A 59-year-old Black woman died of epilepsy in October 1903 at the Washington Asylum Hospital, an institution that housed the District’s indigent. Almost five months later, tuberculosis killed a 21-month-old Black toddler at Children’s Hospital in D.C. The next month, an 11-year-old White boy died of a lung condition at Children’s.
Upon their deaths, one of the Smithsonian Institution’s top anthropologists, Ales Hrdlicka, enlisted the local institutions and doctors to help him remove their brains to build a “racial brain collection.” Hrdlicka, who sought brains and other body parts to prove now-debunked theories on racial differences, was taking advantage of the District’s most vulnerable residents, records show.
The Smithsonian would eventually acquire more than 280 brains from around the world. More than a quarter — 74 — of the brains still held by the Smithsonian were from local people, according to documents reviewed by The Washington Post. Of those, 48 were Black.
At least 19 of the brains are described in documents as having been removed from fetuses, including one following an abortion. Seventeen came from children. Three were taken from people who died in the hospital that served the city’s almshouse. One was taken from a deaf and mute man.
Hrdlicka himself performed the autopsy on the 21-month-old who died at Children’s, Moses Boone, and removed his brain. Michelle Farris, a distant relative of Moses’s who lives nearby in Glen Burnie, Md., had no idea a family member’s remains were in the Smithsonian until informed by The Post.
“It feels like my family was robbed of something,” Farris said. “A child — especially of that age — can’t speak up for themselves.”
She and her husband recently visited Mount Zion Cemetery, the historically Black burial ground in Georgetown where the young boy’s body is buried in an unknown location, for the first time. A mother of three, Farris said she was particularly struck by Moses’s age. She told The Post she plans to request that the Smithsonian return his brain so it can be buried in Mount Zion.
Most of the brains were acquired by the institution by the 1940s. While some of the brains have been cremated or transferred to other institutions, the 254 still held by the Natural History Museum in a Suitland, Md., storage facility represent Hrdlicka’s grim legacy.
Presented with The Post’s findings, museum officials offered a slightly different accounting: Where The Post found 74 brains from people in Washington and 36 brains from children and fetuses, the Smithsonian found 72 and 37.said in a column that a Smithsonian task force focused on human remains will soon make recommendations. He said the new policy will “steward the return of all remains” in the Smithsonian’s possession, the vast majority of which are held by the Natural History Museum.” class=”wpds-c-hcZlgz wpds-c-hcZlgz-bkfjoi-font-georgia wpds-c-hcZlgz-jDmrXh-width-mdCenter wpds-c-hcZlgz-ibdLmgo-css”>Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III told The Post earlier this year that it was his goal to repatriate as many human remains as possible and denounced the institution’s prior practices. Bunch declined a request for another interview through a spokeswoman, but recently said in a column that a Smithsonian task force focused on human remains will soon make recommendations. He said the new policy will “steward the return of all remains” in the Smithsonian’s possession, the vast majority of which are held by the Natural History Museum.
“It’s a collection that should have never been amassed,” Bunch wrote, “and we’re committed to dismantling as much of it as possible in a way that recognizes and honors the people affected.”
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In a statement Wednesday, Smithsonian officials said that returning human remains and other objects taken unethically is a top priority, and that an effort to “expand and accelerate the work is well underway.”
“We condemn these past actions and apologize for the pain caused by those who acted unethically in the name of science, regardless of the era in which their actions occurred,” officials said. They said that last month they returned the remains of 14 individuals to their descendant communities in Australia.
Officials have returned or offered to return more than 6,300 sets of human remains, or about a fifth of the body parts that were gathered. Most of those remains belonged to Native Americans, in accordance with a law requiring that the museum contact federally recognized Native American, Native Hawaiian and Alaska Native tribes and communities and offer those remains for return. But no law mandates the same for the remains of Black people or any other group.
The Smithsonian requires descendants and community members to file a formal petition to have body parts returned. But many descendants have no inkling that the institution has their relatives’ remains: Other than alerting tribes to Native American remains, the museum has not published an extensive list of names or identifying details related to brains and other body parts in its possession. Records show it has the names of nearly 100 people whose brains are in the collection.
