The Bonhomme Richard Flag Hoax
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

Mrs Stafford and Flag / SeacoastNH.com
A Mystery Unravels

FLAGS OF JOHN PAUL JONES

Sometimes a post card can throw off your whole day. This one did. A SeacoastNH readers sent us this century old postcard reported showing the Bonhomme Richard. It took awhile to whittle the facts away from the fiction, Here’s how we pieced together the hoax.

 

 

UPDATE: Behind the Stafford Flag Hoax

The Mystery Begins

Mrs Strafford with Bonhomme Flag Postcard / SeacoastNH.comThe Bonhomme Richard Flag HoaxThe postcard shows a draped flag, a rifle, a spinning wheel and the back of what looks to be an elderly lady in a bonnet. The caption reads: "Mrs. H. Stafford and Paul Jones Flag, Oak Bluffs, Mass."

Right off we wanted to know: (1) Who is Mrs. Stafford?; (2) Why does she have John Paul Jones' flag?; (3) What is she doing in Martha's Vineyard?; and (4) Why the heck does she have her back to the camera?

The Portsmouth Connection

New Hampshire has its own John Paul Jones flag story. The legend of the Helen Seavey quilting party, according to scholars, can be traced to the fertile imagination of Augustus C. Buell who published a two-volume biography of John Paul Jones in 1900. But modern historians seriously doubt that the women of Portsmouth sewed the flag for the sloop of war Ranger using material from their own petticoats.

It is a sexy and patriotic tale, the kind that was very appealing to American audiences during the romantic Colonial Revival era. Stories of women with early flags like Betsy Ross and Barbara Fritchie were popular tales at the time. The fats are that the Ranger was built in Portsmouth Harbor and it did bear the first official "stars and stripes" flag as defined by the new US Congress. No evidence of a Portsmouth "quilting party" has, however, surfaced and it is likely a local legend. So is the story of Mrs. Stafford’s flag equally unlikely?

The Serapis Flag

Serapis FlagAfter the capture of HMS Drake by the Ranger, the ship and most crew members returned to Portsmouth. Jones stayed in France where, with Ben Franklin's help, he used French funds to buy another warship from the Dutch. He called this one Bonhomme.

Did the Ranger flag make its way onto the Bonhomme? We can only speculate. It seems most likely that the Ranger flag returned here on the Ranger and a new flag was created for the Bonhomme in France. The great inventor Ben Franklin, it has often been suggested, tinkered with the flag design there.

We do not know what flag flew on the Ranger or on the Bonhomme, but Jones own report tells us that the ""colors" of the Bonhomme went down with the ship. Although Jones defeated the British ship Serapis during his next famous battle, the Bonhomme sank and he took over the British ship Serapis which he delivered to the port of Texel in Holland.

The image of the "Serapis flag" configuration comes from Dutch records. When the tattered ship arrived at Texel after the battle, the British ambassador asked that the "pirate" Jones be taken into custody since his ship bore the flag of an unrecognized foreign country. With no love lost for the British, the Dutch sent an artist to sketch the flag on the Serapis and enter it into their record books. When the authorities checked the next day, sure enough, the Serapis appeared to be from a newly recognized foreign power known as the United Stares of America.

Was this the Ranger flag? Unlikely. Did the Bonhomme flag survive, despite eyewitness reports of its loss? Unlikely. Was a backup flag made during Jones year-long wait in France, or was it hastily prepared aboard the Serapis as it limped toward Holland? And how, once again, did it end up in the Stafford family relics in the early 20th century?

The Stafford Flag

Experts tell us today that the Stafford flag never flew on the Bonhomme Richard, although for a while even major museums were fooled. Eighty years after the battle, the flag was produced by descendants of James Stafford who had reportedly been a midshipmen on John Paul Jones flagship during the Serapis battle, though he is not listed in the roster. According to the story, Stafford had saved the flag after the battle and it was later presented to him -- and surprisingly not to John Paul Jones -- in 1784 by a committee of the US Congress.

