WWI Centennial: Lenin is Shot; Bolsheviks Unleash Red Terror

Keystone/Getty Images
Keystone/Getty Images

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 318th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here and buy Erik’s new WWI trivia book here!

AUGUST 30-SEPTEMBER 5, 1918: LENIN IS SHOT; BOLSHEVIKS UNLEASH RED TERROR

Following the Bolshevik coup in November 1917 and Lenin’s agreement to the punitive Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, in spring 1918 Russia plunged into the anarchy of civil war, pitting Lenin’s “Reds” against a loose coalition of “White” anticommunist forces. By the late summer, the Bolsheviks were increasingly isolated. They required support from the hated German victors to stay in power and were unable to rely on even their closest allies, the Left Socialist Revolutionaries (Left SR), who assassinated the German ambassador Count Mirbach and launched an ill-fated uprising in July in a failed bid to force the Bolsheviks to renounce the peace with Germany.

Map of Russian Civil War September 1918
Erik Sass

Although the Left SR coup was suppressed, the Bolsheviks’ position continued to be incredibly precarious (as reflected in their lenience towards the Left SR leaders, who still commanded a sizeable political following). Without an army to speak of, threatened by the Czech Legion and the growing hostility of the Allies, by August 1918 many observers concluded that the Bolsheviks were finished. White forces had snuffed out the last remaining outposts of Bolshevik control across Siberia and Central Asia and closed in on their core Russian territories from all sides. However, even top Bolshevik apparatchiks underestimated Lenin’s determination to cling to power, matched only by the ruthlessness of his henchman Felix Dzerzhinsky (below), the psychopathic Polish aristocrat who was appointed head of the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police, in December 1917.

Felix Dzerzhinsky
RIA Novosti archive, RIA Novosti, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Following a horrifying preview with the summary execution of the former royal family in July, the true extent of their proclivity for extreme violence was finally revealed in the aftermath of a failed assassination attempt against Lenin on August 30, 1918—the same day as a successful assassination attempt against the head of the Petrograd Cheka, Moisei Uritsky.

Hyperactive as always, on the evening of August 30 Lenin left the heavily guarded Kremlin without a bodyguard, accompanied only by his driver Stepan Gil, to deliver two rousing speeches at the Moscow Corn Exchange and the Mikhelson Armaments Factory. After the second speech, in which he urged an audience of factory workers to reject false democratic ideals, Lenin was returning to his car when he was waylaid by a delegation of peasant women, protesting Bolshevik guard detachments who prevented peasants from entering cities to sell food. Lenin promised to look into their complaint and turned to get in the car, at which point at least one assassin armed with a Browning pistol stepped forward and fired three shots from just a few paces away, hitting Lenin twice in the left shoulder and neck.

Panicked Red Guards, soldiers, and workers immediately formed a cordon around the injured Bolshevik leader, who was bleeding profusely. Gil shoved him in the car and raced back to the Kremlin, where doctors and surgeons were summoned (security precautions meant there were no physicians on duty inside the heavily fortified leadership compound). Lenin was convinced that he was dying, but his condition soon stabilized and the doctors assured his wife, Nadezha Krupskaya, that he would live. Lenin himself took several more days of convincing.

Meanwhile the Cheka apprehended Fanya Kaplan, real name Feiga Haimnova Roytblat, a 28-year-old Jewish woman who was apparently deranged (“hysterical”) as well as a member of the now-banned Left SR. Under interrogation, Kaplan explained that she considered Lenin a traitor to the revolution for dissolving the Constituent Assembly in January 1918, which had been dominated by the Socialist Revolutionaries, and then outlawing her party. Kaplan refused to name any accomplices and on September 3, 1918 she was executed by the Cheka. Her body was doused with gasoline and burned in a barrel.

Subsequent historians have speculated that Kaplan had at least one accomplice: possibly another woman, Zinaida Ivanova Legonkaya, who had previously worked for the Bolsheviks as an intelligence agent. This in turn gave rise to not-implausible conspiracy theories in which dissident members of the Cheka itself were somehow involved in the assassination attempt. On that note, Alexander Protopopov, a former leader of the Left SR who had held a high-ranking position in the Cheka, was swiftly executed on the evening August 30, 1918, fueling suspicions the attempt was indeed an inside job. Some even speculate that top-ranking Bolsheviks, including Soviet central committee chairman Yakov Sverdlov and Dzerzhinsky himself, were also involved; their possible implication in the failed attempt on Lenin’s life may explain the zeal with which they carried out what came next.

