The Long Lost Time Capsule

The pedestal of the Robert E. Lee monument might hold an amazing secret — a legendary and irreplaceable artifact related to President Abraham Lincoln worth upwards of a quarter-million dollars. Or it could be a fake.”. These are the opening lines of Dale Brumfield’s article for Richmond Magazine, in December 2017, referring to the possible existence of a time capsule in Richmond, Virginia. 


Dale Brumfield stated that a time capsule could be sitting under the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Virginia. His evidence ? An article from 1887 published in The Richmond Dispatch that lists the contents of the supposed time capsule. The 60 objects, contributed by 37 residents, include a picture of Lincoln lying in his coffin donated by an unknown “Miss Pattie Leak”. To this day, there is only one known photograph of Lincoln in his coffin, and it was apparently destroyed. Could finding the time capsule reveal a long lost second photograph of the assassinated 16th president of the United States ? Or simply a drawing or a magazine cover from 1865 which contained an engraving of Lincoln ? In 2009, a photograph of Lincoln considered to be one of the last pictures taken of him sold for over $200 000, so if it really is a photograph, it could be worth close to $300 000 due to its rarity. 

Abraham Lincoln by Alexander Gardner, 1863


After searching for the time capsule in 2017, it was only in December 2021, after the statue was taken down, that archeologists found what they were possibly looking for. In fact, historians and archeologists found more than they were looking for : two time capsules were uncovered ! 

The first one was unexpected, and in poor condition. It was supposedly placed by workers or people who oversaw the construction of the monument. It was a lead box containing a silver coin, an envelope with some papers and books ruined by water. 

After searches continued, the time capsule mentioned in the 1887 article was finally uncovered. The cooper box was filled with water but in pretty good condition considering that it has been around for the past 134 years. It contained many of the objects cited in the article from The Richmond Dispatch, including coins, letters, a Bible, and a Richmond directory. 

Unfortunately, the mysterious Lincoln photograph donated by Pattie Leak  was in fact a Harpy Weekly magazine from 1965 with an image of someone crying over Abraham Lincoln’s grave, but not an actual rare photograph of his corpse. Nevertheless, conservators from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources are working on restoring, conserving, and researching the many items found in both time capsules. These elements from the Civil war era are primary sources from a time of social and political unrest, that can help our understanding of the country at the time, and more specifically of the situation in Virginia, which was a Southern slave-holding state and part of the Confederacy.

The Last Hours of Abraham Lincoln by Alonzo Chappel, 1868

Archeologist Ann Morton, owner of Morton Archeological Research Services, commented on the recent events and made the following statement : “Time capsules were part of creating memory and making that memory permanent by putting something important in the ground and hoping that future generations would look at that material”.

The governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, announced that a new time capsule will be buried at the removal site of the statue that was taken down. It contains 39 items that capture “the resilience and struggle of life within a pandemic” and highlight “the events and people that have moved us towards removing the Lee statue” according to the governor. 

Dinah Defrasne

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Images :

  • Couverture : ©Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash
  • Article 1 : Domaine Public
  • Article 2 : Domaine Public

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