Abraham Lincoln’s pocket watch, a real-life national treasure, has been discovered to contain a secret message scrawled on its inner workings that dates back to the outbreak of the American Civil War.
Lincoln’s pocket watch was supposedly being repaired by Jonathan Dillion, a watchmaker based in Washington D.C., when the attack on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, took place, marking the start of the Civil War. Dillon told his children, and later a New York Times reporter, that when he heard the news he opened the watch and inscribed his name, the date and a brief message, then reassembled it and send it back to the White House. Lincoln never knew of the message.
The watch was handed down following Lincoln’s death until, non-functional once again, it found its way to the Smithsonian Institute in 1958. Dillon’s story, meanwhile, was also passed down through generations of his family, including to his great-great grandson Douglas Stiles, now an Illinois real estate attorney. Stiles had been told the tale when he was young but didn’t take it seriously until he discovered the New York Times article from 1906 in which Dillon related the same story himself. He contacted the Smithsonian to tell them about the family legend and hopefully discover if there was any truth to it.
There was. On March 10, expert watchmaker George Thomas very gently took apart the watch to expose the brass workings and the message contained inside, broken into three parts to get around the gears inside: “Jonathan Dillon April 13, 1861. Fort Sumter was attacked by the rebels on the above date. Thank God we have a government.”
The message didn’t match exactly with Dillon’s recollection; he had related it to his family as the slightly more poetic, “The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a President who at least will try.” But the discovery of the truth was more than enough for a “delighted” Stiles, who said, “That’s Lincoln’s watch and my ancestor wrote graffiti on it!”
Who says history is dull?