The executions of Kaplan and Protopopov were only the beginning of an officially sanctioned wave of violence known as the Red Terror, decreed on September 5, 1918 and obviously modeled on the infamous Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, in which radicals led by Maximilien Robespierre executed around 17,000 alleged counter-revolutionaries. Justifying the Red Terror as a necessary measure to secure the revolution and communist government, the Bolsheviks consciously rejected prevailing notions of morality, justice, and individual rights. “We represent in ourselves organized terror—this must be said very clearly,” Dzerzhinsky said, explaining that it consisted of “the terrorization, arrests, and extermination of enemies of the revolution on the basis of their class affiliation or of their pre-revolutionary roles.”

The Red Terror began with mass executions by Cheka officers of prisoners, hostages, and suspected counter-revolutionaries, including around 600 executions in Moscow and 500 in Petrograd in the first two days alone. Including earlier waves of repression beginning with their November coup, from 1917-1922 the Bolsheviks would execute around 200,000 people, most on vague charges of “counter-revolutionary” actions or sentiments. The precedent was later eagerly embraced by Stalin, who is generally blamed for the deaths of 10 to 20 million Soviet citizens, including countless Bolshevik revolutionary veterans, during his leadership from 1924-1953.

Implementation of the Red Terror fell to the Cheka, members of the Red Guard, and ordinary citizens, and featured wide application of summary capital punishment. Among other things, the return of executions for desertion or cowardice played a key role in Leon Trotsky’s building of a new Red Army, which eventually triumphed over White forces in the Russian Civil War by 1922. The Terror was coordinated from the Kremlin via telephone, telegraph, word of mouth, and couriers, and often carried out by mobile detachments traveling by train or in trucks.

For the victims, the Red Terror was exactly what it was intended to be—terrifying. Pitrim Sorokin, a Social Revolutionary on the run from the Bolsheviks in northern Russia, remembered finding refuge in a house owned by sympathizers:

“An absolutely noiseless life, the existence of a fleshless phantom, I lived in the place of refuge. Never laugh, never cough, never approach a window, never leave the house, be ready at the slightest warning to fly to the lumber room, then remain motionless and still as long as a chance visitor remained, to listen night and day for untoward sounds – these spelled the price of existence … I knew they were looking for me, knew that my presence in the village was suspected. Sooner or later they would get me.”

Finally apprehended, Sorokin joined others waiting to meet their fate in prison, never knowing when death might come. “Today seven victims. Today three. Today only one. Today nine. Death hovers over me but does not touch me yet. Today three more. My God! How long will this torture keep up?” he wrote. “I am remembering descriptions of the French Terror. This is quite like it. History repeats itself.”

He added:

“Every night the same summoning of victims to the slaughter. Our suspense grows almost unbearable. It would be easier to walk out to death than to die thus slowly from day to day. It is difficult to keep one’s outward calm for weeks together … It is very difficult even for the bravest. I try to take cold, to contract typhus, anything to hasten the end. All the others, I observe, do the same. There is actually competition among us to get nearest the typhus patients. Some of the men pick lice off the unconscious and dying and put them on their own skins.”

The list of victims included children of counter-revolutionaries, Sorokin noted:

“Sixty-seven new prisoners, among them five women and four children, have just come in. They are peasants of the Nicholsky District, who had the temerity to resist when the Communists came to ‘nationalize’ all their corn, cattle, and other possessions. Artillery and machine guns were sent to the village to put down the revolt. Three villages were razed and burned, many peasants were killed, and more than a hundred arrested. The 67 who joined us here are in horrible plight, arms broken, flesh lacerated, black bruises. The bitter weeping of little children is heard now in our prison. I wonder how long they can live in this hell. If they survive they will be, no doubt, good Communists in the future.”

