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MU Teams with Smithsonian to Save Original Jefferson Tombstone Marker

Dec. 04, 2012

Story Contact(s):
Christian Basi, BasiC@missouri.edu, 573-882-4430

COLUMBIA, Mo. ­— For more than a half-century, a six-foot tall granite cube and obelisk with a 150-200 pound marble slab insert marked the grave of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. Following damage to the original monument by souvenir seekers and a government campaign to replace it with a larger copy, the original tombstone, including the marble slab, was presented to the University of Missouri. MU was the first public university in the Louisiana Purchase Territory that Jefferson had been instrumental in acquiring, and MU officials supported a curriculum and concept of higher education similar to those of Jefferson. In fact, the University of Missouri was modeled from the University of Virginia; thus, it seemed fitting that Jefferson’s original monument would be placed on MU’s campus.

The tombstone was officially dedicated at MU on July 4, 1885, and the marble slab was stored in the university’s Academic Hall until the building burned in 1892. The marble slab has been in the current administrative building, Jesse Hall, since it opened in 1895.


This video is available for broadcast quality download and re-use. For more information, contact Nathan Hurst: hurstn@missouri.edu

Now, nearly 130 years after the university received the marker, university officials are working with officials at the Smithsonian Institution to move the marble slab, which contains the original epitaph written by Jefferson himself, to the Smithsonian for extensive restoration.

Prior to his death, Jefferson wrote a detailed description of his grave marker as well as the inscription.

“It’s irresistible. Thomas Jefferson himself wrote what he wanted written on the stone. Scholars find it interesting that he left out the fact that he was president, among other accomplishments,” said Carol Grissom, senior objects conservator at the Museum Conservation Institute, which is a conservation research laboratory that serves the entire Smithsonian. Grissom is leading the restoration project

“Could the dead feel any interest in Monuments (sic) or other remembrances of them,” Jefferson wrote. He continued, saying that he would prefer a “plain die or cube . . . surmounted by an Obelisk. (sic)

Jefferson also dictated the words on the marble slab:

Here was buried

Thomas Jefferson

Author of the Declaration of American Independence

Of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom

& Father of the University of Virginia

“Jefferson was a major proponent of public higher education,” said Kee Groshong, vice chancellor for administrative services emeritus. “The university made a case to his family that this would be an ideal place to display his original grave marker. The family agreed and shipped it to us, so it has been here ever since. It is significant for us at the University of Missouri because of our connection to Jefferson and the land-grant mission and public higher education. We believe we should take care of it and display it for everyone to see and enjoy because it is a very interesting piece of history.”

Once at the facility, Grissom and her team will remove the plaque from a wooden box that it has been stored in since at least the 1890s. The restoration team will analyze the piece first to determine exactly why the stone is deteriorating. Grissom said that the top 1/8 inch of the plaque is separating in places and the corners seem to be disintegrating.

“We will examine some samples using the scanning electron microscope and conduct other analyses,” Grissom said. “We also know that the stone was previously broken, so we might try to take it apart first to get a better look at the internal damage. We’re also interested to identify where the stone came from — was it something that was imported, domestic or local? The information is historically significant, but it could also affect the treatment of the stone.”

It is anticipated that the project will take at least a year to complete. Following the restoration, the stone will be returned to MU, where it will be displayed permanently.

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