The Most Secretive Book in History

The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Digital Studio
The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Digital Studio

A bizarre medieval manuscript written in a language no one can read has baffled the world’s best cryptologists, stumped the most powerful code-breaking computers, and been written off as a masterful hoax. Can the hive mind finally unlock its secrets?

 

The breakthrough, when it finally came, happened in a most unremarkable way. Stephen Bax was in his home office late at night. It was April 2013, and he’d spent the previous 10 months poring over reproductions of a 15th-century manuscript bursting with bizarre drawings: female figures in green baths; astrological symbols; intricate geometric designs; plants that seemed familiar but also just slightly off. Strangest of all—and the reason Bax, a 54-year-old professor of applied linguistics in Bedfordshire, England, had become obsessed—were the 35,000 words in the manuscript. Written in an elaborate, beautiful script, the language has never appeared on any other document, anywhere. Ever.

At his day job at the University of Bedfordshire’s Centre for Research in English Language Learning and Assessment, Bax focuses on English language learning. Decoding ancient manuscripts is not in his purview. But ever since he’d heard about this mysterious book, he’d been fixated on it: scouring the web, talking to scholars, analyzing 14th-century herbal manuscripts at the British Library. And he was fairly confident he’d identified a few words in the document: juniper, cotton, the constellation Taurus. But before he could go public with his findings, he needed more.

On this particular evening, he was looking at the first word of script on a page numbered f3v, which contained an illustration of a plant that looked like hellebore. According to the scheme Bax had worked out, the word spelled out kaur— a word he wasn’t familiar with. So Bax did what anyone would do: He pulled up Google and typed “hellebore” and “kaur.” Then he pressed enter.

 
 

The Voynich Manuscript—a soft-bound, 240-page volume—has baffled cryptanalysts, linguists, computer scientists, physicists, historians, and academics since it was rediscovered in the early 20th century. To date, no one has deciphered it, and no one knows why it was made. Experts don’t know what to make of it: is it a cipher, a code, a long-lost language?

There’s been plenty of speculation, both inside and outside academia. Over the past century, the case of the Voynich has been cracked and debunked, cracked and debunked again, and even—rather convincingly!—exposed as a hoax. Even the book’s acquisition is a mystery.


Click to enlarge.

The story starts with a London-based book dealer named Wilfrid Voynich, who discovered the book in 1912. From the beginning, Voynich was evasive about how he acquired the tome—he claimed he’d been sworn to secrecy about its origin, and the story he recounted changed often. In the one he told most frequently, he’d been at “an ancient castle in Southern Europe” when he found this “ugly duckling” buried in a “most remarkable collection of precious illuminated manuscripts.”

For a book dealer, it was like stumbling onto treasure. Back in London he dubbed his acquisition the “Roger Bacon cipher,” after the 13th-century English monk and scientist, and put it up for sale. A letter that came with the book suggested Bacon was the author; whether Voynich actually believed it, or whether he simply believed that associating the book with Bacon would help him fetch a higher resale price, is unclear.

“I think he’s best compared to a used car dealer,” says René Zandbergen, a space scientist who lives near Darmstadt, Germany, and runs a Voynich website in his spare time. “He was selling secondhand books and making sure that this [one] would get the best price he could get.”

By 1919, Voynich had sent copies of the manuscript to experts who might be able to determine the book’s purpose. One of those men was William Romaine Newbold, a philosophy professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Taking a magnifying glass to the text, Newbold noticed strange irregularities at the edges of the letters. He believed the tiny lines were Greek shorthand—and that each letter contained as many as 10 of them. The letters themselves, he thought, were meaningless. But the shorthand might hold the key to decoding the manuscript.

