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
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.
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?
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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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