Civil War Blog

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Jeannie Gourlay and the Lincoln Flag

Posted By on December 20, 2012

At a small county museum in northeast Pennsylvania [The Columns, Milford, Pike County], a large 36-star American flag is on display.  The museum claims with certainty that the flag was used as a cushion under the head of Abraham Lincoln as he lay mortally wounded in the State Box in Ford’s Theatre the night of 14 April 1865, and that the large brownish-red stains visible on the flag are Lincoln’s blood.

The story told by the museum, which is operated by the Pike County Historical Society, is that one of the members of the cast, Thomas C. Gourlay, led the star of the evening’s performance, Laura Keene, to the State Box when a call for water was made by someone in the box.  Gourlay then took a flag from within the box and cushioned Lincoln’s head – the blood from his wound seeping into the flag.  After Lincoln was carried across the street to the Petersen House by Gourlay and others, the flag was given to him to return to the theatre.  Instead of returning the flag, Gourlay took the flag home and kept it, passing it down in his family, telling no one outside the family that he had it.

In 1954, nearly 90 years after the assassination, the grandson of Thomas C. Gourlay appeared at the museum to donate the flag – which was accepted by the museum and today is considered to be the centerpiece of their Civil War collection.  Supposedly, the flag has been authenticated by Lincoln “scholars.”  But, there are many skeptics.

In his Lincoln Assassination Encyclopedia, published in 2010 by Harper Perennial, Edward Steers Jr. includes the story of the Lincoln Flag in three entries:  Laura Keene; Jeannie Gourlay; Thomas C. Gourlay; and Lincoln Flag.  While Steers qualifies the entries with words such as “is believed to be,” “family tradition claims,” “according to family tradition,” “family tradition gives rise to the belief,” and the “legend claims,” the inclusion of these sketches – especially with their reference to the “best sources” for the information on these topics as Steers’s own book, Blood on the Moon and an obscure, privately printed report, The Lincoln Flag of the Pike County Historical Society – begs the question of what role Steers had in establishing the flag as authentic.

Previously on this blog, in a post entitled The Architecture of Ford’s Theatre and Laura Keene, it was shown how Steers manipulated an architectural drawing of the theatre and presented it in Blood on the Moon in order to show a route that he believed Thomas C. Gourlay took Laura Keene to the State Box.  In the post today, it will be revealed how Edward Steers Jr. contributed to establishing the legend of the Lincoln Flag, and specifically, how, over time, information was repeatedly manipulated by Steers to fit his conclusion that the flag is an authentic artifact of the assassination.

Jeannie Gourlay, a Scottish-born actress, was a player in the stock company of John T. Ford at his Washington theatre on the night President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, 14 April 1865.  In a prior post on this blog, Jeannie Gourlay – Cast Member at Ford’s When Lincoln Was Assassinated, a time line was presented which gave several key dates in the life of Jeannie Gourlay.  After the assassination, Jeannie married Ford’s orchestra leader William Withers Jr. and within a two year period divorced him – then marrying a Scottish-born actor Robert Struthers, eventually settling near Milford, Pike County, Pennsylvania, raising a family, and remaining publicly silent on anything related to the assassination until after Robert Struthers died in 1907.  In 1910, it was widely reported in the newspapers that she returned to Washington to visit Ford’s Theatre.  Articles that appeared in the press in 1916, 1923, and 1928 (the year of her death) were presented on this blog to show an unusual story that emerged which placed her father, Thomas C. Gourlay, also a member of the Ford’s stock company, at the scene of the assassination by stating that it was he who led Laura Keene to the State Box and that it was he who helped carry Lincoln from the theatre and across the street to the Petersen House.  But, also revealed here on this blog, was that the story of Thomas C. Gourlay leading Laura Keene to the State Box was first told by Norman Harsell in 1914 in an article he wrote for the Los Angeles Times.  The Harsell story, [see Jeannie Gourlay and Norman Harsell – The Film That Never Was], was most likely invented by Harsell as the basis of a silent film that would tell the story of Jeannie Gourlay.  The film was never made but the Gourlay and Struthers families were left with Harsell’s “script” which they faithfully followed and repeatedly told until Jeannie Gourlay‘s death in 1928.

Between 1928 (the year of Jeanie’s death) and 1954 (the year of the flag donation) there was relative silence from the Gourlay and Struthers families on anything pertaining to Jeannie Gourlay or the Lincoln Assassination.  Then in 1954, Jeannie’s son, Vivian Paul Struthers appeared at a Pike County Historical Society meeting with a flag that he wished to donate to the society’s museum.  The donation was accepted and thus began an entirely new phase of the Jeannie Gourlay story – one which now included a flag that had never before been mentioned in any public way.