Newbold converted the script to letters, and then anagrammed until he found readable text. His translation seemed to corroborate Voynich’s hunch: The manuscript had belonged to Bacon, and the illustrations showed that the friar scientist had made incredible discoveries. One drawing, Newbold believed, showed the spiral-shaped Andromeda Galaxy—hundreds of years before astronomers would discern the galaxy’s structure—and others showed cells. Newbold surmised that this meant Bacon would have had to have invented both the telescope and the microscope. If his contemporaries had known what he was up to, Newbold theorized, they’d have accused him of working with the devil. That’s why he had to use a cipher to record his findings.

Word of the manuscript spread. In 1931, John M. Manly, a Chaucer expert at the University of Chicago—who’d been “dabbling” with the manuscript for years—published a paper that erased Newbold’s findings: Those irregularities at the edge of the letters weren’t shorthand; they were simply cracks in the ink.

But Manly’s discovery only fueled the public’s desire to understand the mysterious manuscript. Before long, experts from every field had joined the effort: Renaissance art historians, herbalists, lawyers, British intelligence, and teams of amateurs. Even William Friedman, who had led the team that solved Japan’s “unbreakable” Purple cipher in World War II and had since become head cryptanalyst at the National Security Agency, took a crack at it. He never got close to solving it.

There are lots of questions surrounding the Voynich manuscript, but the most essential is: What is it? Because of the numerous illustrations of plants, many believe the manuscript may be an herbalist’s textbook, written in some kind of cipher or code—and the two terms are not synonymous. Technically, a code can only be cracked if you have—or can figure out—the guide to that code. A cipher is a more flexible algorithm, say, where one letter is substituted for another. (For a simple example, a = p.)

There are a number of ways to crack a cipher, but one common technique is frequency analysis. You count all the characters, find which are most common, and match that against a similar pattern in a known language. More elaborate ciphers might require different kinds of frequency analysis or other mathematical methods.

What Friedman saw—and what makes the Voynich so compelling—is that the text isn’t random. There are clear patterns. “There’s a set number of characters, an ‘alphabet’ with letters that repeat,” says Elonka Dunin, a Nashville video game designer and author of The Mammoth Book of Secret Codes and Cryptograms who created her own page-for-page replica of the Voynich (just for fun!). But she has doubts that the book is a cipher. “Ciphers back then were just not that sophisticated. With modern computers, we can crack these things quite quickly.” But a computer hasn’t yet, and that’s a red flag.

Back in 1959, Friedman came to the same conclusion. Never able to crack the code, he believed the text was “an early attempt to construct an artificial or universal language of the a priori type”—in other words, a language made up from scratch. Some agree. But others think the words might be a language of another kind. Which brings us to Bax.

 
 

It took a split second for Bax's Google results to confirm that kaur was a name in Indian herbal guides for black hellebore. It was a match! “I almost jumped up and down,” he says. “All of the months and months of work were starting to show some cracks in the armor of the manuscript.” That night, he couldn’t sleep. He kept going over the research in his head, expecting to come up with a mistake.

If he was right—if certain words were identifiable as plant names—then his findings agreed with Friedman: The book was not a cipher. But unlike Friedman, Bax didn’t think the language was made up. He was convinced that it resembled a natural language. He’s not alone. One study of the Voynich, published in 2013 by Marcelo Montemurro and Damián Zanette, noted that statistical analysis of the manuscript showed that the text has certain organizational structures comparable to known languages. The most commonly used words are relatively simple constructions (think the or a), while more infrequent words, those that might be used to convey specific concepts, have structural similarities, the way many verbs and nouns do in other languages.


The Voynich manuscript is full of weird drawings of plants—but Stephen Bax believes he's unraveled text that identifies the one at left as hellebore.
The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Digital Studio

However, there are quirks. In most languages, certain word combinations recur frequently; but according to Zandbergen, that rarely happens in the Voynich. The words tend to have a prefix, a root, and a suffix, and while some have all three, others have only one or two. So you can get words that combine just a prefix and a suffix—uning, for example. Further, there are no two-letter words or words with more than 10 characters, which is strange for a European language. That’s enough to put some people off the idea that it could be a natural language.

