Original 'Star-Spangled Banner' poem leaves Baltimore for first time

Two state police, 6 city officers escort armored truck carrying original document

-The Baltimore Sun

After Francis Scott Key scrawled down the four verses of "The Star-Spangled Banner," he left four fold marks from putting it in his breast pocket. Nearly 200 years later, the historic document is handled with far more reverence and care.

It's kept in an argon-filled case for preservation, and on Tuesday, when caretakers moved it from Baltimore to Annapolis — its first known trip out of the city — they put it in an armored truck followed by two state police cars and a half-dozen city police on motorcycles.

Key wrote the poem in September 1814 during the Battle of Baltimore at Fort McHenry, where it will return Wednesday after a trip to Annapolis for a reception for the General Assembly, organized by the National Anthem Celebration Foundation. For three months starting Thursday, the public can view Key's original manuscript at the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine.

"This is a great phase for us to take this document down to Annapolis," said Burt Kummerow, president of the Maryland Historical Society, which has held the document since the 1950s.

Kummerow called the piece of parchment "a very, very important document in Maryland history," adding that "we're taking great pains to protect it," as he spoke to the news media outside the historical society's building on West Monument Street. A television news helicopter hovered above the Dunbar Armored truck before it left to head down Interstate 97 to Annapolis.

The document has been in a historical society exhibit, which is now under renovation. The large wooden display case with built-in lights sits in an empty room, where contractors have begun to make way for a new Civil War exhibit.

The document was preserved underneath a copy on display for visitors — but every hour, a mechanical device would reveal the original for several minutes to help preserve Key's original writing.

"The thing is priceless. It is insured for many dollars," said historical society spokesman Marc L. Apter.

The document was removed from the museum case Tuesday for the first time since 2003 — still secured inside a frame carried by a Dunbar employee. The yellowed parchment, with elegant cursive handwriting with the occasional word slashed out, was flattened between the clear frame with numerous locks. "Property of the Maryland Historical Society" was written across the frame.

It was delicately lowered into a large case strapped into the truck, surrounded with a heavy blankets used for a cushions.

Dan Esmond, founder of the National Anthem Celebration, said he worked with the historical society for several months to plan the move. "To me, this is like the Constitution, but this you can actually read," since the document has been so well-preserved, he said.

Esmond grew up in Pennsylvania but has lived in Maryland for the past 16 years and has worked for the Secret Service. He says he's "always had a love for the National Anthem," which drove him to start the National Anthem Celebration Foundation.

"It's one of America's greatest documents," said Alexandra Deutsch, chief curator for the historical society. She said the document has not left Baltimore.

In 1814, Key gave the handwritten manuscript to his brother-in-law, Judge Joseph Hopper Nicholson, for publication. His son, James Macon Nicholson, inherited the document in 1817, passing it in 1875 to his daughter, Rebecca Lloyd Shippen. She sold it in 1907 to Henry Walters, founder of the Walters Art Gallery.

The Walters Art Museum sold it to the historical society in 1953, where it has remained since.

The society briefly took down the manuscript in 2002 amid heightened security concerns after the Sept. 11 attacks, when numerous documents across the country were secured, including the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. At the same time, the document had been scheduled for restoration, where creases in the paper and tears along the edges were repaired.

The manuscript was encased in its current apparatus, made by a boat and scuba equipment manufacturing firm in Upper Marlboro.

"The Star-Spangled Banner" did not become the national anthem until March 3, 1931.

Starting Thursday, the manuscript will be showcased at the new visitor and education center at Fort McHenry.

Vincent Vaise, a park ranger and chief of interpretation, said this the first time that "The Star-Spangled Banner" will return to "the place that gave the inspiration. It's making history again."

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