When Vivian Struthers donated the large flag to the Pike County Historical Society, the story he told was that Thomas C. Gourlay, his grandfather, was one of the men who helped carry Lincoln across the street to the Petersen House (per the Norman Harsell version), and that the large 36-star flag he was donating was the one that he believed that his grandfather had used to cover Lincoln as he was being carried across the street.  But information that Vivian Struthers then presented to the society showed that he was somewhat confused as to the story he was telling as well as the origin of the flag.  Struthers submitted a letter from Milford High School Principal Ira Markley which”confirmed” that a “36-star” was the “official” flag in April, 1865.  Also, Vivian Struthers did not give a clear chain of custody of the flag – only that it had been passed down in the family and that he believed that his mother, Jeannie Gourlay, had inherited the flag when his grandfather died in 1885.  Supposedly, the flag had been kept in trunk or chest in the attic of the local Water Street house belonging to the family – where Vivian Struthers was believed to be living in 1954 when he made the donation.  There is no record at the Pike County Historical Society that, at the time of the donation, there was any discussion or mention that stains on the flag were blood – or, even that there were any noticeable stains on the flag.  If any written, signed “testimony” was taken from Vivian Struthers, it has been lost.

Two persons, supposedly present when Vivian Struthers made the donation, many years later reported on what happened that night in 1954.  Victor Orben, a local surveyor, claimed that he drove the elderly Struthers to the meeting where he donated the flag.  Orben’s recollections appeared in an article written and published in the Allentown, Pennsylvania, Morning Call in 1982 (see below).   Norman Lehde, a officer of the society and a journalist, wrote and published several articles on the Lincoln Flag.

The files of the Pike County Historical Society contain many news articles that were published in the years between the donation in 1954 and the early 1980s – all of which speculate on how the flag was used at the assassination scene and how it came into the hands of the Gourlay family.  Slowly, and somewhat carelessly, the story was manipulated to indicate that the flag was one of the ones that decorated the State Box.

The files at the Pike County Historical Society also contain some letters which indicate that the Gourlay-Struthers family unsuccessfully attempted to sell the flag prior to its donation to the Pike County museum.  Specifically mentioned were attempts to get a museum in Washington to “take” the flag.  These letters, as well as other information about Jeannie Gourlay “faking” assassination artifacts, are often ignored when discussing the credibility of the claim that this flag was actually one of the ones that decorated the State Box or was in the State Box on a table or shelf.  [Note:  See the mention of the five year old boy who visited Jeannie around 1900 and Jeannie showed him an “blood-stained” apron which she claimed resulted from Lincoln’s head being held in her lap, in Jeannie Gourlay – Cast Member at Ford’s When Lincoln Was Assassinated].  It was also a well-known fact that in the years after Jeannie Gourlay‘s death, her family members sold-off many of her personal items – including jewelry, clothing articles, her scrapbook, letters to and from her, and photographs.  These items today are in private collections – not in museums.  Although the Pike County Historical Society has three costumes purportedly belonging to Jeannie Gourlay and some other minor items, these items originally were acquired via loan from the family rather than donation.

Other occurrences, including an extensive interview with the daughter of Jeannie Gourlay, Jean [Struthers] Newell in 1973, present a confusing picture of the flag and how it “traveled about.”  At the interview, she promised to find out more information and “get back” to the society as to what actually happened; no record has been found that she actually did.  News articles as well as the actual notes and report from the interview present her responses as coy and elusive.  The word used in one article referred to her as being “curious” about the flag.  Not once did she actually confirm that she was told the story by her mother that this was the actual flag that was used to cover Lincoln and that it had passed from her grandfather to her mother after his death.

A final piece of ignored evidence is the written report of the visit of descendants of Thomas C. Gourlay‘s sons to the local museum demanding to see the flag and making an attempt to retrieve it.  Supposedly, these visitors, when they discovered that there was a valuable item in the museum that may have belonged to their grandfather, demanded to see it – but were told that the flag was kept in a safe-deposit box and that they would not be allowed to see it.  Norman Lehde, then a society officer, had been alerted to their visit and acted on behalf of the society to formally stop them.  In a statement made to the society by the descendants, they appeared to not know whether this was an item that actually belonged to their grandfather and kept at his New York residence, but because it was was being presented as such by the Society, believed that they could make a claim to it. From the written statement they made, it was clear that these were descendants of a son who had actually resided with Thomas C. Gourlay at the time of his death in 1885.  If Thomas C. Gourlay had a flag from Ford’s Theatre, and took it to his home in New York, how was it that those who were living with him at the time of his death knew nothing of it?