When Bax started working with the text, he treated it like Egyptian hieroglyphics. He borrowed an approach used by Thomas Young and Jean-François Champollion, who in 1822 used the proper names of pharaohs—easy to identify because they were marked with a special outline—to work backward, assigning sound values to the symbols and then extrapolating other words from these. This was something that, Bax says, no one had systematically attempted on the Voynich.

The first proper name Bax identified was a word next to an illustration of a group of stars resembling Pleiades. “People before us suggested that that particular word is probably related to Taurus,” he says. “If you assume it says Taurus, the first sound must be a ta, or somewhere in that region—ta, da, Taurus, Daurus.” The process seems insanely daunting at first: “On the basis of one word alone, that’s just complete imagination,” he says. “But then you take that possible ta sound and you look at other possible proper nouns through the manuscript and see if you can see a pattern emerging.”

Bax worked for a year and a half, deciphering crumbs of letter-sound correspondences. Eight months after he confirmed hellebore, he published a paper online detailing his method. He cautiously announced the “provisional and partial” decoding of 10 words, including juniper, hellebore, coriander, nigella sativa, Centaurea, and the constellation Taurus.

"University of Bedfordshire professor cracks code to mysterious 15th-century Voynich manuscript," the local paper blared. Quickly, news organizations around the world joined in.

 
 

Nothing major happens in the long saga of the Voynich without media hype. The last time it had happened, in 2004, a British computer scientist named Gordon Rugg had published a paper showing that the whole thing might be an elaborate hoax created expressly to separate a wealthy buyer from a lot of money. And where there’s media controversy, there’s contention among Voynich obsessives. Rugg says his theory was like “someone grabbing the football and walking off the pitch in the middle of a really fun game.”


Click to enlarge.

Bax’s proclamation came with its share of controversy, too. People in the Voynich world have seen a lot of so-called cracks over the years, none of which have panned out, so when the news stories appeared on Bax’s paper, Dunin, the video game designer, just laughed. “The media just picks it up uncritically and says, ‘He must have solved it.’ He didn’t,” she says. “He’s saying, ‘I saw this, and this looked intriguing,’ and that’s perfectly valid. But it’s not a crack.” Others criticized his methods: Some had issues with the idea that the first word on a page is a plant name, because many of those words start with one of only two letters. Some found it weird that his translation has three different characters that stand for the letter r.

Bax doesn’t claim he’s cracked the code. “I’m prepared to see that some of the interpretations I’ve suggested are revised or even thrown out,” he says. “That’s the way you make progress on something like this. But I’m pretty convinced that a lot of it is solid.”

He’s determined to prove it, by stoking more dialogue within the obsessive community. In addition to the Voynich Wikipedia page, there’s an entire Wiki devoted to the book’s oddities and the efforts to crack it. Mailing lists started in the early 1990s are still going strong. Reddit, too, has taken an interest, and when Bax did an AMA after publishing his paper, it got 100,000 pageviews. Bax himself has set up a website to document his efforts. He actively encourages participation, fielding comments from visitors eager to help him decode the book.


Some people see similarities between the book and the Tarot. Bax (inset) is soliciting opinions online.
The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Digital Studio

One such volunteer is Milan-based Marco Ponzi, who had been researching Tarot card history when he found Bax’s paper. Ponzi began commenting on Bax’s website, suggesting there might be parallels between certain diagrams in the volume and images that appear in the Tarot. “Since Stephen is so rigorous and so kind, I feel encouraged to propose new ideas,” he says. “I don’t know if I have contributed anything really useful, but it is very fun.”

“Marco is bringing his expertise in medieval art, iconography, and Italian manuscripts—which I don’t have,” says Bax. “This is one of the beauties of doing it through the web.” Indeed, it’s become an international collaboration. Bax has asked other readers to add their own observations in the comments section, and spends a lot of time responding to queries and participating in the discussion. In the future, he hopes to host conferences and seminars about the book, and to set up a site where he can crowdsource efforts to decode other Voynich sections. If the method works, he expects that the manuscript could be decoded within four years.

