5 Facts About Thomas Crapper

MJC Plumbing, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
MJC Plumbing, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

You may have heard a tale or two about Thomas Crapper, the Victorian-era inventor and sanitary engineer, but there’s a good chance those stories are untrue. So, in honor of Thomas Crapper Day on January 27 (which this year marks the 109th anniversary of his death), we want to set the record straight. Here are five facts about one of the world’s best-known but least-understood plumbers.

1. No, Thomas Crapper did not invent the flush toilet.

The biggest myth about English plumber Thomas Crapper is that he invented the first flush toilet. This would make for an amusing anecdote—"Crapper invented the crapper"—but the fact of the matter is that Crapper wasn’t even alive when the first flush toilet came to be. That dubious honor goes to Sir John Harington (a distant ancestor of Game of Thrones star Kit Harington), who built the toilet in 1596 for his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I. (She reportedly complained it was too loud). According to Snopes, many of the myths surrounding Crapper’s accomplishments stem from the 1969 book Flushed with Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper, which “has often been dismissed as a complete fabrication.”

2. But Crapper did hold other plumbing patents.

Thomas Crapper & Co flush toilet in Sir John Soane's Museum
By Rainer Halama, Wikimedia CommonsCC BY-SA 3.0

Unless you’re a plumber, you’ve probably never stopped to appreciate the inner workings of a toilet. That little floating valve inside some toilets that prevents tank overflow is called a ballcock, and Crapper did invent that. Altogether, he held nine patents for his inventions, including designs for water closets (early flush toilets), manhole covers, pipe joints, and drain improvements.

3. Crapper plumbed for the British Royalty.

Crapper’s plumbing company was commissioned to do plumbing projects for some pretty high-profile clients, including the people over at Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, and the Sandringham Estate. Sadly, any tales that he was knighted by the Queen are untrue.

4. Crapper opened the world’s very first bathroom showroom in 1870.

This is perhaps Crapper’s greatest claim to fame. At a time when it was considered improper to publicly acknowledge bodily functions, Crapper’s Marlboro Works showroom boldly placed functioning toilets on display—and customers could even try them out before buying them. According to Snopes, an article in Plumbing and Mechanical Magazine argued that Crapper “should best be remembered as a merchant of plumbing products, a terrific salesman, and advertising genius.”

5. You can still see Crapper's name on manholes in London.

Manholes with Thomas Crapper's name on them
Barry W, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

If you head to Westminster Abbey and look down, you might see a manhole sporting Crapper’s name This is because he re-plumbed the building. According to the Londonist, some original Crapper toilets can also be found around the city—complete with chain-pulls—and a plaque commemorating Crapper’s achievements can be seen outside his former home in the London Borough of Bromley.

40 Strange Wedding Gifts Given to Royals

AdrianHancu/iStock Editorial via Getty Images Plus
AdrianHancu/iStock Editorial via Getty Images Plus

Although many royal couples, including the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, shy away from traditional wedding gifts and instead ask for charitable donations to be made in their names, that still doesn't stop the barrage of often fairly bizarre and random non-registry gifts sent by well-wishers (royals—they're just like us!).

Looking back through the history books, it seems that giving unusual wedding presents to royal newlyweds is nothing new. Below are 40 strange wedding gifts given to several happy royal couples, dating all the way back to ancient Egypt.

1. A tandem bike

Prince William and Kate Middleton exchange vows in 2011.
Dominic Lipinski, WPA Pool/Getty Images

When the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge—then Prince William and Kate Middleton—married in 2011, the then-Mayor of London (and current prime minister) Boris Johnson gifted the couple a tandem bike in the style of the city's then-relatively new bike-share program. "I look forward to seeing the newlyweds on tandem wheels as they start their new life in Anglesey," Johnson told a crowd in Trafalgar Square on the day. Not a bad gift for the sporty couple, but no one has seen them out riding it.

