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Stop Thief! The Mystery of the Missing Gun!

The exciting news in 2023 is the return of a firearm missing from the Longmeadow Historical Society Collections since 1970!

The story begins with a letter from the U. S. Department of Justice, dated August 13, 2018. The letter explained "The United States is investigating thefts of antique firearms and other items from museums and historical societies that took place in the 1970's and 1980's, primarily on the East Coast. A list of the recovered items is attached. We do recognize that these thefts took place 30 to 48 years ago and that you may not have detailed records, but we would appreciate any assistance you can give in identifying where these objects belong." The attached list contained 123 items, briefly described. Wow!

This author shared the list with fellow historical institutions in the area and then got to work. There was a legend in our historical society about a theft many years before. An investigation into the old accession records in the Historical Society's archives began. The challenge was finding any descriptions with enough detail to confirm that any of the recovered items were ours. One list of items displayed in the "Militia Room" included; "long-barrelled British rifle, Indian trade"; "Revolutionary War rifle and bayonet", and "three single-barrelled shotguns." But as many of our readers will understand, old descriptions are often inadequate, inaccurate, or just plain wrong. It was nearly impossible to correlate those early descriptions with anything remaining in the collection or from the list of recovered items.

But, and you knew there would be a but, there was one exception. One of the recovered guns was marked with a name, which was familiar from previous research in Longmeadow--"Wm Goldthwait." Several previous History Notes have been written about the very talented Goldthwait family, including Martha Chapin Goldthwait (1862-1934), William Goldthwait (1844-1922), and William Colton Goldthwait (1816-1882). We found that Martha Goldthwait, William Colton Goldthwait's daughter, donated the gun and other family items in 1923 with the note "gun, made by Wm Goldthwait." We swiftly contacted the Assistant United States Attorney in charge of the case.

Further research into board meeting minutes finds a mention of the theft in the September 28, 1970 meeting: "Mr. Lincoln discussed the break which occurred the previous week. Taken in part were two Revolutionary War Muskets, other guns, a militia hat, etc." How we wish they had been more specific! The following May the minutes included "There followed a discussion of insurance payments for the stolen guns, cartridge box, and hat, and the repair to the damaged clock." Further digging produced a letter written by then-president Alan Lincoln to the insurance company listing the missing items. This list had slightly more detail--the hat is now described as a "military hat, silver band and plume, 1812, from the estate of Fidelia West," and the cartridge box now had the added detail of "red heart cartridge case." A description of an exhibit included the detail that one of the missing guns was an 1809 Lemuel Pomeroy musket.

Follow-up phone calls with three previous board members who were involved with the historical society at the time of the theft did not produce any specific recollections about the theft. One of them suggested that the former town Chief of Police might be able to help. He offered to check but believed that the records from that time would have been purged. A later call from a current officer confirmed that the older records had been purged and that the current records only went back to 1974. So close! Inquiries to the Insurance Company had the same result--records from that far back were gone.

In the past few months, we have been given some slide photographs done in the 1960's, 1970's and 1980's. While scanning these, I did find a photograph of the Military room that shows a hat, likely the missing hat from the theft.

Here is some background of two possible owners of the gun. William Colton Goldthwait (1816-1882) was the son of Erastus and Hannah Colton Goldthwait. William C. was an educator and farmer in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. William C.'s nephew, also named William (1844-1922), spent time as an apprentice at the United States Armory in Springfield, MA. The 1865 State census lists his occupation as "armorer." Some research into the Armory records by a museum colleague found that William showed up in the payroll records from April 1861 to May 1866, working in the Machine Shop as a toolmaker. The gun does not appear to be similar to the guns being made at the Armory at the time. While it is possible that he made the gun as some kind of apprenticeship project, the Armory records do not include that information. Perhaps he made it at a small, private gunsmith's shop.

After his time at the Armory, William worked at the Hampden Watch Company. Later, because of ill health, he went west to recuperate in Colorado. It seems to have been successful, as he returned to Longmeadow and spent many years enjoying outdoor pursuits. Could he have been the maker and owner of the gun, not his uncle? It is possible, as Martha Chapin Goldthwait, his cousin, donated the gun in 1923, the year after his death.

Consulting a gun expert, we learned, "It is a New England Target Buggy Rifle made in the 1850s. The iron frame and grips make it almost unique, as does the engraving on them. There is one other known example in an old collection in southern Missouri, which is unsigned but must certainly have been made by the same man. The stock with the wood entirely encased in metal also make it unusual. The name inscribed on the gun is almost certainly the maker." So could the original owner (and maker?) have been William C. Goldthwait, the educator, or William Goldthwait the armorer, even though he would have been very young at the time of its manufacture? We're still working on sorting this mystery out.

Recently, two of Longmeadow Historical Society's board members made a trip to the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia to join in a repatriation ceremony with others who had stolen objects recovered. The ceremony included 16 organizations as well as FBI investigators and prosecutors involved in the case.

From the press release provided by the Museum of the American Revolution: "In 2009, Upper Merion Township detectives and the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office re-opened a cold case investigation of thefts of valuable antique firearms and other items that occurred between 1968 and 1979 from the Valley Forge Historical Society Museum in Valley Forge, PA, and other museums. During that investigation, a confidential source turned over several antique firearms believed to have been stolen from museums in Pennsylvania.

The FBI Art Crime team and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania joined the investigation in 2016. In May 2017, based on information from a variety of sources, including the Museum of the American Revolution, confidential sources and Delaware County court documents, the FBI, with the assistance of Upper Merion Township detectives, executed a search warrant at a residence in Newark, DE and recovered a number of antique firearms and other items believed to have been stolen from museums. For the next several years, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, with the assistance of the FBI Art Crime Team, the Upper Merion Township Police Department, the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office and the Museum of the American Revolution, worked to determine the source of those items by contacting museums throughout the country and researching numerous documents.

In 2021, Michael Corbett was indicted by a grand jury in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania for possession of firearms and other items stolen from museums in the 1970’s. Corbett entered a guilty plea to that charge and, as part of the plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Corbett agreed to turn over to the government other stolen firearms to which he had access."

Three local museums received objects from this case, including Longmeadow's William Goldthwait buggy target rifle, a powder horn from the Belchertown Historical Association, and a pistol taken from the Springfield Armory.

This gun returns to the Storrs House Museum 100 years after its original arrival. The Longmeadow Historical Society plans to have the gun on display in the Storrs House Museum. And of course, as diligent stewards of the collections, the Historical Society now has a modern security system in place.

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