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The Bonhomme Richard Flag Hoax


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 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.


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 All rights reserved.

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