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After 148 years Abraham Lincoln's watch gives up a secret even he didn't know

March 12, 2009 |  6:52 am

President Abraham Lincoln and son Tad April 10, 1865

OK, technically this is not a politics item. Not current politics anyway. But it is about a politician, which is good enough for us because it's so fascinating.

It concerns Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president, who was much mentioned last month on the bicentennial of the birth of America's tallest president (6-foot-4) and first Republican and two months ago around the inauguration of Democrat Barack Obama, who like Lincoln wasn't from Illinois either but claimed it later in life.

It seems that frugal, sad Lincoln, who lost his mother at 10, three of his four sons to early deaths, a wife to mental illness and presided over the worst casualty-strewn conflict in the nation's history to hold the fragile nation together before being assassinated, had at least one little-known personal luxury in his foreshortened 56 years of life: his pocketwatch.

Rail splitter-lawyer-legislator Lincoln, not known as an attentive dresser, apparently purchased the expensive gold watch during the 1850s in Springfield, Ill., a kind of status symbol in those days with an American casing and fine British internal works from Liverpool.

Look in the photo of Lincoln and son Tad above, taken but four days before the president was shot in the back of the head on a bad Good Friday in 1865. You can't see a pocketwatch in the photo. But you can just make out the chain to it looping across his vest.

It seems that on the day the Civil War started (if you're reading this down South, that's the War Between the States), Lincoln's treasured watch was in the hands of a Washington watchmaker named Jonathan Dillon for repairs. They were completed and the watch returned to the White House and the president.

But Dillon subsequently told his family that, unbeknownst to the president, on hearing news of the Civil War he had secretly etched onto the timepiece's internal works the date April 13, 1861, his name and a message about the war's first guns firing, the end of slavery and the good president.

That story of the hidden secret message was passed down from family generation to generation. In 1958, the watch itself ended up in the Smithsonian Institution, inoperative, where it has rested until this week.

Recently, a great-great-grandson of Dillon's alerted the museum to the family story and its apparent confirmation from a newspaper article the year before the watchmaker died in 1907.

This week, the Smithsonian had a jeweler carefully open Lincoln's watch. And, as recounted by the Smithsonianmag.com and by the Watchismo blog, excited history buffs did indeed find an etched, long-secret message, though not quite the one passed down.

To see what they found, scroll down or click on the "Read more" line below.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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President Abraham Lincoln's personal pocketwatch in the Smithsonian Institution

The inside of President Abraham Lincoln's personal pocketwatch carrying the secretly etched message from a watchmaker the day the Civil War started

Inside Lincoln's watch Smithsonian officials found the following inscription: "Jonathan Dillon April 13- 1861 Fort Sumpter was attacked by the rebels on the above date J Dillon April 13-1861 Washington thank God we have a government Jonth Dillon"

Three years later, another likely jeweler etched his name too and someone added "Jeff Davis," an apparent reference to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Photo (top): Lincoln and son Tad. Credit: Getty Images 

Photo (bottom): Abraham Lincoln's watch. Credit: Smithsonian Institution via Watchismoblog.com

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