Inside the Tolstoy Family Reunion

Leo Tolstoy tells a story about a boy who kept eating cucumbers that grew larger and larger, to the delight of his grandchildren Ilya Andreevich and Sophia Andreevna (Sonia). Sonia grew up to be the director of the museum. During the German occupation, she evacuated the house's contents to Siberia for protective safekeeping.

 
It was almost closing time in the Leo Tolstoy House-Museum at Yasnaya Polyana, the Tolstoy family estate. I stood in the bedroom of my great-great-grandmother, Sophia Andreevna, Leo Tolstoy’s wife. I was named after Sophia, who was also known as Sonia. It was the last day of my weeklong stay at the estate. In the past 16 years, I had been in this room at least eight times. I had seen before the small paintings and black-and-white photographs of family members lining the walls; a talented amateur photographer in the early days of the medium, Sophia had taken them herself. Her dressing table gave the impression that it had just been organized, as if Sophia herself had recently sat there, perhaps before leaving on a trip. Small decorated jars, a handheld mirror, and a bristle hairbrush were lined up perfectly, and nearby, an open suitcase held hand-stitched fabric.

The sound of a Chopin duet echoed from the adjacent dining hall, or salon, where portraits of family ancestors hung on the walls and 20 descendants of the Tolstoys were gathered for a small, private concert. I went into the room to listen more closely. Chopin was one of Leo’s favorite composers, and is also one of mine. This salon was the heart of the family home for entertaining guests and where they often gathered to stage plays, play charades in costume, and make music together on the same grand piano being played today. Leo and Sonia loved to play four-handed pieces by Schumann and Brahms, among others. The whole family was very musical, several played the guitar, and of course all played the piano. In fact, Sergei Lvovich, Leo and Sonia’s oldest son, became a well-known musician and composer. They were especially fond of folk songs and gypsy singing, and Sonia's sister Tanya—the prototype for Natasha Rostova in War and Peace—had a beautiful voice. She sang for family and guests regularly. In the corner stood a chess table where Leo enjoyed challenging his friends and family.

I had seen all this before, and yet it felt different this time. I was suddenly overtaken with feelings of warmth and intimacy that brought tears to my eyes. The house had always felt like a museum … but now, I felt a closeness. Perhaps it was the music. Or perhaps it was because I was in a family embrace.

Welcome to the Tolstoy Family Reunion.

Some of Tolstoy's descendants gather next to the family home, now a museum, at Yasnaya Polyana in 2012.

 
I am one of Lev (Leo) Nikolaevitch Tolstoy’s great-great granddaughters. According to our family tree, I am number 196 of the nearly 400 direct descendants of Leo, almost 300 of whom are still alive. A small book about the museum-estate includes a list of Leo Tolstoy’s descendants, where Leo is number one, his eldest child Sergei Lvovich is number two, and so on. We are all catalogued under our generation ranging from children all of the way through great-great-great-great grandchildren. Over the years, revolutions and wars have spread us across the globe, and we now live in Brazil, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, the U.S., Uruguay, and of course Russia, among other countries. Since 2000, biannual family reunions have been held at Yasnaya Polyana (located in the Tula region, about 124 miles south of Moscow), preserved as it had been when still a home at the time of Tolstoy's death in 1910. The reunion was first organized by Vladimir Ilyich Tolstoy, then director of the Leo Tolstoy Museum-Estate Yasnaya Polyana and now cultural advisor to President Vladimir Putin. Like many others here, he is my cousin. The current director is Ekaterina Tolstaya, Vladimir’s wife. Vladimir envisioned the reunion as an opportunity to bring the descendants of Leo together, continuing the connectedness of family heritage the writer so honored.

This August, more than 90 family members and friends from 13 nations gathered at Yasnaya Polyana for a weeklong family reunion filled with activities, tours, and lively communal dinners, both celebrating old traditions and making new ones. At breakfast on the first day, I spotted Georg Tolstoy, an engineer from Sweden. I was overjoyed to see him again after 16 years. We greeted each other as old friends. Some descendants are in contact often; Georg and his fellow Swedes, for example, are the largest branch of the family, and they have a Tolstoy association that holds meetings. Others only see each other on Facebook, Instagram, or at the reunions.

