of the reef, and though those rights could at some point be cut off because of the risk to the reef, they have not been yet.

As Greenpeace points out in a press release about the images, one of the biggest risks to the reef is the prospect of an oil spill—especially given the extensive mangrove ecosystem in the area. Mangrove roots will likely make it difficult, if not impossible, to contain a spill.

Perhaps the newly released images of the eerie, underwater world of the reef will mobilize an international effort to preserve the reef. But until then, they remain intriguing reminders that the fragile ecosystem is worth a closer look.

Unfortunately, Reducing Deforestation Isn’t Enough To Protect Amazon Biodiversity

Smithsonian Magazine

Forest loss in the Amazon continues, but over the last decade, it has largely been slowing down in Brazil. That may seem like a win for the region’s unique biodiversity, but simply halting deforestation won’t be enough to stem the loss in species, a new study in Nature contends. That’s because human disturbance—such as wildfires and selective logging, which can continue even when clearcutting stops—have an outsized impact on biodiversity loss, the study finds.

Brazil has been able to slow its once-rampant deforestation with a Forest Code that says landowners must preserve 80 percent of their land as forest cover. But those forested areas still face threats from humans; roads and selective logging are allowed in them, and wildfires can easily spread from the agricultural areas where they are deliberately started.

Previous studies have looked at the effects of such disturbances on biodiversity singly, but “those things don’t happen in isolation,” notes Toby Gardner, a sustainability scientist with the Stockholm Environment Institute and the International Institute for Sustainability in Brazil. Many of these disturbances feed off one another. A logged forest is more likely to burn, for example, and if land burns once, it’s more likely to burn again. Without studying all of these disturbances together, their full impacts can’t be known.

So Gardner and an international group of researchers created a network to assess biodiversity across 36 landscapes in the Brazilian state of Pará, which is home to about a quarter of the Amazon. The scientists looked at three groups of species—trees, birds and dung beetles (the last group is easy to survey, Garner notes, in addition to being “excellent indicators of environmental change”)—and compared diversity in deforested areas with areas that had been disturbed.

Losing 20 percent of forest cover in an area resulted in a 39 to 54 percent loss of conservation value, a measure of species richness, the scientists calculated. That is two to nearly three times what might be expected from deforestation alone, and the scientists determined that human disturbances cause the additional loss. Worse, rare species that may be found nowhere else in the world are often the ones that are most affected by these disturbances, the team found.

Extrapolating from the study areas to the entire state, the researchers calculated that the biodiversity loss from human disturbance was equivalent to clearcutting as much as 139,000 square kilometers of pristine forest, an area of land the size of North Carolina.

Even controlled wildfires can take a toll on Amazonian biodiversity. (Adam Ronan)

Limiting deforestation is an important step for preserving the biodiversity of tropical forests, Gardner says, but these results show that it’s not enough. “The forests that remain, they’re a shadow—functionally, biologically, ecologically—of the forests that once stood there,” he says. In Pará, he notes, there are very few, if any, forests left that have not been impacted in some way by either deforestation or human disturbance.

David Edwards, a conservation scientist at the University of Sheffield who wrote an accompanying commentary in Nature, agrees with Gardner’s group. “Just focusing on stopping deforestation is not enough. We must also focus on preservation of forest quality,” he says.

There is no easy solution, though. Halting the slow decline of biodiversity would require an integrated approach that includes better land use planning and more enforcement of existing laws against illegal logging, hunting and use of fire, Edwards says—a process that would be expensive and time-consuming. Without that, species are at risk of disappearing, especially those that are found in only small areas of the Amazon.

“I’m sure [the new findings] won’t be surprising to conservation biologists and ecologists because forest cover is not a very good measure of all the complex processes happening inside the forest,” says Tremaine Gregory, a primatologist with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute who has been studying how animals respond to hydrocarbon exploration in the Peruvian Amazon. “When you work in the tropical forest…you can see what an interconnected web it is.”

Gregory and her colleagues are trying to find solutions to minimize the impact of human presence in the Amazon, such as making sure that monkeys and other arboreal animals have paths through the trees that let them cross natural gas lines. The new study, she says, shows that such research has value.