What will be revealed when—and if— it is? Bax believes the manuscript is a treatise on the natural world, written in a script invented to record a previously unwritten language or dialect—possibly a Near Eastern one—created by a small community that later disappeared. “If it did turn out to be from a group of people who have disappeared,” he says, “it could unlock a whole area of a particular country or a group that is completely unknown to us.”

Other theories put forth that the secrets locked inside the Voynich’s vellum pages could reveal a coming apocalypse—or merely the details of medieval hygiene. Some people think the script could be the observations of a traveler who was trying to learn a language like Arabic or Chinese, or a stream-of-consciousness recording of someone in a trance. The most bizarre theories involve aliens or a long-lost underground race of lizard people.

It’s possible that the book will never tell us anything. To Zandbergen, whether it has huge secrets to reveal doesn’t matter at all. He just wants to know why the book was written. Whether it’s the work of a hoaxer, an herbalist, or a lizard person, the Voynich is important all the same. “It’s still a manuscript from the 15th century. It has historical value,” he says. But until the truth is revealed—and probably even after—people will keep trying to crack the Voynich. After all, who doesn’t love a good puzzle?

When Theodore Roosevelt's Antique Gun Was Stolen From Sagamore Hill

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Shortly before hitting the battlefield on July 1, 1898, Theodore Roosevelt had a decision to make. He was about to lead a volunteer cavalry known as the Rough Riders in the Battle of San Juan Heights in Santiago, Cuba, during the Spanish-American War. In protecting both his life and the lives of his men during combat, what sidearm should he choose?

Roosevelt, an avowed arms enthusiast, had an arsenal in his personal collection as well as numerous firearms issued by the U.S. military. The gun he chose to holster on his waist was a Colt Model 1895 .38 caliber double-action revolver with six shots, a blue barrel, and a checkered wood grip. While it may not have been the most formidable weapon at his disposal, it was the most emotionally resonant. The gun, a gift from his brother-in-law, had been retrieved from the wreck of the U.S. battleship Maine, whose sinking had claimed the lives of 266 men and helped usher in the war. He considered the gun a tribute to the sailors and Marines lost in the tragedy.

Now it had become an instrument of that war. In the conflict, Roosevelt aimed his revolver at two opposing soldiers. He missed one. The other was struck—and the wound was fatal. “He doubled up as neatly as a jackrabbit,” Roosevelt later wrote.

Just a few years later, Roosevelt would be president of the United States. The gun remained in his possession until his death in 1919, and eventually came into the care of Sagamore Hill, his onetime home and later a historic site. The Colt occupied a place of honor in the property’s Old Orchard Museum, behind glass and next to the uniform that he wore during the charge.

In April of 1990, a museum employee walked past the display and noticed something unusual. The Colt was gone. The weapon used by the 26th president to kill a man would go missing for 16 years, recovered only under the most unusual of circumstances.

“This poor gun has been through a lot,” Susan Sarna, the museum’s curator, tells Mental Floss. “It was blown up on the Maine, sunk to the bottom, resurrected, goes to San Juan Hill, comes here, then gets stolen—twice.”

 

According to a 2006 article in Man at Arms magazine by Philip Schreier [PDF], the senior curator at the National Rifle Association’s National Firearms Museum, the Colt has indeed had a hectic life. Manufactured in Hartford, Connecticut, in March 1895, the firearm (serial number 16,334) was delivered from the factory to the U.S. government and wound up on board the USS Maine when the ship was first commissioned in September of that year. The gun was considered ship property and remained on board until February 15, 1898, when the Maine exploded in Havana, Cuba. Many blamed the Spanish for the explosion, and hundreds of men lost their lives.