We each trace our line back to one of six (out of 13) Tolstoy children who had children themselves. I am of the Mikhailovich line—Leo’s youngest son Michael was my great-grandfather. During the reunions we look for little numbers on our badges that indicate where we are in line from Leo. We find our names and faces on the huge family tree that fills up an entire wall of the museum’s hotel lobby. And we often play the genetics game: who has the Tolstoy eyes, smile, and walk—and hopefully not the Tolstoy nose, which was large and somewhat potato-shaped.

Leo and Sophia surrounded by eight of their children

 
The Tolstoy family home is now the main museum on the property; it is surprisingly small and simple, and does not appear particularly grand or elegant. Rooms meander off each other. The walls are densely packed with photographs and pictures. The house would evolve often with the use changing depending on how many children were living there at any time. It is hard to imagine where all the many children slept when the family was in full assembly. After Tolstoy made some money publishing War and Peace, he built an addition, including the salon, which was more formal and had parquet floors, unlike the rest of the house. The kitchen is separate, located behind the main house adjacent to one of the many orchards. Next to the house, there is a beautiful flower and herb garden, which Sonia tended to herself.  

There are many other buildings on the estate, including the Volkonsky House, a more formal structure where Sonia's sisters usually stayed. Today it holds offices and a reception center. Across the way, a rustic stable houses horses and a riding school. Nearby there are forests and meadows. We explore these grounds on foot, horseback, or bicycle. A small one-horse wagon was commandeered to drive the elderly relatives around.

Oskar Lundeberg, a great-great grandson of Leo's from Sweden, and two others take the easier route to tour the nearly 1200-acre grounds.

These get-togethers are incredibly raucous events, filled with bellows and laughs across giant communal tables set up outside for al fresco dining. We come together as family to share stories over food and (lots of) wine. We sing birthday songs in five languages (in fact, we celebrated two during this last reunion). In the daytime, we practice flower weaving in the gardens, throw pots of “live” black clay and take Russian lessons. We play traditional games in the yard by the Yasnaya Polyana Cultural Center, including gorodki, a game similar to bowling or horseshoes that was a favorite pastime of Leo Tolstoy’s children. Of course soccer makes its way into activities almost every day. During the competitions, my team, The Lazy Sportsmen, lived up to the low expectations of our name, to the dismay of the more aggressive Caviar & Champagne team, which thought we didn’t put up much of a challenge.

During the 2016 reunion, Andrey Tolstoy was in heated competition against Ivan Lysakov during a bout of veselye starti, a relay race. One leg of the race involves running with water. Lively family games were very popular among Leo Tolstoy and his children. Image credit: courtesy of Anastasia Vladimirovna Tolstaya

 
But while the reunion is a bona fide good time, it’s also a lot more than that. "The first reunion literally turned my ‘consciousness upside down,’ as they say in Russian,” recalls Anastasia Tolstoy, Vladimir’s daughter. “Prior to then, I had known only a close circle of family and a few Tolstoys abroad. Everyone else was just a collection of names and numbers in the book detailing our family tree. In 2000, that tree was brought to life, and the colorfulness of the Tolstoy descendants was reawakened. We become a force to be reckoned with that goes beyond the renowned Russian writer, but back to centuries of illustrious ancestors with daring, history-making deeds.”

I do not have centuries of space here to describe those deeds, but to sum it up briefly: Historically, the Tolstoys have been known for their wild nature, intelligence, and creativity, with a very long legacy woven throughout Russian high society in politics, literature, and the fine arts. We can trace our lineage back to the original Tolstoy, a Lithuanian nobleman named Indris who came to Russia in the 1300s. The name “Tolstoy” actually translates to “The Fat One,” so I can only assume he had a little girth to him.

