Melodrama at the Smithsonian

By popular demand, here is the intriguing, drama-filled story of James Smithson, the renegade British aristocrat and scientist who provided the funds for the Smithsonian, with little direction and few conditions, except to specify its exact name.

He was born James Lewis Macie in Paris sometime in 1765. His mother was Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie, a wealthy widow, and his father was Hugh Smithson Percy, 1st Duke of Northumberland. But here’s the thing: Hugh Percy was married to someone else. To hide the pregnancy, Elizabeth left England to live more or less in secret in Paris. That’s why we don’t know the exact date James was born – it was all hidden. Now today an out-of-wedlock child wouldn’t be such a big deal, particularly among popular celebrities, but apparently it was a big deal in England, especially among the aristocracy, who were the celebrities of their day. Even though keeping a mistress was commonplace and illegitimate children were often openly acknowledged, still people maintained the fiction of decorum.

The family tree is a tangle. Elizabeth, descended from Henry VII, was widowed from husband John Macie when she became involved with Hugh. Hungerford was a family name from her mother’s side, tied to royalty and great wealth; Keate was her father’s name.  For his part, Hugh was born Hugh Smithson, but changed his surname to Percy when he married Lady Elizabeth Seymour. heiress of the extremely wealthy Percy family. When Elizabeth’s father, the Earl of Northumberland, died, the earldome passed to her husband. Sixteen years later, he got a new title: 1st Duke of Northumberland. I can’t follow the details of British aristocracy, but I guess dukes are more important than earls. (I keep hearing that great do-wop song, “Duke of Earl,” in my mind as I’m writing this.)

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