The Mystery of Alexander Hamilton’s Bank Clock

The origins of an 18th-century timepiece are part of an American institution even older than its financial system: embellishing facts. An Object Lesson.

Alexander Hamilton's bank clock
Thanh Do / The Atlantic

On a spring day in 1858, the president of the New York Historical Society shared a letter from another New York institution offering an unusual donation from the Bank of New York: an elaborate clock. To convince his fellow members of the storied history of the bank and, by association, the clock, the president singled out one man from the bank’s original board. “Among the directors,” said the president, “Was General [Alexander] Hamilton, another immortal name, whose genius has stamped its impression on the political events of that momentous and memorable era.” The Historical Society welcomed the clock to its collection.

A hundred years passed—enough time for a fairy tale to cook. A legend grew around the clock. A subsequent director of the Historical Society referred to it as the Hamilton clock. The story emerged that Alexander Hamilton had gifted the clock personally to his financial brainchild, like a father bestowing a pocket watch to his firstborn. Whether he really did remains an unsolved mystery.

The timepiece in question was monumental. It towered nine feet tall with an enormous dial face that made it look like a bobblehead toy. The mahogany waist of the body, inlaid with a circlet of 16 stars, tapered in as if the clock had been squeezed into a corset. The stars, meant to represent the ever-growing number of states in the union, suggested the clock was made around 1796, when Tennessee achieved statehood. It was just at that time that Hamilton, having left the director role at the Bank of New York to become secretary of the Treasury, launched his vision of a federal financial system, enthroned in the Bank of the United States. The institution sparked heated debate between states’-rights advocates and central-government proponents like Hamilton.

Hamilton’s vision won. The system he built moved the country from a chicken-for-a-chair barter system to centralized institutions that let the United States engage in foreign imports and, concurrently, build industry to effectively compete with those very imports. The Historical Society was the owner of a piece that had touched the origins of the American financial system.

But the American tradition of tall-tale telling is even older than its banking system. The legend of the Hamilton clock grew despite any apparent documentation of its connection to the Founding Father. In 1961, the Historical Society, realizing it had lost the original clock records, cobbled together a new set of paperwork. Any original documentation—or refutation—of a Hamilton link was lost.

Alexander Hamilton’s bank clock (Courtesy of the New York Historical Society)

Then, a letter arrived at the society in January 1973.

“Dear Sirs:” the note from Landon K. Thorne Jr. read, “You were given by the Bank of New York a historical clock which was purportedly given by Alexander Hamilton to the Bank in 1797 when the bank started operations. I have a similar clock … which was given by Alexander Hamilton to my ancestor when he started a bank in Philadelphia about the same time.” Thorne enclosed pictures of the clock. Its base had been lost, and its new proportions squatted between two doorways in the Thorne household. It was the twin to the Historical Society’s clock.

Behind a little door at the waist of Thorne’s clock, there was a plaque that contained the history he had outlined in his letter:

“This clock was presented to the United States Bank of Philadelphia by Alexander Hamilton about 1797 at which time were there 16 states in the Union as represented in the sixteen stars. After the bank was dissolved, it was given to Morris Ketchum by the Nicholas Biddle, the American financier and President of the Bank from 1823–1836.”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired the Thorne clock in 2005. In 2008, an intern was hired to research the living daylights out of it to find the Hamilton connection. That intern was me. Each morning when I walked into the Met, past the enormous flower vases in the entry hall and the Hepplewhite chairs that looked more like musical instruments than furniture, and settled into the American Wing library, I believed that this would be the day that I solved the mystery of the clock.

I called everyone remotely connected to Revolutionary-era clocks. I spoke with horologists, furniture historians, and curators. I read files about inlay to try to track down the maker of the 16 stars in case he had other Hamilton accounts. I created timelines of bank charters, bank failures, and credit crises. The trove of names on the plaque sent me sniffing down new leads.

Thorne’s great-great-grandfather (and the supposed first family recipient of the clock) was the financier Morris Ketchum, whose reputation for trustworthiness was so powerful that it provided cover for his son Edward and his friend John Pierpont Morgan to embezzle millions of dollars, causing a financial meltdown in the 1860s. Edward went to Sing Sing. Ketchum went bankrupt. Young J. P. Morgan sidestepped the whole scandal.

The unfortunate Ketchum had received the clock from Nicholas Biddle, who launched the second iteration of Hamilton’s national bank. I discovered that, in the years before becoming a bank president, Biddle ran a literary magazine called The Port Folio, which aimed to create a new lexicon of American writers. The Port Folio’s primary competitor was The Analectic Magazine, run by Washington Irving (the creator of Ichabod Crane and Rip Van Winkle). Both magazines hoped to develop a distinctly American literary identity by weaving together fiction and history to create a constellation of American myths, morals, and models for the new nation. In the process, Biddle became the ghostwriter of the History of the Expedition Under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark, boosting the pair’s heroic status in the history of American expansion.

Of the cast of characters whose names are linked to the clock, Biddle seems the likeliest suspect to have burnished the object’s attachment to a Founding Father. A footnote to a later edition of History of the Expedition would suggest that Captain Clark’s stories “had a shine put on them by his editor.” But Biddle was also a meticulous fact-checker—if the clock were indeed a gift from Hamilton to the bank, Nicholas Biddle probably would be the one to know. On the other hand, if the clock was not a Hamilton gift, Nicholas Biddle might have been the first to embellish its origins.

Disappointingly, Thorne had no more documentation to back up his claims than the Historical Society did. “Many of these stories that are passed down in families get convoluted along the way,” the Historical Society’s vice president and museum director, Margi Hofer, explained. “In most cases, there’s no real intention of distorting history, but it’s human nature to just want to believe.” For a 2016 exhibition at the Historical Society, Hofer carefully updated the clock label to read, “According to tradition, Hamilton presented this clock to the Bank of New York in 1797.” Across the park, at the Met, the Thorne clock label fearlessly identifies the presenter as Hamilton. Hofer is still hopeful that Hamilton documentation will emerge. “It’s much more thorny—excuse the pun—with Landon Thorne’s similar claim,” she says. “I think we could still find evidence.”

There is little doubt that the clocks are by the same maker and were likely commissioned at the same time. “Hamilton or not,” Hofer says, “it stands apart as extremely impressive and makes a huge statement about the importance of that institution, the importance of regulation, time, and, by extension, money.”

Landon Thorne Jr.’s clock is tucked away behind an elevator at the Met. The base has been rebuilt so it towers at its original nine feet. Its face, big as a truck tire, looks down on museum visitors waiting impatiently to get to another floor. The twin is on loan to its original home, the Bank of New York. Both bank clocks represent something bigger than their gargantuan physical presence. Their survival through the years serves as a metaphor for the longevity and stability of the banking system. Between the two of them, they tick out the seconds of New York’s bastions of history and commerce—an apt office for them to share.