Officials confirmed that the museum has the names of 16 local people whose brains were taken, mostly in the early 1900s. Earlier this year, museum officials declined to provide names to The Post, citing privacy concerns.
The Post learned the names of the local people whose brains were in the collection after being contacted by Karen Mudar, a case officer at the Natural History Museum’s repatriation office from 1993 to 1999. She contacted reporters this summer and offered to share the hundreds of pages of research she had prepared in the 1990s.
Her records included additional demographic data and information about a dozen brains that The Post had not previously verified. Museum officials confirmed information she provided about the brains of some D.C. residents, and reporters used census records and obituaries to find some of their family members.
Mudar, who helped with research for the return of two Native American brains, said she believes all the brains should be returned to either families or descendant communities, especially since the institution took them from marginalized communities in the Smithsonian’s own backyard.
“There were powerless people at that time who were being targeted,” she said. “It was very distressing. It felt like there was an injustice that had been done to people in the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore area of African American ancestry.”
Targeting D.C.’s most vulnerable residents
Hrdlicka, an immigrant from what is now the Czech Republic, grew up in New York and joined the Smithsonian in 1903 to run its new division of physical anthropology. At what was then called the U.S. National Museum, Hrdlicka began assembling what would become one of the largest collections of human remains in the world.
The anthropologist, who was active in the later-discredited field of eugenics, started gathering brains almost immediately, eager to create a collection that would allow him to compare anatomical differences among races.
In 1904, Hrdlicka wrote a guide for donating brains and other human remains to the museum and noted that laws sometimes required permission in cases of a premature or stillborn infant, but that “smaller specimens” such as fetuses and embryos could be “sent directly to the Museum.”
Two years earlier, D.C. officials had outlawed removing bodies from graves without a permit, but allowed medical schools to secure unclaimed or unburied bodies through the D.C. Health Department’s Anatomical Board.
To obtain remains, Hrdlicka enlisted help from the Anatomical Board and individual doctors in the Medical Society of the District of Columbia. Working with Hrdlicka, the doctors — often prominent members of D.C. society — took organs from Black people, children and people at institutions such as the city’s almshouse.
Museum records show Hrdlicka performed most of the autopsies of the local residents himself, though doctors also removed and sent brains to him.
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In 1909, Daniel S. Lamb, a pathologist at the Army Medical Museum who would send more than 20 brains to Hrdlicka over nine years, performed a postmortem examination on a deaf and mute man and offered the brain to Hrdlicka. At the time, deaf people across the country had been targeted by eugenicists who wanted to establish sterilization laws to prevent them from having children.
“If you care to have it I will turn it over to you; and if you should find anything interesting in it I trust that you will let me know,” Lamb wrote in a letter to Hrdlicka, who eventually added the brain to his collection.
Lamb lamented how new laws and policies prevented access to human remains. During a 1903 speech to the medical society, Lamb said doctors could previously conduct postmortem examinations without consent.
“That time has passed,” he said. “The consent of relatives or friends must now be first obtained. … It is especially difficult now to obtain permission to examine the brain.”
In the Smithsonian’s files on the 74 local brains, The Post found correspondence indicating that only three brains had been donated by the person or their family.
Records from other D.C. agencies show that Hrdlicka sought consent from a handful of other families, but it is unclear whether the families knew what he planned to do with the remains. In the D.C. Archives, The Post located five death certificates for stillborn infants or fetuses that showed their bodies were obtained by Hrdlicka. On the back of each certificate, the mother signed a statement that gave Hrdlicka permission to dispose of the “remains as he sees proper, only in accordance, however, with the laws of the District of Columbia.”
Around the turn of the 20th century, the law allowed government museums to acquire bodies for exhibits, but Hrdlicka’s actions appeared to be illegal under other local statutes, according to Tanya Marsh, a senior associate dean at the Wake Forest University School of Law who studies laws governing human remains. Even if bodies were donated to science, she said, the law required the bodies to be buried or cremated within a certain amount of time, not held indefinitely.