“We are continuing to have a major distorted influence on our ecosystem and our planet,” she says. But if human activities have to happen in certain areas, “it should be done in the least impactful way possible. And we can only know what those low-impact methods are if we carry out robust scientific studies to understand them.”

The impacts seen in the Brazilian Amazon may be indicative of problems going on elsewhere in the world, Gardner says. The types of disturbance may vary from place to place, “but the problem is general.” And the most heavily disturbed forests, such as the ones found in the eastern United States, he says, are “all shadows of what they once were.”

Unio brownianus

NMNH - Invertebrate Zoology Dept.

Unio patelloides

NMNH - Invertebrate Zoology Dept.

Unio suavidicus

NMNH - Invertebrate Zoology Dept.

Unonopsis floribunda Diels

NMNH - Botany Dept.

Until Now, There Was No Play Button for the Recordings Bell and Edison Made in their Lab

Smithsonian Magazine

It’s fitting that the National Museum of American History kicks off its "Year of Innovation" with an exhibition dedicated to one of the fiercest invention battles of the 19th century.

It was 1880; four years after Alexander Graham Bell had—to much fanfare—developed and launched the telephone. Since its release, the inventor had to respond to more than 600 patent challenges. So Bell would become extremely secretive, carefully protecting the information surrounding any potential new projects. His work now turned to not only the transmission of sound, but also significantly, to recording it.

That year and the next, the cautious inventor deposited three sealed aluminum boxes into a safe that was located outside the Secretary’s office at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. He said it was for safekeeping, but he also wanted to prepare a careful record in case he needed to show evidence that this was his work, so nothing could be called into question.

His concern was not unwarranted. His rival Thomas Edison was competing neck-in-neck. In 1878, Edison had demonstrated the phonograph at the Smithsonian, showing that his new device could record spoken voices on tinfoil-covered cylinders.

Bell’s boxes were never retrieved or opened until 1937.  In addition to these boxes, which contained early prototypes of sound-capturing machines, he also donated hundreds of records and documents to the Institution. In 2012, one such record was ultimately played using breakthrough digital technology, revealing a sound recording that Alexander Graham Bell had successfully made of his own voice in 1885. Museum specialists and scientists later captured another 1881 recording of his father making the silly statement: “I am a graphophone and my mother was a phonograph.”

“This is like Apple vs. Microsoft and the battle of formats,” says Carlene Stephens, curator of the exhibition, “this was the leading edge technology of the 1880s.” The Smithsonian, in partnership with Carl Haber and Earl Cornell, scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, have managed to decode the sound from eight different records of that time, comprised of varying mediums including glass, green wax and aluminum foil.

In the new exhibit, “'Hear My Voice:’ Alexander Graham Bell and the Origins of Recorded Sound,” visitors will be able to listen to each of these recordings, which include everything from a man saying simply “barometer,” to instrumentals of the popular tunes of the day “Killarney,” and “Hot-Shot March.” They can also explore historical devices used to create these records, as well as touch 3D printed models of the actual grooves that the sound waves made on each material look and feel like.   

“Every time they use the instrument on an old record, it’s an experiment,” says Stephens, “There is no typical way of doing it.” She emphasizes the importance of these discoveries in creating the earliest “museum of voices” and providing a new way of documenting history.

As Bell says in one of his featured sound clips, “This record was made.”

"'Hear My Voice:'" Alexander Graham Bell and the Origins of Recorded Sound" is on view at the National Museum of American History through October 25, 2015.


Reluctant Genius: Alexander Graham Bell and the Passion for Invention

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Untitled, Jeffrey P. Bezos

National Portrait Gallery
Born Albuquerque, New Mexico

Jeffrey P. Bezos is the founder of Amazon, a global technology company that helped revolutionize the retail industry, and Blue Origin, whose mission is to lower the cost of access to outer space with reusable launch vehicles. In 1994, after working for several years as a computer scientist on Wall Street, Bezos developed the business plan for, an online bookseller. Today, in addition to selling hundreds of millions of items, the company streams movies and TV shows on Prime Video, and provides cloud-computing infrastructure through Amazon Web Services. Amazon also created the Kindle, Fire TV, and Echo devices, as well as the Alexa voice recognition service. Bezos was named Time maga- zine’s Person of the Year in 1999. He has owned the Washington Post since 2013. The artist Robert McCurdy, who based this portrait on a photograph of Bezos, worked over a period of eighteen months to portray the subject in such meticulous detail.

