THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
When the first shots of the American Civil War were fired in 1861, a small watch factory in Waltham, Massachusetts, struggled to survive. Not even a decade old, the American Watch Company had been recently reorganized, and the new leadership was desperate to rejuvenate the failing business.
Seizing an opportunity with the war underway, the American Watch Company designed a watch for Union soldiers, named the “William Ellery” after a signer of the Declaration of Independence. By the end of the war, the “soldier’s watch” proved to be a tremendous success, accounting for nearly half of the company’s production.
It was one of these Wiliam Ellery watches that left the Waltham factory in early 1863 and found its way into the possession of President Abraham Lincoln. Considering the patriotic origin, it may seem odd that the president reluctantly kept this American watch hidden away in a drawer instead of proudly worn in his vest pocket.
Lincoln was advised to wear a gold watch instead, more fitting for the American president even though the watch was made in Europe.
According to production ledgers maintained at the American Watch Company, the factory manufactured Lincoln’s William Ellery watch movement (#67613) in January 1863 as an 18-Size Full-plate model featuring seven jewels and a solid steel balance. The movement was fitted in a coin silver case with serial number E279.
How Abraham Lincoln acquired the William Ellery watch remains a mystery. Some reports claim the watch was presented to Lincoln following his famous Gettysburg Address. However, this is unlikely due to the relative production date and lack of presentation inscription. Regardless, Lincoln’s watch was certainly acquired during the Civil War and represents the only known American-made watch owned by the president.
Following the 1864 riots in Charleston, Illinois, Dennis F. Hanks traveled to Washington to petition the president to release several imprisoned citizens. Hanks was not just any ordinary citizen, however. Dennis Hanks and Abraham Lincoln were cousins, benefiting from a bond that extended back to Lincoln’s childhood. For this reason, the group in Charleston chose Hanks as the ideal candidate to make such a plea to President Lincoln.
On his way to Washington, a group of thieves robbed Hanks and stole his watch. He later relayed this story to President Lincoln during his visit to the White House.
Having compassion for his cousin and life-long friend, Lincoln retrieved the silver watch from his desk and presented it to Hanks. According to Hanks’ recollection of the story, Lincoln somberly stated:
“Here is my watch, Dennis, keep that. They don’t allow me to have anything like that here. I must have one like this.” And with that, Lincoln pulled a gold watch from his pocket for comparison.
After his visit, Hanks gleefully traveled back to Illinois with the silver watch and the good news that his friends would soon be released from prison, despite strict objection from Lincoln’s Secretary of War.
When Hanks returned to Illinois, he had the front of the silver watch case engraved with his initials: DFH. These details are recorded in an affidavit by Hanks in May 1891, shortly before his death.
“I, Denis F. Hanks, aged ninety-two years, make the following statement of Abraham Lincoln, and a watch once owned by him and now in possession of Mrs. M. M. Barney a granddaughter of mine: This watch was presented to me by Abraham Lincoln in 1864 at Washington city, D. C., where I had gone to intercede for some men who had been in a riot at Charleston, Ills. The watch he gave me is a silver “Waltham” case No. E279- Wm. Ellery movement - key-winder- No. 67613 Boston, Mass. The initials, (D. F. M.,) were engraved by Joseph Dikob, of Charleston, Ill., after I returned home. I am a full cousin of Abraham Lincoln, and taught him to read and write.”
In 1892, the watch was acquired for $500 by Charles F. Gunther from Mrs. Barney to exhibit in his war museum at the Old Libby Prison. A year later, Gunther proudly displayed the watch at the Columbia Exposition in Chicago.
After Gunther’s war museum failed, Lincoln collector Oliver R. Barrett purchased the watch for his private collection. In February 1952, Parke-Bernet Galleries auctioned Barret’s impressive collection. Interestingly, the Waltham Watch Company (American Watch Company) purchased the watch for $1,600. And with that, Lincoln’s William Ellery watch was headed back to its origin in Waltham, Massachusetts as an artifact of pride.
After the watch factory closed in the late 1950s, the watch was acquired by King V. Hostick and put on exhibit in the Lincoln Room at the Illinois State Historical Library.
By February 1959, famed Lincoln collector Roy P. Crocker had acquired the watch. Crocker was president of the Lincoln Savings & Loan in Los Angeles, where the timepiece was placed on permanent display in the lobby. Unfortunately, this represents the last known location of the watch before its mysterious fate.
In March 1977, thieves broke into the Lincoln Savings & Loan and stole Lincoln’s William Ellery watch by dismantling the security case from below. The timepiece that Lincoln generously gifted to Dennis Hanks after his watch was stolen more than a century ago was now a victim of the same fate.
Various online sources falsely claim this watch is located at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. However, the only Lincoln watch in the collection is an English watch with a remarkable story - not the William Ellery watch.
Interestingly, an anonymous user of the Pocket Watch Database research site submitted a correction for Lincoln’s William Ellery watch serial number in early 2019, reporting the regulator location differed from the provided movement illustration at the time. While it is not impossible to derive this information from similar movements, the report certainly raises suspicion. Perhaps the fabled watch is now secretly hiding in a private collection somewhere.
This article was contributed by Nathan Moore, a historian of American horology. Nathan is the creator of The Pocketwatch Database, a research site dedicated to the history and products of early American watch companies.