- Historic Sites
The Great Gun Merchant
August 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 5
For years passengers travelling the railroad between New York City and Albany were stirred from their reveries by a Scottish castle looming suddenly from the Hudson River. An outpost of nearby West Point? The domain of an émigré laird? No, this island fortress was once the private arsenal of the world’s largest arms dealer.
Frank Bannerman saw himself as a sincere Christian. Critics branded him a secondhand merchant of death. Whatever else, he was a paragon of nineteenth-century capitalism.
Bannerman was a child of three when the family emigrated from Scotland and settled in Brooklyn. When the Civil War broke out soon after, his father left for the Union navy, and Frank, then ten, quit school to help support the family. By the war’s end young Frank was carrying on his father’s earlier livelihood, buying government surplus equipment at the nearby Brooklyn Navy Yard.
After Appomattox huge stocks of surplus arms came onto the federal auction block. Frank Bannerman bought up unwanted weapons for their resale value as junk. Before long the young entrepreneur found that the old guns, bullets, swords, and cannonballs he was selling as scrap would command far higher prices in their original form and for their original purposes. By the age of twenty Frank Bannerman, junk dealer, had become Francis Bannerman, secondhand munitions merchant.
When Bannerman went to California to bid on government cartridge boxes, he avoided heavy rail-freight charges by chartering an entire clipper ship to take his purchases back to New York via Cape Horn. He acquired a huge store of army belt-plates and smelted them down in his front yard, separating the lead from the brass in the process; the salvaged metals were then sold, in what was deemed a profitable undertaking. He converted a peaceful passenger ship into a well-armed man-of-war for a South American government in one week, “a record for speed that could scarcely be duplicated,” he boasted; and in one quick turnaround he bought up thousands of Civil War carbines and sold them in bulk to a New York store that retailed the guns for sixty-nine cents apiece. If they yielded a profit at this retail price, one can only imagine what Bannerman paid for them.
Arms meant more to Frank Bannerman than profits alone. The federal government had a practice of smashing surplus arms under heavy hammers before auctioning them. This destruction scandalized Bannerman:
We remember at the close of the Civil War, making the highest bid at Government sale, on a lot of 11,000 old guns, “veterans of many wars,” part of the lot surrendered by General Lee, classified “Rebel.” The U.S. Ordnance Officer refused to accept our bid for the guns, alleging “that Bannerman would repair the guns and put them into serviceable order, and they would then enter into competition with the now obsolete guns that the Government had for sale.” So this lot of “Rebel” guns, which contained many heirlooms of patriots who had fought with Washington and Jackson, was consigned to the fire, and the old burnt locks and barrels sold to us later as scrap iron.
The government’s concern was not entirely unfounded. David, one of Bannerman’s two sons who eventually went into the business, told how the boys were sent to rummage through barrels of broken-up guns stored in the family’s cellar. For every part found in perfect working order—a firing pin, perhaps, or a tumbler—they were paid a bonus.
Bannerman’s greatest coup was the Spanish acquisition. He bought up ninety per cent of all captured guns, ammunition, and other equipment auctioned off after the Spanish-American War. He also bought weapons directly from the Spanish government before it evacuated Cuba. These purchases vastly exceeded the firm’s capacity at its store in Manhattan and filled three huge Brooklyn warehouses with munitions, including thirty million cartridges.
Francis Bannerman Sons now billed itself—correctly, no doubt—as “the largest dealer in the world in military goods.” The firm advertised its wares in a profusely illustrated catalogue that military men the world over valued as a standard reference work. The catalogue spelled out the terms of sale in what Bannerman called The Golden Rule in Action; “First you pay your money, then you get your goods.” In short, cash on the gun barrel and no questions asked.
Cannon? Bannerman offered them with twenty-four hundred rounds of shot “at bargain prices,” ready to be shipped within five minutes of the receipt of an order (“no red tape with our quick deliveries”).
Gatling guns? The firm stocked two hundred, with eight million rounds of ball cartridges “for any government War Department desiring to equip their army with a first-class outfit.”