Nacido en Albuquerque, Nuevo México

Jeffrey P. Bezos es el fundador de Amazon, compañía tecnológica global que revolucionó el comercio al detal, y Blue Origin, dedicada a reducir el costo del acceso al espacio con cohetes de transporte reuti- lizables. En 1994, tras varios años como científico de computadoras en Wall Street, Bezos desarrolló el plan comercial para, una tienda de libros por internet. Hoy, además de vender millones de artículos, la compañía ofrece streaming de películas y programas televisivos en Prime Video, así como infraestructura de computación en nube mediante Amazon Web Services. Amazon creó los dispositivos Kindle, Fire TV y Echo, además del servicio de reconocimiento de voz Alexa. Bezos fue seleccionado Persona del Año 1999 por la revista Time. Es dueño del Washington Post desde 2013. l artista Robert McCurdy se basó en una foto de Bezos para crear este retrato de gran minuciosidad, en el cual trabajó 18 meses.

Up in Smoke

Smithsonian Magazine

In Brazil, the Amazon rain forest extends across 1.3 million square miles—and yet patches of land measuring just 386 square miles might be the best hope for ensuring the survival of the vast ecosystem, one of the world's largest and most diverse.

The site is home to the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project (BDFFP), operated jointly by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) and Brazil's National Institute for Amazonian Research. For nearly 30 years, scientists and students at BDFFP have been gathering crucial data on the environmental impact of farming, logging and human settlements. Now, however, the study area is threatened by those very same activities. "It would be tragic to see a site that's given us so much information be lost so easily," says William Laurance, a STRI biologist who has been working on the project for 12 years. Originally slated to run until 1999, the project is still flourishing.

At issue is the perennial conflict between natural conservation and economic development. The research site is located within the Agricultural District of the Manaus Free Trade Zone, which the Brazilian government established in 1967 to attract commerce to the region. The agency that manages the zone, SuperintendÍncia da Zona Franca de Manaus (SUFRAMA), recently announced plans for at least six colonization projects that would relocate 180 families in an area that encompasses the research site.

It's an especially bitter turn of events for the scientists, whose research plots have already been subjected to raids, equipment theft and burning by colonists for the much desired commodity, charcoal.

Laurance and his colleagues have focused their studies on what is known as "forest fragmentation." Rain forest clearing does not occur in one clean sweep; rather, it is a patchwork of encroachments that create oases of near pristine forest. The question is how large these forest fragments have to be in order to sustain their delicate ecosystems. Finding an answer could prove vital in planning development projects that would allow for human settlement without unnecessarily destroying swaths of forest.

The researchers cleared the surrounding areas to create patches ranging from 2.5 to 250 acres. By comparing data from each plot before and after it was isolated, scientists have found that the larger the fragment, the better. If it's too small, the entire ecosystem unravels: drying winds penetrate the interior, killing trees. Animals suffer too. In a recently completed study of bird extinction patterns, the researchers found that fragments less than 250 acres lose half of the bird species in the forest's interior within 15 years. That loss is too rapid for bird populations to recover.

Such findings argue against settling the area, environmental advocates say. Claude Gascon of Conservation International acknowledges that the Brazilian government is "within its mandate to use land for economic development" but believes it "should align [its] policies with what scientific results have shown." For its part, the Brazilian agency behind the settlement move, SUFRAMA, stresses that it conducted an environmental survey in 2004, and that it is "only the initial stage of a wide-ranging implementation process." SUFRAMA also contends that it "has striven to give its full support to the work of research institutions" in the area. Smithsonian's Laurance disagrees. He says the agency's proposed incursion into the research area ignores the findings of its own study.

