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Object of the Month #9: Found, Captured, or Stolen

Object of the Month #9
Found, Captured, or Stolen
Antique Pastiche Flintlock Pistol (2013.01.214)
September 2015

Ever have a conversation with a toddler? There’s an almost total inability to stay on topic.  Sometimes, working with the realia can be like that.[1] Boxes are filled with non sequiturs; a single chopstick, a confused scale model of an Oxford University punt, a wooden thing that might be a 19th century hat stretcher.[2] Usually there’s no accompanying information.  A group of objects may be from the same donor, but they may not. They might be from the same place, but they’re usually not.

Occasionally, however, an object turns up with a bit more: the name of a donor, a definitive place of origin, a faded but semi-legible description of what the heck it is. And very, very rarely (a grand total of once in my experience so far) an object surfaces with what amounts to a detailed biography. This Object of the Month is it.

This is a beautifully and ornately decorated late 18th century flintlock pistol, found in the archives along with two typewritten pages laying out a detailed history, but leaving only tantalizing clues about its presence at NMH. The pistol’s “biography” comes to us courtesy of David Cobb (the pistol’s discoverer and Mount Hermon English teacher), Robert Abels (renowned antique weapons expert), Arthur Kiendl (head of school), and Paul Bowman[3] (Mount Hermon chemistry teacher and first school archivist, aka “The Mighty Molecule”).

The pistol’s basic timeline at NMH is as follows. In the mid-late 1960s, Cobb found the pistol in a box in the North Crossley attic, and sent it to Abels for appraisal. Abels returned it to Cobb, who typed up the accompanying notes based on Abels’ assessment, and forwarded both pistol and notes to Kiendl in 1968. In 1971 Kiendl sent the whole thing to Bowman in the archives. Last spring, over forty years later, I found the pistol and notes wrapped in wads of tissue paper in the bottom of a box.

What on earth was a two hundred year old firearm doing in the Crossley attic? Actually, the answer to this one might not be too complicated, if still a little weird. Did you know that there was both a varsity riflery team and a club at Mount Hermon in the mid- to late-1960s? Over the few years of their existence they practiced in several locations: the general vicinity of Snow House, the old pool below James Gym [4], and in the attic of Crossley.[5] In addition to teaching English, Cobb also happened to be the varsity team coach.

Cobb’s letter to Kiendl includes a wealth of expert information from Abels about the pre-NMH history of the pistol. He writes:
This antique flintlock handgun is … a mongrel. The firing mechanism dates from the mid-eighteenth century, and is of European— probably French—origin, having been originally the firing mechanism for a heavy musket, undoubtedly a military weapon. Found, captured, or stolen by the Turks in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, very possibly during the war against Napoleon (1798), the musket was cannibalized to make this handgun. Perhaps because the musket was damaged, but more likely because the Turks preferred handguns to long firearms, the firing mechanism … was removed and combined with a handgun stock, probably also European, but extensively modified and ornamented (with filed nail studs and brass) by the Turks. The barrel is probably from a Turkish handgun … [T]he craftsmanship is primitive and is therefore probably the work not of a professional gunsmith but of an ordinary soldier for whom it was a labor of love… The mechanism is simple and efficient, but although it is handsomely modified into a handgun, the stock is much too light for it and the barrel is too short and light, and consequently it is a miserably ineffective and inaccurate weapon, a consideration which was probably secondary … [T]his weapon would be extremely unreliable and inaccurate at ranges exceeding ten yards.[6]
I would add two points to Abels and Cobb’s description. The weapon is heavy; over one kilogram (almost 2½  lbs.). Holding it at arm’s length for any length of time while trying to aim would not be easy. Cobb also removed a few damaged parts of the pistol at some point, rendering it inoperable.[7]

Napoleon wanted to control the lucrative trade routes to India in order to cut off British access. In 1798 he led a major French campaign against the Ottoman Turks to take the eastern Mediterranean. Opposed by the Ottomans and British, Napoleon suffered a disastrous defeat in Syria. It is likely that the weapon fell into Turkish hands at this time.

How did a modified French musket end up at NMH in the first place, let alone in such an out-of-the-way location? Not unusually for realia in the archives, this is still a complete unknown. That the pistol was found in one of the places where the riflery team used to practice is evocative, but far from conclusive. The ways in which various objects in the archives relate to each other is not always obvious at first, but sometimes connections become clear over time, linking one seeming non sequitur to another.

Sara Karz Reid
Assistant Archivist


[1] For a brief introduction to realia, see the first ever Object of the Month column from last October.

[2] If you’re interested in seeing any of these objects send me an email at sreid, but honestly, the chopstick isn’t worth it.

[3] If you’ve stopped by Craig Hefner’s office, you might recognize Bowman’s name from the plaque on the door, dedicating the room as a chemistry library in his honor.

[4] Seriously. They had practices and meets down in the old, drained pool. A low ceiling was constructed over the deck, meaning that in the shallow end it wouldn’t have been possible to stand upright.

[5] Can you imagine how loud it must have been in the fourth floor dorm rooms during practice?

[6] Cobb, D. Letter to Art Kiendl. 24 Mar. 1968. MS. NMH Archives, Gill, MA.

[7] Ibid.