Lena Alekhina, press manager for the museum, says that the reunions are very important to the culture of Yasnaya Polyana because “the idea of a Russian estate is meaningless without the family. It is then just a place. Whereas here this estate can be what it is intended to be: a big house for a big family of many generations.”

The Museum-Estate stands on protected land and is open year-round, attracting more than 200,000 tourists and Tolstoy aficionados alike. It is host to an incredible panoply of cultural programs, including folklore workshops, locally developed crafts and Russian language classes for children and adults, a scholarship program for children in the arts, environmental protection assemblies, and conferences for writers from many countries. This educational focus is in tune with Leo’s life. He opened an informal school for the children in the area, taught by all his children. His daughter Alexandra also opened a formal school as part of the museum in the 1920s. Yasnaya Polyana, now with more than 400 employees, has expanded this dedication to learning, Russia's people and the land, further bringing the Tolstoy spirit and philosophies to life.

Some tourists are excited by the family reunion, even asking for our autographs as we explore the grounds. It can be a little embarrassing: As my Tiotia (aunt) Masha says, “I didn’t write the books!”

This sheet is kept in the Coachman’s House, a traditional Russian-style peasant house located on the property. Tolstoy family members are asked to sign the sheet. Their signatures are then stitched in colorful threads for permanence.

 
Sure, you have been meaning to set aside a year (or more) to finally read War and Peace or oohed over the costumes in the 2012 version of Anna Karenina, but how much do you really know about the author who penned those tomes?

Count Lev Nikolaevitch Tolstoy is considered one of the greatest novelists of all time. He was prolific, writing many novels, plays, and essays (not to mention hundreds of letters) which continue to inspire worldwide. The many volumes of his journal alone, used to meticulously document every detail of his life—the good, bad, and the ugly—provided fodder for his work. He had theories on absolutely everything and let his opinion be vehemently known on religion (he believed in God but was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox church in 1901 for his very liberal and protestant ideas), politics (he was not a fan of the monarchy and denounced his own noble standing), human rights (he corresponded with many activists around the globe, including Mahatma Ghandi and the American activist and reformer Jane Addams, who put up Leo’s daughter Alexandra in Chicago when she moved to the US in the late 1920s), and family (beginning with his own children).

Tolstoy was born on September 9, 1828 (or August 28 by the Julian calendar, which Russia discarded in 1918) on a comfortably worn leather couch that still resides in his study in the main house. A fertile seat, the couch welcomed all of his siblings, and Sonia had many of her children there too. And yet when asked exactly where on the property he was born, Tolstoy would take his guest into the garden and point about three meters up a tree, declaring, “Oh, right about there.”

The couch upon which Leo, his siblings, and some of his children were born. It sits in his study upstairs in the main house at Yasnaya Polyana. He kept manuscripts for his books in the drawers, which no one was allowed to access except him.

 
He wasn’t lying. The house he was born in had once stood in that spot but had been carted away years before, leaving only the wings, which were adapted to become the house that stands there now. It was rumored that he had lost the very large formal house in a card game. Leo had been quite wild in his youth.

Yasnaya Polyana, which literally means “Bright Meadow,” was originally a 3700-acre estate belonging to Prince Nikolai Volkonsky, Leo’s maternal grandfather. It passed to Tolstoy in 1847, at which time he sold off the edge of the property, leaving a mere 1186 acres. He moved there in 1856, after finishing service in the army, and lived on the property for the remainder of his life. He also had a house in Moscow but preferred the open land and being among the peasants in the village surrounding Yasnaya. He loved the outdoors and enjoyed physical labor, working alongside the peasants in the fields. In their 48 years on the estate together, Leo and Sophia developed the natural contours of the parks with native flora to create beautiful spaces. They planted apple orchards with more than 60 varieties, evergreen forests, and flower gardens. The paths were deliberately designed to inspire creativity and allow thoughts to flow during their daily walks.

