This chain of massive iron links, each weighing 300 pounds, lies beneath shrubbery at the edge of the Chicago History Museum’s east terrace. When the Chicago Historical Society acquired this chain in 1920, curators believed it to be a significant Revolutionary War artifact; however, its authenticity has since been questioned.
The Putnam Chain was part of a famous collection belonging to Charles F. Gunther (1837–1920), a wealthy German confectioner who is often credited with introducing caramel to America. In 1889, Gunther opened a museum in Chicago to display his priceless collection of “historical manuscripts, documents, relics, letters, and possessions of great Americans.” After Gunther’s death, the Chicago Historical Society (now the Chicago History Museum) purchased many objects from the collection, including the bed in which Abraham Lincoln died and the Putnam Chain.
Named in honor of General Israel Putnam, the artifact was believed to have been one of several heavy chains that Revolutionary War soldiers stretched across the Hudson River to obstruct the path of British naval ships. The Smithsonian Institution owned another portion of the chain, and in the 1960s a Smithsonian curator determined that its method of construction dates to the mid-nineteenth century, making it extremely unlikely that Chicago’s chain is a Revolutionary War relic. Following this discovery, the Smithsonian put its links into storage without comment. In 1966, the curator of the West Point Museum, Gerald C. Stowe, echoed this uncertainty and shared his findings with the Chicago Historical Society. Unfortunately, Stowe died before completing a book on the subject, and the true date and purpose of the Putnam Chain are still unknown.