At the time, Roosevelt’s brother-in-law, William S. Cowles, was heading the U.S. Naval Station. He and his team were sent to the site to inspect the scene. Divers retrieved bodies and other items, including the Colt. Knowing Roosevelt—at the time the Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President William McKinley—was fond of weapons and a genial warmonger, Cowles gave it to him as a gift. While it was perfectly functional, it's clear Cowles intended the Colt to serve to honor the memory of those who had died.

The Colt revolver that once belonged to Theodore Roosevelt is pictured on display at Sagamore Hill
Roosevelt's Colt revolver on display at Sagamore Hill.
Courtesy of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site

Roosevelt later took it into battle, using it to shoot at enemy forces. (He would earn a posthumous Medal of Honor in 2001 for his actions that day.) Shortly after, the weapon was inscribed to represent its participation in two exceptional events. On one side of the handle:

From the sunken battle ship Maine.

On the other:

July 1st 1898, San Juan, Carried and used by Col. Theodore Roosevelt.

Following Roosevelt’s death in 1919, the Sagamore Hill estate in Oyster Bay, New York, was home to his wife, Edith, until her death in 1948. The property was later donated to the National Park Service in 1963 and became Sagamore Hill National Historic Site. The gun went on display along with many of the former president's other personal effects, eventually settling in the Old Orchard near the uniform he wore during the Battle of San Juan Heights.

In 1963, the Colt came up missing for the first time. With no guard or contemporary security system in place, someone nicked it from the building. Fortunately, it was soon found in the woods behind the museum, slightly rusty from being exposed to the elements but otherwise unharmed. The perpetrator may have gotten spooked after taking off with it and decided to abandon the contraband, but no one had a chance to ask—he or she was never caught.

By April of 1990, the gun and uniform were in a display case borrowed from the American Museum of Natural History. While somewhat of a deterrent, it didn't offer much in the way of security. “The case could be lifted and the lock just popped open,” Sarna says.

Sarna had just started at the museum back then. According to her, the case had either been disturbed by a thief or possibly left open by someone cleaning the display, inviting a probing set of hands. Either way, the gun disappeared—but it wasn’t immediately obvious.

“No one was sure what day it had happened,” she says; the best guess was that the theft had occurred between April 5 and 7. “You’d have to walk into the room it was in and look in the case. If you’re just walking by, you’d see the uniform, but not necessarily the gun.”

It was chief ranger and head of visitor services Raymond Bloomer Jr. and ranger John Foster who discovered the theft one morning. The lock had been popped but the glass was not broken. Sarna and the other employees conducted a search of the property, believing that perhaps someone had taken the Colt out for cleaning. When that failed to produce any results, they notified the National Park Service, which is the first line of investigation for theft on government-owned park property. The NPS, in turn, contacted local authorities in Nassau County and Cove Neck, New York. Soon, the FBI was involved.

Predictably, law enforcement looked at museum employees with a critical eye. “There were all different types of people here interviewing us,” Sarna says. “In museums, the majority of thefts are an inside job.”

Theodore Roosevelt is pictured in uniform
Roosevelt in uniform while leading the Rough Riders.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Park ranger and museum staffer Scott Gurney, who was hired in 1993, tells Mental Floss that the suspicion cast over employees—none of whom were ever implicated—remained a sore spot. “I found an old police report about it in a desk and asked a ranger about it,” Gurney says. “He got really mad at me and told me not to bring it up again. It was kind of a black eye for the people working there.”

As Sarna and the others set about installing a security system in the museum, the FBI started casting a wide net to locate the weapon, which was uninsured. “It was basically a shoplifting incident,” Robert Wittman, a retired FBI agent in their art crimes division who worked on the case from the mid-1990s on, tells Mental Floss. “It wasn’t all that unusual. In the 1970s and 1980s, lots of small museums were getting hit.” Worse, one of the museum staff working the front desk within view of the display was, according to Gurney, legally blind. The lack of security, Wittman says, was in part because pieces weren’t initially all that valuable on the collector’s market.

