On Friday, which marked the celebration of Flag Day in the United States, hundreds gathered at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History and watched master illusionist David Copperfield perform a historic feat: reuniting the original Star-Spangled Banner with its long-lost 15th star.
“This should be interesting,” Copperfield said with a grin. “I hope it works.”
Audience members watched in awe as Copperfield worked his magic on two seemingly ordinary cardboard boxes, levitating and spinning them until, in the blink of an eye, out popped—a man? With a satchel?
It wasn’t just any man, Copperfield explained. It was the courier he’d sent back in time to search for the star. At some point between the Battle of Fort McHenry, that September 1814 night of rockets' red glare and bombs bursting in air, and when the famed flag was given to the Smithsonian in 1907, one of the 15 stars—representing the 15 states of the time—was likely clipped off.
The time-hopping detective reached into his bag and triumphantly produced a bundle of linen, and unfurled it with great flair to reveal the long-lost stretch of the flag—or at least, a historically accurate replica of it. The audience leapt to their feet at the sight of the most famous flag in U.S. history reunited, if only for a moment, with an essential missing piece.
The illusion was designed as part of the museum’s traditional Flag Day programming and accompanied a naturalization ceremony for 14 newly minted American citizens.
The idea for the illusion was born after Copperfield visited the museum about a year ago and learned about the absent star. When he realized the flag was an iconic artifact with an element of mystery involved, Copperfield says he was hooked.
“If anything is a mystery, it’s a good way to dream,” Copperfield says. “So, I said, ‘OK, missing star. Now you're in my world. Why don't we blend some fact and fiction, and let people know what I didn’t know?’”
For the “fact” side of that equation, Copperfield turned to Jennifer Jones, the curator for the Star-Spangled Banner exhibit at the National Museum of American History. Historians have long puzzled over the fate of the missing star, which was likely clipped from the banner more than a century ago. According to Jones, many of the clues we do have about the star’s fate come from the writings of Georgiana Armistead Appleton, whose father commanded Fort McHenry during the battle and claimed the flag as a memento following the historic win. In 1873, Georgiana wrote that the star was cut out and given to “some official person.” Unfortunately for historians, she didn’t elaborate on who the lucky recipient was.
The practice of chipping away at artifacts was common at the time, Jones says, even if it may seem shocking to today’s more conservation-minded history lovers. And with no flag code in place until 1942, the Star-Spangled Banner was not exempt.
“The 19th century really is about souveniring and memorialization,” Jones says. “It was the norm to be cutting and giving away pieces of relics or things that were of significance.”
So Copperfield took a break from the Las Vegas stage to conjure the star back and return it to its rightful place on the exact banner that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem that would become our national anthem. Jones says she provided backup on the historical details that were central to crafting Copperfield's performance, from speculating on potential recipients of the star clipping to offering physical descriptions for the replica—like measurements, color, materials, and even stitch counts. Of course, Copperfield wasn’t allowed to handle the actual flag. Only four people have been allowed inside the pressurized chamber that has housed the banner since it returned to public view at the National Museum of American History when it reopened in 2008. Copperfield says he fully understood the importance of preserving the precious piece of history. (A museum proprietor himself, his International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts boasts more than 80,000 magical artifacts.)
The replica star created for the performance will now be added to the museum’s collections where it will join about 13 real fragments that have been rediscovered over the years. The real star, however, will probably remain “lost to history,” Jones says.
Even though his magic couldn’t bring back the original fragment, Copperfield says he hoped to spark a greater interest in the flag’s history, as well as present a symbol of unity during a disunited moment in American history. Through his illusions, he says he always looks to bring in a deeper narrative.
He points to his iconic 1983 trick of making the entire Statue of Liberty disappear. By instantly taking away an essential symbol of freedom, Copperfield says he hoped to send a message about the freedoms we take for granted. Now, he’s basically done the opposite: He brought back a long-lost symbol of national unity, but with a similar goal of reminding the American people of an important truth.
“Reuniting the stars symbolizes how much stronger we are as a nation when we're united,” Copperfield says. “At a time here where people could say that we're divided in many ways, the illusion can remind us that we are a diverse people that have done amazing things because of our differences—because of our backgrounds, our artistic skills, our languages, our cultures.”
That message was also highlighted throughout the rest of the Flag Day ceremony. After a lively performance by the student choir from Cardinal Shehan School in Baltimore, 14 people from 14 different countries—from Bolivia to South Korea, Nepal to Ethiopia—took the oath of allegiance and officially became naturalized as U.S. citizens.
Anthea Hartig, the new director of the museum, says she thought of the entire ceremony, including the custom-made Copperfield illusion, as a gift to the new citizens and an opportunity to reconsider the meaning of the American flag.
“Today is a very special day, to not only welcome these new citizens, but through illusion and through history, to remind us all of the power of our citizenship, and the fact that it’s a muscle that has to be flexed,” Hartig says. “In certain respects, our democracy is always fragile, because it takes us to uphold it.
Among the first to congratulate the new citizens was Smithsonian secretary David J. Skorton. The ceremony marked the last public event for Skorton before he steps down as secretary, and he said he couldn’t imagine a more meaningful or fitting sendoff.
And Copperfield, who described himself as the “proud son of immigrants,” said he was humbled to be part of the ceremony.
“You’re now a member of our great American constellation,” Copperfield told the new citizens. “I hope you shine.”