The concept of copper boxes in stone foundations has been around since at least the writing of the Epic of Gilgamesh thousands of years ago. The Mesopotamian poem opens with a description of finding a copper box within the city wall of Uruk.
More recently, the first Masonic cornerstone ceremony is documented to 1738, when Freemasons dedicated the cornerstone of the New Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh, Scotland. By 1808, the ceremonies were ritualized and prescribed in Thomas Smith Webb’s 1808 publication, The Freemason’s Monitor, which dictated that “various sorts of coin and medals of the present age” should be placed under the stone.
George Washington, as an American Freemason and President of the United States, officiated the cornerstone ceremonies for the United States Capitol building in 1793. And while no box is known to have been deposited in that cornerstone, by 1848, Freemasons included a zinc box in the cornerstone of the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. That box contained “books, speeches, a medal, and 71 newspapers from across the country.”
When an international audience gathered in Yorktown in 1881 to commemorate the centennial of the battle there in 1781 and lay the cornerstone for a monument, Masons deposited “a silver-lined copper box, made in Richmond, Va., two-and-a-half feet long, two feet wide and eighteen inches deep” containing books, coins, programs, and documents related to the Masons.
Even in Richmond in 1887, the cornerstone of the Lee Monument was not the only one laid with great fanfare. In April of that year, the public gathered for the Masonic ceremonies dedicating the cornerstone of Richmond’s City Hall. That cornerstone, laid about seven months after foundation work began, was a single block of granite with a space of 9 x 9 x 14 inches hollowed out to receive a “tight-fitting copper box,” which would in turn contain—“for the benefit of a far remote posterity”—memorials, newspapers, coins, books, and photographs, including those of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Virginia Governor Fitzhugh Lee.
Overseeing both of these copper boxes as well as the one in the Lee Monument was one man. William Bryan Isaacs (1818-1895) was born in Norwalk, Conn., and moved to Richmond as a young man. During the Civil War, he belonged to the Richmond Ambulance Corps, which served the Confederacy’s wounded and dead from around the Richmond region. In 1842, he married Julia Lee Dove, daughter of Dr. John Dove, who was then the Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Virginia. In that same year, Isaacs also became a Mason at the Masons’ Hall on Franklin Street. Following in his father-in-law’s footsteps, he was very active in Freemasonry in Virginia and around the country, eventually serving as the Grand Recorder of the Grand Encampment of Knights Templar of the United States. One obituary noted that the financial panic of 1873 “ruined him,” but also allowed him to dedicate even more time to his community through Freemasonry. After his father-in-law’s death in 1876, he took over the role of Grand Secretary for the Grand Lodge of Virginia, and, in that role, was intimately involved in the cornerstone ceremonies of the 1880s.
Knowing that Isaacs oversaw multiple boxes for Masonic cornerstone ceremonies in Richmond and Virginia in 1880s, it is not surprising that the contents of the Lee Monument cornerstone box are not dramatically different from the type of objects placed in the 1881 cornerstone of the monument at Yorktown. Commemorating Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy instead of the American victory over the British, the objects still speak generally to Richmond and Virginia in the “present age” of 1887 while also including details about Masons and their Masonic ceremonies.
But was this a “time capsule”? Specifically, was it a box that was meant to be opened?
Isaacs and his contemporaries would not have thought so. Not only was the term not used widely until the 1930s, but cornerstone boxes were inherently foundational. The items inside were meant for “a far remote posterity” and were not intended to be readily accessed and explored on a certain date in the future.
With that in mind, Isaacs clearly attempted to create an exact list of the contents of the cornerstone box. The 1887 listing for the Lee Monument is as detailed as the 1881 box contents for the Yorktown Monument. As the person collecting and cataloging the items in the Lee Monument cornerstone box, Isaacs would be one of the key people responsible for any deviation from the published list. But with so many donations to list, and given the additions from the list to the contents found in 2021, perhaps he erred a few times?
In some cases, donors gave multiple, related items that were not fully described. Did the newspaper run out of column inches or did Isaacs merely truncate the list? The addition of more newspapers was likely the result of Isaacs’s responsibility to represent the “present age.” Similarly, the additional Masonic texts speak to the Freemasons’ role in hosting and executing this public ceremony. Tellingly, none of the added items are significantly different from those published in the newspaper.
Even if Isaacs did slip in a few more objects, he was not trying to sneak in items that subverted the Masonic rituals and general veneration of Robert E. Lee. As time–and deconstruction–would prove, the builders of the Robert E. Lee monument would successfully sneak in not just a few more items but an entirely new lead box to highlight their role in the construction of the Lee Monument. Future posts will detail the stories of those builders and the secret, boastful box that they planted in the pedestal in 1889.
Some of the differences between the published inventory and what was actually found in the box may be due to typos in the original news article. Or, it may be that people looking at the items today are using different terminology than which was used in 1887. That is where curators and historians come in. One item identified as “programme of banquet to Lynn Post, No. 5” in the 1887 inventory may in fact be the item that has been identified as “programme of banquet for R.E. Lee Camp, No. 1” when it came out of the box. Also, there is an item called “piece of a stone wall, Fredericksburg, VA” that was donated by Master Frank Brown. In the box was found a smooth stone, an aggregate of small stones, and a piece of what might be mortar. Are one or all of these the “piece of a stone wall” mentioned in 1887? Some of these answers will take time and research.
This is why DHR has decided to launch weekly articles on our website to take a more in-depth look at individual items and groups of objects found within the boxes placed under Lee. We may even examine the boxes themselves. We have asked experts from across the Commonwealth to choose artifacts and tell us more about them. DHR will post these articles on Wednesdays so that you can keep up with the experts’ research on these unique finds. We are so lucky that the artifacts were in such good condition and that Virginia has such fantastic experts to call upon to help us create articles that keep those who live in the Commonwealth and further abroad informed.
–Christina Keyser Vida, Elise H. Wright Curator of General Collections at the Valentine Museum
Edited by Katherine Ridgway and Elizabeth Moore, DHR State Archaeology Division
 Thomas Smith Webb, The Freemason’s Monitor, 1808, pg. 129.
 Stephens City Star, 29 October 1881, pg. 1
 Richmond Dispatch, 5 April 1887, pg. 1
 In the morning edition of the Richmond Dispatch on October 26, 1887, the newspaper published “the following articles were received by Mr. W.B. Isaacs, and have been placed in the copper box which will be inserted in the Lee Monument cornerstone.” Richmond Dispatch, 26 October 1887, pg. 1
 Norfolk Virginian, 11 June 1895, pg. 1; Clinch Valley News, 14 June 1895, pg. 4; Richmond Dispatch, 11 June 1895.
 Richmond Dispatch, October 26, 1887, pg. 1
Updated: July 15, 2022