One of the more vivid stories of the Washington Monument is the theft of the Pope’s Stone in 1854, apparently by members of the anti-Catholic, anti-Papist Know-Nothing Party.
It all began with the American nativist movement of the mid-19th century. The nativists sometimes called themselves, ironically enough, Native Americans. They were opposed to the new waves of immigrants, legal or illegal, from countries such as Ireland and Italy. Up until then, most European settlers had been Protestants from such places as Britain and Germany. The newcomers were often Catholic, and grindingly poor besides, such as the Irish fleeing the potato famine.
By the early 1850s these feelings had coalesced into the American party, usually called Know-Nothings. The party acquired the nickname from its “secret” meetings and “hidden” signs, more appropriate to a childrens’ clubhouse than to a political party, and from their habit of answering “I know nothing,” when asked about their activities. The Know-Nothings were very successful for a brief time, especially in the 1856 elections, winning many local and state offices, and even sending members to Congress.
The trouble with the Washington Monument began in 1852, when the February 7 Daily National Intelligencer of Washington, D.C. announced on page 4 the Pope’s intention to contribute a gift tablet, for installation inside the Monument, with the other such tablets on the Monument’s inner walls. The stone came from the Temple of Peace, also rendered as the Temple of Concord, in Rome. The stone was to bear the inscription, in English, of “Rome to America.”
Oddly enough, page 2 of The New York Times of January 30, 1852, and page 2 of The Daily Cincinnati Commercial of February 23, 1852, both claimed that the Vatican planned to send two stones. This was presumably changed, since only one arrived in Washington.
Soon the nativists were in full cry. Speeches were made and petitions were circulated. One such petition read, “ that the inscription, “ROME TO AMERICA’ upon it, bears a significance beyond its natural meaning…that this gift of a despot, if placed within those walls, can never be looked upon by true Americans, but with feelings of mortification and disgust.”
The stone finally arrived in 1854—–the exact date is uncertain. It was placed in a storage shed on the Monument grounds called the lapidarium. The stone was some 3 feet in length, 18 inches in height, and 10 inches thick. The lapidarium already contained many other gift stones from across the United States and the world, which had not been installed yet.
At first, the Know-Nothings demanded that a “protest stone” be placed above the Pope’s Stone in the Monument, as reported on page 2 of the March 9, 1852 New York Times. But then…..
On the night of March 5-6, 1854, at 1 AM to 2 AM, several men descended upon the grounds to steal the Pope’s Stone. What happened next was vividly described in the March 8, 1854 Daily National Intelligencer on page 1. The night watchman George Hilton was on duty in his watch box, so the men tied clothes-line cords around the box, and warned him to be quiet. The thieves also pasted newspapers over the box windows facing the lapidarium. Somehow they got the block into a handcart used by the workmen, and carried it off for dumping in the Potomac River.
This wasn’t as far a trip as it would be today. Back then, the Potomac was much wider than it is now, before the land reclamation of the 1870s and 1880s, and it flowed quite close to the southwest corner of the Monument.
Afterwards, the watchman came under suspicion. After all, he did have a double-barreled gun, and the pasted-over windows could be raised or lowered at will. He was fired from his job.
On March 9, 1854, on page 1, the Intelligencer announced that the Washington National Monument Society, in charge of the project, had put up a $100.00 reward for catching the thieves, raised on April 4 to $500.00. The crooks were never caught, however.
In 1873, the Papacy considered sending a replacement stone. According to page 1 of the March 3, 1873 Morning Republic (or Little Rock Daily Republican), of Little Rock, Arkansas, the Vatican initially “were so indigent [indignant?] over the matter that they refused to give another one.” However, “they have recently reconsidered the matter, and will forward another.” If one was ever sent, it is not in the Monument.
Then, years later, the September 30, 1883, page 1, Washington Post ran an interview with a local saloon-keeper, under condition of anonymity, who claimed he had been one of the men. If his account may be relied on, there were nine of them, and they were indeed Know-Nothings.
The saloon-keeper described the stone as having a gilt letter inscription. They took the stone just north of the Monument to a small pond called Babcock Lake (now filled in). From there, they somehow rowed out to the river, downstream to Long Bridge—about where the George Mason Bridge now stands. A friend gave the all clear from the bridge by waving a red lantern. They then broke off a few pieces for souvenirs, and dropped the rest into the river.
The saloon-keeper predicted, “If the dredges at work in the Potomac strike the right spot, they will fish up something that will create a sensation.” Nine years later, that is just what would happen.
On June 19, 1892, on page 2, The Washington Post ran an article on how the stone had now been found again. Divers were at work at the north end, or the District shoreline, of the Long Bridge, digging foundations for a new set of piers. A diver named Harry Edwards was using a large suction hose to clear away debris, when he uncovered the corner of a large slab of dressed stone.
Further clearing away revealed “a sharply cut and beautifully polished piece of variegated marble, striated in veins of pink and white…about six inches thick, and perhaps a foot and a half by three feet…”. One side had a damaged inscription:
“Ro—t—merica,” which was “cut deep in Gothic characters.”
There was a crowd of spectators by now. One of them, according to the Post article, was an elderly gentleman in out-of-date clothing, who pushed up to the stone, and struck it with his cane. “Where did that thing come from?” he snapped. When asked if he knew anything about it, he screamed, “It’s the Devil’s own work, and it’s come back from hell where it belonged to…”, at which point the old man ran off. Was he an elderly Know-Nothing?
At any rate, the stone was now stored in a small frame shanty nearby, for safekeeping. Just two days later, on June 21, 1892, page 5 of the Post ran the disheartening headline, “Stole the Pope Stone. The Mysterious Tablet Disappears a Second Time.” At 11:30 PM on the night of the 19th, the crew had left for a late supper, after first carefully locking the shanty door. Delayed by a rainstorm, they did not return until 1 AM. To their dismay, the stone was gone. A small window that had been left ajar for ventilation was now open.
The man in charge, a Captain Williams, had intended to give the stone to the Smithsonian Institution. The Post delicately quoted him as saying, “some blank thief made a sneak on it.” Nobody ever found out what had happened, although the local Evening Star of May 26, 1959, page B-1, mentioned an urban legend that the stone was buried under 21st and R Streets, N.W..
Much later, in 1982, the Vatican did indeed give another stone to replace the first. It is made of shiny white marble. It is now in the Washington Monument, at the 340 foot level, on the inside west wall of the stairway. The inscription is “A ROMA AMERICAE”—-Latin for “Rome to America.”