MILFORD, PA — The Pike County Historical Society, located in Milford, PA, is home to a blood-stained flag that cradled the head of mortally wounded President Abraham Lincoln the night of his assassination at Ford’s Theatre. Simply called “The Lincoln Flag,” this blood relic made its way to Milford in 1888 at the hand of Jeannie Gourlay, an actress in the production of “Our American Cousin,” the play being performed on that fateful night.
It is said that the flag was taken from the Presidential Box by Thomas Gourlay, who was Jeannie’s dad and part-time theatre manager. Upon his death he left it to her, and when she married and moved to Milford, the flag and three stage costumes were among her possessions.
Jeannie lived in Milford until her death in 1928. She left these mementos from the theatre to her son Vivian Paul Struthers. In 1954, he donated the flag, costumes and a few other items belonging to his mother to the Pike County Historical Society.
The early means of caring for the flag were somewhat laughable. The historical society displayed the oversized flag at the Community House quite sadly. It hung upon a shower rod, exposed, saturated by both natural and artificial light, vulnerable; ever poignant, however, in what it represented. This blood-stained, eerie reminder of such a tragedy was bound to get the attention and care it needed and deserved one day.
That day came as a result of the dedication and diligence of a woman named Barbara J. Buchanan. She had the chops to make things happen, and that is what she did. She enlisted the help of Joseph Garerra, then President of the Lincoln Group of New York and noted Lincoln researcher. In the early 1980s, a study was conducted, which led to the conclusion that the flag was authentic in its claims, and the first steps in a very important preservation took place. Buchanan led the charge to have the flag encased and displayed properly, footing the bill personally for the Textile Conservation Workshop in South Salem, NY to take steps to assure the flag’s preservation in the best way known possible at the time.
Fast forward to present day: the Lincoln Flag is proudly on display at the museum of the historical society. Thirty-year intervals seem to be the mark for changes for the Lincoln Flag. In the 1950s it was hanging on a shower rod. In the 1980s it was put in an archival case. In the 2010s, that same superior case was completely sealed and argon, an inert gas used in preservation, was introduced into the case, thus preserving the flag, as is, forever.
Also new to the case and preservation is the addition of a newer, better Plexiglas. True-Vue Museum Optimum 6.0 is state-of the-art and the best grade of Plexiglas available.
Recording thermometers, produced by Pacific Transducer Corp, and a hygrometer, made by Taylor of Germany, have also been added to the case. All these items add to the high level of care and protection of the museum’s prize holding.
The Columns Museum is open Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. or by appointment. For more information about the Lincoln Flag, visit the museum’s website at pikecountyhistoricalsociety.org.
[Lori Strelecki is director of The Columns Museum.]