On Saturday, April 13, 1861, the day after Confederate artillery had fired upon the Federal garrison at Fort Sumter in South Carolina, President Abraham Lincoln sprang into action, calling up volunteer state armies and strategizing with his cabinet. If Lincoln reached into his waistcoat pocket that day to check his pocket watch, he would not have felt it. Nine blocks away, at Washington’s premier M. W. Galt & Brother jewelry shop on Pennsylvania Avenue and Seventh Street NW, Lincoln’s favorite timepiece—comparable to a Cartier watch today—was undergoing maintenance by an Irish immigrant watchmaker, Jonathan Dillon. The routine cleaning, reoiling, and retiming would have taken four to six hours of Dillon’s Saturday. Before he had completed the work, one of the shop owners burst into the room, announcing the engagement in Charleston Harbor.
War breaking out would have come as no surprise to Dillon, but the news did unleash strong emotions. Once his boss left, he pulled out a pointed scribe and scratched a message into the brass movement of the watch, then refastened the dial.
Four years later, an assassin’s bullet felled Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre. The watch, found in the slain president’s pocket, eventually made its way into the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
More than a century later, Dillon’s great-great-grandson, Douglas Stiles, heard the curious piece of family lore from his great-uncle about an inscription on Lincoln’s watch. Stiles dismissed the story, because “Dillon was Irish, and they tend to exaggerate.” Even so, Stiles couldn’t stop thinking about it. Forty years later, the Illinois attorney dug into the Lincoln Library archives in Springfield, where records showed Lincoln owning two watches: the first an English watch purchased in the 1850s, the second a Danish watch gifted to him during his presidency. Then Stiles discovered a 1906 New York Times interview of Dillon, by then an octogenarian, in which he admitted to inscribing Lincoln’s watch.
Stiles phoned the Smithsonian. “It was an intriguing story,” says museum curator Harry Rubenstein, “But we hear a lot of those here.” Dillon’s strikingly accurate description of the timepiece—a gold English lever watch—and its hidden inscription, however, changed his mind.
On March 10, 2009, Maryland watchmaker George Thomas of the Towson Watch Company opened the watch at the Smithsonian before Stiles, his brother Don, and a troop of suspense-bound reporters from the major press corps, including the New York Times. After a couple of minutes, a smiling Thomas handed the opened watch to Stiles, who looked with amazement on his ancestor’s signature scrawled onto the metal. See a transcription of the inscription, above.
Curiously, a later person inscribed “Jeff Davis” onto the bridge that holds the watch’s center wheel. This was perhaps a response by repairman L. E. Gross, whose inscription is dated 1864. “[Dillon’s] inscription captures, in a way the story by itself doesn’t, the moment the news came to Washington that the war had begun and how people reacted,” says Rubenstein.
The discovery of his link to the Lincoln mythos continues to resonate with Stiles. “Always listen to your elders,” he says. “Stories that are passed down always have some truth to them.”