News & Views

The Mystery of the Unsigned Pledge

A young boy looks up at an American flag that he holds proudly above his head.I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands – one Nation indivisible – with liberty and justice for all.

That’s the original version – by whom?

It was a mystery for half a century until a young woman in Portsmouth, Virginia, solved it. At this moment in time when our country’s basic principles are in danger, I ask you to join me in honoring that woman whose role as “pledge detective” could have been created by Dashiell Hammett or Agatha Christie. When I met Margarette Miller she was a middle aged woman, a secretary in an elementary school, not exactly the private eye type. My perception changed when she told me her story:

In 1936 when she was 22 years old, she attended a Fourth of July celebration of the Daughters of Job, a women’s organization devoted to God, flag, and country. She had gone to the event at the urging of her parents who thought she might meet some young people there, though frankly she would have preferred to stay home
with one of her good English mysteries. Tall, thin, painfully shy, Margarette was, in her own words, “the perfect wallflower type.”

As she sat in the large Masonic hall, she wondered what the rest of her life would be. She hoped she would not turn into one of those women up there on the rostrum, those corseted women who wore hats with veils and corsages pinned to their bosoms. Dear God, she said to herself, don’t let me become one of them.

The main speaker, Mrs. Ethel Wetzel, wrapped up her patriotic oratory saying, “...and to think that the author of our glorious Pledge of Allegiance is lying today in an unmarked grave!”

Margarette was sorrowful to hear this. She had always loved the Pledge of Allegiance. They were 23 words of sheer music to her. How could its author be lying in an unmarked grave? When the speech was over, she made her way to the rostrum, and asked the speaker if she knew the name of the Pledge’s neglected author. The woman was happy to comply. She told Margarette that it was Frank Bellamy of Cherryvale, Kansas, and that he had written the Pledge at the age of 12 as his entry in a school contest in 1896, an entry that won.

What a wonderful child, Margarette thought. A poet! A genius! A great American patriot too! She felt that at last she had a purpose in life. She would make the name of Frank Bellamy known throughout the land! But during the next few days when she did some research on the Kansas “schoolboy” she found a peculiar discrepancy.

The year of Frank Bellamy’s birth was given in various sources as 1870 and also as 1875, which would make him either 21 or 26 at the time he allegedly won the grade school contest.

To sort things out, Margarette wrote to the Kansas State Historical Society, and learned that they had long ago discarded the Bellamy authorship theory. Bellamy had won a contest – that much was true. And he had submitted the Pledge of Allegiance to win it – that also was true. But in the minds of the Kansas
historians there was little doubt that Bellamy had lifted the Pledge from a copy of The Youth’s Companion, a popular 19th Century magazine for boys and girls.

But if not Bellamy, who?

Margarette went to her local library, and dug up all the back issues she could find of the now-defunct Youth’s Companion. They were large cracked journals, yellowed with age, filled with nature studies, tales of American heroes, and tips on how to tie Boy Scout knots. In the copies the library had, there was no mention of a Pledge of Allegiance. But the trip to the library was not in vain. A librarian suggested to Margarette that she consult an old musty book called “The Flag of the United States, Its History and Symbolism.” Margarette leafed through it hoping to find some overlooked evidence, and then —

Yes! Yes! There it was! The name of James B. Upham, credited as the author of the Pledge of Allegiance. And to make things more conclusive, Upham was identified as an executive of The Youth’s Companion! It was all coming together, or so she thought.

Believing she now had the right author, Margarette persuaded the Portsmouth Star to publish a special edition saluting the birthday of James B. Upham, author of the Pledge of Allegiance. And then the roof fell in.

More to come next week...

Jerry CoopersmithJerome Coopersmith has authored more than 100 television scripts for anthology dramas, episodic series and television movies and specials. His Broadway musical, Baker Street, based on the stories of Sherlock Holmes, earned him a Tony Nomination. He is a longstanding and much appreciated member of Mystery Writers of America.

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