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Smithsonian Scientists Retrace the Mysterious Circumstances of an 1866 Death

Robert Kennicott was a well-liked and respected young naturalist for the Smithsonian Institution in its early days, when naturalists actually lived in the museum together. He was dedicated to collecting specimens for the institute, up until his untimely death at age 30. Kennicott's bones will be put on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History on March 10 as part of an exhibit called “Objects of Wonder.” For Kennicott, that might be the ultimate honor. But his story did not end with his death. Over a hundred years after burial, Kennicott's coffin was exhumed for examination to determine the exact cause of death.

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.

Kennicott's family never really bought the idea that he had committed suicide. In 2001, forensic anthropologist Kari Bruwelheide and the museum’s division head for physical anthropology Doug Owsley performed a thorough examination and a chemical analysis to find out why he died. In analyzing Kennicott's remains, they also got a glimpse at the chemicals that 19th century people were exposed to, both accidentally and medicinally (such as lead, strychnine, and mercury), and the effects of diseases that were common at the time. Read the story of Robert Kennicott at Smithsonian.

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