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The Curious Case of the Theft of the Pope’s Stone

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How anti-catholics absconded with the Vatican’s gift for the Washington Monument

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.

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