Secret message found in Lincoln’s pocket watch

The descendants of Jonathan Dillon, Abraham Lincoln’s watchmaker, have had a family legend that their ancestor carved a graffito in Lincoln’s watch after the attack on Fort Sumter and then returned it to the president without telling him.

Dillon told his children (and, half a century later, a reporter for the New York Times) that he opened the watch’s inner workings and scrawled 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.”

The gold watch is now at the Smithsonian where watchmaker George Thomas has taken it apart gear by gear to solve the mystery once and for all.

Turns out, Mr. Dillon’s hindsight wasn’t exactly 20/20. He didn’t actually make any predictions about slavery, but he did mark the opening salvo of Civil War.

Split into three different sections to get around the tiny gears, was this razor-thin etching: “Jonathan Dillon April 13, 1861. Fort Sumter was attacked by the rebels on the above date. Thank God we have a government.”

Douglas Stiles, Dillon’s great-great grandson, is thrilled to bits. He’s the one who alerted the Smithsonian about the family legend and the New York Times article from 1906 he just found out about last month.