A tiny museum was mobbed by television crews and flooded with national newspaper calls yesterday over a gem displayed for 42 years.
Polk County Historical Society in the village of Milford, Pennsylvania, has always boasted that its bloodstained American flag was used as a pillow for Abraham Lincoln’s head the night he was assassinated but no one took the museum seriously. Now it has been vindicated.
Joseph Garrera, a Lincoln buff from neighboring New Jersey, heard of the claim last year and began to investigate. He discovered the flag had been given by Paul Struthers, a local man whose grandfather, Thomas Gourlay, and mother, Jennie, were acting at Ford’s Theatre in Washington on the night of April 14, 1865 when Lincoln was shot.
The President’s entourage pulled the flag from the front of Lincoln’s box to cradle his head. After the President was removed, Thomas Gourlay, also the theatre’s part-time stage manager, bundled up the flag and took it home.
He died in 1885 and left it to his daughter who married and moved to Milford in 1888. She, in turn, bequeathed it to her son, Paul Struthers. Mr Garrera produced a hefty report summarizing his hundreds of hours of research. He sent it to leading Lincoln scholars, who found his conclusions irrefutable. “I’m just about convinced it’s the flag that was in the theatre,” said Michael Maione, historian of Ford’s Theatre, now run by the National Park Service.
The flag was one of the most significant Lincoln finds in decades and a “touching symbol”, said Wayne Temple, chief deputy director of the state archives in Illinois, Lincoln’s home state. “Here his head was lying on a folded flag of the Union that he gave his life for.” Mr Garrera called his discovery “the most exciting thing I’ll ever be involved in”. He said the museum’s claim was dismissed only because no one could believe such a national treasure was not in a great institution.
Barbara Buchanan, the Historical Society’s president, was thrilled to be vindicated, but apprehensive. The modest museum, run by volunteers, opens three days a week, charges $2 (Pounds 1.30) admission and attracts about 1,500 visitors a year.
That is likely to balloon to 150,000 unless Ford’s Theatre museum tries to reclaim its stolen property.