The Secret Message

A newly discovered inscription on Lincoln’s watch offers a parable about myth and memory.

Oh me of little faith.

This is about a family story. Family stories are funny things—our private mythology, the tales we tell ourselves about who we are. They’re rarely true, and almost never public. I certainly didn’t expect my favorite, into which I’ve woven my toddler son, to enter national mythology—or be proved true.

It goes like this. For the last four years of Abraham Lincoln’s life, he carried a secret message from Jonathan Dillon, my great-great-grandfather. Dillon, who belonged to a long line of watchmakers, emigrated from Ireland to the United States and found a job in a repair shop in Washington, D.C. He was fixing Lincoln’s watch in April 1861 when the owner announced that Fort Sumter had been attacked. Dillon engraved the back of the dial, “The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a President who at least will try.” He closed up the watch and returned it to Lincoln, who knew nothing about it.

I’ve always loved this story. But, having written a biography of Jesse James, I knew family lore is unreliable. (If one-tenth of the stories about James were true, he would have been the best-recognized man in Missouri.) I told it anyway—especially after my son Dillon was born in 2007. After all, who would prove me wrong? Who would dare to tear open Lincoln’s watch to check?

The Smithsonian, that’s who. And not because of me, even though I write about nineteenth-century America for a living. Maybe I’ve got too much of the cynicism that professionals develop about their chosen fields. I never really thought that the story was true, or that a major institution would respond to a request to investigate.

It took my second cousin, real-estate attorney Douglas Stiles, a man with a passion for family history and a lot of nerve. After finding a 1906 New York Times interview of Jonathan Dillon, my cousin tracked one of Lincoln’s watches to the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History, and convinced director Brent D. Glass to literally look into it.

That investigation happened earlier this week, at the opening day of a Lincoln exhibit on March 10, to which Glass invited my cousin. He and a corps of reporters observed as a watch expert carefully unscrewed the casing. And there it was: the secret message from my great-great-grandfather.

Mind you, there was a discrepancy between memory and reality. Dillon did not leave a prescient message about the death of slavery—something few predicted at the start of the war. Instead, he squeezed in the following disjointed passages: “Jonathan Dillon April 13, 1861 Fort Sumpter was attacked by the rebels on the above date. J Dillon,” and “April 13, 1861 Washington thank God we have a government Jonth Dillon.” And he misdated the attack on Fort Sumter (which he misspelled).

As a descendant, and father of a boy named Dillon, I don’t care much about the errors in memory, compared with the secret that my ancestor left in Lincoln’s pocket. (My son is now equipped for life with grist for show-and-tell and breaking the ice at parties.) And it’s a well-deserved triumph for my cousin.

But the discrepancy is a reminder that family stories—even well-founded ones—are closer to mythology than to history. Dillon remembered doing more than scratching a few hasty words. (“That’s Lincoln’s watch,” my cousin aptly said, “and my ancestor put graffiti on it!”) In retrospect, he connected himself to the war’s great moral and historical accomplishment, the death of slavery.

History is messier and dirtier than mythology, because it’s lived by human beings. Take, for example, another great-great-grandfather, William Hathaway Stiles, whose son married the daughter of Jonathan Dillon. The son of a sea captain who had started a clothing firm in New York, William entered the family trade, and went bankrupt. But that was just a start.

As I worked on my forthcoming book, I idly typed Willliam’s name into the New York Times’s historical database. Up came a story from 1900, headlined, “STILES LOCKED UP HERE.”

William had embezzled $38,000 as executor of his late business partner’s estate. His partner’s daughter found out in 1897. Already past 70, William changed his name and went on the lam, until the police finally tracked him down in South Bend, Indiana. That story never made it into family lore.

One great-great-grandfather left a secret patriotic message for Lincoln, and the other stole an inheritance from his partner’s only child. I’m more than surprised that one of these stories has entered our national mythology, though not at which one. The fact is, we need myth, because it reminds us of who we want to be, of the world we want to live in—one where the plucky, patriotic watchmaker offers silent encouragement to the Great Emancipator. But the thief is always out there, an equal member of the family, whether we want to remember him or not.