Secret Messages Discovered Inside President Lincoln's Watch
Watchmaker Engraved Message in Watch
In 1861, Jonathan Dillon, an Irish immigrant, was working as a watchmaker in Washington, D.C. He was employed by M. W. Galt and Company, a jewelry store on Pennsylvania Avenue, near the White House. His task was to repair the watch of one of the store's most distinguished customers, President Abraham Lincoln.
While working on the watch, Dillon learned from the shop owner that the Civil War had begun. The first shots had been fired at Fort Sumter. In a state of distress, he opened the watch and engraved a secret message that would remain hidden for many years to come.
Discovery of the Inscription
In 1906, Dillon told the New York Times about the inscription he put inside the watch on the day the Civil War started. The paper ran a small article about it, and aside from the story being handed down within the Dillon family, it was pretty much forgotten. Until Dillon's great-great-grandson, Doug Stiles of Waukegan, Illinois, found the newspaper article and started to investigate. He contacted the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History to whom the watch had been donated. They were not familiar with the rumor of the hidden message.
In March, 2009, the museum asked master watchmaker, George Thomas, to open the Lincoln watch and solve the mystery. With a group of 40 spectators including museum employees, relatives of Jonathan Dillon and members of the press in attendance, the watch was opened. Yes, there was the hidden inscription from 1861.
Due to space limitations, the watchmaker abbreviated Jonathan. He also mistakenly showed the date as April 13, however, the attack on Fort Sumter occurred on April 12.
"Jonathan Dillon April 13-1861 Fort Sumpter [sic] was attacked by the rebels on the above date J Dillon April 13-1861 Washington thank God we have a government Jonth Dillon".— Secret Message Inside President's Lincoln's Watch
Video of the Opening of the Watch. Video Courtesy of National Museum of American History
Opening the Watch Reveals Another Mystery
Although the investigation cleared up rumors about a message in the watch, there are still unanswered questions. In addition to the inscription noted above, there is also an etching in a different handwriting that shows the name of Jeff Davis (president of the Confederacy) and someone named L. E. Grofs dated 1864 (Lincoln died in 1865). Did Mr. Lincoln have the watch repaired by someone else who was a Southern sympathizer who added Jeff Davis' name as an affront to Lincoln?
History of the Watch
Some historians have said the gold pocket watch was the first one ever owned by Lincoln. It has an18 karat gold case embellished with scrolls and flowers. It was made in the US and the watch movement was manufactured in England. Experts have said a similar watch today would cost at least $5,000. While still an Illinois lawyer, Lincoln bought the watch from George Chatterton Jewelers located on the square in Springfield, Illinois, where he also had purchased an engagement ring for his wife.
The gold vest chain is still attached to the watch, however, the key Mr. Lincoln used to wind the watch daily is missing. Most statues and pictures show the watch chain attached to his vest buttonhole.
Had You Heard About the Secret Message Before?
Did He Know About the Secrets His Watch Held?
It is doubtful that Lincoln ever knew of the secret engravings. He carried it with him throughout his presidency including such special moments in history as the delivery of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address and perhaps he was wearing it that fateful night at Ford's Theater.
During the watchmaker's examination in the above video, museum curators asked if the watch could be wound so they could hear the ticking sound, just as Abraham Lincoln had heard it. Unfortunately, it was not possible as the mechanism was "frozen" since it had not been wound in so many years.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, watchmakers would place a round piece of paper inside timepieces they worked on to record the nature of the repairs they made. Called "watch papers", they served to assist repairmen with diagnosing future problems.
It was quite unusual that Dillon would scratch a personal message inside a customer's watch, especially one belonging to the President of the United States. It has been said it is human nature to want to communicate with the future. Perhaps that was Jonathan Dillon's intention.
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Thelma Raker Coffone