2. A cocker spaniel

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Prince William, Duke of Cambridge pose for a photograph with their son, Prince George of Cambridge, and Lupo, the couple's cocker spaniel.
Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Prince William, Duke of Cambridge pose for a photograph with their son, Prince George of Cambridge, and Lupo, the couple's cocker spaniel.
Michael Middleton, WPA Pool/Getty Images

Like Harry and Meghan, William and Kate had requested that donations be made to a charitable fund bearing their names—among the organizations they sent contributions to were the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary, an anti-bullying campaign, and the Zoological Society of London. Nevertheless, Kate's brother, James, couldn't resist giving the happy couple a black cocker spaniel puppy, Lupo, who is now a beloved member of the family.

3. A Land Rover

Prince William and Kate Middleton drive away from Buckingham Palace on their wedding day.
Christopher Furlong, Getty Images

One physical gift that Wills and Kate received that went straight to charity was a Land Rover Defender 110 Utility Wagon. Prince William—who is the patron of the Mountain Rescue England and Wales organization—wrote the names of 50 different mountain rescue teams from across the country on slips of paper and asked Prince Harry to pick one out at random. The car was ultimately awarded to a team based in Patterdale in the English Lake District.

4. A kayak

Prince Carl Philip of Sweden and his wife Princess Sofia ride in a carriage on their wedding day.
Ian Gavan, Getty Images

Prince Carl Philip of Sweden and his wife Sofia Hellqvist (now Princess Sofia) are well known for their love of the outdoors, and were gifted a two-seater kayak by the Swedish government on behalf of the people of Sweden for their wedding in 2015. Naturally, they also received their very own nature reserve in Värmland, the region in which they are the Duke and Duchess, in which to try it out.

5. A tennis court

Crown Prince Frederik and Crown Princess Mary of Denmark after their wedding in 2004.
ODD ANDERSEN, AFP/Getty Images

When Crown Prince Frederik and Mary of Denmark wed in 2004, the Danish municipality of Sønderborg gave the couple a tennis court and pavilion at Gråsten Castle, the summer residence of the Danish royals.

6. A poem

Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall, formerly Camilla Parker Bowles stand during the Service of Prayer and Dedication at Windsor Castle in 2005.
CHRIS ISON, AFP/Getty Images

Tradition dictates that the British Poet Laureate pen a new poem to celebrate each royal wedding, which led Andrew Motion to write "Spring Wedding" in 2005 to celebrate the marriage of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles (now the Duchess of Cornwall). The poem was met with mixed reviews: Given the couple's history, some thought lines mentioning "winter-wreckage" and "the heart which slips" weren't quite appropriate.

7. A giant jigsaw puzzle of the bride and groom

Princess of Asturias Letizia Ortiz and Spanish Crown Prince Felipe of Bourbon at their wedding in 2004.
ODD ANDERSEN, AFP/Getty Images

When Felipe, Prince of Asturias (now King Felipe VI of Spain) married Letizia Ortiz Rocasolano in 2004, the people of the Asturian capital Oviedo sent them a gigantic jigsaw puzzle depicting their portrait. It was assembled by visitors to a local shopping mall.

8. A "stop smoking" course

Norwegian Crown Prince Haakon and Mette-Marit Tjessem Hoiby leave the Oslo Cathedral August 25, 2001 after their wedding.
Anthony Harvey, Getty Images

When Crown Prince Haakon, heir to throne of Norway, married Mette-Marit Tjessem Høiby in Oslo in 2001, one of the gifts reportedly sent to the couple was a course on how to quit smoking, intended to curb the bride's smoking habit.

9. A private Whitney Houston concert

Brunei's royal weddings have a ceremony that takes place in the Throne Chamber of the Istana Nurul Iman palace.
Brunei's royal weddings have a ceremony that takes place in the Throne Chamber of the Istana Nurul Iman palace.
Bernard Spragg NZ, Flickr // Public Domain

When the eldest daughter of the Sultan of Brunei, Princess Rashidah, married Pengiran Anak Abdul Rahim Pengiran Kemaludin in 1996, her uncle Prince Jefri Bolkiah hired Whitney Houston to perform as a gift for the happy couple. According to some accounts, Houston was paid $1 million for the gig—but others claim the notoriously profligate Prince Jefri handed Houston a blank check and asked her to fill out whatever figure she felt she was worth: a cool $7 million.

