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HOME > ARTICLES > MAY 2002

THE "LINCOLN FLAG"

by Jeannine Coup

The story of the "Lincoln Flag" is the history of a thirty-six star American flag which cradled President Abraham Lincoln's head as he lay dying on the floor of the Ford Theater's State box. The "Lincoln Flag" is owned by and can be viewed at the Pike County Historical Society in Milford, Pennsylvania.

On the night Lincoln died, April 14, 1865, he went to Ford's Theater to see "Our American Cousin." This was a luxurious theater with a capacity for two thousand people. In the theater that night was Thomas Gourlay, a part- time stage manager and an actor. Also on the play bill were J. Gourlay and M. Gourlay, Thomas' daughters Jeannie and Maggie. Thomas played "Sir Edward Trenchard," an English gentleman with money problems.

Early in Act III, shortly after 10:00 PM, John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln. Dr. Charles Leale, a 23 year old military physician, was the first doctor to reach the State Box. He had been only 40 feet away watching the play. When he reached Lincoln's side he found the President almost dead, paralyzed and was breathing only occasionally. Leale felt the wound, removed a clot which then allowed Lincoln to breathe easier. Dr. Leale and a second doctor, Charles Taft, gently lifted Lincoln out of his chair and laid him on the floor. Not wanting his head to lie on the floor Dr. Leale put his handkerchief under Lincoln's head.

The actors on stage clearly saw what had happened in the State Box. The star of the performance, Laura Keene, made her way through the crowd and with her was Thomas Gourlay. Laura Keene carried a water jug, a cloth and begged to hold Lincoln's head. Given permission by Dr. Leale, who knew Lincoln's wound was mortal, Laura sat on the floor with the President's head in her lap dabbing the damp cloth on Lincoln's face as the blood covered her dress. When Miss Keene stood up to leave, Thomas Gourlay, not wanting the President's head to be placed directly on the floor, reached for the nearest appropriate item to place under Lincoln's head. This was a large, partially folded American Flag which was draped over the facade of the State Box. Usually smaller flags were used to decorate the State Box but on this festive occasion two of the five flags decorating the box were "large flags which were partially folded and served as decorative bunting," according to historical records. Gourlay pulled one of the large flags "off the balustrade and placed it under Mr. Lincoln's head, cushioning it temporarily," again according to records. Only minutes later the two doctors determined that the President must be moved to a more comfortable and more accessible place. As many as twenty men helped to move Lincoln across the street to the Petersen Boarding House, Thomas Gourlay was one of them.

Sometime that night Gourlay took the flag from the State Box and kept it as a memento until just before his death in 1888, giving it to his daughter Jeannie Gourlay Struthers, who had been one of the actress's on the play bill that fateful night. After the Civil War Jeannie married and moved to Milford, PA. The Struthers had one son, V. Paul Struthers, who inherited the flag from his mother. Paul donated the flag and his to the Milford Historical Society in 1954.

In 1996, Joseph Garrera, president of the Lincoln Group of New York, an organization dedicated to studying the life and times of Abraham Lincoln, concluded an independent year-long study of the authenticity of the "Lincoln Flag." His findings were published in a 125 page report, "The Lincoln Flag of The Pike County Historical Society" and declared the flag "authentic." The Society has had the stains on the flag tested twice and both times it was confirmed that they were of human blood. Garrera also researched:

the materials used in manufacture of the flag, the chain of custody of the flag, government policies of the use of American flags for ceremonial purposes, the disposition of all of the flags which were in Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865- -all serve to confirm the authenticity of the "Lincoln flag."

In his report Garrera states:

My theory posits the "Lincoln Flag" draped over the left opening of the State Box with the balance partially folded under. Based on statements made to the authorities by Clay Ford of Ford's Theatre, and verified by a photo reconstruction made by Brady Galleries of Washington, DC, it is an irrefutable fact that the American flags draped over the railing and utilized as bunting for the State Box were much larger than would have been expected.

Michael Maione, historian at Ford's Theatre, stated that when Brady's photographers came to photograph the State Box, some of the flags were missing. Consequently, in order to re-create the State Box of April 14, 1865, Brady's people had to borrow flags to reset the scene.

In his conclusions Garrera says that historians know there were at least five flags decorating the Lincoln box that night. Of those five flags Garrera's research can account for four as of 1996:

!.) One is currently on display at Ford's Theatre in Washington, DC, which is the Treasury Flag.
2.) Another small flag with thirteen stars is in the possession of the Louis A. Warren Lincoln Library and Museum in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.
3.) A third flag is said to be in the Smithsonian; however, to date, the Smithsonian emphatically denies any knowledge of such a flag.
4.) The final and fourth flag- - the "Lincoln Flag," could have easily been slightly folded and used as bunting over the facade of the State Box.

The "Lincoln Flag" is displayed at "The Columns," a Neo-Greek Revival home. "The Columns" also houses the Pike County Historical Society and Museum and was built during the first decade of the 20th century as a summer and weekend estate for the New Jersey real estate dealer and democratic politician, Dennis McLoughlin. The house was sold to the historical society in 1983. "The Columns" is located at 608 Broad Street in the heart of Milford, PA. Milford is in the north east section of the state located right off Interstate 84.

The "Lincoln Flag" is not the only artifact displayed. Correspondence and other material relating to Charles Sanders Peirce, the American born philosopher and scientist who is one of this country's greatest mind. Peirce's seminal work is in the area of pragmatism which defines a method of sorting conceptual confusions by relating meaning to consequences. Peirce provided a bridge between Greek Philosophers Plato and Aristotle and modern thinkers, Einstein and William James.

Another Pike County native was Chief Thundercloud, the famous American Indian who was the model for the nickel and the last five dollar gold piece minted in the U.S. He lived in Dingman's Ferry in Pike County, was a scout for the U.S. Army and worked with P.T. Barnum and Buffalo Bill. The Indian artifacts displayed here were remarkable, as were items from the Civil War, World War I & II. If you are driving through the area it is well worth your time to stop in for a visit.

BOOTH

Junius Brutus Booth, "the greatest Shakespearean actor of his day," left a legacy of family acting talent and madness. Both senior was so "eccentric that he was often called insane." Booth died when his youngest son, John Wilkes was fourteen. At 17, John decided to follow in his fathers and famous brother's acting footsteps.

The manager of the St. Charles Theater in Baltimore, MD saw no promise in his chance. Booth filled in for an ill performer in a production of Richard !!!. Booth, who did not see the need to study, botched the small part badly and was booed off the stage. The next acting jobs ended in similar fashion.

John Wilkes Booth left the northern stages for the less sophisticated south. There were fewer large stage theaters and most performances were done in parlors and drawing rooms of southern society. Booth found receptive audiences for his readings,' his winning ways with the ladies and his "outlandish proclamations against the political climate in the north."

In the south he met Mary Provost, a theater manager from New York who backed his return to the northern theaters. He starred in production of Richard III in a New York theater but only lasted three nights. The New York Herald wrote in review,

Youth may be an excuse for his errors, but it is no excuse for presenting them to a metropolitan audience.

By 1863 Booth may have come to the realization that he would not gain the admiration and recognition he craved on the stage. He decided he would become immortal by assassinating Lincoln Booth considered this an act of heroism.

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