With the Election Day today, we thought we’d take a look back at the watches belonging to Abraham Lincoln – America’s 16th president.

Lincoln was known to have owned a few pocket watches in his time, but there are two in particular that seem noteworthy: a gold pocket watch and a Waltham pocket watch.

Before the start of the civil war, Lincoln purchased a nice gold pocket watch from George Chatterton, a Springfield Illinois jeweler. Though Lincoln was not outwardly vain, the fine gold watch was a symbol of his success as a prominent Illinois lawyer. In 1958, the watch was given to the Smithsonian Institute by the president’s great-grandson. 

For fifty years, the watch sat in the Institute as little more than another interesting display piece, until a man by the name of Douglas Stiles decided to call the Institute and reveal a potentially undiscovered secret about the watch.

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Lincoln’s Gold Watch

Stiles was the great, great grandson of Jonathan Dillon, who was a watchmaker during the 1860s. 

On April 13, 1861, while working for the M.W Galt and Co. jewelers in Washington, D.C., Dillon was working to repair Lincoln’s watch and heard about the surrender of the Union garrison at Fort Sumter to Confederate forces — and the beginning of the Civil War. 

Forty-five years later in an article in the New York Times, Dillon claimed to have written a message on the inside of the watch underneath the dial:

“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.’

Although there was only this one old article with no real evidence to substantiate its claims, it was decided by the Smithsonian that it would be worthwhile to see if the hundred-year-old rumor was true. 

A month later, George Thomas of the Towson Watch Company was brought in to begin the delicate work of removing the hands and dial.

Witnessed by dozens of reporters, Thomas removed the dial to reveal the movement beneath.  Scratched into the metal was this message:

“Jonathan 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.”

There were two other inscriptions left on the watch in addition to Dillon’s: the signature “LE Grofs Sept 1864 Wash DC” can be read around the center of the movement, as well as the name “Jeff Davis” (most likely “Jefferson Davis,” the leader of the Confederacy) across one of the brass levers.

After witnessing the unveiling, Douglas Stiles mentioned “I feel more in touch with Lincoln,” before adding “Hey, that’s Lincoln’s watch and my ancestor put graffiti on it.”

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Engraving Found Under Watch Dial

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Video Showing Removal of Dial

According to the biography of Lincoln by Carl Sandburg, Lincoln is also reputed to have owned and carried an 18-size, 11-jewel, Waltham “Wm. Ellery” model, which was presented to Lincoln after he gave the Gettysburg address.

That watch is currently housed in the Museum of American History at the Smithsonian.

Lincoln’s Waltham

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