Historical Watches: The Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch

"Secret inscription" revealed after 148 years

Abraham and Tad Lincoln, four days before Lincoln was shot

Abraham Lincoln and son Thomas "Tad" Lincoln taken only four days before
the President was shot in 1865. The chain of Lincoln's pocketwatch

is just visible looping across his vest.

Washington, March 10, 2009 - The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History announced it has found a “secret” message engraved in President Abraham Lincoln’s watch by a watchmaker who was repairing it in 1861 when news of the attack on Fort Sumter reached Washington, D.C.

In an interview with The New York Times April 30, 1906, 84-year-old Jonathan Dillon recalled that he was working for M. W. Galt and Co. on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, where he was repairing Lincoln’s watch. The owner of the shop announced that the first shot of the Civil War had been fired. Dillon reported that he removed the dial of the watch, 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.” He then signed and dated the inscription and closed the dial. Dillon told The New York Times in 1906 that to his knowledge, no one ever saw the inscription.

Hidden inscription on Abraham Lincoln's watchAfter being contacted by Dillon’s great-great-grandson, Doug Stiles of Waukegan, Ill., the museum agreed to remove the dial to see if the watchmaker’s message was inside. The museum did find a message inscribed on the brass underside of the movement. The wording was slightly different from Dillon’s own recollection. The actual engraving says:

Jonathan Dillon

April 13-1861

Fort Sumpter [sic] was attacked

by the rebels on the above

date J Dillon

April 13-1861


thank God we have a government

Jonth Dillon

Other markings of one or more watchmakers also appear on the watch.

“Lincoln never knew of the message he carried in his pocket,” said Brent D. Glass, director of the National Museum of American History. “It’s a personal side of history about an ordinary watchman being inspired to record something for posterity.”

During the 18th and 19th centuries, professional watchmakers often recorded their work inside a watch, and it would typically only be seen by another watchmaker. This inscription remained hidden behind the dial for almost 150 years.

Lincoln allegedly purchased the watch in the 1850s from George Chatterton, a Springfield, Ill., jeweler. Though Lincoln was not outwardly vain, the fine gold watch was a symbol of his success as a prominent Illinois lawyer. In the 19th century, men wore their watches in their clothing pockets. It was not until after World War I that wristwatches became more popular for use by men. The watch came to the museum in 1958 as a gift from Lincoln Isham, Abraham Lincoln’s great-grandson.

Lincoln was elected the 16th President of the United States in November 1860. In January 1861, South Carolina seceded from the Union, and was followed by the secession of six more states before Lincoln’s March 1861 inauguration. On April 12, 1861, the Civil War began with shots fired at Fort Sumter.


A Watchmaker's Perspective on the Lincoln Watch:

Why would a watchmaker take it upon himself to scratch a message under the dial of one of their customer's "fine gold watches," especially if that customer was the President of the United States? Now that's chutzpah! As a watchmaker, I can't imagine scratching a "secret message" on anyone's watch, let alone the President's!

The watch referred to herein was made in Liverpool, but its maker is unknown to us. When this story was originally widely reported in the press, some sources said that "they couldn't get the watch to run." This is not at all surprising given that the 3rd and 4th wheel jewels are quite obviously missing as can be clearly seen in the photo above! Perhaps they should enlist the services of a skilled watchmaker?

Lincoln's Waltham "Wm. Ellery"

According to the biography of Lincoln by Carl Sandburg, Lincoln is also reputed to have owned and carried an 18-size, 11-jewel, Waltham model 1857 "Wm. Ellery", SN 67613 (key-wind in silver hunter case), which was presented to Lincoln after he gave the Gettysburg address. According to Waltham serial number records, Lincoln's Wm. Ellery would have been made around January of 1863, about 6 months prior to the battle of Gettysburg and 11 months prior to Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the Soldiers National Cemetery at Gettysburg. Lincoln's Waltham watch is currently housed in the Museum of American History at the Smithsonian.

Perhaps Honest Abe used his reliable American Waltham while his fancy Liverpool watch was in the shop having the jewels taken out? Or more likely his new American Waltham supplanted the Liverpool watch as the President's daily timekeeper. In any case, it's a great story, and a fascinating bit of American watchmaking history!