10. A song by Elton John

Rumor has it that when the UK's Prince Andrew, Duke of York, married Sarah Ferguson in 1986, Elton John wrote a song especially for the occasion. As a longtime friend of the royal family, John had also performed at Andrew's 21st birthday in 1981 and at his bachelor party.

11. One ton of peat

Lady Diana, Princess of Wales with Prince Charles of Wales at their wedding at St Paul Cathedral in London in July 1981
STR/AFP/Getty Images

When Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, they received a number of traditional gifts, including paintings, jewelry, a four poster bed, and an art deco Cartier clock. Charles's interest in agriculture was picked up on by a local village council in Somerset, in southwest England, who opted to send the prince one ton of high-quality peat for use on his Gloucestershire estate.

12. A "really lovely rug"

Anne, the Princess Royal and Mark Phillips pose on the balcony of Buckingham Palace in London, UK, after their wedding in November 1973.
Fox Photos, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Princess Anne, Queen Elizabeth II's daughter, married Captain Mark Philips in 1973, the members of the British Cabinet all pitched in and bought the couple a rug. Like many office-pooled gifts, every member of the Cabinet contributed an equal share—which private papers later revealed to be just £10.53 each. The princess wrote each member a personal note thanking them "most warmly" for "a really lovely rug." When it was revealed that President Nixon and the U.S. government had sent the couple a solid crystal bowl and four gold candlesticks, Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister Sir Robert Armstrong wryly commented, "This makes an old Persian rug look pretty crumby."

13. A 147-foot yacht (that you can holiday on today)

U.S. actress Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier of Monaco during their wedding ceremony in Monaco.
AFP, Getty Images

Shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis—future husband of Jackie Kennedy—gave Prince Rainier of Monaco and Princess Grace (a.k.a. Hollywood actress Grace Kelly) a 147-foot yacht, the Arion, as a wedding present in 1956. They honeymooned on it off the coast of Corsica and Sardinia; it's now a luxury floating hotel operating in the Galapagos Islands.

14. The ingredients for a wedding cake

The Princess Elizabeth of England and Philip The Duke of Edinburgh pose on their wedding day in November 1947 in Buckingham Palace.
AFP, Getty Images

Wartime rationing was still in place in Great Britain when Princess Elizabeth, now Queen Elizabeth II, married Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, now Prince Philip, in 1947. To get around the food shortages, the Australian Girl Guides Association chose to gift the couple the ingredients they would need for their wedding cake.

15. A box of apples

Queen Elizabeth II (in coach) and her husband Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh are cheered by the crowd after their wedding ceremony, on November 20, 1947, on their road to Buckingham Palace, London.
AFP, Getty Images

Rationing didn't stop the British public from giving Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip presents either. In addition to a box of home-grown apples, the royal couple were also sent 500 tins of pineapple, two dozen handbags, 12 bottles of sloe gin, and 131 pairs of nylon stockings.

16. A hand-spun lace tray cover (that looked like a loin cloth)

Members of the British Royal family and guests pose around Princess Elizabeth (future Queen Elizabeth II) and Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
STR, AFP/Getty Images

Elizabeth's wedding was just two months before 78-year-old Mahatma Gandhi's death, and the famed activist sent the couple an Indian lace tray cover that he wove himself. Reportedly, Elizabeth's grandmother, Queen Mary, thought it was a loin cloth.

17. A nationwide amnesty

In the late 19th century, the Imperial Chinese government celebrated the wedding of two members of its ruling Qing Dynasty by enacting a 20-day nationwide amnesty in their honor, during which no one would be punished for any crime. On the day of the wedding itself, the entire population of the Empire was mandated to wear red and green clothing.