The scientists are now enlisting the help of sympathetic agencies such as the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources. Laurance emphasizes there is little to be gained by colonization, as the Amazon's low-quality soil makes for poor agriculture. "The social and economic benefits are paltry relative to the scientific and conservation benefits," he says.

Up-Close and Personal With Chicago's Most Infamous Criminals

Smithsonian Magazine

The photography archive of the Chicago Tribune lives five stories underground, beneath the Tribune Tower on Chicago's Michigan Avenue. Many of the photo negatives stored there have, for all intents and purposes, been forgotten to history—printed once, maybe a century ago, and then filed away in envelopes sometimes labeled in pencil with a date and subject, or sometimes not labeled at all. The negatives, 4x5 glass plates or acetate negatives, come from a speed graphic camera—the world's first press camera, forever immortalized in film and popular culture by its slightly-cumbersome box shape and large flash bulb. But for all its drawbacks—weight, size, balance—the speed graphic camera was the first to allow photographers the mobility needed to capture scenes in the field, as they unfolded. For photographers working in Chicago through the early and mid-20th century, there was perhaps no beat more intriguing than the city's bustling criminal underbelly. 


Gangsters & Grifters: Classic Crime Photos from the Chicago Tribune

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When Tribune photo editors Erin Mystkowski, Marianne Mather and Robin Daughtridge set out to catalog the archive's vast expanse of 4x5 negatives, they weren't necessarily looking for just crime photos. First, they simply wanted to get through the archive—cataloging 60,000 of the more than 300,000 negatives kept in storage—in order to merely get an idea of what was there. What was there, it turned out, was a lot of vintage crime photographs—some of which had never been seen outside of the walls of the Tribune. Together, the editors researched the photographs origins alongside the stories that they told—who was Moonshine Mary? Who were the "hoodlum" or "holdup man" mentioned in the caption? After careful vetting, they compiled a collection of vintage crime photos, ranging in date from the early 1900s to the 1950s, into the book Gangsters and Grifters: Classic Crime Photos from the Chicago Tribune. The book is a remarkable testament to a bygone era of photojournalism—one when photographers enjoyed unbarred access to crime scenes and courtrooms. As such, the photographs stun in their intimacy with the grotesque—some of the book's most profound photos are close-up shots of corpses, slumped behind the wheel of a car or strewn on the ground after an outburst of mob violence. The photos depict the other side of the process as well—policemen examining evidence, searching underwater for a murder weapon or testing the new technology of a bulletproof shield by unloading a pistol at the shield's inventor.

"The access in these photos is really astounding and so far different from what we’re used to today. The evolution of ethics—both on the part of the police force and journalists—has evolved so much," Mystkowski says. "In the book, you'll see photos of officers holding up a sheet so they can show the body at the crime scene. That's a kind of photo that we would never be allowed to take, and if a photo like that were taken now, we would never run it. Back then, there was a different attitude of what journalism meant—what it meant to tell a story."

Such free access wasn't the particular luxury of photojournalists, however—everyone had amazing access to crime scenes and even corpses. One particularly fascinating photograph in the book shows the body of John Dillinger, Public Enemy Number One at the time of his death in 1934, outstretched at the Cook County Morgue. Behind a glass barrier stand two women—in bathing suits—leaning against the glass, mere inches from Dillinger's rigid body. "That particular photo has a very interesting background story," says Mather. "It was taken at the Cook County Morgue, and they actually had a big problem—the police officers weren't policing the body, so people were walking in and touching his body and even making death masks of his face with no authorization. There were hundreds of people lined up outside of the morgue to see the body of Public Enemy Number One...I think it's so interesting that there wasn't any quarantining or setting up police tape at that time."

But Mather and Mystkowski's favorite photograph is neither of a corpse nor of a crime scene—it's of a young beer runner named Al Brown being led into court. "It's not one of the best particular photos, but it's the process of how we found it that made it really exceptional to me," Mather says. "We had done a lot of crime research, and we were looking up things for Prohibition, and this [particular photo] was labeled 'Beer runner, Al Brown.' It looked kind of boring when we held it up to the light, before we scanned it in, but I thought that I would just scan it in anyway, to see what it looked like. When it came to life on the computer screen, we realized 'This is Al Capone.' Because we weren't looking for it, we didn’t realize what we had."

