Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Somers/Washington Ring - Stolen

– By William Kelly -

The Somers Washington ring is one of the most legendary relics of the nation’s family jewels. It contains a lock of George Washington’s hair and was given to Richard Somers, one of the first young officers of the United States Navy.

While Somers was killed in the September 4, 1804 explosion of the USS Intrepid in Tripoli Harbor, and his remains are still buried there today, his ring 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.

Today the ring remains locked away in a closet at the Attwater-Kent Museum in Philadelphia while some members of the Somers family seek its return to the family so it can be publicly displayed at a local museum in Richard Somers’ hometown of Somers Point, NJ,

Featured in a History Channel TV show about the special FBI art theft unit that recovered it, the Somers ring, is currently stored in a secure vault alongside other rare artifacts at the museum near Independence Hall in Philadelphia. It was last put on display among other Washington affiliated items and may be put on public display once again with the anticipated 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 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 from Somers Point, NJ, Richard was trained and educated to be a gentleman at the Philadelphia Free Academy.

This school could be considered the naval academy of its day, as its principal instructor was John Barry, a schoolmaster who had the first book copyrighted in the United States and associated with his namesake, Captain John Barry, the first commissioned Captain in the U.S. Navy.

Three of Barry’s Philadelphia Free Academy students - Richard Somers, Stephen Decatur and Charles Stewart became the first Midshipman in the new Navy and assigned to Captain John Barry aboard the U.S.S. United States, built at the South Philadelphia Navy Yard.

It was in 1798, when the paths of George Washington and Richard Somers crossed and Washington had the opportunity to give Somers the ring. Washington, who had served as the first President until a year before, visited the recently launched frigate United States, and reportedly had dinner aboard the ship with Captain Barry.

At 7 P.M. on evening November 9, 1798, when the United States was anchored at Chester, Pennsylvania, 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 the Philadelphia cavalry 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.

It was customary for the Captain to entertain guests in his cabin for dinner, and include his top officers and Midshipmen, which would have included Somers, Decatur and Stewart, and a unique occasion for Somers to have obtained the ring from Washington.

After tours in the West Indies and Mediterranean, primarily chasing pirates, Midshipmen Somers and Decatur 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 rechristened the USS Nautilus.

Decatur got the USS Enterprise, while Stewart was in command of the Syren and 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 ship as a prize, made the pirates prisoners and rechristened the captured ship the USS Intrepid, putting it in good service fighting the pirates.

Just before emarking on his last mission aboard the Intrepid, Somers huddled with his Philadelphia school mates Stewart and Decatur, took a ring off his finger, cut it into three parts and gave the others 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. The dark blue and white enamel ring contains thirteen pearls surround a glass locket, and 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.

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 was an attorney who 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.

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.

Somers’ sister Sarah was buried in a grave next to the old New York Avenue schoolhouse, and left money for a monument to be built to ensure the community didn’t forget her brother, whose remains are still buried on the Tripoli harbor beach.

Sarah Sophia Leaming, the daughter of Richard’s nephew Constant Somers, had 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, but he died before he could arrange for that to happen.

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 then said to have been bequeathed to the Pennsylvania Historical Society in 1958 by the remaining 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, and the Somers – Leaming connection goes back to the earliest days people lived there.

Susan Leaming today, is a distant but clear relative of the Somers-Leaming family of yester-year, and original owners of the Somers’ Washington Ring.

While the ring was 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 and guns, but also other items, including the Somers ring. He sold them for cash to George Csizmazia, an electric company superintendent and local connoisseur of historic weapons. Csizmazia didn’t do collect them for 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 the janitor 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, and 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’ Washington Ring.

Now as the remains of Somers are being considered for repatriated home, his ring should be returned to the Somers family and put on public display once again.

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