It should be noted that the Bolsheviks’ opponents also employed mass executions in a widespread violence known as the “White Terror,” probably killing between 20,000 and 100,000 people before their final defeat in 1922. (There is disagreement among historians whether the White Terror was a coordinated, official policy like the Red Terror.) The foreign forces that occupied northern Russia and the Russian Far East during the Civil War—the former to protect Allied war supplies from falling into German hands, the latter to cover the retreat of the Czech Legion—also executed an unknown number of Bolsheviks. In November 1918, Donald Carey, a U.S. soldier in the Anglo-American force occupying northern Russia, witnessed the execution of six captured Bolsheviks accused of murder in a warehouse in the port city of Archangel. He wrote, “The Russians were smoking, laying their cigarettes aside while laughing and calmly shaking hands before being lined up and shot … I had underestimated their courage.”

See the previous installment, or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

The 25 Greatest War Movies of All Time

Benedict Cumberbatch in Sam Mendes's 1917 (2019).
Benedict Cumberbatch in Sam Mendes's 1917 (2019).
© 2019 Universal Pictures and Storyteller Distribution Co. LLC. All Rights Reserved.

It makes sense that master filmmakers keep returning to old wars to tell new stories, because war and cinema go hand-in-hand in many ways. War has everything you want to make a good story: Scope and spectacle, high stakes, dramatic tension, and emotional distress both at home and on the battlefield. It’s all right there, just waiting to be woven into an epic on the big screen.

What sets the best war movies apart, though, is their ability to never lose sight of the real human cost of war. The true masterpieces of the genre can deliver spectacle, yes, but they also tell us something more essential at the heart of every epic struggle in human history, something that unites us all no matter which side of the battle we may be on. With that in mind, here are 25 of the greatest war films ever made, from medieval epics to modern thrillers. To help narrow the list down, we mostly focused on movies that directly address the combat aspects of war versus dramas that are set during wartime.

1. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Lewis Milestone’s film about a group of German soldiers drawn in by nationalism and then picked apart by the ravages of war remains the film against which all other World War I epics are measured. It was released more than 80 years ago, and its depictions of the horrors of war—blood-streaked men screaming in foxholes, bare hands clinging to barbed wire—still hold up to modern eyes. It’s one of the great war epics as well as one of the great anti-war films.

2. La Grande Illusion (1937)

One of the greatest anti-war films ever made, Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion succeeds in no small part because of the tremendous empathy running through every frame. No matter the side of the conflict each character falls on, they are treated as pawns within the greater illusion that war will do any of them any good. Renoir’s humanistic touch, coupled with his dazzling cast, make this film an all-time classic to such a degree that Orson Welles declared it one of his desert island movies.

3. Sergeant York (1941)

There are other "conscientious objector becomes war hero" films out there, but none has ever quite risen to the heights of Sergeant York for one simple reason: Gary Cooper. In the title role, Cooper delivers one of the finest performances of his storied career, and even as Howard Hawks infuses the film with a sense patriotic glory and duty, he trusts Cooper to imbue the story with an essential humanity. Sergeant York is a hero, yes, but Cooper never makes him into a superhero. The toll the war takes is right there in his eyes the entire time, and that makes this film a classic.

4. Twelve O’Clock High (1949)

Among Air Force-based war dramas, Twelve O’Clock High holds a particular place of reverence for a great many fans, and it ranks as perhaps among the best of the World War II dramas made while the war was still fresh in the minds of many Americans. Led by Gregory Peck’s tour-de-force performance as Brigadier General Frank Savage, the film builds in intensity right up to the climactic battle, and remains one of the most emotionally satisfying films of its genre.

5. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

David Lean is the only director with two films on this list, because … well, he’s David Lean. The Bridge on the River Kwai is Lean’s seminal World War II epic about a group of prisoners, the bridge they build and then attempt to destroy, and the shifting allegiances that come with the emotional upheavals of war. Lean’s tremendous attention to detail, combining sweeping tracking shots with smaller moments like close-ups of ruined shoes on soldiers’ feet, and the Alec Guinness-led cast combine for a thrilling, often surprisingly funny, masterpiece.

6. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Steven Spielberg once said that David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is one of the few films he re-watches before every new project, and it’s easy to see why. The World War I drama is synonymous with epic filmmaking even now, nearly six decades after its release. Lean’s film, led by Peter O’Toole’s splendid work in the title role, retains a sense of wonder even after all these years thanks to jaw-dropping visuals, flawless editing, and a sense of scope to rival anything on the big screen today.

7. The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Few films have ever been able to depict both sides of an escalating conflict with as much unflinching intensity as The Battle of Algiers. Based on the events of the Algerian War and focusing specifically on the guerilla warfare that erupted during the conflict, Gillo Pontecorvo’s film is shot like a searing, unflinching docudrama, and the sense of verisimilitude is palpable and deeply affecting.

8. The Dirty Dozen (1967)

Some war films are reverent, measured, and delicate with their depiction of the particular horrors of conflict and what it does to the people on the front lines. Then there are films like The Dirty Dozen, a film without which we might never have gotten things like Inglourious Basterds or the modern version of DC Comics’s Suicide Squad, which appeared in the 1980s. Robert Aldrich’s film takes a murderer’s row of acting talent and a tremendous sense of adventure and infuses it all with the kind of chaotic energy that only soldiers with nothing to lose could muster. The result is the kind of film those who love it want to watch over and over again.

9. M*A*S*H (1970)

One of the greatest anti-war films of all time, Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H combines an irreverent, sometimes surreal sense of humor with realistic dialogue and some truly absurd situations to create a tapestry of comedy and tragedy. The film places its characters right on the edge of the action, just close enough that the blood is often quite literally on their hands as they work, then examines what that kind of precarious placement can do to a group of people whose job is to heal. It’s an essential film, and not just because of its afterlife as a legendary TV series.

10. Patton (1970)

Even if Patton had nothing else going for it, the film would likely still succeed thanks to the sheer force of will of George C. Scott. The actor’s legendary, knockout performance as the title character carries the movie, but it’s not all that makes Patton great. Director Franklin J. Schaffner uses Scott’s performance as a linchpin, framing the narrative of war through Patton’s bombastic eyes and tireless spirit. The result is a war film unlike any other, one driven by a single unstoppable personality.

11. The Deer Hunter (1978)

To say that Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter is one of the more “problematic” Vietnam War films ever made might be a bit of an understatement to some, but more than 40 years after its release it’s hard to deny the visceral power at the heart of the film. Some aspects of the storytelling—most famously, the Russian roulette sequences at the heart of the movie—function as rather blunt instruments that hammer the point home, but they strike so hard and ring so true that the film is impossible to ignore.

12. Apocalypse Now (1979)

The New Hollywood era of the 1970s gave rise to several prominent filmmakers who would eventually turn their attention to the Vietnam War in critical, satirical, and often incisive ways, but none of them ever did it better than Francis Ford Coppola. After crafting two masterpieces with the first two Godfather films, Coppola went through hell to craft his hellish journey into the heart of darkness of a generation-defining war, and the result is the greatest Vietnam War movie ever made.

13. Das Boot (1981)

Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot is a film that succeeds in part thanks to its sense of contrast. It’s a war epic and it delivers the goods of a war epic, but much of it takes place within the tiny confines of a German U-Boat. It’s packed with tense, explosive action, but it counterbalances that action with stretches of quiet, contemplative boredom. The result is one of the most gripping portrayals of the mundane horror of war ever, told in an environment few other films in the subgenre have ventured into.

14. Ran (1985)

Akira Kurosawa was a master of many aspects of cinematic storytelling, but one of his greatest strengths was easily his ability to make violence explode out at his audience with unpredictable ferocity. Ran, Kurosawa’s loose adaptation of William Shakespeare’s King Lear, is perhaps the best example in the director’s entire filmography of his knack for creating epic conflict. The film’s gorgeous sets and detailed costumes are all set up beautifully only to be swept up in the chaos of the story in some of the most realistically kinetic war sequences ever shot.

15. Platoon (1986)

Based on writer/director Oliver Stone’s own experiences in Vietnam, Platoon steers clear of the most bombastic, epic level depictions of the war and instead focuses on the titular unit of men and the transformative effects the crucible of war has on them. Led by powerhouse performances from Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe, and Tom Berenger, Platoon remains one of the most relentlessly intense war movie experiences of all time.

16. Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Stanley Kubrick made a habit out of directing war films thanks to Spartacus and Paths of Glory. Full Metal Jacket was his last experience with the genre, and it feels like he poured everything he had learned into it. The film’s genius lies largely in its structure, as it shows us just how far these soldiers are pushed by basic training before they’re actually thrown out into the war. The training sequences, led by R. Lee Ermey’s amazing drill sergeant performances, are the best-remembered of the film, but the Vietnam sequences near the end are truly stunning.

17. Braveheart (1995)

Mel Gibson’s epic about the life of William Wallace and his rise as leader of a Scottish revolution in the late 13th century is one of those films that just compels you to watch until the end every time you see it on cable. Gibson’s magnetic, charismatic central performance is key to this, but somehow his directing is even more powerful. From the sweeping scenic beauty of Scotland itself to the rapid-fire brutality of the battle sequences to James Horner’s goosebump-inducing score, Braveheart is medieval epic filmmaking at its best.

18. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Steven Spielberg’s harrowing World War II film is perhaps best remembered for its relentless, breathless opening sequence that depicts the brutal D-Day landing of Allied Forces at Omaha Beach. It’s an all-time great war movie sequence, but that’s not the only reason Saving Private Ryan endures. Its stacked ensemble cast, powerful yet simple central story, and overwhelming emotional resolution combine to make it a modern classic.

19. The Thin Red Line (1998)

No one else could make a World War II film quite like Terrence Malick, and as proof we have The Thin Red Line. The film defies easy description, despite the relatively straightforward backdrop of its emotional journey. What is ostensibly the story of a company of men fighting at Guadalcanal in 1942 becomes a deeply philosophical film that documents the overwhelming intellectual and emotional gauntlet of war. And while war is by its very nature not a beautiful thing, this just might be the most visually stunning war film made since Lawrence of Arabia.

20. Downfall (2004)

Few films have ever wished or dared to interact with Adolf Hitler on a personal, intimate level, for obvious reasons. In the realm of war cinema, the leader of Nazi Germany often exists as some kind of near-supernatural embodiment of ultimate evil, but Downfall sought to change that. The film does not sympathize with Hitler’s madness, but through Bruno Ganz’s unforgettable performance, it does allow us an opportunity to see the man’s unraveling in a compelling, perhaps even cathartic, way.

21. Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

Ridley Scott’s modern war epic Black Hawk Down narrowly missed inclusion on this list, because while it’s a masterpiece, his Kingdom of Heaven is a brilliant piece of work that remains underseen. Scott’s attempt to turn a modern lens on the Crusades—specifically Saladin’s capture of Jerusalem in 1187—combines a spectacular cast with some of the best epic visuals of the esteemed director’s career. Look for the Director’s Cut of the film for an even more robust experience.

22. Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to make a World War II film that feels like it came from both an alternate universe and straight out of our own warped rage fantasies. Inglourious Basterds combines Tarantino’s legendary knack for dialogue with a truly brilliant cast and a brutal sense of humor to tell the story of a unit of Nazi hunters and their efforts to bring down Hitler himself in the midst of a German movie premiere. Taut, violent, and hilarious, Inglourious Basterds walks a line few other war films ever could.

23. The Hurt Locker (2008)

Kathryn Bigelow’s film about a bomb disposal unit in Iraq and what their high-pressure job does to them works because it attacks your psyche on two fronts. On one front, there’s the human side of these soldiers, which we see through the film’s dark sense of humor and compelling ensemble cast. On the other, there’s the kind of virtuoso directing that won Bigelow the Oscar for Best Director (making her the first—and still the only—woman to take home that particular award). A lot of directors could have made The Hurt Locker suspenseful, but only Bigelow could have made it this suspenseful.

24. Dunkirk (2017)

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk turns the filmmaker’s masterful eye for pacing, visual elegance, and structural intrigue to the events of World War II, and the result is one of the most pulse-pounding movies of the 2010s. Anchored by a tremendous cast, the film tells the story not of one of the war’s great attacks, but one of its most essential retreats. Nolan’s brilliant sense of tension, coupled with Hans Zimmer’s ticking-clock score, combine to keep you on the edge of your seat—even if you know how it ends.