A machine that could cast over a hundred thousand bullets a day? Bannerman could give you a price.
An ancient crossbow? A Zulu warrior’s lance? A Congo blow-gun arrow? See Bannerman—price: $75, $6.75, and $1.00 each, respectively. He acquired these curiosities through foreign agents and on his own frequent arms-buying forays abroad.
Bannerman also had answers for customers with special problems. Describing the Hotchkiss twelve-pounder the catalogue noted, “These fine guns should be particularly desirable to South American Government War Departments or to any government for service in mountainous countries.”
Bannerman’s ability to deliver the goods was best demonstrated during the 1905 Russo-Japanese War. He submitted samples to the Japanese war department for 100,000 rifles, 10,000 army saddles, 100,000 knapsacks, 150,000 gunslings, 100,000 khaki uniforms, 150,000 white summer uniforms, and 20 million cartridges—an offer, it appears, that the Japanese let pass.
But Bannerman would not sell to just anyone. The firm had an iron rule: “No firearms are ever sold in our store to any minor.”
Bannerman also conducted a lively trade in less lethal wares. He sold surplus military uniforms to bands, fire departments, and patriotic organizations. Seventy-five years after the Civil War the firm was still offering Union army uniforms “in the original cases, free from moths and in perfect condition.” Buffalo Bill used Bannerman supplies in his act. The cast of My Maryland , a 1927 musical with a Civil War theme, was outfitted in original blue and gray uniforms from Bannerman’s.
The firm also did a brisk business in martial antiques, supplying the veterans’ post wanting a front-lawn cannon, the museum seeking a suit of armor, the collector looking for a seventeenth-century blunderbuss, or the schoolboy dreaming of crossed sabers hanging in his room.
The company even had links from the famous iron chain that had been strung across the Hudson River during the American Revolution as a device to snag British ships. The links were cut into cross sections a quarter of an inch thick, polished bright, stamped “Section of chain used by General George Washington, West Point, New York, 1778.” The last of these links to the Revolution were sold in the 1940’s for $2.75 apiece.
Although the identity of its major munitions customers was a tightly held secret, the firm hotly denied that it ever armed revolutionaries for profit. Yet when Panamanian rebels broke away from Colombia in 1903, presumably conspiring with a United States government bent on building a canal through Panama, the insurgents were armed with Mausers suspiciously like those captured from the Spanish in Cuba.
When a story about the firm, headlined FITTING OUT REVOLUTIONS , appeared in the old New York Herald , the company angrily objected. “We have plenty of honorable business without stirring up or aiding strife,” a spokesman said. “If revolutionists purchase our goods, they do so secretly through others.” No doubt true. But the Bannermans asked no questions. They took the money and delivered the goods to a pier or freight yard. Where the material went after that was not their concern. They could honestly say they did not know.
What sort of man was this merchant of secondhand guns and surplus bombs? He himself might have answered “a man of God.” A lifelong object of Frank Bannerman’s generosity and interest was the Scotch Presbyterian Church of Saint Andrews in Brooklyn. His favored recreation was weekly Bible study with poor lads from his boyhood Brooklyn neighborhood.
When a minister friend accused him of being in a horrid business, Bannerman had a ready retort. He asked the cleric how many swords were reported in the company of the Twelve Apostles. When the minister, citing Luke 22:38, answered “Two,” Bannerman commented: “Two swords in a company of twelve makes a rather good percentage in favor of weapons.”
In another novel defense Bannerman wrote, “The good book says that in the millenium days, swords shall be turned into plow shares and spears into pruning hooks. We are helping to hasten along the glad time by selling cannonballs to heal the sick.” This was no metaphysical argument. The passage merely referred to another Bannerman product, for which the company had received “frequent calls from physicians”—cannonballs covered with leather, which were recommended to patients suffering from constipation and other abdominal maladies. One placed the ball on the floor and rolled on it to relieve the condition—something of a martial medicine ball.
