Lincoln’s Pocket Watch Reveals Long-Hidden Message

Lincoln’s Pocket Watch Reveals Long-Hidden Message
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Lincoln’s Pocket Watch Reveals Long-Hidden Message

Ten years before he would become President of the United States in the 1850s, Abraham Lincoln, then an affluent lawyer, bought himself a refined pocket watch from George Chatterton, a jeweler in Springfield, Illinois. While the mechanism was manufactured in Liverpool, England, the 18-carat golden case was produced in the United States.

Except for the elegant gilded case, this seemingly ordinary pocket watch was nothing peculiar or special, except … there was.

The open case, face and chain of Abraham Lincoln’s pocket watch
The open case, face, and chain of Abraham Lincoln’s pocket watch

The 16th president of the United States was elected to Lincoln on 6 November 1860, beating the new constitutional union party Democrats, Stephen A. Douglas, John C. Breckinridge of the Southern Democrats and John Bell.

On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces fired on Union troops at Fort Sumter, forcing them to surrender, and began the war.

On April 13, 1861, Johnathan Dillon, an Irish immigrant, and watchmaker was just repairing President Abraham Lincoln’s pocket watch, in the M.W. Galt and Co. jewelers in Washington, D.C, when he heard the news of the Fort Sumter attack. After forty-five years, Dillon told The New York Times what he did that day.

“I was in the act of screwing on the dial when Mr. Galt announced the news. I unscrewed the dial, and with a sharp instrument wrote on the metal beneath:

“The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a President who at least will try.’”

The interior of Abraham Lincoln’s pocket watch.
The interior of Abraham Lincoln’s pocket watch.

The grateful watchmaker engraved his name and dated the inscription on the interior and closed the dial.

Back in 2009, the great-great-grandson of Johantan Dillon reached the Smithsonian museum which holds the watch and told them the story behind the watch. They decided to open the watch and to their big surprise they found the inscription below:

Jonathan Dillon
April 13-1861
Fort Sumpter was attacked, by the rebels on the above
date J Dillon
April 13-1861
Washington
thank God we have a government
Jonth Dillon

The reverse of the case of Abraham Lincoln’s pocket watch
The reverse of the case of Abraham Lincoln’s pocket watch.

Even though the message is truly amazing, it was a bit different from Dillon’s first remembrance.

Apparently, Dillon misspelled Fort Sumter by engraving “Sumpter. another difference from his first recollection is that the interior of the watch was engraved with other initials.

In 1864, another watchmaker signed the watch with his initials, L.E Gross. Also, at some point, someone had carved “Jeff Davis” probably as a joke or as a support for the Confederacy. Back then, it was a common practice for watch repairs to etch something on the inside of watches.

May 16, 1861-President Abraham Lincoln, three-quarter length portrait, seated, wearing his pocket watch
May 16, 1861-President Abraham Lincoln, three-quarter length portrait, seated, wearing his pocket watch.

The most amazing and interesting part of this story is that Abraham Lincoln himself never knew of the message he was wearing in the pocket all the time.

The chief curator of the museum’s bicentennial exhibition “Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life” Harry Rubenstein, Harry Rubenstein told Smithsonian Mag:

“When you think about Lincoln especially at this point in his life,” Rubenstein says, “his ill-fitting clothes and messy hair; he doesn’t seem to care about his appearance.


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John Smith has been with Histecho since 2017, A Senior Editor & Writer for Histecho. his work has been featured in outlets such as Scientific American, The Washington Post, NBC News, and Fox News. John grew up outside of Philadelphia and studied biology at Hamilton College in upstate New York.