Man killed on Richmond sidewalk

Should we dig for treasure buried inside the Lee monument?

RICHMOND, Va. -- Buried treasure inside Richmond’s famous - or infamous - Robert E. Lee Monument?

Dale Brumfield, a local author, researcher and reporter, believes it just might be possible.

While digging into the genesis and construction of Monument Avenue’s first and foremost monument in the midst of our recent national social discussion/confrontation about these symbols of the Confederacy, Brumfield discovered a forgotten fact:

Inside the cornerstone, a hatbox-sized copper box - a time capsule - was installed during a huge ceremony in the fall of 1887 - 130 years ago.

Searching through the archives of The Richmond Dispatch and other sources - including an old diagram of the pedestal plans - Brumfield was able to determine which stone was the cornerstone (that location had been lost to time, too) as well as the contents of the mysterious copper box.

Nowadays, time capsules are rather common. And most or all of the Confederate monuments taken down in other states recently have had them.

But this was one of the very first, with the monument itself made (and first erected) in France and delivered here with titanic fanfare. Every detail was carefully considered and the time capsule was one concept that spread to the other monuments on Richmond’s world-famous avenue.

Inside it was a collection of 60 objects from three dozen Richmonders and organizations, Brumfield explained.

“They donated things like Confederate money, coins, newspapers,” he said. “There’s a genealogy of the Lee family inside of it.

“But there’s one item in particular that caught my eye, that was very unusual,” Brumfield added.

According to the Richmond Dispatch’s 1887 listing of the contents, there was a “picture of Lincoln lying in his coffin” donated by Pattie Callis Leake, an Ashland school principal and a member of a prominent family in this area.

“Now,” Brumfield said, “if you know anything at all about the history behind the picture of Lincoln in his coffin, there’s only one photograph in existence. And that’s at the Lincoln Museum in Springfield” Illinois.

“When Lincoln was lying in state in New York City, the photographer took this picture, and they ordered them all destroyed,” he explained. Mary Todd Lincoln didn’t want the image disseminated and so all the photographic plates were reportedly demolished.

But Secretary of War Edwin Stanton couldn’t help but save one plate, which he eventually sent to the Lincoln library, where it was miraculously discovered some 90 years later by a 14-year-old volunteer archivist combing through uncatalogued items, Brumfield said.

What a wild story, right?

Could the “picture of Lincoln lying in his coffin” listed among the copper box’s inventory be the real deal?

Brumfield contacted an appraiser specializing in historic photographs, who valued an authentic plate at $250,000 to $300,000.

After all, it would be only the second such photograph known to exist.

But it could be a fake (there were those, for sure) or a drawing or a copy of an engraving in Harper’s Weekly, Brumfield noted. “We just don’t know.”

So I asked him: Maybe there’s a reason to join those calling for the demolition of this monument?

“Well that would be kind of an extreme measure” just to find out about the photograph, he replied.

“But here’s the thing,” Brumfield said with a cautious glance over his shoulder. “The whole monument doesn’t have to come down to find the cornerstone.”

After I agreed to secrecy, he walked me over and showed me the precise spot he discovered after measuring the pedestal with the aid of the old diagram he found buried in the state library.

He’s right. The unmarked stone could be accessed and opened by a skilled mason armed with big levers and hoists.

Should we, after 130 years, satisfy our curiosity by taking a look?