Secret Messages Discovered Inside President Lincoln's Watch

Watchmaker Left Secret Message in President Lincoln's Watch

In April, 1861, Jonathan Dillon, a humble 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 for the day 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 inside President Lincoln's watch that would remain hidden for many years to come.

Discovery of the Secret Message Inside President Lincoln's Watch

In 1906, Dillon told the New York Times about the secret inscription he put inside President Lincoln's 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 in 1958 by a Lincoln descendant. 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.


"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

(Note 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.)

Video of the Moment the Secret Message in President Lincoln's Watch was Revealed. Video Courtesy of National Museum of American History

Photo of Lincoln Shows Watch Chain in Vest Pocket
Photo of Lincoln Shows Watch Chain in Vest Pocket | Source

Lincoln Purchased Watch in Springfield, Illinois

Some historians have said the gold pocket watch was the first one ever owned by Lincoln. It had an 18 karat gold case embellished with scrolls and flowers that was made in the US and a watch movement that was manufactured in England. Experts have said a similar watch today would cost at least $5,000 to purchase. 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, Mary Todd Lincoln.

The gold vest chain is still attached to the watch but the key that Mr. Lincoln would have used to wind the watch daily, is missing. Most statues and pictures of President Lincoln show the watch chain attached to his vest buttonhole.


President Lincoln's Watch with Secret Hidden Message
President Lincoln's Watch with Secret Hidden Message | Source

Remaining Mystery of President Lincoln's Watch

Although the investigation cleared up the rumors about a hidden secret message inside the Lincoln watch, there are still mysteries remaining. 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?

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

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DVD of Award Winning Movie "Lincoln"

Lincoln Never Knew About the Secret Messages

Without knowing of the secret message inside his pocket watch which included Jeff Davis' name, President Lincoln 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, 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 watches they worked on to record the nature of the repairs they made. Called "watch papers" they served to assist repairmen with diagnosing future problems with the watch.

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 that 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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Please Leave Your Comments About "The Secret Message Inside President Lincoln's Watch" 28 comments

ThelmaC profile image

ThelmaC 2 years ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA Author

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".


ThelmaC profile image

ThelmaC 2 years ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA Author

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


Crystal Tatum profile image

Crystal Tatum 2 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

ThelmaC 4 years ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA Author

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


Lipnancy profile image

Lipnancy 4 years ago from Hamburg, New York

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


ThelmaC profile image

ThelmaC 4 years ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA Author

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.


ThelmaC profile image

ThelmaC 4 years ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA Author

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

ThelmaC 4 years ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA Author

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


catgypsy profile image

catgypsy 4 years ago from the South

How fascinating! Great hub!


ThelmaC profile image

ThelmaC 4 years ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA Author

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


Deb Welch 4 years ago

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


ThelmaC profile image

ThelmaC 4 years ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA Author

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


Jackie Lynnley profile image

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

ThelmaC 4 years ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA Author

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


Alastar Packer profile image

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

ThelmaC 4 years ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA Author

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!


weestro profile image

weestro 4 years ago from Virginia

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


ThelmaC profile image

ThelmaC 4 years ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA Author

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


tillsontitan profile image

tillsontitan 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.


ThelmaC profile image

ThelmaC 4 years ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA Author

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


ThelmaC profile image

ThelmaC 4 years ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA Author

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!


ThelmaC profile image

ThelmaC 4 years ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA Author

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


Jean-ette profile image

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!


Davesworld profile image

Davesworld 4 years ago from Cottage Grove, MN 55016

What a hoot!

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