“I don’t think that the folks who are doing this collecting believed that the laws applied to them,” she said.
Like other scientists and anthropologists at the time, Hrdlicka was preoccupied with race. In his 1904 guide, he wrote of the “abundant opportunities” to obtain brains from White people in the United States, but also “American negroes, which will be of increasing interest on account of the intellectual progress and mixture of this element in the American population.”
Black people were disproportionately represented in his brain collection. Though less than one-third of the D.C. population was Black in the early 1900s, more than 60 percent of the brains of local residents were taken from Black people.
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By searching through the D.C. Archives, The Post obtained the death certificates of 10 of the 74 local people whose brains are in the collection, revealing additional details of their lives and deaths.
Smithsonian records and death certificates show that among the adults whose brains were obtained by Hrdlicka were domestic workers, laborers and a carpenter. They included widows, spouses and parents, some with large families in the area.
All 10 died in area hospitals. In some cases, records suggest that Hrdlicka removed their brains at the hospitals before the bodies were moved to funeral homes. The bodies of four were sent to the Anatomical Board, three of which were buried in the local potter’s field, but Hrdlicka kept the skeleton of the fourth, a 60-year-old Irish man. The others were buried in local cemeteries.
The Post was able to identify four children whose brains were taken after they died at what is now called Children’s National Hospital, one of the first pediatric hospitals in the country.
Children’s spokeswoman Diana Troese said the institution “regrets any role our doctors may have played in the Smithsonian collection over a century ago.” She said in a statement that such practices would be “inconceivable” now. “Today, such situations are prevented by the stringent standards, policies and ethics of medicine and research,” the statement read.
One of the four children identified by The Post was Moses, who had died of tuberculosis.
Smithsonian records on Moses are sparse. He was described in one document as a White child and in another as “more than ½” Black and “mulatto,” a derogatory term for a person with Black and White ancestry.
His mother appears to have been a 35-year-old Black woman named Estella Boone, who died weeks earlier of tuberculosis at the same address listed on the toddler’s death certificate. They had lived together in a crowded tenement in one of the alleyways where many Black Washingtonians resided at the time.
The next year, Estella’s widower, Victor Emanuel Boone, took his own life. The Post reported at the time that loneliness and a recent illness that prevented him from working had “preyed heavily upon his mind.”
Eighteen years after Estella died, the Washington Evening Star published an obituary commemorating her death with a short hymn. It was signed by her four surviving children, including Priscilla Edmonds, the great-great-grandmother of Michelle Farris.
Farris, a 40-year-old career counselor, knew her great-grandmother — Priscilla’s daughter-in-law, June Edmonds — but had little knowledge about relatives from prior generations. Farris was raised by her grandmother, Jean Jackson, and grew up in the D.C. area surrounded by her siblings and cousins.
After Farris learned about Moses from The Post, she said, her 13-year-old son and 9-year-old twins peppered her with questions: Why would somebody do that to a baby? Why didn’t anybody stop them?
“It doesn’t belong to the Smithsonian,” she recalled them saying. “It’s the baby’s brain. So it should go back to the baby.”
Farris said she wasn’t surprised by what happened to Moses because of the country’s history of discrimination against and medical experimentation on Black people. Her grandfather, who was born in Virginia, had grown up suspicious of doctors, she said.
“He would say, ‘I don’t trust doctors because they do bad things to Black men and Black people in general,’” she said. “So to hear something like this, it’s sad, but sad … that it’s not shocking.”
Farris said the Smithsonian should take steps to return the local remains to families and pay for their burial. Above all, she feels personally motivated to advocate for Moses. “It’s like, okay, ‘I’ll be your voice since your voice is gone, and those that could have been your voice, they’re gone. Let me be your voice,’” she said. “I just want to give him his peace.”
Margaret “Molly” Ricou Randall, 92, said she had similar feelings after The Post discovered that her uncle, Francis Sullivan, had his brain taken by Hrdlicka following his death at Children’s Hospital at age 11, according to Smithsonian records. Francis had died of empyema, a condition of the lungs that is often associated with pneumonia.
