Updated 4:57 p.m.
RICHMOND — A time capsule once embedded in the pedestal of the Robert E. Lee statue on Richmond’s Monument Avenue was opened Wednesday after more than 130 years, revealing a few damp books, a coin and an envelope. While the content appears to be from the late 19th century, conservators aren’t sure whether the box is the one chronicled in 1887 that was believed to contain more than 60 civil war era artifacts and a rare “picture of Lincoln lying in his coffin,” which would be considered a historical sensation.
“There are some anomalies,” Julie Langan, director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, told reporters earlier in the day as her team was working to open the capsule without damaging it. “The box is not the size that we expected, there is a slight derivation from what has been recorded in contemporary accounts of the box.” Those records described a copper box, 14-by-14-by-8 inches, containing dozens of artifacts and bearing an inscription saying: “This corner-stone of a monument to be erected to the memory of General Robert E. Lee was laid with Masonic ceremonies on the 27th day of October, 1887, by the Grand Lodge of Virginia, A.F. and A. Masons.”
But the box that workers found was embedded inside a 1,500-pound granite block located about 20 feet above ground in the main section of the 40-foot pedestal. It also has different characteristics, said Kate Ridgway, the lead conservator working on the project. It is a lead box, measuring 11.5-by-8-by-by-4 inches, which is significantly smaller than the one documented in historical records, and it has no visible inscription.
“We have a lot of questions, but it’s really unclear what we are going to find once we open that,” Ridgway said. “Why is it the wrong size? Why is it not the material we expected? Why was it found 20 feet in the air? It was much more centrally located than we anticipated, and why is it in a stone that does not seem to have been dressed? This one is a complete mystery box.”
The massive equestrian statue of the Confederate general was taken down in September following a lawsuit by several Monument Avenue residents lasting for over a year. Unlike Richmond’s other confederate memorials, which were owned by the city and taken down during and in the aftermath of large protests in the summer of 2020 over the murder of George Floyd, the Lee statue is owned by the commonwealth. Buckingham County native Philip McKinney – the 41st governor of Virginia – had signed the paperwork that accepted the statue as property of the state.
In light of the protests, Gov. Ralph Northam ordered the 60-foot statue – the tallest of its kind on Monument Avenue – to be removed, but his order was blocked by a state court, which ultimately ruled for its removal in October last year. After hearing oral arguments last summer, the Virginia Supreme Court in September cleared the way for the statue to come down.
Following the statue’s removal, work crews spent a full day looking for the time capsule in the base of the 40-foot pedestal, which had been covered in graffiti, but were unable to locate anything resembling it – until last week. Still embedded in the massive granite stone, the capsule was transported to the VDHR lab, where masons extracted it from the stone on Tuesday. Conservators began preparing it to be opened on Wednesday, with Northam, his wife Pamela, staff and media crowding in the small room.
“It is an exciting and historical day to finally reveal what’s in this statue,” Northam said. “We are a commonwealth that embraces diversity, we are inclusive, and to have statues and monuments that have been in our capitol city to glorify the Lost Cause, to glorify those that fought for the Confederacy, that fought for the institution of slavery, we don’t need those.”
But cracking the capsule open was easier said than done, because the mortar used to build the pedestal had seeped between the lid covering the capsule. “We’re trying to slowly remove the mortar and corrosion – it’s also corroded shut – and slowly peel it off the sides so we are going to see better what we have going on,” Ridgway said. Conservators were taking turns to slowly remove the dried mortar and corrosion without damaging the box. “We want to recognize that this history is just as important as what’s inside the box. We’re trying to make sure the box stays as undamaged as we can possibly manage,” Ridgway said.
Northam watched conservators work on the capsule for about an hour, and then left, only to return later in the afternoon for the opening of the box. He curiously looked on as Ridgway removed a book that he identified as “an almanac from 1875.” Two more books emerged, as well as a coin and an envelope.
One of the books appears to be The Huguenot Lovers – A Tale from the Old Dominion by Collinson Pierrepont Edwards Burgwyn, a Richmond architect and engineer who designed the circular monument plot and two converging streets. The book wasn’t published until 1889 – adding to the doubt that the capsule opened Wednesday and the one allegedly placed in a cornerstone two years earlier aren’t one and the same.
“That does bring up questions because the time capsule was supposed to have been put in there closer to 1887, and that’s where the historians will come in to help us understand what these books mean,” Ridgway said.
Because the artifacts are actually damp, conservators are now attempting to stabilize them. “We’re trying to prevent any kind of mold damage, and putting it in the freezer buys us time to make a plan. The corrosion process of the coin has already started,” Ridgway said.