The Colt was unique in that it was so readily identifiable. Thanks to the inscriptions, it would invite questions if the thief attempted to sell the weapon. Any attempt to alter it would destroy its cultural value and defeat the purpose of taking it. The FBI sent notices to gun dealers and monitored gun shows in case it turned up. Nothing seemed promising.

“We heard things constantly,” Sarna says. “Someone said it was seen in Europe. Someone else said it was in private hands, or that a collector had it.” Later, when the museum was able to start receiving emails via the burgeoning world of the internet, more tips—all dead ends—came in. Another rumor had the gun being bought during a gun buyback program in Pennsylvania and subsequently destroyed. This one looked promising, as it bore the same serial number. But it turned out to be a different model.

A reward was offered for information leading to the gun’s retrieval, with the amount eventually climbing to $8100. But that still wasn’t sufficient for the gun to surface. “We really had no lines on it,” Wittman says.

Then, in September 2005, Gurney began receiving a series of calls while working in the visitor’s center. The man had a slight speech impediment, he said, or might have been intoxicated. Either way, he told Gurney he knew where the gun was. “He told me it was in a friend’s house, but that he didn’t want to get the friend in trouble.”

The man continued calling, each time refusing to give his name and ignoring Gurney’s suggestion to simply drop the gun in the mail. The man also spoke to Amy Verone, the museum’s chief of cultural resources. He was certain he had seen Theodore Roosevelt’s gun, wrapped in an old sweatshirt in DeLand, Florida. He described the engravings to Verone, who hung up and immediately called the FBI.

 

After more calls and conversations, including one in which Gurney stressed the historical importance of the weapon, the caller eventually relented and gave his information to the FBI. A mechanical designer by trade, Andy Anderson, then 59, said he had seen the gun the previous summer. It had been shown to him by his girlfriend, who knew Anderson was a history buff. She told Anderson her ex-husband had originally owned the firearm. It had been in a closet wrapped in a sweatshirt before winding up under a seat in the woman’s mini-van, possibly obscured by a dish towel. Presumably, her ex had been the one who had stolen it back while visiting the museum as a New York resident in 1990.

Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders uniform is pictured on display at Sagamore Hill
Roosevelt's Rough Riders uniform sits on display at Sagamore Hill next to his Colt.
Courtesy of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site

After Anderson contacted Sagamore Hill, FBI agents were dispatched from the Daytona Beach office to DeLand to question Anderson. He obtained the revolver from his girlfriend and handed it over, though he apparently tried to convince the FBI to let him return the weapon without disclosing the thief’s identity. The FBI didn’t agree to an anonymous handoff, however, and in November 2006 the ex-husband, a 55-year-old postal employee whom we’ll refer to as Anthony T., was charged with a misdemeanor in U.S. District Court in Central Islip, New York.

Wittman remembers that the split between Anthony T. and his wife had been acrimonious and that she had no involvement in the theft. “We were not going to charge her with possession of stolen property,” he says.

Wittman went to Florida to pick up the Colt and brought it back to the Philadelphia FBI offices, where it was secured until prosecutors authorized its return to Sagamore Hill on June 14, 2006. Schreier, the NRA museum’s senior curator, arrived at Sagamore Hill with Wittman, FBI Assistant Director in Charge in New York Mark Mershon, and Robert Goldman, the onetime U.S. assistant attorney and art crime team member who was himself a Roosevelt collector and had doggedly pursued the case for years. When Schreier confirmed its authenticity, the gun was formally turned back over.

There was no reasonable defense for Anthony T. In November of that year, he pled guilty to stealing the Colt. While he was eligible for up to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine, Anthony T. received two years of probation along with the financial penalty and 50 hours of community service. According to Wittman, cases of this sort are based in part on the dollar value of the object stolen—the weapon was valued at $250,000 to $500,000—not necessarily its historical value. “The sentencing may not be commensurate with the history,” Wittman says.

