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)

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This story is full of ironies. And so we must pause here to reflect on one. It was February 12, Lincoln's 200th birthday, when the phone on Rubenstein's desk rang. The caller was Douglas Stiles, a 59-year-old attorney and genealogy expert, from Waukegan, Illinois. Stiles is also Dillon's great, great grandson.

The evidence was not overwhelming. All that Stiles had to offer was a bit of family lore and a newspaper article written 45 years after the fact. Could the stranger calling convince a museum curator to pull a national icon from display, to bring in an expert craftsman to disassemble the delicate, historical artifact, and to take a huge chance that nothing, in fact, could be there?

But, Rubenstein's interest was piqued and the decision was made.

"It's sort of amazing," Rubenstein said in an interview last week before the watch was opened, "when you think that two years before the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln is carrying this hopeful message in his pocket, and never knowing it."

A month after that initial call, in an elegant museum back room, photographers crowded around jeweler George Thomas who was seated at a makeshift craftsman's bench. As the hour approached, Rubenstein solemnly stepped forward. Lincoln's gold pocket watch was delivered to the bench.

Thomas went to work with tiny screwdrivers, tweezers and levers. Stopping occasionally to flex his fingers, he added tension to anticipation. "It will be awhile," he warned, obviously enjoying the drama. Stiles, accompanied by his wife Betsy and his brother Don from Bloomington, Minnesota, took a few deep breaths and readjusted himself in his chair. Finally Thomas, after unscrewing several tiny pins from the watch face, delicately lifted the plate and murmured, "The moment of truth."

Douglas Stiles is invited to read his ancestor's 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."

The message was there. Yet there is no mention of slavery, nor did it say anywhere that Lincoln was the right man for the job.

Perhaps Dillon had grander intentions in mind as he hurriedly etched his note into the watch on that fateful day. In the march of time, what human doesn't add a flourish or two?

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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