Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Hidden Message in Lincoln's Watch

By Lisa Karon Richardson

1861 was a significant year in US History. The whole nation seemed to poise on a teeter-totter just waiting to plunge into war. And yet, the normal exigencies of human existence continued. Despite the momentous events in Washington and Richmond, clothes still required washing. Heedless of the cataclysm developing, people had to keep paying their bills. And even something as reliable as a pocket watch might need to be sent for repair.

In fact, Abraham Lincoln’s watch was in the shop when news of the attack on Fort Sumter reached Washington D.C.

On April 30, 1906, The New York Times interviewed 84-year-old Jonathan Dillon. He was the watchmaker repairing Lincoln’s watch. The owner of the shop, M.W. Galt and Co, brought news of the battle to his employees. Dillon then unscrewed the dial of the watch, and scratched a message on the metal beneath:

‘The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a President who at least will try.’

He signed and dated the inscription and closed the dial. To his knowledge no one ever saw the inscription.

By 2009 the Smithsonian Institute had acquired the watch. After being contacted by Dillon’s great-great-grandson, with the bit of family lore, the museum agreed to open up the watch and see if the watchmaker’s message was indeed inside.

Unlike Geraldo’s search for Al Capone’s treasure, the museum did find a message inscribed on the brass underside of the movement. The inscription was worded differently than Mr. Dillon had recalled. 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
Washington Thank God we have a government
Jonth Dillon’

It appears that Mr. Lincoln never knew or suspected the message he carried inside his watch. And for some reason I find the whole episode fascinating. The compulsion to record history seems to be fairly commonplace. But to record your words secretly, and to literally carve them into metal? I wonder if he meant them as a blessing or a kind of talisman?

--With thanks to the Smithsonian Institute

Do you keep a journal or diary? Have you heard of any similar stories of hidden messages coming to light generations after they were left behind? What message would you like to pass down?

Influenced by books like The Secret Garden and The Little Princess, Lisa Karon Richardson’s early books were heavy on boarding schools and creepy houses. Now that she’s (mostly) all grown-up she still loves a healthy dash of adventure and excitement in any story she creates, even her real-life story. She’s been a missionary to the Seychelles and Gabon and now that she and her husband are back in America, they are tackling a brand new adventure, starting a daughter-work church in a new city. Her novella, Impressed by Love, part of the Colonial Courtships collection, is coming in October, 2012. And in November The Magistrate’s Folly is coming from Heartsong Presents.


  1. Wow! That is so fascinating/intriguing! I took a class on Civil War history last semester and I'm currently taking a class on American Military History (through the Reconstruction period), so I loved reading about this. Thanks for sharing! :)


  2. I thought the whole story was fascinating too, Amber. Though I still can't quite put my finger on why I think so! Your classes sound really interesting. Any history class is good as far as I'm concerned!

  3. Oh my gosh, this is too cool, Lisa!

    I have a few old family pocket watches myself, and my great uncle was a watchmaker so this really fascinates me. Plus, it's LINCOLN!

    I'd like a message about salvation left after me but where do you find things that don't get thrown out anymore? My Ipod won't be a family treasure, I'm sure...

    thanks Lisa. fascinating story.
    Amber, I'm jealous of your history classes!

  4. Deb, I had no idea about your family history! How cool to have a watchmaker great-uncle. Wonder if he ever carved a message? Maybe it was traditional that they left "their mark" I have no idea!

    You're right though that our society is very disposable. Nobody fixes stuff anymore, we just replace it. I guess we'll all have to invest in good jewelry. It's about the only thing that wouldn't get pitched!

  5. How very cool, Lisa. I think it's interesting that he inscribed his own name three times in three different ways.

    Wouldn't it be funny if it really was a tradition that watchmakers always inscribed something inside pocket watches when they repaired them?

    Uh oh. I'm thinking this would be a fun little device to use in a mystery novel. Hmmm...

