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seeking a look into 1887

For a second time, workers believe they found the 1887 time capsule where the Lee statue once stood

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Once again, workers believe they have found the 1887 time capsule that was put under the Robert E. Lee pedestal. But this time, the details are a closer match.

At 11:41 a.m. Monday, a crew led by Team Henry Enterprises found what appears to be a copper box underground in the northeast corner of the foundation, just as the newspapers at the time described, said Michael Spence, construction superintendent.

Once the box was out of the ground, conservator Kate Ridgway of the Department of Historic Resources covered it in bubble wrap and placed it in the back seat of a black Honda, and it was driven to their lab.

The box will be opened Tuesday at 1 p.m. at the Department of Historic Resources lab on Kensington Avenue, according to a release Monday evening from Gov. Ralph Northam.

What began Monday morning at 7:30 a.m. was the third attempt to find the time capsule, which newspaper accounts said holds 60 artifacts largely from the Confederacy, including a potentially rare image of Abraham Lincoln in his grave.

A masonry crew spent 12 hours looking in the northeast corner in September only to come up empty. Then, two weeks ago, the crew made a discovery while disassembling the 40-foot plinth. They found a time capsule halfway up that paid homage to the creators of the Lee statue. It included a book written by one of the two men and an image of the other.

It quickly became apparent that it was a different time capsule: The box was the wrong material, the wrong size and in the wrong location.

So after the masonry crew had removed every stone of the pedestal Wednesday — all 632 of them, Spence said — the search resumed. The foundation of the statue — rocks, mortar and boulders — still remained.

On Monday morning, a crew returned and slowly picked away at the foundation. At the bottom of the northeast corner, they found harder, fabricated material.

“Obviously it was trying to protect something,” Spence said. “That was our theory.”

Using an excavator, they slid a 3,000-pound stone to the side, and there it was, the other time capsule. Devon Henry, the project’s contractor, called for all the workers to stop. Spence, who was standing near the perimeter at the time, walked bristly — you never run on a construction site, he said — to see what had been discovered.

What they found isn’t a perfect match to what the 1887 newspapers described, but it’s close.

The newspapers described a 14-by-14-by-8-inch copper box placed under the pedestal’s cornerstone. Henry’s team found what appears to be copper, measures 13.5 by 13.5 by 7.5 inches and was located beneath what Spence called a capstone.

“It’s another victory for Team Henry and the commonwealth of Virginia and everyone that’s a history buff,” Spence said.

Given that the box was found in a puddle of water, it’s likely the contents are damaged, said Sarah Driggs, a historian and author of “Richmond’s Monument Avenue.”

Paper is the most susceptible to the elements, Ridgway said last week. Textiles and coins are most likely to survive.

A newspaper in 1887 published a complete list of the materials placed inside, including:

  • A picture of Abraham Lincoln lying in his coffin donated by Pattie Leake;
  • A history of Monumental Church donated by George Fisher;
  • A collection of Confederate buttons from Cyrus Bossieux;
  • A copy of Carlton McCarthy’s “Detailed Minutiae of Soldier Life in the Army of Northern Virginia” given by J.W. Randolph & English publishers;
  • A guide to Richmond with a map of the city and a map of Virginia;
  • Three bullets, a piece of shell and a Minié ball lodged in a piece of wood from a Fredericksburg battlefield, given by Frank Brown;
  • A Bible from Thomas J. Starke;
  • Statistics of the city of Richmond from J.B. Halyburton;
  • A battle flag and a square and compass made from a tree over Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s grave from J.W. Talley;
  • A $100,000 Confederate bond from John F. Mayer;
  • An English penny from 1812 from W.T. Moseley;
  • Oct. 26, 1887 edition of the The Richmond Dispatch.

Historians have described the articles as Confederate propaganda. The image of Lincoln in his coffin was one more way for the South to spite the Union and carry on the idea of the Lost Cause, said Dale Brumfield, an author and historian who has studied the capsule’s history.

Only one genuine photo of Lincoln after his death exists, Brumfield wrote in a 2017 Richmond Magazine article. It was taken in 1865 in New York by Jeremiah Gurney while Lincoln’s body was on its way for burial.

Mary Todd Lincoln, the widow of the president, had demanded that no photos be taken of her husband’s corpse, and Gurney was ordered to destroy his photo.

But Edwin Stanton, secretary of war, held on to the photographic plate and hid it in his office. It was largely forgotten until 1952, when it was rediscovered in a box in Lincoln’s presidential library.

No other photo of a deceased Lincoln is known to exist. If the picture in the time capsule is an original photographic print form 1865, it could be worth $250,000, appraiser Cliff Krainik said.

But the chances of that are rare. It’s more likely the picture is an illustration or a fake — multiple fabrications were published after Lincoln’s death.

Staff photographer Eva Russo contributed to this report.

(804) 649-6109



Eric Kolenich writes about higher education, health systems and more for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He joined the newspaper in 2009 and spent 11 years in the Sports section. (804) 649-6109

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