In the 1850s Abraham Lincoln gathered some cash together and bought a beautiful pocket watch from George Chatterton, a talented jeweler in Illinois. Its 18-carat gold case was a sight to see and was of the finest quality. Lincoln was a successful lawyer at that time and thought it was about time he enjoyed a fine watch both inside and outside of court.
Beyond being a nice watch, there wasn’t anything peculiar about it.
In 1860 Lincoln became the 16th President of the United States, and then in 1861 the Civil War began. During that time period, Lincoln decided he needed to get his watch fixed. The watch was taken to M.W. Galt and Co. in Washington, D.C.
Watchmaker Jonathan Dillon got a bit inspired when he got the watch into his hands. He decided to unscrew the dial and engrave a secret message inside. It wasn’t until 1906, when Dillon was 84, that he told the world about the message.
He shared with the New York Times that his message went something like this:
THE FIRST GUN IS FIRED.
SLAVERY IS DEAD.
THANK GOD WE HAVE A PRESIDENT
WHO AT LEAST WILL TRY.
Dillon signed and dated the inscription, closed the dial, and then went on with his day.
In 2009, Dillon’s great-great-grandson contacted the Smithsonian museum, which had the watch in its possession. Curators agreed to open the watch to verify his claim. Not only was his story true, there were other inscriptions inside.
The following is Dillon’s actual message:
FORT SUMPTER WAS ATTACKED
BY THE REBELS ON THE ABOVE
DATE J DILLON
THANK GOD WE HAVE A GOVERNMENT
As you can see, the inscription was slightly different than Dillon recalled.
And then came the second and third surprise — there was another inscription found within the dial. It was by watchmaker L.E. Gross, who signed his name. There was also another name etched inside that belonged to a “Jeff Davis.” Historians think the name was a part of a joke or a true statement of support for the confederacy.
This behavior amongst watchmakers was nothing new. It was actually quite common for watch repairers to make engravings within the watches they fixed.
Brent D. Class, Director of the National Museum of American History says that Lincoln walked around with his etched dial and never had a clue.