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The Secret Message inside Lincoln's Pocket Watch

The Hidden Message inside Lincoln’s Pocket Watch

On April 13th, 1861 the Confederate forces fired upon Fort Sumter. On this same date President Lincoln’s pocket watch was being repaired at the jewelry shop of M.W. Galt and Company. Watch maker Johnathan Dillon heard the news as he was finishing repairs and retells a story 45 years later in 1906 to The New York Times:

“I was in the act of screwing on the dial when Mr. Galt announced the news. I unscrewed the dial, 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.'"

By 2009 the pocket watch was safely preserved in the Smithsonian after receiving the watch from President Lincoln’s great grandson in 1958. The story of the hidden message engraved inside the watch was not verified as the risk of damaging the delicate watch could be great. Besides, what if nothing was there?

The watch may have remained closed forever except for the urgings of Douglas Stiles, a genealogy expert, attorney and the great, great grandson of the watch maker, Johnathan Dillon, who contacted the Smithsonian. After Stiles spoke to Harry Rubenstein, chief curator of the Smithsonian’s bicentennial exhibition, a decision to open the Lincoln pocket watch was made.

Master jeweler George Thomas was given the task to search for the secret message engraved inside and after much anticipation and suspense, Douglas Stiles was invited to read his ancestor’s inscription. Although different than what Johnathan Dillon recalled in 1906, the pocket watch engraving read:

“Johnathan 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.”

The pocket watch inscription that had been hidden from view behind the dial for nearly one hundred and fifty years was finally unveiled. Most astounding of all “Lincoln never knew of the message he carried in his pocket,” said the director of the National Museum of American History.

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