On Abe's Timepiece, Truth Is Watchword

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 11, 2009

For nearly 150 years, Abraham Lincoln's pocket watch has been rumored to carry a secret message, allegedly written by an Irish immigrant and watchmaker named Jonathan Dillon. It sounds like a plot premise for "National Treasure 3," but it was real, or at least a real legend, and it went like this:

Dillon told family members that he was working in M.W. Galt and Co.'s jewelry shop on Pennsylvania Avenue in 1861. By incredible happenstance, he said he was repairing Lincoln's watch when the shop owner burst in with news that Fort Sumter in South Carolina had been attacked. It was the opening salvo of the Civil War.

Dillon told his family (and, four decades later, a reporter for the New York Times) that he opened the watch's inner workings, etched his name, the date and a message for the ages: "The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a President who at least will try."

He then closed it up and sent it back to the White House. Lincoln was assassinated in 1865. Dillon died in 1907. Dillon's descendants told the tale to their children, but it wasn't much more than a shaggy dog story about a colorful ancestor.

The watch, meanwhile, endured.

A gold-cased beauty, it was stamped as coming from the George Chatterton jewelers in Springfield, Ill., where Lincoln was known to shop. Lincoln's son Robert mentioned having his father's watches as late as 1910, and passed at least two along to his children. One watch was given to a museum in Kentucky. The other was donated by Lincoln's great-great-grandson, along with other Lincoln belongings, to the Smithsonian Institution in 1958.

It was put on exhibit every so often, but was mostly kept in storage, a minor artifact.

Then, last year, Doug Stiles, Dillon's great-great-grandson, received a letter from a relative in Ireland. It said that the family had found a letter Dillon had written about the purported message in the watch. Stiles, a 57-year-old real estate lawyer and history buff in Waukegan, Ill., did a quick search on the Internet -- and found a New York Times article from 1906, where Dillon told the story at the age of 84.

Stiles alerted Smithsonian officials at the National Museum of American History last month.

"We'd never heard of this story or even a rumor of this story," said Harry R. Rubenstein, chairman of the museum's Division of Politics and Reform.

Was it truth? Lore?

Yesterday, in a small conference room on the first floor of the museum, officials decided to find out.

In front of an audience of 40 or so reporters and museum employees, expert watchmaker George Thomas used a series of delicate instruments -- tweezers, tiny pliers -- to pull apart Lincoln's timepiece. He put on a visor with a magnifying lens and talked as he worked. Some of the pins were nearly stuck, he explained. The hands of the watch were original. The case was made in America and the workings in Liverpool, England. The Rail-Splitter had either splurged or been given a dandy: The watch, Thomas said, would be the equivalent to a timepiece "you'd pay $5,000 for" today.

He pried off the watch's face, pulled off the hands, and turned it over to see the brass underside of the movement.

The audience, watching on a monitor, gasped.

Split into three different sections to get around the tiny gears was this razor-thin etching: "Jonathan Dillon April 13-1861. Fort Sumpter [sic] was attacked by the rebels on the above date thank God we have a government." He added "Washington" and his name again.

The old man's memory had not been exact. He had not forecast the end of slavery, or Lincoln's critical role in its demise. And the fort had actually been attacked on April 12. (Someone else added the name "LE Grofs" and "1864" to the brass plate, meaning at least one other person had seen it.)

But it was there, a little bit of history that had been hidden at Lincoln's side during those tumultuous days of war and rebellion, the Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address, and then resting, unseen, for nearly a century and a half.

"A real moment of discovery," Rubenstein said.

Stiles, comparing the Fort Sumter attack to a cultural moment akin to "Pearl Harbor or 9/11," was delighted.

"That's Lincoln's watch," he said, after putting it down, "and my ancestor put graffiti on it!"

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