25. 1917 (2019)

Sam Mendes’s Golden Globe-winning World War I epic, based on stories told to him by his veteran grandfather, has gained a lot of press because of its “one-take” style, which might lead you to believe that it’s a gimmick film. Instead, 1917 rises beyond the structural hook of its filming style to become a meditation on the relentless nature of life in battle, and the way even the quietest moments can pivot into horror at any moment. Roger Deakins deserves another Oscar for his stunning cinematography, and George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman carry the emotional heft of the film like true champions, even when surrounded by A-list names like Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Andrew Scott.

When Theodore Roosevelt's Antique Gun Was Stolen From Sagamore Hill

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Shortly before hitting the battlefield on July 1, 1898, Theodore Roosevelt had a decision to make. He was about to lead a volunteer cavalry known as the Rough Riders in the Battle of San Juan Heights in Santiago, Cuba, during the Spanish-American War. In protecting both his life and the lives of his men during combat, what sidearm should he choose?

Roosevelt, an avowed arms enthusiast, had an arsenal in his personal collection as well as numerous firearms issued by the U.S. military. The gun he chose to holster on his waist was a Colt Model 1895 .38 caliber double-action revolver with six shots, a blue barrel, and a checkered wood grip. While it may not have been the most formidable weapon at his disposal, it was the most emotionally resonant. The gun, a gift from his brother-in-law, had been retrieved from the wreck of the U.S. battleship Maine, whose sinking had claimed the lives of 266 men and helped usher in the war. He considered the gun a tribute to the sailors and Marines lost in the tragedy.

Now it had become an instrument of that war. In the conflict, Roosevelt aimed his revolver at two opposing soldiers. He missed one. The other was struck—and the wound was fatal. “He doubled up as neatly as a jackrabbit,” Roosevelt later wrote.

Just a few years later, Roosevelt would be president of the United States. The gun remained in his possession until his death in 1919, and eventually came into the care of Sagamore Hill, his onetime home and later a historic site. The Colt occupied a place of honor in the property’s Old Orchard Museum, behind glass and next to the uniform that he wore during the charge.

In April of 1990, a museum employee walked past the display and noticed something unusual. The Colt was gone. The weapon used by the 26th president to kill a man would go missing for 16 years, recovered only under the most unusual of circumstances.

“This poor gun has been through a lot,” Susan Sarna, the museum’s curator, tells Mental Floss. “It was blown up on the Maine, sunk to the bottom, resurrected, goes to San Juan Hill, comes here, then gets stolen—twice.”

 

According to a 2006 article in Man at Arms magazine by Philip Schreier [PDF], the senior curator at the National Rifle Association’s National Firearms Museum, the Colt has indeed had a hectic life. Manufactured in Hartford, Connecticut, in March 1895, the firearm (serial number 16,334) was delivered from the factory to the U.S. government and wound up on board the USS Maine when the ship was first commissioned in September of that year. The gun was considered ship property and remained on board until February 15, 1898, when the Maine exploded in Havana, Cuba. Many blamed the Spanish for the explosion, and hundreds of men lost their lives.

At the time, Roosevelt’s brother-in-law, William S. Cowles, was heading the U.S. Naval Station. He and his team were sent to the site to inspect the scene. Divers retrieved bodies and other items, including the Colt. Knowing Roosevelt—at the time the Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President William McKinley—was fond of weapons and a genial warmonger, Cowles gave it to him as a gift. While it was perfectly functional, it's clear Cowles intended the Colt to serve to honor the memory of those who had died.

The Colt revolver that once belonged to Theodore Roosevelt is pictured on display at Sagamore Hill
Roosevelt's Colt revolver on display at Sagamore Hill.
Courtesy of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site

Roosevelt later took it into battle, using it to shoot at enemy forces. (He would earn a posthumous Medal of Honor in 2001 for his actions that day.) Shortly after, the weapon was inscribed to represent its participation in two exceptional events. On one side of the handle:

From the sunken battle ship Maine.

On the other:

July 1st 1898, San Juan, Carried and used by Col. Theodore Roosevelt.

