Bannerman never revealed his largest arms customers, and although he claimed to have never knowingly sold arms to buyers of questionable origin, some of his weapons were said to have inadvertently ended up in the hands of “revolutionists” around the world. Some observers claimed that they saw Bannerman’s weapons being used by insurgents in Panama during their struggle to gain independence from Colombia.
At the onset of World War I, one of Bannerman’s employees, an Austrian immigrant named Charles Kovac, was arrested on charges of spying, casting a large shadow of suspicion on Bannerman’s business. Soldiers were stationed on Bannerman Island for precautionary purposes and made an extensive search of the grounds. Machine guns mounted in the tower of the castle aroused suspicion, but Bannerman claimed that they had only been used to salute passing steamboats. Bannerman sent an angry letter to Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt, voicing his objections to the island’s occupation and noting his reputation as a true American patriot. As for Kovac, he was subject to deportation, but eventually was paroled and had his work activities on the island severely restricted.
A “Museum of Lost Arts”
Frank Bannerman died in 1918 at the age of 68 from overwork, according to a New York Times obituary, but many believed that the occupation of the island and the suspicion surrounding his name and business had seriously compromised his health. He had also been involved in a large, ambitious war relief effort to Belgium at the time, which may have contributed to his downward turn. The island continued to be used for storage, but all further construction on the castle came to an end. Frank VII and David Bannerman continued to operate the business well into the 1970s out of a massive warehouse on Long Island.
The business eventually began to sell more to collectors than to arms buyers. After the two brothers died, it passed to the control of grandson Charles Bannerman, who ironically had married Jane Campbell and finally ended the clans’ long feud. The family finally sold Bannerman Castle to the State of New York in 1967. A munitions expert was hired to remove any remaining dangerous ordnance, and the city took possession of all the remaining merchandise, some of which was donated to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
The state made plans to conduct tours of the castle, but a mysterious fire on August 8, 1969, caused extensive damage. Firefighters quickly rowed to the island to look for anyone who might have been trapped by the blaze, but they could do little to save the castle itself. Stone, cement, and bricks were all that remained of the original structure. Police investigated the possibility of arson, but nothing could be proven. Since that time, the castle has been declared off limits to the public, although the island itself is open for tours from May through October. The fate of the castle is now in the hands of Bannerman Castle Trust, Inc., which is attempting to secure funds for a renovation.
Although he had an exceptional career dealing in weapons of war, Frank Bannerman’s greatest wish was that there would come a day when his weapons were no longer considered necessary and his military surplus store and museum could become known instead as a “Museum of Lost Arts.” He was a great preserver of military history, and experts agree that many of the surviving items dating from the Civil War survive today largely due to Bannerman’s one-man efforts to save them.
This article by Dorraine Fisher originally appeared on Warfare History Network.