`Banner' copy tucked away for safekeeping

November 07, 2001|By Carl Schoettler

The original manuscript of "The Star-Spangled Banner" has been put away for safekeeping by the Maryland Historical Society lest it become a target.

"Police over the last few years - not recently - have let us know about a couple of threats," says director Dennis Fiori.

The manuscript, he says, is an "icon" possibly threatened by thieves who might want to hold it for ransom or people who might want to create a sensation.

"That caught our attention when we thought about us being a target by someone who wanted to make a statement," Fiori says. "So we decided to take it off view."

Among directors of historical societies around the country, he says, "there's been a lot of discussion of what one does after Sept. 11 with one's treasures."

Since 1954, the manuscript - 32 lines in ink brown with age on an ordinary letter page - has been sealed in a bronze and glass case filled with helium, an inert gas that prevents further oxidation.

Francis Scott Key scrawled notes for "The Star-Spangled Banner" on the back of an envelope at dawn on Sept. 14, 1814, when he saw the huge 15-star, 15-stripe wool flag appear out of the mists over Fort McHenry after a night of intense bombardment by the British fleet during the War of 1812. He was aboard a truce ship off Sparrows Point.

A few days later, he wrote out the full text while staying at the Indian Queen Hotel at Baltimore and Hanover streets. That's the society's manuscript.

Fiori says the society will use this time to do preservation work on the manuscript.

"We are building a whole new exhibition for it," he says. "That will be in our new building. It'll be reinstalled in a new facility by 2004 [but] I believe it will be back on view before then. We are creating a whole new home for it."

Until two weeks ago, the manuscript was displayed in an austere contemporary setting. Double-locked into its outer glass case, the manuscript was already protected by a very sensitive alarm system. A worker once set it off by loudly singing - what else - "The Star-Spangled Banner."

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