Sunday, April 20, 2008

Somers' Washington Ring - Stolen


The Somers ring, one of the most legendary relics of the nation’s family jewels, never made it to its proper heirs, was donated to the Pennsylvania Historical Society, discarded to near obscurity, stolen by a janitor, sold to a private collector and eventually recovered by the FBI.

Featured in a History Channel TV show about the special FBI art theft unit that recovered it, the Somers ring, which is said to contain a lock of George Washington’s hair, is usually relegated to a storage vault among the multitude of historic relics at the Atwater-Kent Museum in Philadelphia.

Currently stored in a secure vault alongside other rare artifacts at the museum near Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the ring was last put on display among Washington affiliated items. It may be put on public display once again with the anticipated increase in public interest with the eventual repatriation of the remains of its original owner, Master Commandant Richard Somers, USN.

Born during the American Revolution in Somers Point, New Jersey, Richard was the son of John Somers, a privateer who the British branded a "pirate" for capturing their merchant ships and advertising the sale of their contents. As the son of a Quaker plantation owner, Richard Somers was trained and educated to be a gentleman and military officer at a private academy. This school could be considered the Annapolis of its day, as its principal instructor was named John Barry, the first commissioned Captain in the U.S. Navy and three of its students became the first commissioned Midshipman in the new Navy. The names of John Barry, Richard Somers, Stephen Decatur and Charles Stewart are enshrined in U.S. Navy lore, as they would be three of four young men assigned to Captain Barry aboard the U.S.S. United States, built at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

It was at that time, in April 1798, when Somers is said to have been given the ring by Washington, who had served as the first President until a year before. At some point Washington met Somers, gave him the ring, and reportedly encouraged Somers to be a Navy officer. Somers enlisted the day after President John Adams gave a rousing, patriotic speech in Philadelphia.

After tours in the West Indies and Mediterranean, primarily chasing pirates, Midshipmen Somers, Decatur and Stewart were promoted to Lieutenants and given command of their own ships. Congress approved the construction of a number of frigates and four schooners, but the young officers couldn’t wait to build new boats and Somers oversaw the refurbishing of an old, discarded Delaware river fishing schooner. Somers outfitted the USS Nautilus with cannon and Marines. Fresh from Tuns Tavern, Somers took in a detachment of Marines for the Nautilis, while Decatur got the USS Enterprise, Stewart the Syren and together they set off across the North Atlantic to fight the Barbary Pirates.

Enroute Decatur encountered and boarded a suspicious merchant vessel, and discovered the sword of an officer from the USS Philadelphia, a frigate sent to blockade Tripoli harbor that ran aground and was captured. Decatur took the pirates prisoner and the French built coarser was rechristened the USS Intrepid and put in good service fighting the pirates. That other U.S. distinguished ships named Nautilus, the first submarine to reach the North Pole, the aircraft carriers Enterprise and aircraft carrier Intrepid can trance their heraldry back to these ships and these men.

While Decatur would take the original Intrepid into Tripoli Harbor, recapture and scuttle the Philadelphia, and receive a promotion to Captain as a reward, Somers was given the opportunity to match Decatur’s glory. Somers would convert the Intrepid into a fireship full of explosives, sail it into Tripoli harbor, light a fuse and escape in row boats before the ship would explode and destroy the anchored enemy fleet. Just before emarking on his last mission, Somers huddled with his school yard friends Stewart and Decatur, took a ring off his finger, cut it into three parts and gave the other each a piece. This was not the ring Washington had given him. The ring with Washington’s hair was left back in Philadelphia with his sister Sarah.

Commanding the converted fire ship Somers and his crew died when the Intrepid inexplicitly exploded in Tripoli harbor on September 4, 1804. Somers and the two other officers and ten seamen, were buried along "the shores of Tripoli" near the old castle fort. And there they remained for over two hundred years.

Now that American ties with Libya have improved, the repatriation of the remains of the thirteen Americans is expected to eventually happen, increasing interest in Somers, Stewart, Decatur, the Barbary Wars and the Somers ring.

[See: Photo of Somers Ring, from 300 Years at the Point – A History of Somers Point, N.J. ]

The dark blue and white enamel ring contains thirteen pearls surround a glass locket, is said to contain a genuine relic - a piece of George Washington’s hair. Washington reportedly gave the ring to Somers around the time he was granted a warrant as a midshipman, in April 1798.

One possible occasion was on November 9, 1798, when the frigate to which Somers had recently been assigned as a Midshipman, the USS United States, was anchored at Chester, Pennsylvania. At 7 P.M. that evening, Captain John Barry and the ship’s designer and builder Joshua Humphries came aboard. Shortly thereafter, General George Washington arrived at Chester, where the horse troops of Philadelphia received him. Washington stayed in Chester overnight, possibly aboard the United States, which gave him a 15-gun salute upon his departure the next morning.