The child’s parents, both Irish immigrants, placed an obituary for their son in the Evening Star announcing a funeral at their home and a Mass at the local St. Aloysius Church. When they buried their son in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Northeast Washington in March 1904, they had already lost several children. As with Moses, there are no records indicating whether the family was aware that Hrdlicka took Francis’s brain.
Francis’s father eventually left the family, according to Randall. Not long after Francis’s death, his mother died after breaking her neck in a fall, and his sister was briefly placed in an orphanage, she said. She was eventually sent to Fort Pierce, Fla., to live with an uncle.
Francis’s sister, Margaret, married Ernest Ricou and raised seven children in the area. Randall, the youngest and only surviving child, became a nun and a teacher.
When The Post contacted Randall about her uncle, she said her mother had never told her about Francis. But Randall said she wants to help bury his brain in the same grave as the rest of his remains.
Local graveyards in storage
To address all the remains taken from the District, Maryland and Virginia, the repatriation office will have to grapple with far more than the brains, records show.
Also in the Smithsonian’s possession are about 250 sets of other remains, mostly bones, gathered in the District by Hrdlicka and his successors. The Smithsonian has classified about another 4,000 sets of remains as being collected in Maryland and Virginia. Some came from universities, others came from graveyards for Black and Native American communities. Many of those cemeteries are unmarked, forgotten or have been redeveloped.
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Between 1938 and 1940, for example, Hrdlicka’s successor, Thomas Dale Stewart, took skeletal remains from the ancestral village of the Patawomeck Indian Tribe of Virginia, located in Stafford County.
Brad Hatch, an anthropologist and archaeologist who serves as the head of the Patawomeck history, culture and education committee, said tribal members have long known about what the Smithsonian had collected from the site. Hatch said the group is waiting to formally request the remains until it develops a plan to rebury them.
“To me, it’s very upsetting,” said Hatch, who grew up about five miles from the village. “They essentially pulled our ancestors out of the ground, discarded who knows how many of them, and then the large pieces that they could identify, they took back and they’re holding them, essentially in storage where they can’t really be given the respect they deserve.”
In other cases, the bones are probably from enslaved people. In 1924, the museum took possession of remains that were marked as a “Negro skeleton from old slave graveyard” on a farm near Cedar Run in Virginia.
After The Post published its series, Mary Belcher, a resident of D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood who worked for years to restore and commemorate a historically Black cemetery there, told reporters that the Smithsonian had collected the remains of at least 14 individuals from the former burial ground, which is now the site of Walter Pierce Park.
Mount Pleasant Plains Cemetery was founded in 1870 by an African American civic group called the Colored Union Benevolent Association. More than 8,000 people — mostly Black — were buried there, making it one of the area’s largest Black burial grounds at the time.
In 1890, the cemetery owners reluctantly sold 1.7 acres of the land to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Over the next 50 years, they sold the remainder of the property to developers. An unknown number of graves were disinterred, while other graves lay forgotten.
In 1959, as workers began preparing for the construction of an apartment building, they unearthed skeletal remains. The bones were taken to the city coroner’s office, which donated some of them to the Smithsonian, according to museum documents. Thirty years later, a study identified the remains as the bodies of eight Black men, five Black women and one White man — and found that some of the older Black people had probably been enslaved.
Belcher shared news of the remains with people whose relatives were or may have been buried in the cemetery. One of them, Joanne M. Braxton, said the Smithsonian could allow the descendant communities to decide what happens to the remains, including whether they want to request DNA testing.
“Here is an opportunity to address harms caused in the past and to heal those harms or to make them worse by re-traumatizing the living,” Braxton, who owns a home near the site of the cemetery, wrote in an email. “This is also a great opportunity for the Smithsonian to show its true face. If it should err, I hope it will err on the side of generosity, humility, and the understanding that those who have been harmed are the ones who know what remedy is required and whose leadership is needed.”