Professor James Cooke Van Benschoten, affectionately known as Van Benny to his students, taught Greek at Wesleyan from 1863 until his death in 1902. His story seems to parallel that of other professors, historians, and artifact enthusiasts of the 19th century. Rules and laws regarding what could be collected and from where did not yet exist, or at least were not strongly enforced. As such, historians collected and moved artifacts from place to place in an almost Indiana Jones-like manner: provenance and provenience were less important than the object itself. These objects, however, continue to have an important place in university and museum collections. They tell the story of historical collecting trends and preservation methods.
Born in 1827 to a farming family in La Grange, Illinois, it was expected that eldest child James would follow in the footsteps of his father. After the family relocated to upstate New York, James confessed that he wanted to become a scholar. James worked his way through school, serving as a doctor’s assistant, tutor, and teacher. He attended Genesee College, obtained a bachelor’s degree from Hamilton College, and a master’s degree in 1857 from Madison – now Colgate – University. Following graduation, James traveled around Europe, furthering his studies in several universities, and focusing his visits on Greece and Asia Minor. James spent time in the Mount Athos region of Greece, where he lived amongst the monks reviewing their extensive manuscript libraries.
Upon returning to upstate New York, James became a high school principal and then a teacher of ancient languages at a nearby seminary. In 1863 James began teaching Greek at Wesleyan. It is said that “Professor Van Benschoten at once aroused a genuine enthusiasm in his classes.” While at Wesleyan, James continued to travel, incorporating his learnings from Europe and elsewhere into his lectures and teachings. And so began his decades-long collecting of various ancient relics, many of which would later be donated by James and his descendants to Wesleyan. (For more historical information on the Van Benschoten family see: Concerning the Van Bunschoten or Van Benschoten Family in America, A Genealogy and Brief History, by William Henry Van Benschoten, 1907.)
Among the many honors, fellowships, and additional titles bestowed upon James, he served as Director of the American School of Archaeology in Athens from 1884-85. During his time there, he collected many objects that he brought back to Wesleyan. One of his most famed acquisitions was a mummy. After targeted unwrapping to ensure that he wasn’t being conned into buying a mummy made of trash or another animal (which was not unusual at the time, see: here and here), James began to try to transport the mummy back to Wesleyan. During this time the authorities were trying to stop the flow of antiquities out of the Near East and they insisted that James have an exit permit for the mummy. He worked his way around to multiple offices having no luck. James was told that “greasing the palms” of government employees might help. Eventually he was tipped off that he might be able to get the mummy out of the country on a British warship. The trail goes cold here, and it’s not entirely clear how the mummy made it back to Wesleyan, though James was somehow successful in his quest. For a time the mummy was either on display or at least available for minimal viewing within the walls of the Wesleyan Museum (1871-1957). (Research conducted in the 1970s showed that the mummy was definitely a human male, 5’2”, between 20 and 25 years of age, and of middle- to upper-class means. Based on analyses, the mummy has been dated to somewhere within the 7th and 4th centuries BC. Currently, the mummy is stored in a secured location and all measures are taken to preserve the culturally sensitive nature of the individual.)
In addition to the now infamous mummy, James Cooke Van Benschoten collected and donated additional artifacts that remain within the Wesleyan University Archaeology and Anthropology Collections. James had daughters, at least one of whom graduated from Wesleyan near the turn of the twentieth century. Descendants of James’ donated even more artifacts in 2005. Included in this donation were a Chinese chest and various smaller artifacts, such as bronze figurines, coins, scarabs, and faience fragments.
The legacy of James Cooke Van Benschoten continues on today throughout campus. In fact, Van Benschoten’s name has made Wesleyan and Connecticut state-wide news in the last several years: the 2010 naming of the Wesleyan baseball field as “Dresser Diamond,” in honor of Jim Dresser, ’63, P’93, and former Cardinal, comes nearly 150 years after Dresser’s great-grandfather – none other than James Cooke Van Benschoten – named the original Wesleyan baseball team “the Agallians.” See this News @ Wesleyan article and this Special Collections and Archives finding aid for more history on the Agallians. In 2015, this legacy was touched upon again when Wesleyan and Yale celebrated the 150th anniversary of their baseball programs as well as the initial meeting of the two teams. The Yale Nine beat the Wesleyan Agallian Club September 30, 1865 in what is considered to be the very first collegiate baseball game. On September 26, 2015, the two teams faced off in a celebratory exhibition game – in which Dresser threw the first pitch … Wesleyan won.
Professor Van Benschoten’s legacy also survives through the gift of his many donated relics and artifacts collected throughout the world. Students, professors, and researchers alike can view these materials in the Archaeology and Anthropology Collection.
As for the Wesleyan mummy … we’re going to continue to keep him under wraps!