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.