Following Roosevelt’s death in 1919, the Sagamore Hill estate in Oyster Bay, New York, was home to his wife, Edith, until her death in 1948. The property was later donated to the National Park Service in 1963 and became Sagamore Hill National Historic Site. The gun went on display along with many of the former president's other personal effects, eventually settling in the Old Orchard near the uniform he wore during the Battle of San Juan Heights.

In 1963, the Colt came up missing for the first time. With no guard or contemporary security system in place, someone nicked it from the building. Fortunately, it was soon found in the woods behind the museum, slightly rusty from being exposed to the elements but otherwise unharmed. The perpetrator may have gotten spooked after taking off with it and decided to abandon the contraband, but no one had a chance to ask—he or she was never caught.

By April of 1990, the gun and uniform were in a display case borrowed from the American Museum of Natural History. While somewhat of a deterrent, it didn't offer much in the way of security. “The case could be lifted and the lock just popped open,” Sarna says.

Sarna had just started at the museum back then. According to her, the case had either been disturbed by a thief or possibly left open by someone cleaning the display, inviting a probing set of hands. Either way, the gun disappeared—but it wasn’t immediately obvious.

“No one was sure what day it had happened,” she says; the best guess was that the theft had occurred between April 5 and 7. “You’d have to walk into the room it was in and look in the case. If you’re just walking by, you’d see the uniform, but not necessarily the gun.”

It was chief ranger and head of visitor services Raymond Bloomer Jr. and ranger John Foster who discovered the theft one morning. The lock had been popped but the glass was not broken. Sarna and the other employees conducted a search of the property, believing that perhaps someone had taken the Colt out for cleaning. When that failed to produce any results, they notified the National Park Service, which is the first line of investigation for theft on government-owned park property. The NPS, in turn, contacted local authorities in Nassau County and Cove Neck, New York. Soon, the FBI was involved.

Predictably, law enforcement looked at museum employees with a critical eye. “There were all different types of people here interviewing us,” Sarna says. “In museums, the majority of thefts are an inside job.”

Theodore Roosevelt is pictured in uniform
Roosevelt in uniform while leading the Rough Riders.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Park ranger and museum staffer Scott Gurney, who was hired in 1993, tells Mental Floss that the suspicion cast over employees—none of whom were ever implicated—remained a sore spot. “I found an old police report about it in a desk and asked a ranger about it,” Gurney says. “He got really mad at me and told me not to bring it up again. It was kind of a black eye for the people working there.”

As Sarna and the others set about installing a security system in the museum, the FBI started casting a wide net to locate the weapon, which was uninsured. “It was basically a shoplifting incident,” Robert Wittman, a retired FBI agent in their art crimes division who worked on the case from the mid-1990s on, tells Mental Floss. “It wasn’t all that unusual. In the 1970s and 1980s, lots of small museums were getting hit.” Worse, one of the museum staff working the front desk within view of the display was, according to Gurney, legally blind. The lack of security, Wittman says, was in part because pieces weren’t initially all that valuable on the collector’s market.

The Colt was unique in that it was so readily identifiable. Thanks to the inscriptions, it would invite questions if the thief attempted to sell the weapon. Any attempt to alter it would destroy its cultural value and defeat the purpose of taking it. The FBI sent notices to gun dealers and monitored gun shows in case it turned up. Nothing seemed promising.

“We heard things constantly,” Sarna says. “Someone said it was seen in Europe. Someone else said it was in private hands, or that a collector had it.” Later, when the museum was able to start receiving emails via the burgeoning world of the internet, more tips—all dead ends—came in. Another rumor had the gun being bought during a gun buyback program in Pennsylvania and subsequently destroyed. This one looked promising, as it bore the same serial number. But it turned out to be a different model.

A reward was offered for information leading to the gun’s retrieval, with the amount eventually climbing to $8100. But that still wasn’t sufficient for the gun to surface. “We really had no lines on it,” Wittman says.

Then, in September 2005, Gurney began receiving a series of calls while working in the visitor’s center. The man had a slight speech impediment, he said, or might have been intoxicated. Either way, he told Gurney he knew where the gun was. “He told me it was in a friend’s house, but that he didn’t want to get the friend in trouble.”