18. A half-ton wheel of cheese

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on their return from the marriage service at St James's Palace, London in 1840.
Engraved by S Reynolds after F Lock, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in 1840, one of the couple's wedding gifts was one of the largest wheels of cheese in British history. Measuring more than 9 feet across, weighing in at more than 1000 pounds, and made from the milk of 750 cows, the cheese was prepared for the occasion by villages in Somerset. And befitting the happy occasion, a cheesy song was written as well:

“The Pennard men then built a cheese
The like was never seen!
’Twas made, and press’d, and fit to please
Our gracious lady Queen!
And wedded to her royal love
May blessings on her fall,
And Pennard cheese at dinner prove
The best thing—after all!”

19. A mini chateau

The funerary monuments (not the graves) of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette at the Basilica of Saint Denis, France.
The funerary monuments (not the graves) of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette at the Basilica of Saint Denis, France.

When 15-year-old Dauphin Louis-Auguste (later Louis XVI) of France married 14-year-old Marie Antoinette in 1770, he gave her Le Petit Trianon, a three-story miniature chateau set in the grounds of the palace of Versailles, as a wedding present. "This pleasure house is yours," he reportedly told her. In the uneasy first years of their marriage, the future queen spent much of her time at Trianon, and though Louis would join her for dinner, he never spent the night there (which likely contributed to their not consummating the marriage for seven years).

20. An opera

William IV, Prince of Orange, his wife, Anne of Hanover, and their children Carolina and William V.
William IV, Prince of Orange, his wife, Anne of Hanover, and their children Carolina and William V.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When Prince William of Orange (later William IV) married Anne of Hanover in 1734, the composer George Frederic Handel composed Parnasso in festa, a three-part Italian serenata, to mark the occasion. Handel also composed a wedding anthem for the bride; though he disliked serving as a music teacher, he had made an exception for her when she was a child, calling her a "flower of princesses."

21. A feast made entirely of sugar (and a sugar replica of the groom)

King Henry IV of France and Queen Marie de'Medici
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

When King Henry IV of France married Marie de'Medici in 1600, he presented her with a grand Florentine banquet of fish and roast meats—at least at first glance. Turns out, the feast was made entirely from sugar. The groom perhaps took the European love of sugar a bit too far. Their ceremony was a wedding-by-proxy; in his stead, Henry sent a near life-size sugar replica of himself riding a horse.

22. A gold cup designed by Hans Holbein

King Henry VIII and Jane Seymour
National Portrait Gallery of London, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When Henry VIII married his third wife, Jane Seymour, in 1536 (just 11 days after Anne Boleyn was beheaded), he gave her a solid gold drinking cup designed by German Renaissance master Hans Holbein as a wedding present (Holbein was the court artist; many of the most famous portraits done of the Tudors were by Holbein). Alas, all that remains of Queen Jane's gift is a sketch of it: Charles I pawned the cup in 1625 and had it melted down four years later.

23. A book of French romances and an essay on warfare

Detail of the illuminated miniature on the presentation page of the Talbot Shrewsbury Book, showing the donor, John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, presenting the book as a gift to Margaret of Anjou and Henry VI.
Detail of the illuminated miniature on the presentation page of the Talbot Shrewsbury Book, showing the donor, John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, presenting the book as a gift to Margaret of Anjou and Henry VI.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When Margaret of Anjou married Henry VI of England in 1445, John Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury, who had accompanied her on her journey from Normandy to London, presented her with a book of illuminated French poems, folktales, romances, and political treatises. The Talbot Shrewsbury Book, as it's now known, also contains a complete list of statutes governing the Order of the Garter, and several lengthy treatises on warfare, husbandry, and hunting. It was likely perfect bedtime reading for the ambitious new queen of England, especially considering that she often had to rule in Henry's place.

24. Three leopards

Eleanor of Provence and King Henry III of England.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

King Henry III is credited with establishing much of the royal menagerie that used to be housed at the Tower of London. In 1235, to mark his betrothal to Eleanor of Provence, he was given three leopards (or possibly lions) to add to his collection by the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II.

25. An entire town

"King Solomon with his wives at table," by Anton Koburger, 1491.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

According to the biblical 1st Book of Kings, when King Solomon married the daughter of the Egyptian pharaoh sometime in the mid-10th century BCE, the pharaoh conquered the Canaanite town of Gezer in the Judean Mountains, massacred its people, and gifted it to his daughter as a dowry.