  6. You know, Suzie, For some strange reason I had the same thought!!

  7. Yes, was just thinking it needs to be in a plot somewhere. It has a "National Treasure" feel to it.

  8. Good analogy, Barb. No getting any bright ideas and breaking into Mount Vernon or Monticello though, ladies!

  9. The Clue in the Old Watch ???


    The Watchmaker's Cipher ???

  10. The Clue in the Old Watch sounds like a Nancy Drew title. I like the Watchmaker's Cipher! Now we just need a story to go with it. Perhaps there should be significance to the fact that he put his name on there 3 times and w/3 different spellings. Maybe that's an indication that a set of evil triplets is involved?

  11. And again, Lisa amazes me with her history-detective-fact-mining skill! This is a really cool story. Not only that the inscription was there, but that the watch survived all these years.

  12. And again, Lisa amazes me with her history-detective-fact-mining skill! This is a really cool story. Not only that the inscription was there, but that the watch survived all these years.

  13. I want to leave the message: Beauty will save the world :) Been reading a book by that name and love the premise. Basically about how people are drawn to the beauty of God, not logic or power or politics.

  14. Lisa, I thought that sounded Nancy Drew-ish. Love her! I'm thinking we should brainstorm.

    Dina, I like your thought for a legacy.

  15. Lisa - I thought the same thing. A Nancy Drew title!

    This story has all of our creative juices flowing. Excuse me while I grab a paper towel.

    Great post!

  16. Jen, not so amazing when you aren't necessarily trying to find something specific, and just want to share what you found interesting.

  17. Dina, that sounds like it would be a great prophecy in a fairytale. Very interesting premise too. I guess you'll just have to tell your kids if you don't have access to a president's pocket watch.

  18. Thanks for cleaning up the mess, Deb.

    Suzie, I think we're already brainstorming!

  19. Fascinating, Lisa, the message and the disremembering what was written.

    How hard this makes research for us--that no one remembers events accurately even if they got them firsthand. Still, it's fun to dig up these little tidbits.

    I do keep a journal. I think, if I knew ahead of time I was going to die, I'd destroy it. Or I should encrypt it so no one else can read it.

    PS: Just read A Little Princess again for the fun of it. I love that book.

  20. You make an interesting point, Laurie Alice. We all tend to cast ourselves in a bit of a rosy light in our memory. I certainly thought Mr. Dillon's recollection of what he wrote was zippier than what he actually wrote. But he had years for his mind to come up with something "better."

    I need to pull out my copy of A Little Princess and read it again. My daughter is 6 and hopefully she'll want to read it together in a couple years.

  21. I've never heard this story before. Fascinating.

  22. What a cool story! It makes me wonder what other sorts of secrets are out there...

    Thanks, Lisa.

  23. Ooh! Reminds me of a news story I read that prompted my first NaNoWriMo novel (still unfinished). Someone was remodeling a house and found a note scribbled on one of the beams... a murder confession!

    And our parent church had everyone come and write on the beams and drywall during construction, scriptures, prayers, stuff like that.

  24. Thanks, DeAnna! I still wish I could define why I find it fascinating!

    Susie, it made me wonder the same thing.

  25. Niki, you've got to finish that story! I'll buy it!

    When our church was being built they did the same thing. There are prayers of blessing all over the "bones" of the church. I thought that was a cool touch.

  26. Hmm. Niki, we found arsenic in the beams of our Victorian house. (I think it was probably for rodent control. Still...)

    Neat story, Lisa. We have an old pocket watch that belonged to dh's g-grandfather who was in the Civil War. Don't know whether he had the watch then or whether he got it after the war.

  27. Maybe you should crack that puppy open and see if it contains any messages, CJ? Very carefully of course!

  28. COOL! My mom and dad bought an old house for a rental and found an antique gun in the rafters of the garage/barn.

  29. That's cool, Niki. Have any of you guys seen that HGTV show where they look at the stuff people have found when restoring an old home? Very interesting stuff. Feels almost like voyeurism, peeking into the past.


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