Robin Pogrebin / New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON — Confirming a rumor that has circulated for generations, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History opened a gold pocket watch that belonged to Abraham Lincoln on Tuesday and discovered a message secretly engraved there by a watchmaker who repaired it in 1861.

“Jonathan Dillon April 13- 1861 Fort Sumpter was attacked by the rebels on the above date. J Dillon,” the brass underside of the watch movement reads.

The inscription continues: “April 13- 1861 Washington thank God we have a government Jonth Dillon.”

The story of the engraving had been passed down through the years by descendants of Jonathan Dillon, the watchmaker, without ever being verified. Then one of his great-great-grandsons, Douglas Stiles, a lawyer from Waukegan, Ill., discovered an article in which Dillon described the engraving.

In the article — from April 1906 in The New York Times — Dillon, then 84, recounted that he was working at M.W. Galt & Co., a watch shop on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, in April 1861 when the shop’s owner, Galt, hurried upstairs to tell him, “War has begun; the first shot has been fired.”

“At that moment I had in my hand Abraham Lincoln’s watch, which I had been repairing,” Dillon told the Times, adding that he later learned it was the first watch that Lincoln ever owned.

An immigrant from Waterford, Ireland, he told the Times, “I was the only Union sympathizer working in the shop.”

Bring in the experts

The National Museum of American History acquired the watch in 1958 through a bequest by a great-grandson of Lincoln. Approached by Stiles last year about the Times article, the museum’s curators brought in expert watchmakers to open the timepiece.

“It’s a good opportunity to show how we do the research about the collection,” Brent Glass, the museum’s director, said Tuesday. The opening of the watch was also timed to coincide with “Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life,” an exhibition that opened at the museum in January.

Harry Rubenstein, the curator of the exhibition, said the museum had considered opening the watch in private and then decided to include the public. “It’s a moment of discovery, and you can only discover things once,” he said. “We wanted to share it.”

Working under a strong light with magnifying glasses and minute tools, George Thomas, a master watchmaker from Towson, Md., had a bit of difficulty removing one of the pins but finally opened the back to reveal the underside of the watch movement.

“The moment of truth has come,” he said. “Is there or is there not an inscription?”

He called Stiles, who attended the event with his brother, Don, 57, of Bloomington, Minn., to deliver the verdict. “There is an inscription!” Stiles said with elation.

“My goodness, that’s Lincoln’s watch,” he said later in wonderment. “My ancestor put graffiti on it.”

The inscription is not entirely accurate. Aside from misspelling Sumter, Dillon was evidently unaware that the opening shot of the Civil War had been fired on April 12, not April 13.

It also seems that Dillon’s memory of the message was a little fuzzy as recounted in the 1906 article. He remembered his engraving as reading: “The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a President who at least will try.”

The back of the watch movement also bears two other inscriptions that are less legible, probably engraved by another repairer.

The discovery of the Dillon message is likely to hearten enthusiasts of Lincoln lore. “It’s a different message, but it still has that hopeful sound that the union will hold together, the country will go on,” Rubenstein said. “That Lincoln carried this hopeful message in his pocket unbeknownst to him — it casts you back.”

Glass, the museum’s director, said it came as little surprise that the message did not mention slavery after all; Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in separate executive orders in October 1862 and January 1863.

“In 1861 the preservation of the union was the key issue, and the abolition of slavery came later,” he said.

Presidential notes

Glass likened the watch’s engraving to a note Thomas Jefferson attached to the underside of the writing table on which he wrote the Declaration of Independence. In the note, Jefferson wrote of the importance of preserving the desk because of what it was used for. “I think there is a human instinct to want to communicate to the future,” Glass said.

Thomas said the timepiece was in “mint condition” and had its original hands. He said that it was made in Liverpool in the 19th century, but that the gold case in which it resided for generations was made in the United States.

Although Rubenstein described the timepiece as Lincoln’s “everyday pocket watch,” acquired when he was practicing law in Springfield, Ill., Thomas said it looked almost untouched. “It seems the president did not wear it much,” he said.

At the end of Tuesday’s news conference, museum curators asked if the watch could be wound in the hope that those present could “hear the ticking, the sound that Abraham Lincoln heard,” as Rubenstein said. It was the sole letdown of the day.

“It’s frozen,” Thomas said. “It hasn’t been touched in a hundred years.”

The watch was reassembled and will be returned to view at the museum, along with a detailed photograph and a transcript of the engraving.

“Does it change our view of history? No,” Glass said. “But it adds to our understanding of how an ordinary person was affected by the events of the day.”

Another Lincoln discovery: an old photograph

A collector believes a photograph from a private album of Civil War Gen. Ulysses S. Grant shows President Abraham Lincoln in front of the White House and could be the last image taken of him before he was assassinated in 1865.

If it is indeed Lincoln, it would be the only known photo of the 16th president in front of the executive mansion and a rare find, as only about 130 photos of him are known to exist.

Grant’s 38-year-old great-great-grandson, Ulysses S. Grant VI, had seen the picture before but didn’t examine it closely until late January. A tall figure in the distance caught his eye, although the man’s facial features are obscured.

He called Keya Morgan, a New York-based photography collector and Lincoln aficionado, who helped identify it as Lincoln.

Although authenticating the 2½-by-3½-inch photo beyond a shadow of a doubt could be difficult, several historians who looked at it said the evidence supporting Morgan’s claim is compelling and believable.

Morgan talked Grant, a Springfield, Mo., construction business owner, into taking the photo out of the album and examining it for clues.

Grant carefully removed it and was shocked to see the handwritten inscription on the back: “Lincoln in front of the White House.” Grant believes his great-grandfather, Jesse Grant, the general’s youngest son, wrote the inscription.

Also included was the date 1865, the seal of photographer Henry F. Warren and a government tax stamp that was issued for such photos to help the Civil War effort between 1864 and 1866.

Morgan recalled the well-documented story of Warren’s trip to Washington to photograph Lincoln after his second inauguration in March 1865. Lincoln was killed in April, so the photo could be the last one taken of him.

Historians say it has been decades since a newfound Lincoln image was fully authenticated. And in the Grant photo, it’s not obvious to the naked eye who is standing in front of the executive mansion.

“Once you scan it and blow it up, you can see the whole scenario — there’s a giant standing near the White House,” Morgan said.

— The Associated Press