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Cryo Chamber

Historian reunites abolitionist’s gun with museum

Robert Hassinger bid farewell on Tuesday to an old friend, a revolver whose craftsmanship, hallmarks and engraving led him on a fascinating quest and fed his lifelong passion for American history.

“I like to do research,” said the retired insurance investigator, who returned an 1851 Colt “Navy” revolver to the Chicago museum from which it was stolen 62 years ago.

Inside the third-floor board room of Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland, he donned a pair of white gloves and carefully removed the gleaming revolver from a brown valise.

“There’s no pitting, no rust,” Mr. Hassinger, 83, said as he showed it to Libby Mahoney, chief curator of the Chicago History Museum, who was visibly impressed by its excellent condition.

“I can’t really believe that it’s resurfaced. You’re an extremely honest person,” said Kathleen Plourd, the museum’s collections director.

At a gun show here in 1991, Mr. Hassinger traded an 1860 Army revolver for the earlier 1851 Colt model because its low serial number piqued his interest. He began researching its history, accumulating information in a neat binder.

While paging through Man at Arms magazine in 2001, the North Hills man read an article headlined “John Brown’s Colt Navies.”

John Brown, a zealous abolitionist, led an ill-conceived raid in 1859 on a U.S. military arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Va. Afterward, he was tried and hanged. Three of his sons also died in the anti-slavery movement.

But Brown’s third son, Owen, escaped from Harpers Ferry, fleeing to Canada and later returning to the United States. The article reported that Owen Brown’s gun, stolen in 1948 from the Chicago History Museum, remained missing and had a serial number of 43156.

Mr. Hassinger knew his Colt revolver bore the initials O.B. on its backstrap. He figured the initials were those of the soldier who used the gun but was never able to match the letters to anyone, even after examining regiment rosters.

On the day he got it, Mr. Hassinger showed the O.B. initials to his wife, joking, “This stands for ‘Oh, boy, look at the neat gun I got.’ “-[source]

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