From that perspective, the Colt takes on far greater meaning. It was used in a battle that cemented Roosevelt’s reputation as a leader, one credited with helping bolster his national profile. It was used in commission in the death of a human being, giving it a weight and history more than the sum of its metal parts.

“It’s looked at as one of his greatest triumphs,” Sarna says of the Rough Riders and the U.S. victory in the 1898 conflict. “It brought us into a new century and out of isolationism.”

It’s once more on display at Sagamore Hill, this time under far better security and surveillance. (Though the museum is still vulnerable to heists: a reproduction hairbrush was recently swiped.) Sarna, who wasn’t sure if she would ever see the Colt again, is glad to see it where it belongs.

“Thank goodness they got divorced,” she says.

It’s not publicly known why Anthony T. felt compelled to take the Colt. Wittman describes it as a crime of opportunity, not likely one that was planned. After the plea, Anthony T. was let go from his job, and his current whereabouts are unknown. Prosecutors called it a mistake in judgment.

Anderson, the tipster, lamented any of it had to happen. “We’re talking about a mistake he made 16 years ago,” Anderson told the Orlando Sentinel in November 2006. “I have no regrets, but I never meant to cause trouble. I wish Anthony the best.”

If Anthony T. was an admirer of Roosevelt’s, he might find some poetic peace in the fact that he pled guilty to violating the American Antiquities Act of 1906, which was instituted to prevent theft of an object of antiquity on property owned by the government.

That bill was signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt.

15 Amazing Facts About the Washington Monument

iStock/Sean Pavone
iStock/Sean Pavone

It's the tallest building in Washington, D.C. and it honors the first U.S. president, George Washington. Here are a few more Washington Monument facts to celebrate the anniversary of its completion on December 6, 1884.

1. Building a monument to George Washington was not a unanimously supported idea.

Today, trumpeting George Washington as a hero and a symbol of national pride isn’t going to start any arguments. In the 19th century, however, Washington’s approval rating was far from 100 percent. The very idea of constructing a monument to honor the former president felt like an affront to the Democratic-Republicans—the opposing party to the Washington-aligned Federalists—who both favored Thomas Jefferson over Washington and decried such tributes as unseemly and suspiciously royalist.

2. It took almost 40 years to complete the Washington Monument's construction.

After decades of deliberation about where to build a monument to George Washington, what form it should take, and whether the whole thing was a good idea in the first place, the foundation for a great stone obelisk was laid at the center of Washington, D.C.’s National Mall on July 4, 1848. Although the design looks fairly simple, the structure would prove to be a difficult project for architect Robert Mills and the Washington National Monument Society. Due to ideological conflicts, lapses in funding, and disruptions during the Civil War, construction of the Washington Monument would not be completed until February 21, 1885. The site opened to the public three years later. 

3. A coup within the Washington National Monument Society delayed construction.

In 1855, an anti-Catholic activist group nicknamed the Know-Nothings seized control of the 23-year-old Washington National Monument Society. Once in power, the Know-Nothings rejected and destroyed memorial stones donated by Pope Piux IX. The Know-Nothing affiliation cost the project financial support from the public and from Congress. In 1858, after adding only two layers of masonry to the monument, the Know-Nothings abdicated control of the society. 

4. Early ideas for the Washington Monument included statues, Greek columns, and tombs. 

Before the society settled on building an obelisk, several other ideas were suggested as the visual representation of George Washington’s grandeur. Among them were an equestrian statue of the first president (which was part of Pierre L’Enfant’s original plan for Washington, D.C.), a separate statue situated atop a classical Greek column, and a tomb constructed within the Capitol building. The last idea fell apart when Washington’s family was unwilling to move his body from its resting place in Mount Vernon.

5. Later design plans included an elaborate colonnade ...

Even after Mills’ obelisk model had been accepted, a few flashier design elements received consideration as possible additions to the final project. Mills had originally intended to surround the tower with a circular colonnade, featuring not only a statue of George Washington seated gallantly atop a chariot, but also 30 individual statues of renowned Revolutionary War heroes. 