The intervening years between 1954 and the early 1980s also saw the flag story morph into another interpretation – that the flag was placed under the head of Lincoln as a “cushion” rather than being used as a “cover” for his body.

Norman Lehde, the most prolific of the writers on the Lincoln Flag during this period, never presented the story as anything more than a legend – and was steadfast in his interpretation that the flag was used to cover Lincoln’s body.  In a two-part article published in 1967 in a local newspaper, the journalist reiterated the basic story told by Norman Harsell in 1914, but added the flag story in both the title of the article (“The Flag That Covered Lincoln’s Body”) and in the text.  In one of his last writings, the official history of Pike County which was published in the 1990s, Lehde finally succumbed by stating that the flag “had been used to cover the president or been placed under his head when he was taken from the theatre.”

William Henn, President of the Society in 1968, and one-time curator of the museum, was skeptical about the flag and did not include it in his book, The Civil War and Pike County, originally published by the Pike County Historical Society in 1980.  After Henn’s death, his book was re-published in 2000, and his sons privately said that their father never gave much credence to the claim that the flag was at the assassination.  During Henn’s presidency at the Society, Ford’s Theatre supposedly became interested in the flag and Josephine Allen, then curator of the Lincoln Museum there, pursued the acquisition of the flag.  Ultimately, the flag was not obtained by Ford’s Theatre, probably because its authenticity could not be verified, and because the family of Jeannie Gourlay maintained that it wished the flag to remain in the local museum.

George Perry, a retired insurance agent, worked at the society as a volunteer and later was curator in the 1980s and 1990s.  He too wrote about the flag in articles that appeared in the local newspapers.  George Perry, and his brother Wallis Perry were directly responsible for changing the story from a “cover” to a “pillow” and also for the theory that the flag may have been folded and on a table in the box instead of being draped over the railing of the box as decoration.  The solidification of this story appears to be an article that appeared in the Allentown (Pennsylvania) Morning Call of 17 June 1982 entitled, “Milford Museum is the Quiet Home of a Special Flag.”  George Perry had concluded that for the stains on the flag to be Lincoln’s blood, the flag had to be placed under Lincoln’s head – as that was the only place that there was a bleeding wound, and if used to cover Lincoln, it would have been virtually impossible for there to be blood on the flag.  Thus, it was George Perry who changed the story from “cover ” to “pillow” – despite all the previous “testimony” to the contrary that the flag was used as a “cover”.  George Perry also concluded (erroneously) that “permanent” creases in the flag, which seemed to suggest that the flag was folded into a two-foot square, were the result of the flag having been folded at the time, and when re-folded along those same creases, the stains appeared to be “on top of one another.”  The creases in the flag, were most likely the result of ironing by well-meaning historical society volunteers; the flag had originally been displayed in a specially-constructed display case measuring about two foot square.

The Morning Call story also contained several other interesting tales.  One stated that the Society possessed two dresses that Jeannie Gourlay wore in Our American Cousin the night of the assassination. Another told that Perry had documents that recorded that the bloodstains on the flag were from the bullet wound in Lincoln’s head and that the stains had been tested at a local hospital and were determined to be “human blood.”  The article concluded with a sidebar story that said that “experts will check the story for authenticity.” The name of one of the “experts” who would be doing the checking was Edward Steers.

Thus Edward Steers Jr. entered the story.  At the time Steers was President of the Lincoln Group of the District of Columbia.  In August 1982, he arrived at the society museum and met with George Perry and some “ladies.”  Steers, after being shown the blood test report, was allowed to examine the flag and photograph it.  He convinced George Perry to give him some pieces of the flag, supposedly where there were blood stains, so he could take them back to his laboratory and analyze them. It is not clear how many swatches of the flag that he was given, whether the purpose was to analyze the dye content or the blood stains, or where and what tests would actually be performed.  At the time, Steers worked for the National Institutes of Health, but the impression received by members of the Society was that he had a laboratory in his home where he would perform the tests.  He was willingly given what he asked for, and Perry anxiously awaited the results.