Bannerman was fiercely proud of his Scottish antecedents. The family virtually practiced ancestor worship. The first male member of each generation was always christened Frank. Our protagonist’s father was Frank V , he himself was Frank VI (“Francis” was used for business purposes only), and his eldest son was Frank VII . Every edition of the Bannerman catalogue reported the legend behind the surname. According to this story a member of the MacDonald clan rescued the clan banner during the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. King Robert Bruce himself witnessed the heroic deed and, with his own sword, sliced off a strip of the standard, pinned it on the brave MacDonald, and there on the battlefield proclaimed him a “Banner Man.” The family noted pointedly in its catalogue that no matter how it might sound, the name Bannerman was not German.
As Bannerman’s business prospered the firm outgrew one larger location after another, finally occupying an entire block at 501 Broadway in lower Manhattan. This property became the main salesroom and the site of Bannerman’s Military Museum, a superb exhibition of weaponry from harque-buses to artillery, which the owner proudly displayed to the public. But this space could not hold the massive Bannerman purchases from the Spanish-American War, and New York ordinances prohibited the storage of live ammunition in the city. Bannerman now needed an arsenal.
In 1900 his son David was cruising the Hudson River with a friend who showed him six and a half acres of scrub-covered rock called Polopel’s Island, about fifty-five miles north of New York City. Polopel’s Island offered Frank Bannerman space to store his munitions and room to indulge his Scottish affinities.
He bought the island in December of 1900 for fifteen hundred dollars from a private owner and bought seven acres more of underwater land in front of the island from the state of New York. He ringed the submerged area with sunken canalboats, barges, and railroad floats to form a breakwater.
On the island Bannerman built a huge arsenal styled after his idea of a Scottish castle. On a hill in the middle of the island he built a smaller castle as the Bannerman family home.
The island was under continuous construction for eighteen years. Yet hardly an architect or engineer had a hand in the work. The castle was Bannerman’s vision and his execution. It was creviced and encrusted with battlements, towers, turrets, crenellations, parapets, embrasures, casements, and corbelling. Huge iron baskets suspended from the castle corners held gas-fed lamps that burned in the night like ancient torches. By day Bannerman’s castle gave the river a fairyland aspect. By night it threw a brooding silhouette against the Hudson skyline.
Bannerman chose well in selecting Polopel’s Island for his designs. Just past the rugged Hudson heights of Breakneck, Crownest, and Storm King Mountain the river opens into a lovely inland sea containing the island. Visitors approached the place along a breakwater bristling with cannon and then passed through an opening flanked by two watchtowers. After tying up their boat at a large unloading dock they crossed a moat spanned by a drawbridge and passed under a portcullis crowned by the Bannerman coat of arms carved in stone. The coat of arms had been designed by Bannerman and included a grapnel symbolizing the grappling he used to do in New York Harbor for old anchors and pieces of chain.
Once through the portcullis, visitors passed along walks flanked by alternating flower beds and gun emplacements that ran between the munitions storehouses and the family’s living quarters. All the rooms in the smaller castle contained proverbs from the Bible, molded on the walls in concrete. Visitors who brought a thirst to Bannerman’s castle were out of luck, since the teetotalling owner had readily signed a covenant when he bought Polopel’s prohibiting any drop of liquor from profaning his island. Armed guards with watchdogs roved the island around the clock and discouraged the uninvited.
This embellished rock in the Hudson was the Bannerman family home in all but the most bitter of winter months. Bannerman grandchildren, their friends, and the employees’ children romped amid history—a gun from Admiral Farragut’s flagship, a cannon from the battle of Yorktown, memorabilia from the sunken U.S.S. Maine .
The family also lived on a virtual powder keg crammed with hundreds of cannon, tens of thousands of rifles, hundreds of thousands of rounds of live ammunition, and tons of gunpowder. Once a workman melting down scrap mistakenly put live ammunition into the pot, “with fatal results,” as a Bannerman publication described the outcome. Another time a cannon being tested against a nearby-mountain jumped, lifting the shell over the intended target and sending it through somebody’s barn. And on a lazy Sunday summer afternoon the powder house blew up, hurling shells and debris over the island but, miraculously, injuring no one. The cause of the blast was never determined.
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.”