26. A pair of koalas

When Prince Harry and Meghan Markle married in May 2018, they requested that in lieu of gifts, friends and family donate to one of seven handpicked charities, including an HIV charity, a coastal ecology charity, and a fund for children who have lost parents in military service. That, however, didn’t stop a handful of well-wishers from doing both—among them, the regional assembly of New South Wales. In addition to making a donation to a local conservation charity in their honor, premier of New South Wales Gladys Berejiklian had two baby koalas at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney named after the couple “as a gift from the people of New South Wales.”

27. A bespoke James Bond-style cigarette lighter

French president Emmanuel Macron also broke the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s embargo on personal gifts, and presented the couple with a bespoke gift set from ST Dupont’s 007 collection, including two engraved James Bond-style pens and a matching cigarette lighter. The gift had precedent, though: When the future Queen Elizabeth II married Prince Philip in 1947, the royal couple were gifted a Dupont travel case by then French president Vincent Auriol, and the tradition has been maintained ever since.

28. A one-ton Indian bull

Of all the gifts the Duke and Duchess of Sussex received in 2018, however, perhaps the most unique was news that PETA had adopted a one-ton malnourished Indian bullock on their behalf. Named Merry (an amalgam of Harry and Meghan, of course), the bull now sees out its days in an animal sanctuary in Maharashtra.

29. A pair of solid silver kiwis

When Princess Margaret, Elizabeth II’s younger sister, married society photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones in 1960, many Commonwealth countries sent wedding presents as a sign of their best wishes. Among them were two solid silver kiwis—one nestling an egg between its legs—that were presented to the couple on behalf of the people of New Zealand. In 2006, four years after Margaret’s death, the models were auctioned off for charity in London; despite an early estimate of less than $1000, they eventually sold for £36,000—which would be the equivalent of more than £51,000, or about $66,000 today.

30. An empty plot of land (on a private Caribbean island)

After their wedding, Princess Margaret and her new husband—now officially the Earl of Snowden—spent their honeymoon on a six-week Caribbean cruise aboard the Royal yacht Britannia. During that time, the British socialite and aristocrat Colin Tennant (whose wife, Anne Coke, was Margaret’s lady-in-waiting) gifted the couple a plot of land on Mustique, the 2-square-mile private island in the Grenadines that he had purchased just two years earlier. Margaret later developed the plot into a private villa called Les Jolies Eaux—“The Beautiful Waters”—where you can now spend the week (if you have a spare $21,000).

31. Two soufflé dishes

When Princess Mary, the Princess Royal—only daughter of George V, and Elizabeth II’s aunt—married Viscount Lascelles in 1922, she gifted her husband a pair of antique soufflé dishes. Princess Mary, incidentally, put most of her collection of wedding gifts on display at Buckingham Palace, and used the proceeds the exhibition raised to purchase Foxlease Hall, the headquarters of the Girl Guide Association.

32. A seat in the royal box

When the Russian princess Irina Romanov married her sweetheart Felix Yusupov in February 1914, Tsar Nicholas II reportedly asked his new son-in-law what he would like as a wedding gift. Yusupov requested a seat in the Imperial box in the Marinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg.

33. A bag of 29 uncut diamonds

While Felix took his seat in the Tsar’s box at the theater, Princess Irina was given a pouch of 29 uncut diamonds, each weighing between three and seven carats. These—plus the countless other precious stones the couple were gifted as wedding presents—helped maintain them financially during their life in exile after the Russian Revolution in 1917.

34. A diamond-encrusted fan

Besides her own mini-chateau, another lavish (but slightly more practical) wedding present Marie Antoinette received from Louis XVI was a diamond-encrusted fan, presented to Marie on her wedding day along with an ornate cabinet full of jewels and gemstones.

35. A quaich

When King James VI of Scotland married Anne of Denmark in 1589, he presented her with a traditional Scottish quaich—a type of shallow, dual-handled drinking bowl. Quaichs have been a traditional wedding gifts in Scotland ever since.