Al Capone, who went by the alias Al Brown, being led into criminal court. This photograph is undated. (Chicago Tribune)

When asked if in modern day photojournalism—with its stringent ethics and focus on privacy—photography has lost anything, both Mather and Mystkowski pause. "We love these photos because of the access that we don’t have now: the courtroom scenes of the wailing wives as their husbands are getting sentenced to death, we don’t see that same emotion these days—or we see it in different ways," says Mather. Mystkowski agrees. "Part of what makes these photographs so fascinating is that they are a glimpse into these really harsh moments in someone's life. It can be the crime scene, which is gory and difficult to look at, or it can be an emotional reaction to it, but it does have this immediacy that is sometimes hard to achieve nowadays, for better or for worse."

Up-to-date flying machine : waltz song & chorus / words & music by Geo. C. Davis ; [arr. by Wm. J. Carle]

Smithsonian Libraries
For voice and piano.

Illustrated t.p. depicts a group of men and women on board a flying machine in flight. Behind them are clouds, Saturn, and a smiling crescent moon. Signed "Starmer".

Publisher's advertisements at bottom of p. 2-5 for songs: Emerald my Irish jewel / by Harry Wellmon. By the light of the moon / by Raymond A. Brown & Alfred J. Doyle ; sung with immense success by Geo. H. Primrose. Down on the Amazon / by Billy Johnson. Money was made for coons to spend / words & music by Harry Wellmon. Publisher's advertisement on verso of p. 5 has list of vocal and instrumental music, captioned "Dealers, Teachers and Musical People ...": In summertime down by the sea / words by Harry Lester ; music by Alfred J. Doyle. By the light of the moon / by Raymond A. Browne and Alfred J. Doyle. For old Virginia's sake / by Sam Ehrlich and Alfred J. Doyle. In those happy autumn days / by Fenelon E. Dowling and Mary Dowling Sutton. Down on the Amazon / by Billy Johnson. When I was a barefoot boy / by Brennan and Story. Miss Hannah Lee / by Nathan Bivins. My star of Zanzibar / by Fenelon E. Dowling and Mary Dowling Sutton. I love you, honey / by Ed. Rogers and Arthur M. Cohen. Emerald, my Irish jewel / by Lawrence Borie and Harry Wellmon. Dear little Arab of Timbuctoo / by Fenelon E. Dowling and Mary Dowling Sutton. The sun shines on no sweeter girl for me ; You'll always be the only girl for me / by Geo. D. Sutton and Mary Dowling Sutton. In my home in old New England long ago / by Fenelon E. Dowling. Chipeta / by Fenelon E. Dowling and Harry S. Marion. You am de best soap bubble dat I knows ; My Mabel of Mulberry Bend / by Fenelon E. Dowling. Does this train go to heaven / by Sam Bullock and Lewiston Isaacs. Money was made for coons to spend / by Harry Wellmon. Trixie from Dixie / by Sam Ehrlich and Arthur M. Cohen. It was summertime in Dixieland : song and chorus / by Edwin Kendall. Little Japan : song and chorus / by Louis Jacobson. Your mother : a most beautiful home ballad / by J.T. Rider. The double nine 9-9 : fire patrol march and two step / by Alfred J. Doyle. Blush of the rose : caprice / by Arthur M. Cohen. The American girl : waltzes / by Mary Dowling Sutton. No name : two step / by Edwin Dicey. Night owls : march and two step / by M.A. Dennison. My Alabama queen : march / by E.S. Phelps. Mid shot and shell : march and two step / by Ernest Erdmann. Pleasant hours : caprice / by Nat Rothman. A hot old time in Dixie : characteristic cake walk and two step / by Nat Rothman. The belle of the South : march and two step. Sapphire waltz : easy teaching piece / by Charlie Baker.

Also available online.

2 other copies in Landauer collection.

3457-3480 of 3,711 Resources