In Lincoln's Watch, A Mystery Revealed

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    Embed <iframe src="http://www.npr.org/player/embed/101669761/101669742" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no">
  • Transcript
Lincoln's Watch Inscription i

The inscription found inside Lincoln's watch. Courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History
Lincoln's Watch Inscription

The inscription found inside Lincoln's watch.

Courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

The Inscription

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

From The Archives

The article below, printed in The New York Times on April 30, 1906, is an interview with watch repairman Jonathan Dillon. Printed directly above the watch story is an article about an African-American man who was fired for not removing his hat quickly enough. This article was printed more than four decades after Lincoln freed the slaves.

Hartwig Balke opening the Lincoln Watch i

Hartwig Balke, of the Towson Watch Co., opened the Lincoln Watch. Courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History
Hartwig Balke opening the Lincoln Watch

Hartwig Balke, of the Towson Watch Co., opened the Lincoln Watch.

Courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History
Lincoln's Pocket Watch i

Lincoln's pocket watch. Courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History
Lincoln's Pocket Watch

Lincoln's pocket watch.

Courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

A couple of screwdrivers, a pair of jeweler's goggles and a steady hand have finally put a mystery to rest after almost 150 years: Did a repairman really engrave a secret message on Abraham Lincoln's watch the day the Civil War began?

That's what watchmaker Jonathan Dillon told his family in the late 19th century. He claimed he was working in a posh jewelry store in Washington, D.C., in April 1861, just after Lincoln was elected. And he was assigned to fix the president's beloved gold pocket watch — reportedly the first watch the humble Lincoln had ever owned.

Dillon told his family that as he held the watch in his hands, the store's owner rushed up and shouted, "Dillon, war has begun." Dillon was a Unionist — he lived in a city that bordered the South but was loyal to the North and the federal government — and as the story goes, he brashly opened the watch and secretly engraved the words: "The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a President who at least will try."

Or words to that effect, Dillon told his family. And in 1906, Dillon, by then an elderly man, also told his tale to a reporter from The New York Times.

At this point, the story leaps ahead more than a century. Dillon's great-great-grandson, Doug Stiles, was researching his family background when he unearthed the newspaper article. He discovered that the fabled watch had been at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History since 1958, so he called a curator there last month to ask if his ancestor's story was true.

"We said, 'What story?' recalls Harry Rubenstein, who's in charge of the museum's Lincoln collection. "We had never heard anything about a secret engraving in this gold watch before. So we decided we had to open the watch and look."

Smithsonian officials invited a group of journalists to bear witness as a master watchmaker carefully opened Lincoln's watch to the inner workings. When he spied scribbles lightly engraved onto the back of the watch face, he handed the magnifying goggles to Stiles — so he could have the honor of being perhaps the first man to read them in almost 150 years.

"Jonathan Dillon April 13-1861 Fort Sumpter [sic] was attacked by the rebels on the above date. J Dillon," his great-great-grandfather had written, followed by "April 13-1861 Washington. Thank God we have a government. Jonth Dillon."

The inscription wasn't precisely the way Dillon remembered it when telling the tale to family. But the moral still holds: Sometimes tall tales are true.

Related NPR Stories

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.