Given its history, I’m half-tempted to title this piece The Roam Stone. Har! - Jonah
The Rome Stone
By John Lockwood, the Washington Times, 1/24/04
There have been many efforts to commemorate Abraham Lincoln through the years, especially in Washington. The best-known is the Lincoln Memorial, opened in 1922, long after Lincoln's time. By contrast, one of the earliest attempts to honor him here was ignored repeatedly and almost lost for good - the Rome Stone.
Sometime early in 1865, just before Lincoln's assassination, the Freemasons of Rome decided to express their respect by sending a block of red sandstone to Washington, suitably inscribed. They chose the stone from a just-uncovered section of the Agger, a wall built around the city in about 578 B.C. by an early Roman king named Servius Tullius. The surviving section was 120 feet wide and 25 feet high. The lower portion was made of sandstone, and the upper layers were pumice.
The Romans of 1865 felt that the career of Servius Tullius paralleled that of Lincoln. Both men were born poor, and each worked his way up to become leader of his country. Both sought to free society's least fortunate, whether the slaves of America or the plebeians of Rome. A few months later, of course, there was to be another parallel - both men were murdered by those opposed to their policies.
The block itself was inscribed in Latin, of which a contemporary translation read: "The citizens of Rome dedicate this Stone, taken from the Tomb of SERVIUS TULLIUS, to ABRAHAM LINCOLN, President for the Second Term of the United States of America, by which the Memory of either brave defender of Liberty may be joined to that of the other. AD. 1865.”
The stone was given to the American consul at Leghorn, a Mr. Stielmann, who in turn dispatched it to a British steamship named the Uhla. The ship, as it happened, was commanded by a Capt. Lincoln. After the ship sailed on Aug. 4, 1865, a series of storms forced it to land at Bermuda. The ship and its cargo were sold at auction, and the Rome Stone was left for a while on the beach.
None of the available sources say how, but eventually the stone ended up in Washington in late 1865 or early 1866. Nobody seemed to know what to do with it.
The Rome Stone sat outdoors on the White House portico for several weeks. Then it made its way indoors and was used as a bench under a window. After that, it ended up in the basement.
On July 19, 1867, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution condemning how "the beautiful memorial has been allowed to remain in the cellar of the White House, where it now lies surrounded with the usual rubbish of such a place.” It urged President Andrew Johnson to send the block to Congress to be placed in the old Hall of the House of Representatives.
Nothing came of this; the Feb. 6, 1869 issue of Harper's Weekly ran a vivid article about how the stone was still stuck in the basement. According to the magazine, the Rome Stone was in a storage room about 8 feet by 10 feet, a room "nearly filled with a variety of trash.” There was only “one grated window, dim with dust, looking out into an area under a porch.” The room's contents included broken grates, old iron pipes, coal, kindling, a torn cushion, musty feathers scattered about - and the Rome Stone.
This article must have had some effect - on Congress at least, for on June 17, 1870, there was another resolution, ordering that the stone be given to the Lincoln Tomb, then being built in Springfield, Ill. The tomb was finished in 1874, and the stone was placed in a small museum there.
The Rome Stone's story was not quite finished, however. In 1912, the March 24 issue of the Washington Evening Star ran a brief article on the subject. It seemed that an engineer in Rome named Ferdinando Girardi was under the impression that the stone had never reached Washington or had been lost. The Star's headline included the helpful words, “Never Reached Here!” Mr. Girardi suggested that if the first block could not be found, a second should be sent. Nothing came of that, however.
Then, during a 1930 reconstruction project, the stone was removed from the museum and stored in the state Capitol - in the basement. There it was left.
Even when the reconstruction was finished in 1931, the stone was not returned. It had been forgotten yet again. In 1935 or 1936 (again the sources are uncertain), Gov; Henry Horner was entertaining several VIPs, including the Italian ambassador. The latter casually asked the whereabouts of the Rome Stone. An aide to Horner hurried over to the Capitol, got the stone cleaned up and had it sent to the governor's residence just before the VIP party showed up. The stone was placed hurriedly in a bay window, as if it had been on honored display all the time.
Finally, it was decided to install the stone permanently at the Lincoln Tomb. In a major ceremony on Sunday, Oct. 11 - one day before Columbus Day - the Rome Stone was embedded at the bottom of the 117-foot obelisk that rises above the rest of the memorial. It is still there today.
The Rome Stone's wanderings had ended at last.
John Lockwood is a writer in Washington.