6. ... and an Egyptian sun.

Mills placed a winged sun—an Egyptian symbol representing divinity—above the doorframe of the Washington Monument’s principal entrance. The sun was removed in 1885. 

7. The monument originally had a flat top.

It has become recognizable for its pointed apex, but the Washington Monument was originally designed to bear a flat top. The monument's design was capped with a pyramid-shaped addition in 1879.

8. The engineer who completed the Washington Monument asked the government to supply his workers with hot coffee.

Several years after the 1855 death of Mills, Col. Thomas Lincoln Casey Sr., chief of engineers of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, assumed responsibility for completing the Washington Monument. Among his most memorable orders was an official request to the U.S. Treasury Department to supply his workers—specifically those assigned to the construction of the monument’s apex—with “hot coffee in moderate quantities.” The treasury complied. 

9. Dozens of miscellaneous items are buried beneath the monument.

On the first day of construction, a zinc case containing a number of objects and documents was placed in the Washington Monument’s foundation. Alongside copies of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are a map of the city of Washington, publications of Census data, a book of poems, a collection of American coins, a list of Supreme Court justices, a Bible, daguerreotypes of George Washington and his mother Mary, Alfred Vail’s written description of the magnetic telegraph, a copy of Appleton’s Railroad and Steamboat Companion, and an issue of the arts and leisure magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, among many other items.

10. Some of the Washington Monument's memorial stones bear strange inscriptions.

The vast majority of the 194 memorial stones lining the Washington Monument are not likely to inspire confusion. Common inscriptions celebrate George Washington, the country, and the states they represent. However, a few of the monument’s stones bear engravings of a more curious variety. A stone donated by a Welsh-American community from New York reads (in Welsh), “My language, my land, my nation of Wales—Wales for ever.” Another stone from the Templars of Honor and Temperance articulates the organization’s rigid support of Prohibition: “We will not make, buy, sell, or use as a beverage any spirituous or malt liquors, wine, cider, or any other alcoholic liquor, and will discountenance their manufacture, traffic, and use, and this pledge we will maintain unto the end of life.” 

11. The apex was displayed at Tiffany's before it was added to the structure.

The men who created the Washington Monument, though reverent in their intentions, were hardly above a good publicity stunt. William Frishmuth, an architect and aluminum magnate connected to the project, arranged for the pointed aluminum top of the monument to enjoy an ornate two-day display at New York City’s luxury jewelry store Tiffany’s. The apex was placed on the floor of the storefront so that shoppers could claim to have walked “over the top of the Washington Monument.” 

12. Opening ceremonies attracted several big-name guests.

Among the 20,000 Americans present for the beginning of construction in 1848 were then-President James K. Polk, three future presidents (James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, and Andrew Johnson), former first lady Dolley Madison, Alexander Hamilton's widow Elizabeth Hamilton (John Quincy Adams' widow was too sick to attend), and a bald eagle.

13. The Washington Monument was the tallest structure in the world for about six months.

Upon its official opening on October 9, 1888, the Washington Monument—standing an impressive 555 feet high—boasted the superlative of tallest manmade structure on Earth. The honor was short-lived, however, as the following March saw the unveiling of the Eiffel Tower, which topped out at 986 feet. 

14. It is still the tallest of its kind.

As of 2019, the Washington Monument still reigns supreme as both the world’s tallest all-stone structure and the tallest obelisk. (The stone San Jacinto Monument in Texas is taller, but it sits on a concrete plinth.)

15. A few decades after construction, the monument caught "tuberculosis."

Wear and tear had begun to get the best of the Washington Monument by the early 20th century, prompting an exodus of the cement and rubble filler through the structure’s external cracks. The sweating sensation prompted John S. Mosby Jr., author of a 1911 article in Popular Mechanics, to nickname the phenomenon “geological tuberculosis.”

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