WASHINGTON — For Paul Mellen, the trail began last March when he came across the Appleton Tracy pocket watch for sale on eBay. Manufactured in November 1862 by the Waltham Watch Co., it was solid gold, set with 15 jewels — a prized addition to his collection.
More treasured, as the Duxbury resident would soon discover, was the story behind the name engraved on the back, a Civil War officer named Major Jonathan Ladd of Lowell. The tale Mellen pieced together would lead to one of the most poignant moments in American history: the vigil at Abraham Lincoln's deathbed.
Ladd, it turns out, was probably among the family members and dignitaries standing over President Lincoln when he gasped his final breath at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865, Mellen found. Which raises the question, did Ladd's timepiece also record Lincoln's death?
"This is for me the most exciting," Mellen, a 56-year-old social services advocate, said of his discovery. "I am deeply obsessed by it. It has come to life for me."
Harry R. Rubenstein, chair of the division of political history at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington, said Mellen appears to have made a unique discovery.
"Ladd is a largely obscure figure in American history and he has brought him out of that crowd and made him a real person," Rubenstein, who has been consulted about Mellen's findings, said in an interview. "That is what history is. It is made up of people both extraordinary and ordinary."
Rubenstein says he cannot make a definitive determination that Ladd was at Lincoln's death bed, as Mellen's reading of history suggests. But he does believe the watch that Mellen recovered has peeled back an unknown layer of American history.
"These kinds of tangible objects, that tell personal and national stories, make these mythical stories seem very real," he said.
The watch itself, serial number 50141, was a rare size 20, rather than the more common size 18. Only several hundred were made at the time and they were priced between $175 to $200, equivalent to at least several thousand dollars today.
So who was Jonathan Ladd? And who gave him the watch? Mellen wanted to know.
He sought help from the National Archives in Washington, Harvard's Lamont Library, the Lowell Historical Society, and ultimately the Goshen Historical Society in Goshen, N.Y., where Ladd was stationed later in the war. He even tracked down a distant relation of Ladd's who serves as the genealogist for the extended Ladd family, which has deep roots in America.
Jonathan Ladd was born in Alexandria, N.H., in 1819 and moved to Lowell when he was in his teens, becoming a successful lawyer and farmer. According to government records from the time, he volunteered for the Union Army on April 15, 1861, the same day that President Lincoln appealed for volunteers to defend Washington.
Lincoln feared an attack from Confederate troops in Virginia, just across the Potomac River from the White House. In Lowell, Ladd was immediately tapped to help transport Massachusetts volunteers heading south to answer the call.
Four days after donning the uniform Ladd, as "master of transportation," was headquartered in the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York City organizing the movement of Bay State troops, according to a telegram to his superiors that he dispatched along with the news that the first wave of Massachusetts troops "have been attacked in Baltimore and some killed," including his cousin Luther Ladd.
Ladd then received an urgent request from the governor of Massachusetts, Albion Andrew, to provide rations and transportation for 1,200 additional soldiers who were on their way from Boston to New York.
But there was no available transportation to get them to Washington, Ladd was told. So he improvised.
"I then on my own responsibility and in the name of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts chartered the steamships Ariel and Desoto and put upon them the troops and their sustenance and started them on their way to Washington," Ladd later reported to Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Military Affairs Committee, an episode reported at the time by The New York Tribune.
Ladd's efforts to reinforce Washington so quickly — just a week after the attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina had ignited the war — drew praise from Lincoln himself, who reportedly told one of the Massachusetts commanders upon arrival: "Thank God you are here. If you had not come we should be in the hands of the rebels before morning. Your brave boys have saved the capital, God bless them," according to the tesimony of a colonel in the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment.
Mellen was hooked. With more digging, he found how Ladd, who later served as paymaster responsible for large amounts of cash for the troops, obtained the watch.
It was in March of 1864, after he had helped prepare troops from the Second Connecticut Volunteer Artillery, who fought heroically in the Battle of Cold Harbor.
The unit's officers were so grateful that they presented him with the prized Appleton Tracy as a token of their appreciation, Mellen said.
But most intriguing is where Ladd appears to have been the following spring, when Lincoln was assassinated.
On at least three occasions, Henry L. Burnett, who served as the assistant judge advocate during Lincoln's assassination trial, alluded to a man named Ladd among the large group of Cabinet members, doctors, and family members standing vigil over Lincoln at Petersen House, across the street from Washington's Ford's Theater, where John Wilkes Booth had mortally wounded the 16th president.
Burnett, speaking before the Ohio Society of New York in 1892, said: "There were about the deathbed his wife and son, Vice President Johnson, all the other members of the Cabinet with the exception of'' Secretary of State William Seward.
He then listed others present, including judges, surgeons, a reverend, and a number of military officers, including "Augur and Ladd."
Was it the same Jonathan Ladd? Mellen can't be sure. But there are no references to other officers named Ladd at the time in Washington, where Jonathan Ladd spent much of the four years of the war serving as paymaster.
Ladd was also related to some very high-profile figures, including Hannibal Hamlin, Lincoln's first vice president, and Lafayette Sabine Foster, the president pro tempore of the Senate.
Merle Ladd, a retired computer engineer in Florida who has done extensive research on his family, said the new research further supports the belief that the "Ladd" at Lincoln's deathbed is indeed Jonathan Ladd.
"I would say it is about a 99 percent chance that they were one and the same, based on family backgrounds," he said. "There are too many coincidences."
The next chapter in Jonathan Ladd's history is not as noble as his patriotic war efforts. In June 1865, Major Ladd was implicated in what was the 19th-century version of taking kickbacks from defense contractors: He was accused of illegally earning a commission on merchandise sold to the troops, including pocket watches.
He was never court-martialed and the charges were dropped, but Ladd was nevertheless dismissed from the Army in disgrace.
Four years later, in early 1869, an attempt was made to reverse the decision, with President Andrew Johnson speaking on Ladd's behalf.
The records indicate, however, that no action was taken despite the commander-in-chief's request.
Whether Ladd was really there when Lincoln died, possibly even fingering his prized Appleton Tracy watch, will probably never be known.
But for Mellen, that historic moment at 7:22 a.m. now chimes a little differently.
"There fell a silence so profound," recalled Reverend Phineas D. Gurley, who was among those listed at Lincoln's deathbed, "that the watches in all the men's pockets [were] ticking loudly."
Bender can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeBender