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President Lincoln and the secret message in a pocketwatch

by Michael Weare
3 October, 2011
1 Comment | Discuss this article

About the author

Michael Weare has been a professional writer for 30 years, writing about Japanese technology, German and Italian cars, British tailoring and Swiss watches. Michael manages the editorial content of Click Tempus and will be keeping the magazine fresh and informative with regular features, as well as bringing great writers to the magazine. Email: michael@clicktempus.com

Abraham-Lincolns-watch1-500x494

This story is 2.5 years old or 150.5 years old depending on which way you look at it, but whichever it is, it’s a story worth retelling.

A secret message

It’s a story that circulated down the decades about a hidden message engraved inside President Abraham Lincoln’s pocket watch. A couple of years ago museum curators confirmed the story to be true. In April 1861, Jonathon Dillon, an Irish immigrant watchmaker working on Pennsylvania Avenue, had Lincoln’s William Emery Waltham Model 1857 in his hands when he heard the news that the first shots had been fired in South Carolina, hailing the start of the Civil War.

In modern terms this would have been a Pearl Harbor or 911 moment. It was evidently a moment powerful enough and portentous enough for the watchmaker to decide to engrave a message of hope inside President Lincoln’s pocket watch.

The truth revealed

Abraham Lincoln's watch

Fast forward 148 years and George Thomas, a volunteer at the Smithsonian Museum, prises open the watch with tiny tools as an audience, watching on TV screens, collectively held its breath. Is there truth to the rumour?

To an astonished audience he confirms that there is indeed an inscription. And a descendant of the engraver reads aloud the message from a metal plate underneath the watch face.

“Jonathan Dillon April 13 – 1861,” part of the inscription reads, “Fort Sumpter (sic) was attacked by the rebels on the above date.” Another part reads, “Thank God we have a government.”

The words were etched in tiny cursive handwriting and filled the space between the tiny screws and gears that jutted through the metal plate. A magnifying glass was required to read them.

After a 103 year wait

Jonathan Dillon resealed the watch and President Lincoln was assassinated exactly four years and 1 day later. No one laid eyes on the message until the moment the watch was opened in March 2009.

Over the years Dillon’s story was circulated among family and friends. A New York Times reporter picked up the story in 1906, but by this time an 84 year old Dillon’s recollections were a little hazy.

Incredibly, another 103 years passed with the story remaining unconfirmed until Jonathan Dillon’s great-great grandson, Doug Stiles used Google to track down the New York Times story, and passed the information along to Smithsonian curators, who knew nothing about the engraving. After the watch was opened a stunned Doug Stiles declared: “My gosh, that was Lincoln’s watch and my ancestor put graffiti on it!”

The watch is on display at the museum with a new label to tell Dillon’s story and a photo of the inscription.

In a curious synchronous aside, Jonathon Dillon wrote the message on April 13th 1861, Lincoln was assassinated on April 14th 1865, and exactly 91 years later, Samuel Seymour, the last living witness to the assassination died on April 12th 1956.

The William W. Ellery Waltham Model 1857

1867 Waltham William W Ellery pocket watch

The famous watch was a size 18 William Ellery made in January 1863. It was presented to Abraham Lincoln just after the historic Gettysburg Address on the afternoon of November 19th 1863.

It was a key wind watch Waltham Model 1857, and it would have looked very similar to the 1867 model pictured. The Smithsonian also has on display another William Ellery watch with the serial number of 67631. This watch is the 18th watch produced after Lincoln’s.

Waltham pocket watch advertisement, 1916

Waltham pocket watch advertisement

A 1916 advertisement for the Waltham pocket watch shows that it is still an almost identical model to the one President Lincoln would have owned.

At the time the Waltham Model 1857 watch was presented to Lincoln, American watchmaking was in its infancy, but the watches were, nonetheless, the world’s first machine made watches. The watches with the Ellery movement were plain and simple, selling for just $13. They became hugely popular with Union soldiers. Thousands were sold and by the time of Lincoln’s death in 1865, the year the war ended, William Ellery movements represented about 45% of Waltham’s total sales.

England, the ‘Swiss made’ of the era

1867 Waltham William W Ellery pocket watch

Meanwhile England was at the height of its watchmaking prowess, it was the Switzerland of its day where pocket watches of great intricacy, beauty and value were made by the likes of Parkinson and Frodsham. Many wealthy Americans would travel to Britain to buy the fancier pocket watches that England had to offer.

One can imagine English scorn and snobbery heaped upon early humble and simple mass produced pocket watches from America. Little did they know that within a very short time, American pocket watches, reliable and affordably produced, would have a major impact upon the world stage and spell the end of England’s horological dominance.

Lincoln, the movie

Last picture of President Abraham Lincoln

Artist's impression of Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln

At the time of writing, Steven Spielberg is about to start the cameras rolling on Lincoln, a movie based on the non-fiction account Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns, which centres on inter-cabinet rivalries ahead of the Civil War. The movie will star Daniel Day Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field. It has 2012 Oscar glory written all over it. Maybe we’ll even get to see the famous pocketwatch, or at least a replica.

The top picture is the last one of President Lincoln taken just five days before he was assassinated. The picture below it is an artist’s best guess at how Daniel Day Lewis may look in his major new role. Daniel can’t be an easy guy to be around at the moment; he likes to get so immersed in his roles as to become the person he is portraying. Expect another Gettysburg address any time soon.

Michael Weare | Website

Michael Weare has been a professional writer for 30 years, writing about Japanese technology, German and Italian cars, British tailoring and Swiss watches. Michael manages the editorial content of Click Tempus and will be keeping the magazine fresh and informative with regular features, as well as bringing great writers to the magazine. Email: michael@clicktempus.com

Discuss: President Lincoln and the secret message in a pocketwatch

1 Comment


  1. Meehna

    Great article, entertaining and informative. Thanks for sharing this great story.

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