historic disappointments

Robert E. Lee Statue-Makers Troll Us Via Time Capsule

Governor Ralph Northam, center, watches as lead conservator for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, Kate Ridgway, left, and Sue Donovon, conservator for Special Collections for the University of Virginia, right, remove the contents of a time capsule. Photo: Steve Helber/AP/Shutterstock

Taking down a famous piece of racist propaganda is always its own reward. But the recent removal of Richmond, Virginia’s Robert E. Lee statue seemed to include an additional, much-anticipated perk for history buffs, as a time capsule was believed to be embedded in its pedestal. Upon further investigation, though, it seems we may have been trolled by the same folks who thought it was a good idea to erect a six-story monument to the Confederacy 25 years after the end of the Civil War and despite Lee’s own objections.

On December 17, workers dismantling the statue’s 40-foot stone plinth stumbled on an odd piece of rock that seemed like the right size to contain the capsule, which had reportedly been placed in the statue’s base in 1887.

An 1887 newspaper article and records from the Library of Virginia suggested that the capsule contained 60 items, including a good deal of Confederate paraphernalia and a “picture of Lincoln lying in his coffin.” As Richmond Magazine explained in 2017, that morbid and ethically questionable artifact would hold major historical significance:

While the appropriateness of placing a picture of a murdered U.S. president inside a monument dedicated to the glorification of Confederate Army leader Robert E. Lee is open to discussion, what makes the artifact so potentially extraordinary is that there is only one genuine photograph of Lincoln’s corpse — and it was supposed to have been destroyed, per the wishes of Mary Todd Lincoln, the president’s widow. And while the other items listed in the cornerstone are described in detail, the description of the Lincoln picture is maddeningly vague, which only increases the speculation about what exactly it is.

Conservators at the Virginia Department of Historic Resource excitedly set to work, and by Wednesday they were finally ready to open the box. But as the Washington Post reports, they’d already begun to suspect that something was amiss:

The dimensions of this box, carefully removed Tuesday from a 1,500-pound slab of granite, are smaller than the one documented in the historical record. It is also made of lead, instead of the expected copper. And there’s no sign of a florid inscription that was supposedly carved into the box’s side.

Conservationists spent about five hours poking and prying at the box’s lid as cameras, historians, and local officials looked on. They then allowed Governor Ralph Northam to finally open the capsule:

Inside was found … zero dead president pics and an assortment of seemingly random items that didn’t match descriptions of the time capsule’s contents. Per the Post:

The objects inside included “American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac” of 1875; a copy of “The Huguenot Lovers: A Tale of the Old Dominion,” which records indicate was published in 1889; and an unlabeled maroon-colored book that was too wet to open.

There was also a soggy envelope containing a photograph from a studio on Broad Street in Richmond, at least one pamphlet describing a waterworks project on the south side of Richmond dated 1888 and a Victorian-era British coin.

Dale Brumfield, a local historian who has researched the time capsule, theorized that it might be a kind of “vanity project” put together by people involved in constructing the Lee statue. The Huguenot book is a romance written by the engineer who designed the circle around the statue, and the photo depicts the mustachioed man who designed its pedestal.

Many questions remain. Was this a second, unauthorized time capsule? Why does it include a British coin? Were the contemporary reports on the contents of the official time capsule wrong? Was that box ever embedded in the pedestal? Was it secretly removed in the National Treasure crew’s least exciting heist ever?

Historians have their work cut out for them, but we’ve already (re)learned one important lesson: Confederate sympathizers are not to be trusted.

Robert E. Lee Statue-Makers Troll Us Via Time Capsule