A piece of the Stafford "Bonhomme flag" was exhibited at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial. Another piece had earlier been cut off and given to President Abraham Lincoln. It reportedly ended up in the Smithsonian Institution, according to printed reports, where it was on display as the authentic article. Scholars later disputed the authenticity of the flag in a letter to the museum and it was withdrawn from view in 1942. But a check with the Smithsonian says it was not displayed there at any time.

Even in the postcard it is easy to see this is not the "Serapis" flag. Why it is presented here in Martha's Vineyard -- we still don't know. The librarian at the Oak Bluffs Library there tells us that the town did not receive its name until 1907, so the postcard is more recent than that date. And why is Mrs. Stafford turned with her back to the camera? Is it really her? We may not only have a fake flag here, but a fake owner as well.

The facts will surface; time will tell. Wasn't it Teddy Roosevelt who said that things stay the same, only history changes? Or was that Teddy Roosevelt, or maybe Teddy Kennedy? As readers send us new facts, we'll keep changing this article. Stay tuned.

Primary Source: The History of United States Flag from the Revolution to the Present, Including a Guide to its Use and Display, by Milo M. Quaife, Melvin J. Weig and Roy E. Appleman, Harper & Rowe, New York, 1961.

Article by J. Dennis Robinson. Research assistance by Marcia Jepp of the Portsmouth Athenaeum. Thanks for this postcard to Dick Lightle

Copyright © 1999 SeacoastNH.com. Updated 2005

CONTINUE for Update with Much More info on the Stafford Flag



UPDATE: HOW THE LEGEND REALLY BEGAN

Behind the Stafford Flag Hoax
More info discovered in 1896 magazine

Mrs. Stafford OF Martha's Vineyard / SeacoastNH.comFinally we know why Mrs. Stafford's flag, the one reportedly salvaged from Paul Jones' Bonhomme Richard, ended up on Martha's Vineryard. The answer came to us in an 1896 magazine article written before the flag was discovered to be a hoax and before Jones’ body was exhumed from a Paris cemetery and transported to the USA.

"The Original Starry Flag of Paul Jones" is an effusive patriotic tribute to what was then considered a priceless relic of American history. In this era every school child knew the story of the battle between the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis, but even historians were fuzzy on the facts.

In 1896 the flag was owned by Mrs. Samuel Bayard Stafford who, according to the article in Peterson's Magazine, had often allowed the flag displayed at public events, including the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial and the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. By the end of the 19th century, the report says, the 2 1/2 by 2 yard flag had been reduced nearly to half its size by scissors-wielding admirers "whose covetousness was greater than their veneration". The surviving Mrs. Stafford, then elderly, had been forced to encase the flag in glass to protect it from souvenir hunters. In 1896 the flag was available for private viewing in her home at Cottage City on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.

The Peterson's article allows us to trace the reported ownership of the flag and to get a better handle on the nearly forgotten story -- whether hoax or simple error. Widow Stafford inherited the flag from her husband, who inherited it from his sister Sarah Smith Stafford. They were the children off Lieut. James Bayard Stafford who was reportedly given the flag in 1784, five years after the bloodiest sea battle in American Naval history off Flamborough Head in England. The flag was presented by the Secretary of State of Philadelphia along with a broad sword and musket reportedly captured from the Serapis. Stafford was given the flag because he had been aboard the Bonhomme Richard during the battle. According to Stafford family legend, the Bonhomme flag was shot from the masthead and fell into the sea, but a young Lieut. Stafford had jumped into the sea and retrieved Paul Jones' flag, receiving a wound that troubled him for the rest of his life.

This story of the salvaged flag, of course, is not related in any official account of the battle. So where did Lieut. Stafford and this unique 12-star flag come from?

