The Secret Message Hidden in Abraham Lincoln’s Pocket Watch

pocket-watchToday I found out about the secret message hidden in Abraham Lincoln’s pocket watch.

On the surface, it could be any other high-end watch from the mid-1800s. Inside, however, amidst the cogs and gears, is a different story. The words “Fort Sumpter was attacked by the rebels. Thank God we have a government” are etched there, though the author of the text remembered writing something a tad different, as you’ll soon see.

The watch was Abraham Lincoln’s. On April 13, 1861, it was being repaired by Jonathan Dillon at M.W. Galt and Co. jewelers. Dillon reported that he was just screwing on the dial when one Mr. Galt approached him with the news that shots had been fired on Fort Sumter.

Fort Sumter was a federal fort in South Carolina, which had seceded from the Union in December 1860—however, because the fort was owned by the federal government, it remained part of the Union and was manned by Union troops. To fire upon the fort was an act of war, and Dillon knew he was hearing of history. Indeed, the shots fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861 kicked off the Civil War.

Forty-five years later, the Union was whole again and Abraham Lincoln was dead. Dillon reported what he did to the New York Times, saying, “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.”

The watch was still around, but for whatever reason the claim about the message wasn’t investigated further—perhaps because people were skeptical of the legitimacy of Dillon’s claim. It wasn’t until Harry Rubenstein, the chief curator of the Abraham Lincoln bicentennial exhibit, received a phone call from Douglas Stiles, Dillon’s great-great-grandson, that the message came to light.

Deciding to check for the message was a slightly risky move as one doesn’t take apart a complex piece of machinery, and a priceless piece of history, on a whim.  Nevertheless, Rubenstein decided to take the risk, and in March 2009 the watch was carefully opened up at the National Museum of American History by master watchmaker George Thomas.

Sure enough, there was a message there, just not quite what Dillon himself had reported, but the sentiment was more or less was the same. Historians speculate that Dillon was rushed while writing the message, and perhaps meant for something with more meaning which he added in the interview with the Times 1906. Alternatively, perhaps he just ran out of room to give his full thought.

Whatever the case, besides Dillon’s message, when they opened the watch in 2009, they were surprised to find other writing as well. Specifically, there are two other messages that were added to Dillon’s: “LE Grofs Sept 1864 Wash DC” and simply, “Jeff Davis.”

Jefferson Davis was, of course, the leader of the confederacy during the Civil War. However, it’s unknown whether he somehow got hold of the watch after the war and scribbled his name in it (unlikely), if someone else named Jeff Davis managed to put his name in the watch, or if someone knew it was Lincoln’s watch and decided to write “Jeff Davis” to be contrary- the 19th century watchmaker version of the classic children’s taunt “Jeff Davis Rules, Lincoln Drools”. 😉

As for LE Grofs, it’s likely that he was another jeweler—the watch would need to be taken in for cleaning every now and then, after all. It’s possible that he wrote “Jeff Davis” in the watch in 1864, at the height of the Civil War.

The inscription find doesn’t change history, of course, but it’s uplifting to think that Lincoln carried a message of support in his pocket during the war, apparently without ever knowing that it was there.

In the end, despite it saying something slightly different than originally reported, Stiles was happy to be able to see his ancestor’s inscription, saying, “That’s Lincoln’s watch and my ancestor put graffiti on it.”

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Bonus Facts:

  • Wearing a gold watch in Lincoln’s time was a sign of success and status. The watch was one of the only items of “vanity” that Lincoln carried on him. It was purchased in Springfield, Illinois in the 1850s, but the watch itself was made in Liverpool, England, and the gold casing was made in an unknown shop in America.
  • This particular pocket watch was an “everyday” watch. However, George Thomas—the man who took the watch apart for the inscription reveal—said it looked like Lincoln hadn’t used it much, it was in such great condition. All the pieces were in fantastic shape, and it even had its original hands.
  • Did you see Lincoln, the Steven Spielberg biographical movie about the late president? If so, you’ve heard the ticking of Abraham Lincoln’s watch. No, it wasn’t this one with the inscription on it—it was the one that Lincoln was wearing when he died. Spielberg doesn’t do anything by halves, and he wanted to include the sound of a watch from Lincoln’s time. This second watch was in the care of the Kentucky Historical Society. They decided to see if the watch, which had been silent for 150 years, would start working again. It did, and the film crew was able to record it for Lincoln. There were many people who were outraged that this happened, because the watch could have been damaged. Spielberg actually approached the Smithsonian about recording the inscription watch, but they turned him down, thinking it was too risky. No real harm was done to the other watch, except it will now need some restoration after being oiled and wound.
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  • Forty-five years later, the Union was whole again
    I think you mean Four to Five years later.

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Chirag: Emily wasn’t saying that the war lasted 45 years, simply that 45 years later, when he told the story of the message, the Union was whole again. 🙂

      • Probably that was what Emily had in mind, but that is not what was in the piece.

        “Forty-five years later, the Union was whole again and Abraham Lincoln was dead. Dillon reported what he did to the New York Times,…”

        The “forty-five years” time period in this sentence is clearly about the Union being whole and Lincoln being dead.

        The presumed intended meaning could have been obtained with some different meaning.

        I write as well, and one of the hazards is to look back, sometime years later, on my own slips. But the satisfaction of writing – and of being read – is usually enough to not fret too much about them. But a mistake it was.

  • It probably would have been “L. E. Gross” not “L. E. Grofs”. It’s easy to mistake a handwritten eszett for an “f”.

    • What you call an “eszett” is also known as a “long s”; it occurs frequently in 18th Century documents (e.g., the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of The United States). The term “eszett” is the name of the combined “sz” which terminate several common German words.

  • Interesting and I am always a fan of historical trivia……hooked me.

  • So what exactly did the message actually say?


  • Fascinating story.

  • Abraham Lincoln was of the same political party as Ted Cruz and the Tea Party, a Republican. The rebels firing on Ft. Sumter were Democrats.

  • The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.
    – Abraham Lincoln

    If I am not mistaken his body was moved from place to place after his assassination.

    Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.
    – Martin Luther King, Jr.

    I detest racialism, because I regard it as a barbaric thing, whether it comes from a black man or a white man.
    – Nelson Mandela