Constable: The Grove in Glenview hosts roots, remains of an amazing life and mysterious death

  • One of the most prolific and respected naturalists of the 19th century, Robert Kennicott looks down from the photograph above Lorin Ottlinger, director of The Grove National Historic Landmark where Kennicott grew up.

      One of the most prolific and respected naturalists of the 19th century, Robert Kennicott looks down from the photograph above Lorin Ottlinger, director of The Grove National Historic Landmark where Kennicott grew up. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 4/14/2022 11:13 AM

One of the greatest naturalists of the 19th century, Robert Kennicott, or rather his skeleton, is on display at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington. His heart, however, remains always with The Grove, his family home in Glenview.

It rests in a grave along with his other organs, tissue and hair, says Lorin Ottlinger, director of The Grove National Historic Landmark, a facility of the Glenview Park District. The story of Kennicott's amazing life and mysterious death will be part of a new exhibit, which will include a replica of his skeleton, expected to open next year at The Grove with help from an Illinois Department of Natural Resources' $375,000 Public Museum Grant.

 

After his mysterious death in 1866, Kennicott's body had nearly as many adventures and travels as the groundbreaking naturalist did during his short life.

Glenview's Robert Kennicott was an acclaimed 19th Century naturalist who sent many specimens to the Smithsonian Institution. His skeleton is on display in the National Museum of Natural History.
Glenview's Robert Kennicott was an acclaimed 19th Century naturalist who sent many specimens to the Smithsonian Institution. His skeleton is on display in the National Museum of Natural History. - Courtesy of Chip Clark/Smithsonian Institution

Born in New Orleans on Nov. 13, 1835, Kennicott grew up in Glenview, where his parents, John and Mary Kennicott, built a simple log cabin in 1836. A larger house, which has been restored to its original appearance and used for tour groups, was built in 1856.

"This whole site is a National Historic Landmark because of the Kennicott family," Ottlinger says of the home rising above a prairie amid hickory and oak trees. In the 1970s, developers were eyeing the property for new construction when "a group of ladies stepped in front of bulldozers to save this place," Ottlinger says. Hoping to belittle their efforts, critics called the activists "The Frog and Fern Ladies." But those women embraced that title, saved the land and eventually became what is now The Grove Heritage Association.

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The Kennicotts' influence spread across the suburbs, and their name can be found on street signs and at the Kennicott Brothers florists in Northbrook.

One of seven children, Robert Kennicott stored so many plant and animal specimens in jars on his bedroom shelves that there was no room for a bed, forcing him to bunk in his brother's bedroom. But from his bedroom, he could hear the chorus frogs and booming prairie chickens, and watch the majestic sandhill cranes. Influenced by his father, a medical doctor and horticulturist, the young Kennicott began collecting specimens as a boy, even sending some to the newly formed Smithsonian Institution.

The life and death of acclaimed naturalist Robert Kennicott will be part of a new exhibit coming to The Grove National Historic Landmark in Glenview, says Lorin Ottlinger, director of the outdoor history and nature museum built on Kennicotts' boyhood homestead.
  The life and death of acclaimed naturalist Robert Kennicott will be part of a new exhibit coming to The Grove National Historic Landmark in Glenview, says Lorin Ottlinger, director of the outdoor history and nature museum built on Kennicotts' boyhood homestead. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

"Robert Kennicott was Illinois' first naturalist. He collected more specimens than anyone," Ottlinger says. The specimens collected by Kennicott on display at the Smithsonian include a stripetail darter fish known by the scientific name of etheostoma kennicotti, and a whitefish given the name coregonus kennicotti. Alaska has a town, river and glacier named in his honor.

"Robert was a special person, and somewhat emblematic of curators at the Smithsonian even today, because he was so dedicated to his work. It was not necessarily a job but a way of life that began when he was just a child, and continues until his death at age 30," Kari Bruwelheide, a physical and forensic anthropologist at the Natural History Museum, says in a paper about Kennicott.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
The bedroom in this 1856 home of famed naturalist Robert Kennicott was stuffed with so many plant and animal specimens he collected that he had to bunk with a brother in another room.
  The bedroom in this 1856 home of famed naturalist Robert Kennicott was stuffed with so many plant and animal specimens he collected that he had to bunk with a brother in another room. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

After co-founding the Chicago Academy of Sciences (now the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum) in 1857, Kennicott moved to Washington, where he lived in the Smithsonian Castle. His collection at the Chicago Academy of Sciences burned in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, but the rocks he collected are on display at The Grove. Kennicott also was an original member and co-creator of the Megatherium Club, named after an extinct giant sloth, which was a group of eccentric young naturalists who built the Smithsonian's collection.

It was during an expedition to Russian America (now Alaska) that Kennicott was found dead on the banks of the Yukon River on May 13, 1866. "His body was found lying there with his compass at his side," Ottlinger says.

This cast-iron coffin once featured a glass window so people could see the face of naturalist Robert Kennicott. Lorin Ottlinger, director of The Grove National Historic Landmark in Glenview, says a new exhibit will explore Kennicott's mysterious death and the odyssey of his remains.
  This cast-iron coffin once featured a glass window so people could see the face of naturalist Robert Kennicott. Lorin Ottlinger, director of The Grove National Historic Landmark in Glenview, says a new exhibit will explore Kennicott's mysterious death and the odyssey of his remains. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

There was speculation that he was murdered, killed himself or died from accidental poisoning from the mercury he took to treat his depression, or from the strychnine and arsenic he used to preserve specimens. It took 261 days to return his body to The Grove, Ottlinger says.

The cast-iron coffin that held his body will be part of the new exhibit, which will show that "there's so much you can learn from reading the bones," Ottlinger says. "Knowing what a prolific scientist he was, he would have wanted that."

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