Beautiful and dangerous, with a lurid past as stormy as the queens who once wore it, the Hope diamond at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History is almost a compulsory stop on the family visit to Washington D.C. The National Postal Museum has the package it was mailed in. Yes, mailed in.
The Hope diamond’s allegedly cursed reputation is as well known as the gem. The diamond gets its name from London banker Henry T. Hope, who purchased it in 1839. After Hope’s death, the diamond passed through the hands of various owners. In America, the gem was feared lost in a shipwreck, but the rumor was refuted when the diamond appeared at a public auction in Paris on June 29, 1909.
Mrs. Evalyn Walsh McLean, a Washington D.C. socialite and wife of the former owner of The Washington Post, acquired the diamond in 1911 for $180,000. She, too, suffered the curse of the diamond: her husband died in a mental institution, her eldest son was killed in a car accident, and her daughter overdosed on sleeping pills. Although she believed in the curse, she continued to wear the diamond and would not sell it for fear of bringing the bad luck to someone else. She wore the diamond on trips to visit convalescing soldiers at Walter Reed Army Hospital during World War II. The wounded soldiers persuaded her to lend them the diamond during her visits, at which point they would play catch with it and fling it across the medical ward to each other. After Mrs. McLean’s death in 1947 the diamond was found, along with $4 million worth of other jewels, stored in shoeboxes in Mrs. McLean’s bedroom.
Henry “Harry” Winston, a leading American jeweler and gem dealer, bought the diamond from Mrs. McLean’s estate in 1949. In November 1958 Winston donated the diamond to the Smithsonian Institution, intending it to be the foundation for a National Jewel Collection. With his years of experience in shipping jewelry all over the world, Winston chose to have the diamond delivered by registered mail. He told a reporter for the Washington Post that “ . . . [registered mail is] the safest way to ship gems. . . . I’ve sent gems all over the world that way.”
The diamond was placed in a box, wrapped in brown paper, and sent by registered mail, traveling down from New York in a Railway Post Office train car. In Washington, it was immediately taken to the City Post Office (the building that now houses the National Postal Museum), where it was picked up by postal carrier James G. Todd.
Todd drove the package to the National Museum of Natural History. The diamond was handed over in a ceremony including Leonard Carmichael, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and Mrs. Harry Winston. The transfer was completed when Carmichael signed the receipt for the registered package. The price paid for shipping the gem, valued at $1 million at the time, was $145.29, most of that for package insurance.
Written by Nancy A. Pope