Before he left to fight the Barbary pirates, Somers had the ring and gave the ring to his sister Sarah Keen for safe keeping. Sarah’s husband William Kean became the executor of Somers’ estate, which included most of Somers Point, New Jersey at the time, also included the ring.

William Keen had also handled the distribution of prize money from a pirate ship Somers had captured, which included a percentage to a Marine that Somers had earlier court marshaled, but apparently let participate in the fighting.

When Somers never returned from Tripoli, his sister Sarah inherited the ring, and when she died, the ring was passed on to her niece, Sarah Sophia Leaming, of Upper Township, New Jersey. Sarah was buried in a grave next to the old New York Avenue schoolhouse, and left money for a monument to ensure the community’s memory of her brother.

Sarah Sophia Leaming, daughter of Constant Somers, apparently married William Leaming, and their son Jonathan Leaming makes mention of the ring.

The affidavit of Jonathan Leaming (December 25, 1891), the son of Constant Somers’ daughter Sarah and William Leaming, attested that, "…Among the personal effects of Sarah Keen was a peculiar, antique finger ring, which was always called Washington’s ring. It is a flat, gold ring, with a square setting of dark blue enamel. On the outside edge of this dark blue enamel square is a small stripe of white enamel, and in the center of said square is a round box and glass containing hair surrounded by thirteen pearls. On each side of said square, on the shanks of the ring are alternate gold and light blue enamel stripes, within which field of stripes on each side, is small circle of dark blue enamel. The hair contained in this ring is said to be that of George Washington."

"This deponent avers that he has frequently heard to said Sarah Keen declare that this ring was presented to her brother Lieutenant Richard Somers, by George Washington, the first president of the United States, and that the hair within the setting was that of George Washington, and that her brother had left the ring in her care when he embarked for Tripoli…"

In 1926, Edmund Leaming, the grandson of Sarah Sophia Leaming, then Vice Chancellor of New Jersey, loaned the ring to the Museum at the State House at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. A Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper report in January 1932 notes that the Somers ring was only one of four known rings with locks of Washington’s hair, and that Leaming intended to donate the ring to the Cape May County Historical Society. The ring was put on display in Philadelphia until the National Park Service took over operations of the museum in the 1950’s. The ring was bequeathed to the Pennsylvania Historical Society in 1958 by the Leaming family of Morrestown, and was put into storage.

While there are no listings for anyone named Leaming in the Morrestown phone directory today, there are plenty of Leamings in Cape May County. On Route 9 in Upper Township today there is a large estate called the Leaming Plantation, which dates to the earliest settlers, whaling families from New England.

With the large, Quaker Somers family owning most of the land north of the Egg Harbor river, and the Leamings south of it, it was natural for the Somers and Leaming families to have some inter-relationships, Somers – Leaming connection goes back to the earliest days people lived there.

The exact liniage should be determined more precisely, but it clear that Susan Leaming today, is a distant relative of the Leaming family of yester-year, and Somers Washington ring fame.


While kept among the extensive collection of artifacts of the Pennsylvania Historical Society (PHS), a nighttime janitor, Earnest Medford, made some spare money by pilfering some of the closeted items, mainly antique swords, but also other items, including the Somers ring. He sold them for cash to an electric company superintendent and local connoisseur of historic weapons George Csizmazia. Csizmazia didn’t do it profit, and resell them, but rather kept them for himself. He stocked his suburban apartment with millions of dollars in museum quality artifacts that he got from Medford for only about $8,000.

The Somers ring, a one-of-a-kind item, is priceless, and could not have been sold on the open market without being immediately recognized by collectors. While he didn’t try to sell his stolen collection, he was proud of it, and after Csizmazia showed off some of his prized swords at an antique show, he became a marked man.

When the museum staff began to itemize their collection and realized some things were missing, they called the FBI Art Theft unit, which is based in Philadelphia, to investigate. Since Csizmazia had showed off some of his prized swords at an antique show, the FBI questioned him and he immediately confessed. He then told the FBI about Medford, the janitor. Both were convicted in court and received four year prison terms. When Csizmazi took the FBI agents back to his apartment, they found a virtual National Treasure of looted antiques and artifacts, including Somers’ ring.

Now as the remains of Somers are being considered for repatriated home, his ring should be put on public display once again, and the Somers/Leaming families could consider requesting the ring be placed on permanent public display at a local institution that will better appreciate its history and meaning.

[Bill Kelly can be reached at ]

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