Was the Smithsonian haunted?

Pamela Henson, Historian, Smithsonian

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Even without tales of ghosts and spirits, a museum at dark can be a scary place. But a Washington Post article from 1900 reports that overnight guards at the Smithsonian’s U.S. National Museum claimed to have witnessed the “shades” — or ghosts — of the museum’s past.

In a blog post on the Smithsonian website, Smithsonian historian Pamela Henson writes that a popular wanderer of the museum’s hallways was the first curator, Spencer Baird.

Henson told the DorobekINSIDER that she did not mention the ghost sightings of the museum’s first secretary, Joseph Henry, in her blog post out of respect. Henry was in “ardent opposition to” the idea of ghosts. He considered it “great hokum,” she said. Henson said Henry was so skeptical of spirits haunting the living world that he once offered $1,000 — a hefty amount by 1850s standards — if someone could levitate a table into the air.

There’s no report on the number of sightings at the Natural History Museum, which opened in 1910, but Henson said the museum had some practical jokers who may have contributed to the scary stories being told at the turn of the century, Henson said.

One known joker was taxidermist Watson Perrygo. Perrygo once placed a hose in an old snakeskin and attached the hose to a steam line for the radiator. When a new employee or a visitor walked up, Perrygo would twist open the steam valve, causing the snakeskin to twist and hiss. The joke would send the person “flying from the building,” according to the blog.

“On occasion, some of these (ghost) stories, I think, are actually one person setting the other one up,” Henson said.

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