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Secret Messages Discovered Inside President Lincoln's Watch

Updated on February 06, 2017
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Thelma Raker Coffone is an award winning non-fiction writer. She enjoys sharing information about America's presidents and their families.

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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

President Lincoln's Watch
President Lincoln's Watch | Source

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?

Photo of Lincoln Shows Watch Chain in Vest Buttonhole.
Photo of Lincoln Shows Watch Chain in Vest Buttonhole. | Source

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.

Inscription Inside Lincoln's Watch.  You can clearly see the name Jeff Davis.
Inscription Inside Lincoln's Watch. You can clearly see the name Jeff Davis. | Source

Had You Heard About the Secret Message Before?

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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.

© 2012 Thelma Raker Coffone

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    • ThelmaC profile image
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      Thelma Raker Coffone 2 years ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA

      askformore lm I love history also. There is always something new to learn. Thanks for reading and commenting. I look forward to following your work here.

    • askformore lm profile image

      askformore lm 2 years ago

      Thank you for a very interesting hub. I love history, in particular the "lesser known stories".

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      Thelma Raker Coffone 3 years ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA

      Crystal glad you liked my hub. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • Crystal Tatum profile image

      Crystal Tatum 3 years ago from Georgia

      How interesting. I suppose it's hard to resist making your mark on a piece that belongs to such an important person. It is indeed making your mark on history. Great job with this hub!

    • ThelmaC profile image
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      Thelma Raker Coffone 4 years ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA

      Lipnancy I wonder what President Lincoln would say if he knew he had Jeff Davis' name inside his watch!! Thanks for your nice comment.

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      Nancy Yager 4 years ago from Hamburg, New York

      Now this is a cool piece of history that I did not know.

    • ThelmaC profile image
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      Thelma Raker Coffone 4 years ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA

      Thanks so much for your nice comments. I look forward to following you on hubpages!

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 4 years ago from the short journey

      Amazing moments in history you've highlighted here. History has a way of reaching out to the future in unexpected ways at times. Thanks so much for putting this post together for us! Reminds me of the wisdom and warnings our founders gave to the future citizens of our country.

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      Thelma Raker Coffone 4 years ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA

      jenbeach21 glad you liked it and thanks for the comment!

    • jenbeach21 profile image

      jenbeach21 4 years ago from Orlando, FL

      This was very interesting. I had never heard about this. Thanks for sharing!

    • ThelmaC profile image
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      Thelma Raker Coffone 4 years ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA

      I'm finding most people, myself included, didn't know about this little piece of history. Thanks for your nice comments catgypsy!

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      catgypsy 4 years ago from the South

      How fascinating! Great hub!

    • ThelmaC profile image
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      Thelma Raker Coffone 4 years ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA

      Deb thanks for stopping by and your nice comments. I enjoy reading and researching about Abraham Lincoln. Very interesting time period in US history.

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      Deb Welch 4 years ago

      Enjoyed reading. Interesting article. Love Abraham Lincoln - he is our History. Thanks.

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      Thelma Raker Coffone 4 years ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA

      Jackie I agree about History's mysteries! Thank you so much for your nice comments and for SHARING! I really appreciate it.

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      Jackie Lynnley 4 years ago from The Beautiful South

      How very interesting! I love stories like this. History's mysteries! How many i wonder have passed us by? Voted up and sharing.

    • ThelmaC profile image
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      Thelma Raker Coffone 4 years ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA

      Thanks Alastar. The video seems to be ok now. Always appreciate your nice comments!

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      Alastar Packer 4 years ago from North Carolina

      If that was Dillion's purpose to communicate with the future he certainly achieved it. Awesome piece of mysterious history Thelma. Very intriguing with the Davis inscription. You might want to check on the vid as it didn't show up. Happens on mine too sometimes. Must have been some anticipation there at the opening of the watch!

    • ThelmaC profile image
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      Thelma Raker Coffone 4 years ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA

      weestro thanks for your comments. I am very pleased with the numbers and reviews on this hub. Plus it was great fun learning about it. Thanks!

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      Weestro 4 years ago from Virginia

      Wow, that reminded me of Brad Meltzer's Decoded. Great hub, very interesting!

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      Thelma Raker Coffone 4 years ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA

      tillsontitan thanks for your comments. I enjoy your hubs also!

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      Mary Craig 4 years ago from New York

      There are so many "hidden" stories in history and I find them more interesting than history itself. Am I allowed to say that? Anway, I thought this was very interesting and I like the way you wrote it!

      Voted up and interesting.

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      Thelma Raker Coffone 4 years ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA

      Davesworld - My thoughts exactly! Thanks for reading and commenting!

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      Thelma Raker Coffone 4 years ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA

      nikkiraeink - I am a history nut too and I ran across this while researching something else. I can't believe I hadn't heard about it before and thought maybe others weren't familiar with it either. Thanks for your comments!

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      Thelma Raker Coffone 4 years ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA

      Jean-ette thanks for your kind comments. I love writing them too.

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      Jean-ette 4 years ago

      Great article Thelma. I love reading your stories - how interesting - keep them coming!

    • nikkiraeink profile image

      nikkiraeink 4 years ago from So. Cal.

      Very interesting! I handed the laptop over to my husband to read. He's a Lincoln nut and hadn't heard of this story before. Voting up!

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      Davesworld 4 years ago from Cottage Grove, MN 55016

      What a hoot!

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