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Reed Saxon/AP
Photography collector Keya Morgan holds
what he believes is a rare, unpublished
photograph of Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln Watch, Photo Add to Bicentennial Celebration

March 13, 2009 07:30 AM
by Denis Cummings
The discovery of a photo and a secret inscription in a pocket watch reflects America’s fascination with Abraham Lincoln 200 years after his death.

Lincoln Photograph and Watch Engraving Discovered

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As the United States celebrates the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln, two Lincoln relics have made news in the past several days. Earlier this week, photography collector Keya Morgan revealed that Ulysses S. Grant VI, the great-great-grandson of the Civil War general and president, had discovered a photograph that appears to be Lincoln standing in front of the White House in 1865.

The 2 1/2-by-3 1/2-inch photo shows a man estimated to be 6-foot-4—Lincoln’s height—standing next to the White House gate. Though it is difficult to be sure that the man is Lincoln, the back of the photo is inscribed “Lincoln in front of the White House.”

The photograph, which could become the first new Lincoln photograph to be authenticated in decades, may be one of the last photographs ever taken of Lincoln. “It's the last glimpse of the greatest American that ever lived,” said Morgan, according to the Associated Press.
On Tuesday, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History opened a gold pocket watch of Lincoln that was long rumored to have an inscription in it. It discovered that there were inscriptions by watchmaker Jonathan Dillon dating back to April 13, 1861, the day after Confederate rebels fired on Fort Sumter, the first shots of the Civil War.

The inscriptions read “Jonathan Dillon April 13-1861 Fort Sumpter [sic] was attacked by the rebels on the above date J Dillon” and “April 13-1861 Washington thank God we have a government Jonth Dillon.” Two other inscriptions were also seen; one is dated September 1864, while the other simply says “Jeff Davis,” a reference to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Lincoln knew nothing of the inscriptions and the only evidence of them came from Dillon family lore and a 1906 article in The New York Times in which Dillon claimed to have made the inscription. Dillon recalled incorrectly that he had written, “The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a President who at least will try.”

Douglas Stiles, Dillon’s great-grandson, read the inscription at the unveiling. “I feel more in touch with Lincoln,” he said afterwards, adding, “Hey, that's Lincoln's watch and my ancestor put graffiti on it.”

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Background: America’s interest in Lincoln relics

Americans have long had a fascination with Lincoln, and there is a demand for Lincoln relics not seen for other presidents. Thomas Mallon wrote in The New Yorker that the interest in Lincoln artifacts began soon after his death.

“The American craving for Lincoln soon led to the use of his likeness and name to sell life insurance, cholera remedies, and lead,” he wrote, adding, “If the likeness of any other President had been chosen for the penny … it seems probable that that annoying denomination would have been abolished by now.”

The craving for Lincoln relics reached a macabre level in 1876, when a pair of counterfeiters tried to steal Lincoln’s body and hold it for ransom. Their plot, the only known attempt to steal a president’s body, was foiled by Secret Service agents as they were trying to remove Lincoln’s casket.

America’s fascination with Lincoln is especially high in 2009, the 200th anniversary of his birth. President Barack Obama, who has regularly expressed his admiration for Lincoln, was sworn in as president on the same Bible that Lincoln used in 1861.

There are many special Lincoln exhibits this year, including a temporary display at Ford’s Theatre of the coat Lincoln was wearing when he was assassinated. There are concerns that the coat will deteriorate while on display, but theatre officials believed it was necessary to display the coat, at least temporarily. “The public has a right” to see it, said Paul Tetreault, the theater's producing director, because “they own these relics.”

The Library of Congress is celebrating Lincoln’s bicentennial with an exhibit of rarely seen Lincoln artifacts, while Congress created the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission to hold exhibitions and lectures throughout the country. The commission also worked with The  Newberry Library and Chicago History Museum to create the Lincoln at 200 project which includes an exhibition of 270 items.

Biography: Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln was born on Feb. 12, 1809, in Kentucky. He moved to Indiana and to Illinois, working various odd jobs and educating himself. He became a postmaster in 1833 and began to study law around the same time. He soon won a reputation for being an effective lawyer and debater—one that would only be furthered with Lincoln’s showing in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, arguing that slavery should be kept out of the new territories.

“Honest Abe” became the nation’s 16th president in 1861. His term was one of the most tumultuous in the country’s history, seeing the secession of the South, the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves. A few weeks after his second inaugural ball, on April 14, 1865, Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.

“Lincoln ranks with the greatest of American statesmen,” says History’s American Presidents series. “His humanitarian skill, brilliant speeches and unusual political skill ensured his hold on the electorate and his success in saving the Union. That he also gained fame as the Great Emancipator was due to a large degree to his excellent sense of timing and his open-mindedness.”
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