J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Testing “a Remarkable Memory”

Today’s New York Times ran a correction to a story over one hundred years old (a level of scrupulosity which I frankly think is showing off a bit):

An article on April 30, 1906, about a New York watch repairer, Jonathan Dillon, who recalled secretly inscribing Abraham Lincoln’s watch while working on it in a Washington jewelry store in 1861, misstated part of the inscription, using information from Mr. Dillon (who the article noted had, at 84, “a remarkable memory.”) The inscription reads:

“Jonathan Dillon April 13- 1861 Fort Sumpter was attacked by the rebels on the above date J Dillon. April 13- 1861 Washington thank God we have a government Jonth Dillon.”

The inscription does not say, as Mr. Dillon recalled in 1906: “The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a President who at least will try.”
The evidence suggests that the paper accurately reported what the retired watchmaker had said. But that man’s memory wasn’t exact, as the Smithsonian discovered after asking an expert to open Lincoln’s watch and check inside, per this report in the Times Arts section.

It’s no surprise that Dillon’s memory had shifted over fifty years. Looking back, he correctly remembered etching a pro-Union political message inside the President’s watch soon after hearing word of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter. That action no doubt meant a lot to him emotionally, and thus became a memory.

But certain details of his recollection evolved, reflecting changes in the American culture around him. Dillon’s graffito said nothing about “Slavery”; while that was the main source of conflict between North and South, the U.S. government first went to war to “preserve the union.” Only later did ending slavery become an explicit cause of the American army.

In addition, Lincoln started as an unproven politician, but became respected during the war and venerated after his assassination. His revered place in American memory no doubt prompted Dillon’s memory to substitute a remark about “a President who at least will try” for his original source of hope, a more general “government.”

(The Times article doesn’t say much about this detail, but Dillon’s message apparently prompted some later watch repairer to engrave his own message in the works: “L E Gross / Sept 1864 Wash. DC / Jeff Davis”.)

None of this is about the Revolutionary War, of course. But it’s a valuable reminder that even a witness with “a remarkable memory” for what he did and saw can misremember details under the influence of what he learned and felt later. Much of our history of the Revolution, such as all those dramatic accounts of Bunker Hill, is based on recollections from decades later. Those sources are often the best we have, and most of the people who left such accounts were sincere about what they recalled. But our brains don’t run like clockwork, and our memories slosh around a bit.

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