Tag Archives: Old Swedes’ Church

Alex and Alas for the Wilson Tablet

One of the many interesting little stories I stumbled across during research for the Stone bio was the ill-fated Alexander Wilson tablet – a project begun with the best of intentions, but which literally fell by the wayside. J. Lawson Cameron, Philadelphia physician and a member of the St. Andrew’s Society of Philadelphia  (a Scottish heritage organization) left in his will the funds for a tablet to be erected at the Academy of Natural Sciences in memory of the pioneering American ornithologist (1766–1813), a hero of Stone’s who is buried in Old Swedes’ Church in Philly:

Wilson grave

Cameron was a native of Paisley, the same Scotch town from which Wilson hailed. After Cameron’s death in late 1922, the Academy accepted the Society’s offer of the tablet, to be designed and sculpted by University of Pennsylvania professor R. Tait McKenzie. The tablet was made, and installed by the Academy entrance on May 17, 1923 in a ceremony attended by many people including Stone and American Ornithologists’ Union secretary T.S. Palmer.

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A few weeks after the event, someone noticed that the death year for Wilson on the tablet was mistakenly recorded as 1833 instead of 1813. The birth and death years were written in Roman numerals, presumably for artistic effect, and someone added two too many X’s to the latter − graciously giving Wilson an extra 20 years on his life, but too late for him to cash them in.

Stone had – along with everyone else – overlooked the incorrect date; when he heard of it, he asked Palmer, “Where were our eyes? The sculptor killed Alexander Wilson in 1833 instead of 1813!!” I think the photo offers a hint about the mix-up: note the overlapping “D” and “C” in the death date, as if the sculptor ran out of room and had to squeeze the numerals together. I can almost hear him saying, “The dates were perfectly spaced when I laid the thing out. What happened?” Well, what happened was that somewhere between design and sculpting you got the date mixed up and added two X’s to the numeral, so the only way to squeeze it in was to overlap the D & C. The correct date would have two less X’s and would fit the space perfectly, just like you designed it.

Alex and alas, Academy records indicate that by the late 1950s, the tablet was being stored under a stairwell; when I last saw it in 2013, the thick, heavy slab was leaning against a wall in the ornithology department, and visitors who notice it there are doubtless unaware of the sad tale of admirable commemorative intent and Roman numeral bedevilment that it represents. Maybe if McKenzie had just stuck with Arabic numerals???