Crews Unable to Find 1887 Time Capsule Reportedly Hidden in Lee Monument Pedestal


After removing the huge statue of Lee from its pedestal on Wednesday, crews spent all day Thursday excavating a corner of the pedestal in search of an 1887 time capsule reportedly placed in the monument. But they never found it.

“Disappointing not to find the time capsule,” Governor Ralph Northam’s Chief of Staff Clark Mercer told reporters Thursday evening. “The documentation we had about the time capsule was that it was certain dimensions of the box, set in certain stones, so we were testing the mortar to see if we could find that stone in the rubble there and we didn’t. It may be deeper. It looks like it’s a pretty deep void there, but we did as much digging as we’re going to do for today.”

On Friday, crews began replacing the pieces of the pedestal that had been carefully removed, but some work remains to be done Saturday. Workers also installed a new time capsule.

“We looked exactly where we thought it would be, and it wasn’t there, and you can see that’s a pretty large piece of concrete they keep looking through. And so we looked where we thought it was,” Mercer said. “But for right now, the mystery will continue.”

A June Northam press release said, “Historians believe a copper time capsule was placed in the cornerstone of the pedestal on October 27, 1887. Records from the Library of Virginia suggest that 37 Richmond residents, organizations, and business contributed about 60 objects to the capsule, many of which are believed to be related to the Confederacy.”

At the time, the Associated Press reported that based on an 1887 newspaper article, the old time capsule contains memorabilia including a U.S. silver dollar and Confederate buttons. But the article also said the capsule contained a “picture of Lincoln lying in his coffin.” That’s interesting to historians, since only one known photo of Lincoln in his coffin exists; historians think the picture in the time capsule may be a lithographic print or a sketch. If it is a real photograph, it could worth more than $200,000, according to a 2017 Richmond Magazine article written by Dale Brumfield.

“During the planning of the Lee monument, it was agreed that a copper capsule about 14-by-14-by-8 inches would be created by Capt. J.E. Phillips, one of the engineers hired to excavate the property. That box and its contents would be set inside the Lee pedestal’s cornerstone, which was cut by Thomas J. Smith and Associates, then sealed with a heavy lid. The stone, measuring 48-by-48-by-24 inches, with the cap almost 18 inches deep, would then be placed in the pedestal foundation in an elaborate ceremony planned for Oct. 27, 1887,” Brumfield wrote.

Brumfield speculated about the purpose of the inclusion of the photo in a memorial to Lee. “I think it just gives a big middle finger to Lincoln, the Union and what it stood for,” Brumfield told The AP.

In his 2017 article, Brumfield reported that there are also time capsules in the other pedestals on Monument Avenue.

If future Richmonders dig up the pedestal again, maybe they’ll find the time capsule installed Friday. The capsule includes a photo of a black ballerina dancing on the Lee pedestal in June 2020, after it had been covered with slogans by protesters. Other items in the capsule include an expired vial of the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine, a Black Lives Matter sticker, and a collection of Michael Paul Williams’ Pulitzer prize-winning columns on Monument Avenue.

Included in the new capsule is an explanation of the vision and scope of the project: “Just within the last year and a half, Virginians have faced a global pandemic, traversed a deep reckoning with its racial past, and seen historic legislative changes which have made Virginia a more inclusive place to live, work, and learn. We hope this capsule provides a snapshot of this moment in time—capturing the resilience and struggle of life, within a pandemic, highlighting the events and people that have moved us towards removing the Lee Statue and replacing the time capsule in its pedestal. The creation of this new capsule is a response to the Virginia represented in the old capsule, which promoted Lost Cause mythology and only represented the stories and experiences of a small segment of society. It is also a representation of the Virginia today, one rooted in our values of inclusion, equity, and diversity.”

“This monument and its time capsule reflected Virginia in 1890—and it’s time to remove both, so that our public spaces better reflect who we are as a people in 2021,” Northam said in a press release.

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Eric Burk is a reporter at The Virginia Star and The Star News Network.  Email tips to [email protected].









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  1. Randall Davidson