Speed Reads

'it's a vanity project'

Virginia opens 19th century time capsule found under Robert E. Lee statue. It's not what historians expected.

Workers in Richmond, Virginia, on Wednesday cleared away the final granite slabs of the mammoth plinth that had, until September, held a giant statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Across town at the state Department of Historic Resources lab, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and conservators Chelsea Blake and Kate Ridgway spent hours carefully opening a 19th century time capsule discovered Friday inside the granite pedestal. 

Northam's office had predicted the time capsule would be the 1887 copper box written about in newspapers of the time, holding a lot of Confederate propaganda and, most tantalizingly, an extremely rare photo of President Abraham Lincoln in his casket. When Northam finally pried off the lid of the lead box on Wednesday afternoon, it wasn't that

Instead, The Washington Post reports, the historians found an 1875 American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac, a copy of the romance novel The Huguenot Lovers: A Tale of the Old Dominion from 1889, a maroon envelope too wet to open, a pamphlet from a 1888 waterworks project, a Victorian-era British coin, and a soggy envelope holding a ghostly photograph of the master stonemason who built the plinth. 

"We have questions," Ridgway said after the objects were removed. Local historian Dale Brumfield had a theory, though. Given the photograph of the stonemason and the fact that The Huguenot Lovers and waterworks pamphlet were both written by the engineer who designed the traffic circle around the Lee statue, "it's a vanity project," he speculated. "This is kind of like an ego trip," placed 20 feet up inside the pedestal by its builders to honor themselves. 

It isn't clear what happened to the official time capsule, with the rare Lincoln photo, or whether it even exists. But Devon Henry, the contractor who is dismantling the pedestal after having removed the statue and most of Richmond's other Confederate memorials, suggested it may still be in the traditional Masonic spot, under the northeast corner of the plinth. "We think we have an idea where it's at," he told the Post. "It just depends on what exploratory exercises the state wants to do at this point."