Stafford Flag

Stafford reportedly found his way onto the Bonhomme when his ship, The Kitty, was captured by a British ship in English waters. The Kitty was captained by Philip Stafford, uncle to James Stafford who was also aboard. Jones, according to the story, then took the British ship as a prize and freed the crew of the Kitty who joined the Bonhomme crew just 10 days before the battle with the Serapis. After young Stafford saved the flag, the story goes, it was not raised on the Serapis, but transferred for reasons unknown to the Alliance, the troublesome American ship whose captain had fired on Jones during the battle. How the famous flag arrived back in Philadelphia is not explained.

More Tall Tales

Stafford Flag Even more bizarre is the story of how the flag reportedly got on the Bonhomme in the first place. According to the owner in 1896, the flag was made in Philadelphia by two women under the direct supervision of George Washingon, "the principal idea of the design being taken from Washington's family escutcheon." The flag-makers are said to have given the ensign to Paul Jones himself who sailed it up and down the Delaware River to admiring crowds. This, the Stafford family claimed, was the first appearance of the first Stars and Stripes. The flag next shows up aboard the Bonhomme, where the French reportedly saluted it. All mention of the Ranger, which Jones sailed from Portsmouth, NH and which received the salute at Brest, France is absent from the report.

Two more interesting notes appear in the Peterson's article. In 1848, Lieut. Stafford's daughter appealed to Congress for compensation for her father’s service in the Revolutionary War. This is just a decade after Paul Jones' niece did the same, without success, to collect unpaid debts owed to him. Mrs. Stafford, however, after many attempts, was more successful. She received $8,000 in compensation. If the flag and its 1784 letter of authentication were a hoax, this small fortune might be seen as a motivating factor. Or did Miss Stafford really inherit a flag that she believed was authentic? According to the 1896 article, due to "unfortunate investments" Miss Stafford never received any enjoyment from her windfall.

Interesting also is the note that the flag, when originally presented to Lieut. Stafford was "stained with the blood of American patriots." (Only 79 of more than 300 members of Jones' crew on the Bonhomme were actually Americans.) According to the Peterson report, Stafford's wife washed all the blood out of the flag and sewed up the bullet holes made by British gunfire. The patches were later removed to show the holes when the flag was displayed in the 19th century.

Mrs. Safford says she was planning to donate the flag to the Smithsonian. They tell us it was never received or displayed there, so the next question is -- who has the Strafford flag today? Okay, all your flag detectives. go to work.

By J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved

Source: Special SeacoastNH.com thanks to Robert Marshalls of Geneseo, IL for sending us a copy of The Peterson Magazine article that he recently purchased on eBay. Images from that magazine.

FOLLOW-UP NOTE FROM A READER:

In about 1947 I was given a gift of a 12 star 13 stripe flag approximately 4 by 6 feet. It prompted me to do some research on US flags. The first place where I discovered the story of the Bon Homme Richard flag was in a private publication by George Henry Preble printed in 1874 entitled "Three Historic Flags and Three September Victories". I still have the flag, but the arrangement of stars is 3 along the mast and 4 parallel to the stripes. The prior owner of the flag was an artist named Murphy. He was a widower. His deceased wife's name was Adah Smith Murphy. It was supposed to have been Sarah Smith Stafford who gave a strip of the flag along the pole to Abraham Lincoln thus leaving only twelve stars but still 13 stripes. And of course it was supposed to have been a Lt. Stafford who rescued the flag when it fell into the sea during the engagement of the Bon Homme Richard with the Serapis.
Sylvain Segal
Copyright © 2004 by SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved.

CONTINUE for supersized photos of the Stafford Flag



THE STAFFORD FLAG EARLY PHOTOS

Proven not to be the flag of the Bonhomme Richard, this flag was a popular patriotic relic for almost 100 years and continues to crop up to confuse researchers to this day. See detailed articles on previous pages.

Stafford flag post card / SeacoastNH.com

Stafford Flag as seen in 19th Century Magazine Photo / SeacoastNH.com