Mysterious Death of Smithsonian Explorer Robert Kennicott Unveiled

The Des Plaines History Center will host a presentation about the famous naturalist, explorer from what is now Glenview.

The mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of one of the Des Plaines area’s most prominent historical figures will be discussed at a special fundraising program hosted by the Des Plaines History Center on Oct. 4.

The presentation will be given by Steve Swanson, director of the Glenview Park District, who worked on behalf of the Kennicott family with researchers from the Smithsonian Institution to exhume the body of Robert Kennicott in 2001 and determine what caused his death at 30 years old.

Robert Kennicott was a prolific naturalist, explorer and early member of the Smithsonian Institution when he was found dead on a riverbank in Alaska in 1866, while on an expedition for Western Union to plan for telegraph lines and collect more specimens for the Smithsonian.

The Kennicott family was one of the first to settle in what is now Glenview, and Robert’s father, John Kennicott, was one of the only doctors in the area. What remains of the vast Kennicott estate, The Grove, is now a national historic landmark and part of the Glenview Park District.

Elizabeth Makelim, president of the Des Plaines History Center’s board of trustees and an employee of the Glenview Park District, helped organize the event.

“I think people should come first of all because it’s a fascinating story,” Makelim said.

Robert Kennicott’s last expedition is interesting because in the presentation Swanson talks about Kennicott at the time of his expedition for Western Union to Alaska and the forensic autopsy performed on his remains in 2001, Makelim said.

“[Swanson] moves between both events sort of seamlessly, and then at the end, he brings it all together by revealing what happened,” Makelim said. “So I think it’s appealing to people who love history, and also people who are interested in CSI sort of stuff, because he’s got some pretty cool slides.”


The presentation will be given at Casa Royale Banquets, 783 Lee St. in Des Plaines, from 6-9 p.m. on Oct. 4. Tickets are $25, and advanced purchase is required. The reservation form is posted with this story.

Shari Caine, executive director of the History Center said, in addition to the fascinating story of Robert Kennicott and the opportunity to support the programming and archival work done by the center, the event will be one of the last opportunities for residents to visit Casa Royale Banquets, which is expected to close its doors on Nov. 11 after more than 40 years in business.

Caine said the history center had worked with Casa Royale on many programs over the years, and this would be the last one.

“So this is kind of a sad goodbye to [Casa Royale Banquets] because we’ve worked with them on many occasions, and we want to honor them,” Caine said.

A book about Robert Kennicott and the recent discoveries about his demise, A Death Decoded: Robert Kennicott and the Alaska Telegraph by Sandra Spatz Schlachtmeyer will be available for sale at the presentation.

The event will also include a cash bar hors d’ oeuvres and silent auction.


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