Con artists were no strangers to early New York City. At one time or another, nearly every major landmark in the city had been sold by a ‘matchstick man’ or grifter. Around the turn of the twentieth century one such fraud was successfully performed by two men who targeted an artifact of slightly less renown: The Great West Point Chain.
The Great West Point Chain was the linchpin of the American’s defenses at West Point during the Revolutionary War (I covered the Chain and its creation in more detail here). Prior to the Chain, various other methods of securing the Hudson River Valley from invading British vessels had been tried, but none with success. First installed across the Hudson at West Point in 1778, “General Washington’s watch chain” would guard the River for four years, being taken in for the last time in the fall of 1782.
After the War the Chain was left to rust on the riverbanks. The new country was nervous that they would end up in another war with Great Britain and didn’t want to dispose of the Chain in case it became necessary to seal off the Hudson again. However, when war did break out again in 1812 the Chain sat idly by and finally, in 1829, it was melted down.
Or so it seemed. Over the next 60 years most forgot about the West Point Chain. Then, in 1889 Chicago confectioner Charles Frederick Gunther began displaying 18 links of the “original” West Point Chain in his curiosity museum. He had bought them from a military surplus dealer in New York City.
The dealer went by the unlikely moniker of Westminster Abbey (when asked about his name, he related how his father had wanted him to be a lawyer and thus gave him a distinguished name. This would probably have given his father quite a shock, as the elder Abbey had actually named his son ‘John’). ‘Westminster’ ran a junk shop on Front Street near the South Street Seaport, advertising everything from “rifles, revolvers, and military pistols” to the “best mixed tea, wholesale or retail”.
Abbey picked up his chain at an auction at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, but didn’t pretend to know how they got there. When asked, he simply replied that Gunther had verified them. As a means of boosting his own image (and business), Abbey made a show in the newspapers of graciously donating some chain links to the descendants of Peter Townsend, the man who ran Noble, Townsend, & Co., the ironworks where the original Chain was forged. Abbey hit the jackpot, both in dollars and publicity, when he managed to sell 18 links to former New York mayor Abram Hewitt in 1898.
Shortly after the Hewitt sale Abbey got out of the chain game, selling his remaining sections to equally dubious (albeit more successful) surplus dealer Francis Bannerman VI, of Bannerman Castle fame. While Abbey was only an amateur self-promoter, Bannerman had gone pro. To go along with his links (and the desk weights he made out of some pieces) Bannerman printed up a booklet detailing the chain’s history.
According to Bannerman, a large section of the Great Chain had survived the furnace and been brought to Manhattan in 1864 to be displayed at the Metropolitan Sanitary Fair, which raised money for the Union Army. After the Fair, rather than haul the Chain back to West Point, it was dumped in Brooklyn. It had been Bannerman’s father (also a surplus dealer) who bought the chain at the Navy Yard Auction. His idea was to melt the unremarkable chain down and sell it for scrap.
At this point (Bannerman says) Abbey stepped in and, recognizing their importance, saved the links from destruction by buying them all. After making a few big sales, Abbey sold the leftovers back to Bannerman.
The problem is that none of the chain links sold by Abbey or Bannerman were authentic. In reality, what Abbey had acquired was a British mooring chain, cast in Wales in the mid-nineteenth century. Made of smooth rolled iron (rather than the rough, hammered metal of the original), Abbey’s links were almost double the size and weight of the West Point links.
Despite the obvious differences, Abbey and Bannerman crafted a fiction from just enough fact that people thought it authentic.
In reality, some of the original Chain was saved from destruction and left behind at West Point. And some of what was saved was exhibited at the 1864 Sanitary Fair. The description in the Fair’s catalog got the Chain’s time-frame a little muddled (it was first rolled out in 1778, not 1776) , but the dimensions of the links it described are spot-on, which is unlikely unless they were authentic. That an auction took place at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1887 is also documented (although no mention is made of any chain).
Although some questioned why their links differed from the originals, most either remained silent from embarrassment or made excuses (the Buffalo Historical Society wrote in 1921 that their Bannerman links are larger because they were made for a point in the Chain where the strain from the River was greatest).
By the time all was said and done spurious chain links were scattered from Vermont to California, from small town museums to the Smithsonian archives. Some of them are still displayed at the United States Coast Guard Academy, although whether the Academy believes them to be authentic is not known. The whole fraud wasn’t pieced together completely until 1990, when Hudson River historian Lincoln Diamant investigated all the known links for his book “Chaining the Hudson: The Fight for the River in the American Revolution”, a wonderful history of the West Point Chain.
A few authentic links still survive. When the Chain was ordered to be melted down someone hit on the idea of saving a few 3-link sections and distributing them to veterans and other notables. The most famous section to escape the furnace can be found at Trophy Point in the United States Military Academy at West Point where 13 links, one for each original state, are set up as a monument to the ingenuity, dedication, and patriotism of those who created it.