Every inch of land on Yasnaya Polyana is linked to meaning and a tale. Not far from the house, an orangerie—originally built by his parents—offered exotic fruit and a tropical haven during the bitter winters. Sonia loved the escape it provided, but Leo hated tending to this popular nobleman’s hobby (though he admitted it was meditative) and was not disappointed when it burned down.

For both Catarina Hjort Tolstoy, a PE teacher and painter from Sweden, and Kristina Johlige Tolstoy, a sculptor in Germany, their favorite Leo story is one known by the family as “The Green Stick,” which is closely tied to the land and Leo’s philosophy. When he was a boy, Leo’s older brother Nicholas told him that the secret to healing the world’s ills was carved on a green stick, which would only be revealed when one joined the “Brotherhood of the Ants.” Nicholas said the stick was buried on the estate at the edge of the Zakaz Forest. The Green Stick became a symbol of his lifelong search for love and peace. In the end, he was laid to rest at the supposed location of the mythical stick, thus having the secrets of goodness and peace revealed to him, in a manner of speaking.

Another view of the house

Tolstoy’s interests were voracious and spanned hundreds of topics. At Yasnaya Polyana, he entertained many musicians, writers, and artists from around the world, including Maxim Gorky, Anton Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev, and the composer A.G. Rubenstein. He spent days on end sitting for portraits by well-known artists like Ilya Repin. He corresponded with the likes of George Bernard Shaw and Thomas Edison, who gifted him a phonograph, on which the family recorded Leo's voice. Visitors and pilgrims flocked to Yasnaya Polyana, with many staying for months, much to the irritation of Sonia. Photographs, letters, and trinkets from his evolving interests and tastes fill the study in the house. But most impressive is the library that is a big part of the entire house. It contains nearly 10,500 titles in about 27 languages. Tolstoy spoke German and French fluently, and eventually taught himself 13 languages, including English, Hebrew, Tartar, Arabic, and ancient Greek; he wanted to be able to read texts in their original languages. Many of the books are dog-eared with his personal notes and thoughts scribbled in the margins.

This typewriter sits in the well-lit “Remington Room," which overlooks a yard and orchard. It was used to retype Tolstoy’s handwritten manuscripts. Tolstoy liked to come here to read, correct proofs, and pour over some of the 50,000 letters he received, which are preserved in the archive today.

 
While living at Yasnaya Polyana, Sonia carefully documented every single belonging in the house, down to even the smallest items in the drawers and under the bed. She knew the estate had an important destiny. During the reunions, my cousin Fekla Tolstaya, a broadcast host/producer and journalist in Russia, has entertained children by asking them to crawl under the beds and see what they can find there. My grandfather, Vladimir Mikhailovich Tolstoy, remembers staying in a room with many arches that was once used as a meat pantry. Huge hams had hung from the arches on hooks. My grandfather and his brothers would climb up to the ceiling, attach ropes to the hooks, and swing across the room, shouting, "I'm a ham, I'm a ham!"

Truly amazing is that the museum has been sustained in such a remarkable condition over time. In fact, during World War II the Nazis occupied the house for 45 days. They trashed it and set it on fire on their way out. Miraculously, villagers saw the plumes of smoke and rescued the home. And all of those belongings Sophia so painstakingly documented? Before the Germans arrived, they had been evacuated to Tomsk in Siberia to wait out the war. They were eventually brought back to the estate to help restore it to its former glory.

I asked Grégoire Tolstoï, an event producer from Belgium, his perception of the gathering. A fellow member of Team Lazy Sportsmen, Grégoire and I had spent a lot of the reunion not winning races together. A first-time attendee, Grégoire harkens from an older branch of the Tolstoy family. The Leo Tolstoys are a large clan, but the legacy is 700 years deep and much larger than Leo. “I was stunned by the fact that many have an artistic passion or occupation, which was emphasized in my immediate family,” Tolstoï told me. “But I see it is more of a characteristic. What a wonderful surprise.”

