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

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John Lockwood - published on 04/21/15

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.”

John Lockwood is a park ranger from Washington, D.C. Having spent his past six decades in the nation’s capital, he writes with generous assistance from the National Archives and Library of Congress. This article was first published in Catholic Journal US.

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