The first letter sent by Steers to Perry was dated 19 August 1982 – on the letterhead of the Lincoln Group of the District of Columbia.  He referred to himself in that letter as a member of the “Lincoln Fraternity”, thanked Perry and the “ladies” for their hospitality, and said he looked forward to meeting Mrs. Newell (Jean [Struthers] Newell, the daughter of Jeannie Gourlay).  He indicated that the information about the flag could possibly result in an article he could write about it and promised to keep in touch as events developed “down here.”  The second letter arrived about a week later and was dated 27 August 1982.  In this letter, copies of two pictures he took of the flag were enclosed as well as the information on the laboratory tests he had conducted.  Steers reported that the “thread fragments” were analyzed for dye content and that the dye was determined to be “cochineal”, which he said placed the flag in the Civil War period – natural dyes being used at the time rather than synthetic dyes.  He stated that the dye was obtained from a small insect, “indigenous to Mexico, Central America and the West Indies.”  His conclusion was that the test or tests that he performed only supported the conclusion that the flag was of the period.  There was no mention made of blood or tests for blood – nor was there any mention about the type of test or tests that he performed to come to his conclusion.

The article that Edward Steers Jr. mentioned as a possibility appeared in The Lincolnian, May-June 1983 (Volume I, Number 5) and was authored by Steers.  It was entitled, “The Flag That Cradled the Dying President’s Head.”  [Note: Click on title for free download].  This article did more to solidify the belief that the flag was authentic than any other in the flag’s history.  This is unfortunate, because the article contained outright misrepresentations and factual errors and was poorly and falsely documented.  Even more inappropriate was Steers’ failure to mention in the article that it was he who conducted the vital test on the flag (the so-called dye test).  The dye test result was also incorrectly reported when he indicated that it was from “madder root,” a natural vegetable substance.

Criticisms of this article can begin with Steers’ repetition of the Norman Harsell story and with the inaccurate footnote that the story was told to Norman Harsell by Jeannie Gourlay in an 11 February 1923 story that appeared in the Los Angeles Times; the date on the story is actually 14 April 1914.   The back stairway by which Thomas C. Gourlay supposedly led Laura Keene to the State Box is explained by a long quote from a supposed “assassination scholar” Art Loux, without properly sourcing the quote – or providing any evidence that the path Loux was claiming to exist, actually existed.  Jeannie Gourlay‘s death year is given as 1927; she actually died in 1928.  Steers mentions that it was Jeannie Gourlay who stated that her father who “took a folded flag from within the box and used it to carefully cushion Lincoln’s head;” Jeannie Gourlay never made any such statements.  Steers states that the flag was donated to the Pike County Historical Society in 1951; it was donated in 1954.  In a footnote, Steers states that George Perry displayed a letter which testified that the stains on the flag were “made by human blood;” the letter reporting the test done at the local hospital only reported that the performed test was done on several samples cut from the upper area of the flag and that in two cases, showed “positive reactions to tests for blood.”  But the most egregious statement made by Steers occurred in the same footnote when he stated that tests on several wool fibers taken from the red bunting contained “a natural dye from the roots of the madder plant” – not “cochineal” as he had reported to the society in August 1982 – and, by placing the statement about the dye test in the same footnote as the blood test which George Perry was reporting, the reader is led to the conclusion that Steers had nothing to do with the test and that it had been done for the Pike County Historical Society by the hospital that had done the blood test.

There are other errors in the article – too many to report in this post.  But the question has to be asked as to why Steers would make so many errors and whether he would intentionally change facts to fit a conclusion when the facts don’t fit the conclusion?  That question was previously asked here when discussing the Architecture of Ford’s Theatre in relation to the back passage that Laura Keene supposedly took to get to the State Box.  In 2000, when the veracity of the flag’s authentication was being questioned, Steers was asked to respond about both the numerous errors in his article in The Lincolnian and the type of tests that he performed on the swatches of fabric that he was given in 1982 – and why he misreported the results in  The Lincolnian article.  Steers cancelled a scheduled book-tour appearance at the Pike County Historical Society which was supposed to occur shortly after Blood on the Moon was released, where he surely would have been asked questions about these issues, and where he would have been expected to answer them.