I had a similar insight about the Tolstoys. It is striking that for hundreds of years we share the same occupations from generation to generation, in the fine arts, music, human rights, politics, international affairs, and of course literature. It is amazing to see how many people are walking in these footsteps: visual artists and actors, politicians, philanthropists and peacemakers, journalists and writers, television personalities and linguists. In speaking to reunion attendees, I find that their excitement about the boisterous event is always underscored by a deeper connection to each other and our common ancestors.

Great-great granddaughter Jana Benetkova, from the Czech Republic, weaves flowers, a traditional folk craft, during the 2012 reunion.

 
“The first time I came to Yasnaya Polyana, I collected daisies and intended to make a piece with them,” Kristina, the sculptor, shared with me in the meadow by the stables. “It was there that I learned that Sophia created artwork out of pressed flowers and plants. Learning this and reading her diaries, I felt so much more connected to her. In honor of this discovery, I dedicated a work to her titled ‘Seeing More’.”

My mother, Tanya Tolstoy Penkrat, says that she was overwhelmed when she saw Sophia’s small paintings of mushrooms hanging in her bedroom. Collecting mushrooms has been an abiding hobby of my mother's, and she too likes to paint little pictures of mushrooms as gifts for friends and relatives.

Sophia's room, filled with small paintings and dominated by an icon of Jesus. Sophia was deeply religious, and today all of the guides who work in the house enter this room at the beginning of each day and venerate the icon, just as she did.

 
Life for Leo Tolstoy did not end in 1910 with his death from pneumonia. Many of his children remained committed to the family heritage, including writing several books about their extraordinary lives, such as Tolstoy, A Life of My Father, by Alexandra Tolstaya. Alexandra, the youngest daughter, also helped convert Yasnaya Polyana into the museum, which opened on June 10, 1921. When Stalin's oppression paralyzed her work, she moved to the United States in 1929, eventually starting the Tolstoy Foundation, which sponsored thousands of Russian refugees to come to America during and after World War II, including Vladimir Nabokov, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and my mother.

Today, some of Tolstoy’s descendants are inspired by his ideas to move Russia in a new direction. “One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between Man and Nature shall not be broken,” Leo wrote. In this spirit, Daniil Tolstoy, a great-grandson of Leo, is starting the first organic farm in Russia, just outside of Yasnaya Polyana. Called “Nasledie Tolstogo” (Наследие Толстого, or Tolstoy’s Heritage), the concept originated during a previous family reunion when Daniil visited Nikolskoye-Vyazemskoye, a country estate that belonged to Tolstoy’s great-grandfather. There he found gorgeous fields filled with rich black soil laying fallow. He anticipates beginning to plant this spring using new technology and techniques for sustainable farming. He hopes to develop products under a unique brand and eventually establish an organic agriculture school on the property to educate young Russians about sustainable farming.

Nina Gorkovenko, director of the estate's Coachman's House, holds a traditional tea ceremony every day. The honey served with the tea is from an apiary located in one of the estate’s orchards.

 
Others are committed to both maintaining and modernizing Leo's legacy. Fekla Tolstaya, a great-great granddaughter of his, has been extraordinarily active in bringing Leo Tolstoy into the 21st century. Tolstaya told The Guardian that at the end of his life Tolstoy did not want money for his work, but instead wanted to give his work to the public: “It was important for us to make it free for all people across the world. It is his will.” Among these initiatives is All of Tolstoy in One Click, an effort to digitize the entire 90-plus volume collection of Tolstoy’s writings, making them available on e-readers, iPads, and smartphones. This effort required massive crowdsourcing. In 2013, thousands of volunteers from 49 countries answered the call to arms to proofread 46,800 pages of already scanned works. They completed the project in just 14 days.

In December 2015, Fekla organized a four-day marathon reading of all four volumes of War and Peace, which Tolstoy wrote at Yasnaya Polyana and published in 1869. Some 1300 readers from 30 cities around the world took part, including actors, sports stars, politicians, and even cosmonaut Sergei Volkov, who read from the International Space Station. The event was live-streamed online and broadcast live on Russian TV.

