Special Report

Lincoln's Pocket Watch Reveals Long-Hidden Message

The Smithsonian opens one of its prized artifacts and a story unfolds

Abraham Lincoln's pocket watch. (Smithsonian National Museum of American History)

Every living soul can recall with certainty what they were doing when a national tragedy occurs—the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the day in Dallas when John F. Kennedy was assassinated or the events of September 11.

Yet, no one alive today can recall the tragic day in 1861 when Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter, beginning a terrible and tragic war that divided this nation and changed it forever. This week, a stunning find unveiled a personal record that touched the highest levels of government but remained hidden for nearly a century and a half.

On April 13, 1861, Irish immigrant and watchmaker Jonathan Dillon, working for the M.W. Galt and Co. jewelers in Washington, D.C., was repairing President Abraham Lincoln's pocket watch, when he heard of the attack. Forty-five years later, 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.'"

On Tuesday morning, at the National Museum of American History, some 40 reporters and Smithsonian staff witnessed master craftsman and jeweler George Thomas of the Towson Watch Company open Abraham Lincoln's watch to search for Dillon's secret message. Dillon's message was there, but not exactly as he later described it. News of the message inside Lincoln's pocket watch made every local broadcast and the front page of the New York Times. It was a rare moment when a museum, dedicated to the preservation of American history, could be said to be making history. And therein lies a tale.

The watchmaker and the President would never meet. And Lincoln would never know that he carried Dillon's secret message in his pocket.

Lincoln's watch is a fine gold timepiece that the 16th president purchased in the 1850s from a Springfield, Illinois jeweler. It has been in the safe custody of the Smithsonian Institution since 1958—a gift from Lincoln's great-grandson Lincoln Isham.

Harry Rubenstein, chief curator of the museum's bicentennial exhibition "Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life" (on view through 2011), has a fondness for the watch, which today would be the equivalent of a high-end Bulova or Tag Heuer.

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

But in fact, he does care about how people perceive him. One of the status symbols of the 19th century is a gold watch. Lincoln is making a statement. He's carrying a very visible statement of his own success."

About Beth Py-Lieberman
Beth Py-Lieberman

Beth Py-Lieberman is the museums editor, covering exhibitions, events and happenings at the Smithsonian Institution. She has been a member of the Smithsonian team for more than two decades.

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