Thursday, March 12, 2009

Scratching Lincoln's Watch and Other Things

Two separate Lincoln-related artifacts have made news in the past couple of days. One pertains to a "secret message" inside of Lincoln's pocket watch; the other about a possible photograph of Lincoln standing in front of the White House shortly before his death. As much as I like Abraham Lincoln, and as excited as I am when the sixteenth president makes newspaper headlines (and even the front page of the Grey Lady), I'm pretty underwhelmed by these stories.

Lincoln's Pocket Watch

On Tuesday morning, the Smithsonian Institute, which owns Lincoln's gold pocket watch, invited the media and descendants of Jonathan Dillon to witness a master jeweler dismantle the piece to see if a "secret message" had been inscribed inside of the watch. Dillon gave an interview to The New York Times in 1906 -- recently discovered by his great-great-grandson -- in which he claimed that he was repairing Lincoln's watch when he learned that Fort Sumter had been attacked. Further, he remembered that he engraved his personal feelings about the attack inside the watch.

The descendant contacted the National Museum of American History and asked them if they would be willing to investigate whether there was an internal inscription in the watch. Here is the Smithsonian's report on what happened. (And here is The New York Times front-page article from Wednesday morning.)

When the watch was opened, it was discovered that Dillon did etch something on the watch -- maybe even two somethings. "Jonathan Dillon April 13_ 1861 Fort Sumpter was attacked by the rebels on the above date" is etched onto the watch, followed by what appears to be an unfinished attempt (perhaps Dillon's first) to sign his name as J. Dillon. Thus it appears that the larger full name/signature above the message may have been an attempt to clarify the rather illegible partial signature. Here are pictures of the pocket watch's innards: full and close-up.

To the left, there is another inscription, also signed by Dillon: "Aprl 13 1861 Washington thank God we have a government Jonth Dillon" The news media has highlighted these messages in the watch to a great extent, probably following the Smithsonian's lead. However, there are other etchings along with those signed by Dillon. "L E Grofs Sept 1864 Wash DC" [or possibly "Sep 1-1864 Wash DC" -- it's difficult to tell if that's an attempt to cross the t or a number 1 followed by a dash] is squeezed in between the two Dillon etchings. In addition "Jeff Davis" [or I suppose "Jeff Daris" though that raises other questions] is engraved in large letters below.

I am no expert in engraving, but it appears that there are easily three different people responsible for the various etchings. There are dates for three of the etchings, but not for the fourth ("Jeff Davis").

What does this tell us? Lincoln evidently sent his pocket watch out to be repaired at least twice during his presidency, once in April 1861 and in September 1864. On both occasions, the repairers added graffiti. Also, an individual who either preferred Confederate President Jefferson Davis (or who was named Jeff Daris) had access to the watch at some time, though that access could have occurred either during Lincoln's lifetime or in the nearly 150 years since.

"Lincoln's Pocket Watch Reveals Long-Hidden Message" trumpets Smithsonian online. "Timeless Lincoln Memento is Revealed" says The New York Times. "Museum finds 'secret' message in Lincoln's watch" reports Reuters. All of that is hype. The true headline should be "Lincoln's Watch Etched with Graffiti on Inside Casing." In the future, when the National Museum displays the pocket watch, they'll put a photograph of the innards next to it.

New Photograph of Lincoln Reportedly Found

If I believe that there was too much hoopla over the messages in Lincoln's pocket watch (and I do), at least I know that the story is mostly about curiosity and family history. The other big Lincoln story, about a possible new photograph of Lincoln, is not really about curiosity or family history (though there is some of that); it's about cold, hard cash. Finding Lincoln in a photograph -- even in an obviously doctored photo, like this famous one -- raises the value exponentially.

Keya Morgan, a collector of Lincoln photographs and artifacts (who values his collection at roughly $25 million), was interviewed by the Associated Press a few days ago. He showed a small, 2 1/2 by 3 1/2 inch photo of the White House. The photo, purchased last month from the great-great-grandson of Ulysses S Grant, can be dated to 1864-1865 and seems to have a tall man standing by a pillar. In a computer enlargement, this tall man seems to have a beard. It also has a hand-written inscription on the back that says "Lincoln in front of the White House."

The AP article interviews White House curator William Allman and founding curator of the National Portrait Gallery Will Stapp. Both experts say that the evidence supports the inscription on the photograph that Lincoln is indeed pictured.

Assuming that all these people are correct, it seems rather unimpressive for Lincoln studies. Lincoln is unrecognizable in the photograph, even compared to photographs of Lincoln at his Second Inaugural or Lincoln at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg. Historically speaking, the photograph is probably more important as a wartime photograph of the White House than of Lincoln.

But I think it is hasty to conclude that Lincoln is one of the five people in the photograph. After all, Lincoln was hardly the only tall bearded person in Washington DC. I am reminded of the conspiracy buffs who have found all of Booth's associates in the Second Inaugural photo, based on John Wilkes Booth's presence (as a guest of Lucy Hale, daughter of a senator). Often, one finds what one is looking for. (Or, to quote a Lincoln misquote from the 1960 movie Pollyanna, "If you look for the bad in mankind expecting to find it, you surely will.") If you look at a picture of the White House from the Civil War era expecting to see Lincoln, and you see a tall figure, you conclude that it's Lincoln.

It may be Lincoln. If it is, I wonder two things. Was the photograph posed? It certainly appears that it was as the figures are very clear, meaning that they held still while the film was exposed. And if the persons in the photograph are posed, who are they? Especially, who is the person standing over the shoulder of the purported Lincoln? Determining those identities might make the photograph more significant historically.

Without such information, it seems to me that the determination of whether Lincoln is in the photo or not matters mostly to Morgan, who paid $50,000 for the picture betting that it is indeed Lincoln.

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