The man continued calling, each time refusing to give his name and ignoring Gurney’s suggestion to simply drop the gun in the mail. The man also spoke to Amy Verone, the museum’s chief of cultural resources. He was certain he had seen Theodore Roosevelt’s gun, wrapped in an old sweatshirt in DeLand, Florida. He described the engravings to Verone, who hung up and immediately called the FBI.

 

After more calls and conversations, including one in which Gurney stressed the historical importance of the weapon, the caller eventually relented and gave his information to the FBI. A mechanical designer by trade, Andy Anderson, then 59, said he had seen the gun the previous summer. It had been shown to him by his girlfriend, who knew Anderson was a history buff. She told Anderson her ex-husband had originally owned the firearm. It had been in a closet wrapped in a sweatshirt before winding up under a seat in the woman’s mini-van, possibly obscured by a dish towel. Presumably, her ex had been the one who had stolen it back while visiting the museum as a New York resident in 1990.

Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders uniform is pictured on display at Sagamore Hill
Roosevelt's Rough Riders uniform sits on display at Sagamore Hill next to his Colt.
Courtesy of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site

After Anderson contacted Sagamore Hill, FBI agents were dispatched from the Daytona Beach office to DeLand to question Anderson. He obtained the revolver from his girlfriend and handed it over, though he apparently tried to convince the FBI to let him return the weapon without disclosing the thief’s identity. The FBI didn’t agree to an anonymous handoff, however, and in November 2006 the ex-husband, a 55-year-old postal employee whom we’ll refer to as Anthony T., was charged with a misdemeanor in U.S. District Court in Central Islip, New York.

Wittman remembers that the split between Anthony T. and his wife had been acrimonious and that she had no involvement in the theft. “We were not going to charge her with possession of stolen property,” he says.

Wittman went to Florida to pick up the Colt and brought it back to the Philadelphia FBI offices, where it was secured until prosecutors authorized its return to Sagamore Hill on June 14, 2006. Schreier, the NRA museum’s senior curator, arrived at Sagamore Hill with Wittman, FBI Assistant Director in Charge in New York Mark Mershon, and Robert Goldman, the onetime U.S. assistant attorney and art crime team member who was himself a Roosevelt collector and had doggedly pursued the case for years. When Schreier confirmed its authenticity, the gun was formally turned back over.

There was no reasonable defense for Anthony T. In November of that year, he pled guilty to stealing the Colt. While he was eligible for up to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine, Anthony T. received two years of probation along with the financial penalty and 50 hours of community service. According to Wittman, cases of this sort are based in part on the dollar value of the object stolen—the weapon was valued at $250,000 to $500,000—not necessarily its historical value. “The sentencing may not be commensurate with the history,” Wittman says.

From that perspective, the Colt takes on far greater meaning. It was used in a battle that cemented Roosevelt’s reputation as a leader, one credited with helping bolster his national profile. It was used in commission in the death of a human being, giving it a weight and history more than the sum of its metal parts.

“It’s looked at as one of his greatest triumphs,” Sarna says of the Rough Riders and the U.S. victory in the 1898 conflict. “It brought us into a new century and out of isolationism.”

It’s once more on display at Sagamore Hill, this time under far better security and surveillance. (Though the museum is still vulnerable to heists: a reproduction hairbrush was recently swiped.) Sarna, who wasn’t sure if she would ever see the Colt again, is glad to see it where it belongs.

“Thank goodness they got divorced,” she says.

It’s not publicly known why Anthony T. felt compelled to take the Colt. Wittman describes it as a crime of opportunity, not likely one that was planned. After the plea, Anthony T. was let go from his job, and his current whereabouts are unknown. Prosecutors called it a mistake in judgment.

Anderson, the tipster, lamented any of it had to happen. “We’re talking about a mistake he made 16 years ago,” Anderson told the Orlando Sentinel in November 2006. “I have no regrets, but I never meant to cause trouble. I wish Anthony the best.”

If Anthony T. was an admirer of Roosevelt’s, he might find some poetic peace in the fact that he pled guilty to violating the American Antiquities Act of 1906, which was instituted to prevent theft of an object of antiquity on property owned by the government.

That bill was signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt.

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