Next, Fekla plans to collaborate with several academic institutions, including Moscow State University and Harvard University, to create the “Tolstoy Digital Universe.” This online encyclopedia of the writer’s literary heritage will allow users to have, right at their fingertips, access to Tolstoy’s texts, quotes, correspondence, etc. In addition, she hopes to digitize the more than 5000 manuscript pages of War and Peace, giving us a behind-the-cover look at the incredible development of this literary masterpiece.

Leo Tolstoy's selfie from 1862. In the upper left corner, he wrote Sam sebya snyal, which means “shot by me.” At lower left corner he wrote an abbreviated version of his name: “Gr. L.N. Tolstoy,” for “Graf Lev Nikolaevitch Tolstoy.” Graf means "Count." Image credit: courtesy of Anastasia Vladimirovna Tolstaya

 
When the Chopin concert was over, I exited the house with my cousins. We gathered in the yard for a family picture, just as Leo and Sonia did quite often with their children. I adore looking at photos of them enjoying afternoon tea in the garden and pointing out my great-grandfather among the siblings. I think Sonia would have enjoyed these family reunions for their liveliness and feelings of love and closeness. As for me, I am newly inspired to delve further into my family history and eventually write that book that I’ve been planning for ages.

Special thanks to my mother, Tanya Tolstoy Penkrat, who is the most incredible oral historian and keeper of stories for many of our extended family.

Unless otherwise noted, all images are courtesy of the author and her relatives.

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.

15 Amazing Facts About the Washington Monument

iStock/Sean Pavone
iStock/Sean Pavone

It's the tallest building in Washington, D.C. and it honors the first U.S. president, George Washington. Here are a few more Washington Monument facts to celebrate the anniversary of its completion on December 6, 1884.

1. Building a monument to George Washington was not a unanimously supported idea.

Today, trumpeting George Washington as a hero and a symbol of national pride isn’t going to start any arguments. In the 19th century, however, Washington’s approval rating was far from 100 percent. The very idea of constructing a monument to honor the former president felt like an affront to the Democratic-Republicans—the opposing party to the Washington-aligned Federalists—who both favored Thomas Jefferson over Washington and decried such tributes as unseemly and suspiciously royalist.

2. It took almost 40 years to complete the Washington Monument's construction.

After decades of deliberation about where to build a monument to George Washington, what form it should take, and whether the whole thing was a good idea in the first place, the foundation for a great stone obelisk was laid at the center of Washington, D.C.’s National Mall on July 4, 1848. Although the design looks fairly simple, the structure would prove to be a difficult project for architect Robert Mills and the Washington National Monument Society. Due to ideological conflicts, lapses in funding, and disruptions during the Civil War, construction of the Washington Monument would not be completed until February 21, 1885. The site opened to the public three years later. 

3. A coup within the Washington National Monument Society delayed construction.

In 1855, an anti-Catholic activist group nicknamed the Know-Nothings seized control of the 23-year-old Washington National Monument Society. Once in power, the Know-Nothings rejected and destroyed memorial stones donated by Pope Piux IX. The Know-Nothing affiliation cost the project financial support from the public and from Congress. In 1858, after adding only two layers of masonry to the monument, the Know-Nothings abdicated control of the society. 

4. Early ideas for the Washington Monument included statues, Greek columns, and tombs. 

Before the society settled on building an obelisk, several other ideas were suggested as the visual representation of George Washington’s grandeur. Among them were an equestrian statue of the first president (which was part of Pierre L’Enfant’s original plan for Washington, D.C.), a separate statue situated atop a classical Greek column, and a tomb constructed within the Capitol building. The last idea fell apart when Washington’s family was unwilling to move his body from its resting place in Mount Vernon.

5. Later design plans included an elaborate colonnade ...

Even after Mills’ obelisk model had been accepted, a few flashier design elements received consideration as possible additions to the final project. Mills had originally intended to surround the tower with a circular colonnade, featuring not only a statue of George Washington seated gallantly atop a chariot, but also 30 individual statues of renowned Revolutionary War heroes. 

