Harpers Ferry gun returned to Chicago museum

An 1851 Colt “Navy” revolver wielded by Owen Brown, son of abolitionist guerilla John Brown, at the 1859 raid on the Harpers Ferry armory was stolen from the Chicago History Museum in 1948.

The revolver was part of a group of artifacts donated to the Chicago History Museum in 1917 by Frank Logan, a memorabilia collector who bought the weapon from Owen Brown’s sister.

“The pistol represents this very important moment in American history when slavery became the most divisive issue tearing the nation apart,” said Libby Mahoney, chief curator of the Chicago History Museum. “It’s not just your ordinary revolver.”

Someone swiped the gun from a museum display in 1948, she said. The museum still owns the gun’s holster and kept records of Logan’s donation and the gun’s serial number, she said.

Owen Brown Colt "Navy" revolverAfter its theft, the Colt disappeared into the murky underworld of antiquities dealing for decades until it was purchased by gun collector Robert Hassinger in Pennsylvania in 1991.

He had no idea of its provenance. He bought it because the serial number indicated that it was an early issue revolver, one of the first guns purchased by the U.S. Army to arm its first two regiments, the first and second U.S. cavalry.

A decade after he bought, Hassinger read an article about the lost Owen Brown Colt in Man at Arms magazine. The article included the serial number, so he realized then and there that he had a weapon of even more historic import that he thought. He immediately accepted that he had to give it back, but he wasn’t sure how to go about it so he didn’t turn it in right away.

Eventually, a friend of Hassinger’s at the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Pittsburgh connected him with officials at the Chicago History Museum and they arranged a handover. Last Tuesday, Robert Hassinger returned the Owen Brown revolver to Libby Mahoney.

The museum has no immediate plans to put it on display.

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