36. Five notebooks (including one that belonged to the husband's ex-wife)

Henry VIII went on to marry his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, just three weeks after his fourth marriage (to Anne of Cleves) was annulled in July 1540. As a wedding gift, he presented Catherine with a set of five miniature jewel-encrusted notebooks, or “girdle-books." Unfortunately, arranging a wedding in less than a month apparently doesn’t leave much for checking little things, like whether or not you and your ex-wife’s initials are still embossed on the wedding present you’ve just given to your new spouse. Yes, one of the books in Catherine’s collection had the letters “H.” and “I.” in black enamel on the front cover, suggesting the book had probably originally been a gift from Henry for Jane Seymour (I standing in for J in the Tudor-period alphabet). Alas, re-gifting her his dead wife’s possessions wasn’t even the worst thing Henry did to poor Catherine: Their marriage lasted just a little over a year, and in February 1542—on a trumped up charge of adultery with her distant cousin, Thomas Culpepper—Catherine was executed at the age of 19.

37. A small wooden chest engraved with knotted thistles

In 2014, a fairly unassuming oak chest owned by an amateur furniture collector from Aberdeen, Scotland, was actually found to be a priceless 500-year-old royal heirloom. The chest’s unusual engravings—featuring a lover’s-knot made of entwined thistles—matched those in the Book of Hours of James IV of Scotland, a devotional prayer book published to mark James’s marriage to Margaret Tudor, the eldest daughter of the Henry VII of England (and the older sister of Henry VIII). Their so-called “Thistle and the Rose” marriage in August 1503 united the Tudor and Stuart dynasties after decades of conflict, and the chest was apparently commissioned as a wedding gift to mark the occasion.

38. An orange tree

According to legend, to celebrate the marriage of Louis XII of France to his second wife, Anne, the Duchess of Brittany, the Spanish queen Leonora of Castile gifted the couple an orange tree in 1499, which the king had planted in the gardens of his palace in Paris. The tree’s fruit—thought to be an early cultivar of either blood or navel oranges—proved immensely popular, and were soon being grown and sold all across Paris and beyond.

39. A personalized book of psalms.

It’s fair to say that Edward II and Queen Isabella of France didn’t have the easiest of marriages. After all, few healthy marriages tend to involve the husband being embroiled in romantic relationships with his male courtiers, and the wife being questionably implicated in her husband's gruesome murder. But despite those ups and downs, Edward and Isabella did at least keep up appearances by lavishing a great many expensive gifts on one another. Royal records show that Edward showered his young wife in gemstones and jewelry throughout their marriage; had her carriage fitted with extra cushions during her pregnancies; and, in return, Isabella continued to send the king gifts and letters, even after his deposition and eventual imprisonment in the 1320s.

Of all the presents the couple gave each other, however, perhaps the most remarkable is an illuminated books of psalms that Edward apparently gifted Isabella on their wedding in 1308. The book, known as the Isabella Psalter, depicts the queen in various biblical and religious scenes throughout its 280 highly decorated pages.

40. The deposed Emperor of Cyprus

Richard the Lionheart—a.k.a. the 12th century English king Richard I—spent so much time reconquering the Holy Land, that barely six months of his 42-year reign was actually spent in England. (It’s even unclear, for that matter, whether he ever found time to learn to speak English.) Richard’s preoccupation with the Crusades also meant that, for their wedding day to go ahead, his young wife-to-be, Berengaria of Navarre, was compelled to meet him halfway: In 1191, she sailed from her home in northeast Spain and caught up with Richard on the island of Cyprus. There, the couple—who had never met before—were finally wed in a tiny chapel in Limassol.

Before Richard continued on his Crusade, however, he had just enough time to depose the tyrannical self-styled “Emperor” of Cyprus, Isaac Comnenos, and claim the island for England. According to tradition, having promised Isaac that he would not imprison him in irons, Richard had the emperor wrapped in gold and silver chains instead—and then presented him to his new queen as a rather unorthodox wedding gift.

10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

qingwa/iStock via Getty Images
qingwa/iStock via Getty Images

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.


WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.


Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard." Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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