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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.