Tuesday, March 10, 2009
The Hidden Message in a President's Watch
A message hidden from sight for over 150 years. A message engraved on a movement beneath a watch case. Stories told from one to another; from generation to generation, blur around the edges so that the story itself becomes questionable. This was the case with the message engraved on the movement of Abraham Lincoln's pocket watch.
Abraham Lincoln - (February 12, 1809 – April 15, 1865) was the 16th president of the United States who succeeded in leading the country through a period of grave conflict within its borders, the American Civil War, thereby preserving the Union and ending slavery.
In 1861, Irish Immigrant and watchmaker, Jonathan Dillon, was working in a Washington D.C. watch repair shop when Lincoln's watch was brought in for some minor maintenance. He began meticulously repairing the timepiece as the news of the attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina came in. The first breath of the Civil War. Dillon, moved by the news, engraved his name, the date and a message about the current time on the movement of the watch. He told his children about the engravings. Fifty years later, a 84 year old Dillon, related the story to a New York Times Reporter later the wording of his message: The gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a president who at least will try.
At least those were the words he thought he had written.
Dillon had closed the watch case and sent it back to the White House in good working order. Lincoln never knew of the message and Dillon passed on in 1907. In 1958, Lincoln's Watch was given to the Smithsonian Institution. They never knew of the tale. The old watch no longer worked and the watch case remained closed, year after year until now ...
Dillon's great great grandson, Douglas Stiles, a real-estate attorney in Waukegan, Ill remembered and old family legend he had heard as a kid around the dinner table. He wondered if their even was an engraving on the watch. He did a bit of research and discovered the 1906 New York Times article from 1906, which had the interview with Dillon. However, he still was not convinced, Dillon had been interviewed so long after he had actually engraved the watch, maybe it had been just a thought. Last month, Douglas Styles, notified the Smithsonian Museum and immediately their interest was peaked.
This morning in a small conference room on the first floor of the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History, Lincoln's Watch lay like a small time capsule waiting to be opened. The watch was old and had not be opened for years, and the task required the hand of an expert watchmaker, George Thomas. The anticipation mounted as reporters and museum employees viewed the watch via a video monitor.
"The moment of truth has come. Is there or is there not an inscription?"George Thomas said as he carefully removed the case with tiny tweezers and pliers. Suddenly the inscriptions of Dillon were uncovered and a legend sprang to life.
However, the big surprise came in the wording. The wording was not what Dillon himself had remembered.
Douglas Styles read the inscription etched on the metal plate beneath the dial.
It read: "Jonathan Dillon April 13 - 1861, Fort Sumpter was attacked by the rebels on the above date." Another part reads, "Thank God we have a government."
As Douglas Stiles was digesting the confirmation of an old family legend he said,
"My gosh, that was Lincoln's watch," he said, "and my ancestor put graffiti on it!"
Lincoln's pocket watch was one of his only valuable possessions which he brought from Springfield Ill. The watch has gold case and it is stamped as coming from the George Chatterton jewelers in Springfield, Ill., where Lincoln was known to shop. The watch, Thomas said, would be the equivalent to a timepiece costing "$5,000 or more" today.
Lincoln wore this watch everyday through tumultuous upheavals never once knowing that his watch bore the writings of a Irish immigrant watchmaker who sat at his workbench on Pennsylvania Avenue.