The discovery and disappearance of Quantrill’s watch

In 1962, the personal pocket watch of William Quantrill was proudly on display at the Jackson County Historical Society’s 1859 Jail and Museum
when professional thieves had a different plan for it.

The only known photo of Quantrill’s watch. Courtesy of Jackson County Historical Society.

The Discovery and Disappearance of Quantrill’s Watch

By Diane Euston

Today, no physical relics of notorious guerrilla leader William Clarke Quantrill exist for the spectator to see inside a museum. But in 1962, the personal pocket watch of Quantrill’s was proudly on display at the Jackson County Historical Society’s 1859 Jail and Museum at 217 N. Main St. in Independence, Mo. Professional thieves had a different plan for this important piece of American history when they pried open a glass case and took nine objects on display at the jail and disappeared into the night.

Quantrill and His Lost Watch

 Quantrill (1837-65) was a hero to the Confederacy and a thorn in the side of the Union during the Border Wars and Civil War. As Jayhawkers terrorized the pro-slavery

William Quantrill

Missourians by burning their homes and pillaging their property, Quantrill’s Raiders ran through the brush and sought retribution. A school teacher-turned bushwhacker, Quantrill was known to ride throughout the border counties of Missouri with his followers and sought shelter within the homes of Southern sympathizers.

 In 1862, supposedly while his band was riding through the country and being pursued by Federal troops, Quantrill and some of his men stopped at the farm of James Hickman (misprinted as Hicklin in some records) near Greenwood to have dinner. As the men tried to leave, Quantrill became aware that he had lost his watch in an orchard on the property. With troops hot on their tracks, Quantrill searched for over an hour for his watch to no avail.

 The next day, Quantrill returned to the Hickman farm to look for his lost property. He asked for Hickman to keep an eye out for the watch and offered a large reward, yet the watch wouldn’t resurface until many years after Quantrill was killed and his misguided deeds were all but a memory to the citizens of western Missouri.

The Relic is Found

 In September 1894, heavy rains hit the area and unearthed the prized watch. It had stayed under layers of soil and miraculously was recovered before farm equipment ripped it into pieces. According to the Kansas City Star, the watch was picked up by Hickman 32 years later “when the owner’s bones had been dust for many years and his daring and heartless deeds almost forgotten.”

 The pocket watch case was brass and at one time was gold plated. When it emerged from the ground, the wheels were almost completely intact even after being exposed to the elements for over three decades. The name “Charley Quantrell” was rudely cut on the back cover of this artifact, etched away by the blade of a simple pocket knife.

 In a few short months, the mysterious watch had been sold to Jack Atkins, a jeweler in Greenwood. He poured acid on it to see what it was made of and that revealed even more of the inscription. The watch was even sent to the Kansas City Star “for inspection” and was deemed a true relic of Quantrill’s. It was stated, “All the old settlers in the neighborhood where it was lost and found remember the circumstance of Quantrill losing his watch.” Daniel Williams, a Greenwood resident, said he watched Quantrill carve into it with his own eyes. William Quantrill was known to go by the alias “Charley Hart” while he was a school teacher in Lawrence.

 In 1895, the watch was on display in one of the stores in Pleasant Hill and by 1910, Kansas City resident A.M. Winner was the proud owner. By the early 1960s, the Jackson County Historical Society had possession of the watch and were proudly displaying it at the 1859 Jail and Museum, opened in 1959.

Quantill's watch stolen
As printed in the Kansas City Times. 

The Watch is Stolen

 Sometime in the late hours of November 17th or early on November 18th, 1962, nine objects were stolen from the 1859 Jail and Marshal’s Museum, run by the Jackson County Historical Society. Burglars, presumed to be professionals, pried open five glass display cases. No evidence was found of forced entry.

 In addition to the watch, the thieves made away with a replica of a Colt revolver, a five inch Derringer pistol, a Winchester rifle, a telescope, Bowie knife, three Confederate bills, a Lindberg medal and a Navy Colt’s revolver said to be have been used in Quantrill’s Lawrence Massacre. Besides taking cash from the register, the robbers made no attempt at any other artifacts.

 The most valuable of the collection was the Quantrill watch. W. Howard Adams, former president of the Jackson County Historical Society told the Kansas City Star, “The watch is the only object that can be definitely identified with Quantrill.” The watch, rusty around its casing and with its plating worn, held more historical value than a monetary one.

 The Jackson County Historical Society has no records on how they obtained the watch and only one photograph of it is known to exist. At the time, they offered a $500 reward for its return.

Truman coin collection
Former President Harry S. Truman (left) speaking on the acceptance of a coin collection donated to the Truman Library by former Secretary of the Treasury John Snyder (right). March 23, 1962.Courtesy of Harry S. Truman Library.

Another Robbery Linked?

 Exactly one week before Quantrill’s watch was stolen, the Truman Library had a coin collection valued at $50,000 taken from its display. The collection included 444 coins from every administration at the time (Washington to Kennedy). It had been loaned to the Truman Library by Truman’s own former Treasury Secretary, John W. Snyder.

 The robbers cut a small hole in the fencing in the library’s garden and used a drill to get through a lock on one of the outside doors. The FBI was called in, and it was suspected that the heist was “quick and professional.”

 Because of its rarity and the size of the crime, the FBI suspected that someone may keep the whole collection private to show to friends or try to sell it in pieces overseas. Truman told the Kansas City Times, “It is one of the most valuable coin collections of its kind in the country.”

 Although the coin collection has never been found and the burglars were never punished, a coin company owned by Joseph Stack in New York City began a quest to reassemble a collection for the Truman Library. Called the Truman Library Coin Restoration Program, Stack was able to collect donations of coins and cash to reassemble 75% of what was in the original collection.

 On May 6, 1964, the coin collection was presented to Truman himself at the Library. Today, the collection is on loan from the Truman Library and can be seen at the Federal Reserve Money Museum in Kansas City.

Where is Quantrill’s Watch?

 It is unknown even today if the snatching of Quantrill’s watch and the theft of the coin collection at Truman Library are connected, but the evidence points to it being the same professional burglars that were on a mission for specific items. Were these people hired by a private collector overtaken by greed to have some rare items of American history? Does the watch rest in a dusty attic hidden by papers and other artifacts? We may never know, but the item is a piece of our unique history and should be on display for all to see.

 It may be several more decades before the watch, much like its discovery in an orchard outside of Greenwood, is unearthed yet again for the world to take notice.

Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to

1 thought on “The discovery and disappearance of Quantrill’s watch

  1. The theft of Quantrill’s watch is similar to a crime at the Spaulding Hall Museum in Bardstown, Ky. where Quantrill’s blood-stained battle sash was stolen a few years ago. The theft occurred during a rein-actors weekend in Bardstown. A display case was pried open. If anyone has seen the sash for sale, please notify me. Thomas Shelby Watson. My latest book is Confederate Guerrilla Sue Mundy. The publisher is McFarland.

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