6. ... and an Egyptian sun.

Mills placed a winged sun—an Egyptian symbol representing divinity—above the doorframe of the Washington Monument’s principal entrance. The sun was removed in 1885. 

7. The monument originally had a flat top.

It has become recognizable for its pointed apex, but the Washington Monument was originally designed to bear a flat top. The monument's design was capped with a pyramid-shaped addition in 1879.

8. The engineer who completed the Washington Monument asked the government to supply his workers with hot coffee.

Several years after the 1855 death of Mills, Col. Thomas Lincoln Casey Sr., chief of engineers of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, assumed responsibility for completing the Washington Monument. Among his most memorable orders was an official request to the U.S. Treasury Department to supply his workers—specifically those assigned to the construction of the monument’s apex—with “hot coffee in moderate quantities.” The treasury complied. 

9. Dozens of miscellaneous items are buried beneath the monument.

On the first day of construction, a zinc case containing a number of objects and documents was placed in the Washington Monument’s foundation. Alongside copies of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are a map of the city of Washington, publications of Census data, a book of poems, a collection of American coins, a list of Supreme Court justices, a Bible, daguerreotypes of George Washington and his mother Mary, Alfred Vail’s written description of the magnetic telegraph, a copy of Appleton’s Railroad and Steamboat Companion, and an issue of the arts and leisure magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, among many other items.

10. Some of the Washington Monument's memorial stones bear strange inscriptions.

The vast majority of the 194 memorial stones lining the Washington Monument are not likely to inspire confusion. Common inscriptions celebrate George Washington, the country, and the states they represent. However, a few of the monument’s stones bear engravings of a more curious variety. A stone donated by a Welsh-American community from New York reads (in Welsh), “My language, my land, my nation of Wales—Wales for ever.” Another stone from the Templars of Honor and Temperance articulates the organization’s rigid support of Prohibition: “We will not make, buy, sell, or use as a beverage any spirituous or malt liquors, wine, cider, or any other alcoholic liquor, and will discountenance their manufacture, traffic, and use, and this pledge we will maintain unto the end of life.” 

11. The apex was displayed at Tiffany's before it was added to the structure.

The men who created the Washington Monument, though reverent in their intentions, were hardly above a good publicity stunt. William Frishmuth, an architect and aluminum magnate connected to the project, arranged for the pointed aluminum top of the monument to enjoy an ornate two-day display at New York City’s luxury jewelry store Tiffany’s. The apex was placed on the floor of the storefront so that shoppers could claim to have walked “over the top of the Washington Monument.” 

12. Opening ceremonies attracted several big-name guests.

Among the 20,000 Americans present for the beginning of construction in 1848 were then-President James K. Polk, three future presidents (James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, and Andrew Johnson), former first lady Dolley Madison, Alexander Hamilton's widow Elizabeth Hamilton (John Quincy Adams' widow was too sick to attend), and a bald eagle.

13. The Washington Monument was the tallest structure in the world for about six months.

Upon its official opening on October 9, 1888, the Washington Monument—standing an impressive 555 feet high—boasted the superlative of tallest manmade structure on Earth. The honor was short-lived, however, as the following March saw the unveiling of the Eiffel Tower, which topped out at 986 feet. 

14. It is still the tallest of its kind.

As of 2019, the Washington Monument still reigns supreme as both the world’s tallest all-stone structure and the tallest obelisk. (The stone San Jacinto Monument in Texas is taller, but it sits on a concrete plinth.)

15. A few decades after construction, the monument caught "tuberculosis."

Wear and tear had begun to get the best of the Washington Monument by the early 20th century, prompting an exodus of the cement and rubble filler through the structure’s external cracks. The sweating sensation prompted John S. Mosby Jr., author of a 1911 article in Popular Mechanics, to nickname the phenomenon “geological tuberculosis.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER