The Great Gun Merchant
August 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 5
When World War I broke out, Bannerman was stirred by his strong attachment to the land of his birth. He donated a thousand used rifles and other equipment to outfit the Scottish Company of the City of London National Guard, a gift valued at about seventy thousand dollars. The following year he wrote the Lord Mayor of London, urging on King George another gift of a thousand Springfield rifles. If the king could not accept a gift, why then he could pay Bannerman a penny for the lot. King George accepted the offer under the impression that Bannerman was a British subject.
Yet it was World War I that raised the only whiff of public scandal over the Bannerman business. Several congressmen demanded an investigation when the War Department proposed to pay Bannerman fifteen thousand dollars apiece for thirty six-inch guns that he had bought from the United States Navy a few years before for seventy-eight dollars apiece. Bannerman denied that he had asked fifteen thousand dollars for each gun—that was merely the catalogue list price. Actually he was willing to sell the guns for five thousand dollars apiece. He eventually threw in two guns for free, along with twenty thousand dollars to mount them, as a gift to the nation.
Less than a week after the armistice ending the Great War, Frank Bannerman died at the age of sixty-eight, from overwork, said the New York Times obituary, while collecting and shipping clothes for the Belgian relief effort. After his death the business shifted gradually from large-scale arms sales to collectors’ sales. Two sons carried on the firm until their deaths, Frank VII’s in 1945 and David’s in 1957, leaving the firm in the hands of a grandson, Charles Bannerman. The family lived at the castle less frequently after the founder’s death and finally not at all.
In 1959 the Bannerman salesroom was moved from its Broadway location to a building on Blue Point, Long Island. The old store was closed to the wailing strains of a kilted bagpiper, while city police and firemen sealed off the block and the nearest subway station on the off chance that some of the shells being removed from Bannerman’s Military Museum might still be live. Finally the family sold out the business to James Hogan, a former Bannerman employee, who still runs it from the Blue Point location, dealing mainly with weapons collectors.
By the 1960’s Bannerman’s castle on the Hudson had sunk to a state of monumental decay. In 1967 Charles Bannerman sold the island castle to New York’s Taconic State Park Commission and disposed of all remaining arms and munitions. Not long after the sale Frank Bannerman’s dream turned to ashes. A fire, probably set by vandals, consumed the castle and the family home. The flames danced high in the night sky, and the river hellishly mirrored and magnified the fire on its sleek black surface. Before the fire burned out, the flames had eaten through all but the stoutest castle walls. What remains today is a charred, crumbling shell with the legend “Bannerman’s Island Arsenal” barely legible on the remaining façade.
Shortly before he died, Frank Bannerman had rewritten the preface to his catalogue, again expressing his ultimate faith in peace: “We believe the millenium will come. For years we have been preparing for it collecting the weapons now known as Bannerman’s Military Museum.” His great hope, he said, was the day when this pavilion of destruction could be renamed the “Museum of Lost Arts.”