Pesky Details: The Authenticity of the Lincoln Flag

The flags decorating the theater box where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated were almost an afterthought, but they became central to the legend and lore surrounding his assassination.

“National Republican Nominations,” Union and Journal (Biddeford, ME), August 3, 1860

“In One Fatal Crash,” Evening World (New York), June 9, 1893

On April 14, 1865, just hours before the President arrived at Ford’s, John Ford, the proprietor of the theater, thought it appropriate to adorn the box where Lincoln would sit to watch the evening’s play.  Five flags stood sentry: three American flags and two Treasury Guard flags.  After shooting President Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth jumped from the box to the stage, catching his spur on one of the Treasury Guard flags and tripping.  That flag could have stopped Booth in his tracks.  But despite breaking his leg, he managed to run out of the theater and into the night.

 

 

 

“The Flag that Tripped Booth,” New York Tribune, January 30, 1898

 

“Lincoln Assassination Date Recalled,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), April 15, 1934

There under one roof lay a dying president, an escape artist assassin, theater goers and actors.  Amidst the commotion, Laura Keene, one of the actresses performing in the play and the “only person who seemed to realize the situation,” made her way to the presidential box with a pitcher of water.  She cradled the dying president’s head in her lap, and Thomas Gourlay, a fellow actor, grabbed an American flag to cushion Lincoln’s bleeding head.  Ms. Keene’s dress cuffs were stained with drops of President Lincoln’s blood.  Recognizing the importance of those cuffs Ms. Keene kept them as a keepsake and gave them to her nephew.  Today they’re in the collection of the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History, the sort of museum most would expect such Lincolniana to be.

 

As for the Lincoln Flag that so captured imaginations, Thomas Gourlay bequeathed it to his daughter, who also was at Ford’s Theater on the night of the Lincoln assassination.  She passed on the flag to her son who donated it to the Pike County (Pennsylvania) Historical Society, a small museum with yearly visits numbering around 1500.

 

Advertisement, The Sun (New York, NY), January 11, 1914

End of story.  Or is it?

 

The United States is dotted with museums, with nearly every county in the country home to some sort of historic display.  If one museum—in this case, the Pike County Historical Museum—can boast ownership of the very flag where the President took his last breaths, of course it’s going to be advertised with fanfare.  It’s the holy grail of America.  But precisely because the Pike County Historical Museum is so small, to many, it seems unlikely such an important relic of history would be there. It left the authenticity of the Lincoln Flag open to scrutiny for years.

“New Interest in Flag,” Pocono Record (The Stroudsburgs, PA), February 3, 1968. From NewspaperARCHIVE

Even the then director of the Pike County Historical Society Museum, which owns the Lincoln Flag, questioned its genuineness.  But that’s exactly what Charles Clausen did in 2000.  He declared, “I’m not saying the flag isn’t what it’s billed as, but until we can truly authenticate it, I don’t believe we should display it as anything more than a legend.”  He was promptly fired from his job.

“Authenticity of Lincoln Flag in Question,” Daily News (Huntingdon, PA), April 13, 2000. From NewspaperARCHIVE

But Clausen had a point: the Lincoln Flag has 36 stars when in 1865, only 33 stars should have appeared on the flag.  Michael Malone, Ford’s Theatre historian, explained that in the 1800s, flag makers didn’t have standards, and that the number of stars on the Lincoln Flag in no way discredits it as the flag on which the President lay dying.

Other historians support the legitimacy of the Lincoln Flag, confirming that the blood on the flag is human blood, and the blood stains are contact stains, consistent with the death of the President.

To this day, the flag at the Pike County Historical Society is considered the Lincoln Flag, and as the Los Angeles Times pointed out in 1996, it is unlikely any definitive DNA test will be done on it.  Not that it couldn’t happen.  Ms. Keene’s cuffs have blood, and so does the flag.  DNA can be tested for about 1.5 million years.

2 Comments

  1. Tom Carrier
    June 11, 2019 at 9:03 pm

    Whoa! The details are always the most interesting.

    This story is akin to the Shroud of Turin, the cloth Jesus was supposedly wrapped with after taken down from the cross. Displayed for centuries, it was finally radio carboned in 1988 to the Middle Ages, 1400 years after the event was supposed to have occurred Is that the same scenario here?

    I do take issue with the fact that the flag of April 1865 should only have 33 stars, though.

    “But Clausen had a point: the Lincoln Flag has 36 stars when in 1865, only 33 stars should have appeared on the flag”

    Officially the flag of the US as of April 1865 should have at least 35 stars when West Virginia was granted statehood as the 35th state in June 1863 (all new states are officially admitted on the next July 4th after they are granted). Nevada was granted statehood as the 36th state in October 1864, 6 months before Ford’s Theatre.

    “Michael Malone, Ford’s Theatre historian, explained that in the 1800s, flag makers didn’t have standards, and that the number of stars on the Lincoln Flag in no way discredits it as the flag on which the President lay dying.” As a vexillologist, I’m aware that it was definitely not unusual for flagmakers of the era to add stars prematurely before the official admission of a new state the following July 4th. It seems to me, then, a 36 star flag in Ford’s Theatre in April 1865 is plausible and Michael Malone is correct.

    Like the Shroud of Turin, the Vatican finally did the responsible thing and authorized its own radiocarbon test proving it a 600 year old forgery, but still an important icon.

    Isn’t it about time to do a DNA test on the blood of the cuffs and the flag to finally determine its connection to Abraham Lincoln, the County museum’s objection notwithstanding?

    Perhaps they are afraid that the official outcome will prove it is not the blood of Lincoln, but like the Shroud, a forgery.

    However, if it is determined authentic, the flag must be conveyed with ceremony to the custody of the United States and the small County Museum will have to rely on its own local history for visitors once again. And that may be what the objection to testing is really all about.

  2. Jeff Bridgman
    June 11, 2019 at 9:34 pm

    Ye, I would expect it to have been a 36 star flag. The state was already in and had been since the previous year on Oct. 31st. The fact that the 36th star wasn’t to be officially added to the flag until July 4th, 1865, meant next-to-nothing to flag makers. 36 star flags began to appear even before the 36th state was added.

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