Unfortunately, the Steers article in the Lincolnian was accepted as unquestioned fact by Joseph Garrera when he wrote his report, The Lincoln Flag of the Pike County Historical Society in 1996 – the report that Steers claims is the best source, other than his own book Blood on the Moon – on the subjects of the Lincoln Flag, Thomas C. Gourlay, and Jeannie Gourlay.  Garrera reproduced the Steers article in its entirety in his report and then sought Steers’ opinion on the validity of the flag authentication.  Steers responded with a letter in which he supported Garrera’s report:

Garrera has pulled together tangible evidence which points to the Lincoln Flag’s authenticity as a true national treasure.  The provenance of the flag is no less than that of several other icons which now repose in special places of honor in our national museums and Mr. Garrera’s research places the Lincoln Flag squarely among these other icons.

While Garrera had access to the actual letters Steers had written to George Perry, he failed to note the discrepancies between what Steers had written in the article in the Lincolnian and what actually was known to have happened.  He also failed to note the origins of the story of Thomas C. Gourlay leading Laura Keene to the State Box – that the story was originally authored by Norman Harsell in 1914 and had never been told before that.

In all, it was reported in 1996 that fifteen “Lincoln Scholars” examined the Garrera report and all came to the same conclusion – that Garrera had authenticated the flag.  One of most preposterous of all the effusive, supporting statements was made by Frank J. Williams, who at the time was a Justice of the Superior Court of Rhode Island, and a past-President of the Abraham Lincoln Association:

…Your thorough examination of the provenance and history of the “Lincoln Flag” helps all Americans to focus on our culture and behavior on the night of April 14, 1865… [and] with supporting documentary evidence would, in my courtroom, sustain your burden of proof by more than a fair preponderance of the evidence.

…How appropriate it was that the president who re-defined our union and saved the nation should, on his way out of life, have his noble head resting on an American flag.

Of course, no court-room hearing ever took place, and if it had, Williams would have had to recuse himself because one of his cronies, Edward Steers Jr., played a significant part in the presentation of the so-called information in the report.

The report written by Garrera was not made available to the public in 1996 nor was a copy available at the Society and when the newly-hired director at the Pike County Historical Society attempted to obtain a copy in 1999, he was rebuffed by some of the trustees and by Garrera himself who claimed that the report was in the process of being revised for possible publication under his name and copyright.  However, the director was able to obtain a copy from a society past-president who kept the only available copy in her home.  The director made copies and then set out to review it.  In a scathing counter-report which he presented at an open trustees meeting, he ignited a controversy which ended in his dismissal.  At the time, the behavior of the trustees was brought into question by the director, whereupon they rallied behind Garrera and five members of the “Lincoln Fraternity” who supposedly re-confirmed their support for the 1996 report and the authentication of the flag.  It was stated that Edward Steers Jr. was one of those who stood behind the report.

Since that time, the Pike County Historical Society has steadfastly insisted that the flag is authentic and that it was Garrera’s report that authenticated it.  The errors committed by Steers in his 1982 article, although not sourced as such, are also repeated by the Society – including that it was Thomas C. Gourlay who led Laura Keene to the State Box, that the stains are human blood, and that the flag was used to “cradle” Lincoln’s head (as a pillow).  On the web site of the Pike County Historical Society,  Steers is mentioned as one of those who have “concurred with and confirmed Mr. Garrera’s findings.”

In tomorrow’s post, “The Lincoln Flag Hoax,” the next to last post of the series on Jeannie Gourlay will be presented – with a very credible source of this 36-star flag, publicly revealed for the first time!  The final post will consist of a bibliography of materials for further study on Jeannie Gourlay and will be presented on Friday.


The photograph of the Lincoln Flag at the top of this post was taken in 2002 at the time The Columns Museum dedicated an elevator which made the first floor, and the Lincoln Flag, accessible under the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act (Ada).  The headline announcing the donation of the flag is from a news article that appeared in the Port Jervis Union Gazette, 17 May 1954, and was obtained courtesy of the Times Herald Record of Middletown, New York from their office records in Port Jervis, New York.  The photo of the article entitled “Gourlay Family Curious About Flag,” is from a personal collection and appeared in the Port Jervis Union Gazette, 18 August 1973.  The article that appeared in the Morning Call, 17 June 1982, by Pete Stevenson, is also from a personal collection, as is the article, “Draped Over Lincoln: Ford’s Theater Eyes Milford Treasure,” which was written by Chris Farlekas and appeared in the Times Herald of Middletown, New York, 30 January 1968.


One Response to “Jeannie Gourlay and the Lincoln Flag”

  1. Herb Swingle says:

    A few years ago,I saw the Flag in Bloomfield,NY.The Pike County Historical Society charged $2000 for the Bloomfield Historical Society to display the Flag.What a rip-off!

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