1847 Colt Whitneyville-Walker revolver returned to Museum of CT History following multi-year FBI investigation.

The Connecticut State Library’s Museum of Connecticut History was one of 16 organizations to participate in a Repatriation Ceremony hosted by the FBI’s Art Crime Team at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia on Monday, March 13, 2023.

Dozens of artifacts stolen during the 1970s were recovered and returned to the owning institutions as a result of a 14-year investigation conducted by detectives Andrew Rathfon and Brendan Dougherty of Upper Merion Township, Pennsylvania. The investigation started as a tip in 2009 about some weapons stolen from the Valley Forge Historical Society. Rathfon and Dougherty followed the trail and found that the Valley Forge crime was related to thefts that occurred in 16 other organizations spanning five states between 1968 and 1979. The suspect they identified lived outside their jurisdiction, so Special Agent Jake Archer of the FBI’s Art Crime Team got involved.

In 2017, FBI agents served a search warrant at suspect Michael Corbett’s Newark, Delaware home and there discovered a variety of stolen historic weapons, but not the ones that had spurred the investigation. In December 2021, Corbett was indicted by a federal grand jury in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania for possession of firearms and other items stolen from museums in the 1970s. Through the work of Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania K.T. Newton, in August 2022, Corbett pleaded guilty to the possession of stolen items transported interstate and was sentenced to a one-day prison sentence, 14 months of house arrest, and a $65,000 fine as part of a plea deal. In accordance with the agreement, Corbett turned over additional stolen firearms to which he had access – including a Colt Whitneyville-Walker revolver that was stolen from the Museum of Connecticut History back in 1971.

Colonel Samuel Colt produced a series of .44 caliber, six-shot revolvers in 1847 under contract with the U.S. War Department for issue to the United States Mounted Rifles during the Mexican War. The 1,000 weapons that resulted from the contract are known as “Colt Whitneyville-Walkers” from their connection to two historic figures: Samuel H. Walker and Eli Whitney, Jr. As a member of the Texas Rangers, Samuel Walker was one of the first to use Colt’s Paterson revolver in combat and was pleased with the results, believing, with some improvements, that Colt’s Paterson revolver “…can be rendered the most perfect weapon in the world.” In 1846, Walker was appointed captain of the Mounted Rifleman in the United States Army. While in New York City to raise capital to arm his men, Walker and Samuel Colt worked together to make modifications to the Paterson revolver’s trigger and increased its capacity to a six-shot.

Walker was able to secure a U.S. War Department contract in 1847 for 1,000 of Samuel Colt’s new and improved revolvers. Colt had recently been forced to close his New Jersey armory and without machinery of his own, he enlisted the help of Eli Whitney, Jr., the son of the American inventor famous for inventing the cotton gin. Whitney Jr. had taken over his father’s armory in the Whitneyville section of New Haven in 1842. Up until this point, the armory made rifles and muskets for Federal contracts and state militias. The manufacture of handguns was a new venture for Whitney and the relationship with Colt ultimately allowed Whitney to diversify his company’s products.

The Colt Whitneyville-Walker revolvers were individually stamped with the Mounted Rifle company letters and the number of the soldier to whom the weapon was to be issued. Of the 1,000 weapons that had been produced for the U.S. War Department, about 239 of them were lost immediately upon use due to faulty cylinders that burst when fired. It is thought that many revolvers – as many as 600 – were lost over time from natural and manmade causes. There are currently only around 155 Colt Whitneyville-Walker 1847 revolvers extant today.

The Museum of Connecticut History’s Colt Whitneyville-Walker was donated in 1957 as part of a collection from the Arthur L. Ulrich Museum, which was the original Colt Factory Collection formed by Colonel Samuel Colt himself. Connecticut State Librarian, Deborah Schander, and museum Administrator, Jennifer DiCola Matos, attended the Repatriation Ceremony in Philadelphia and enlisted the help of Connecticut State Police officers, Sgt. Dickie Murchinson and TFC Kevin Cook, to bring the object safely home. Although the museum is still considering the best and most secure way to display the returned artifact, everyone is thrilled by its homecoming. “It’s incredible to have an object return after going missing for over 50 years,” said Administrator Jennifer Matos. “So much work went into the investigation that led to its recovery, and we are extremely grateful to everyone involved.”

The museum’s Colt Whitneyville-Walker revolver was one of 50 artifacts that were returned to their owning institutions during the Repatriation Ceremony, including: an 1842 single-shot percussion cap “pattern” pistol made and provided to contractors, stolen from Massachusetts’s Springfield Armory on the same day back in 1971; a French and Indian War-era powder horn stolen from a Belchertown Historical Society in Massachusetts; an 1847 Mississippi rifle stolen from the Mississippi Department of Archives & History; a World War II battlefield pickup pistol belonging to General Omar Bradley, stolen from the U.S. Army War College Museum; a number of 18th-century English and Scottish pistols stolen from Pennsylvania’s Valley Forge Historical Society Museum; and a plethora of 19th-century Pennsylvania rifles, stolen from various Pennsylvania museums.

“It is a rare privilege to be a part of today’s repatriation ceremony, returning stolen items to victims and, at the same time, returning important pieces of American history to the public,” said U.S. Attorney Jacqueline Romero at the Repatriation Ceremony. “Many of these pieces have special meaning to their local area. No monetary value in the marketplace can compare to their historical significance. A new part of the story for these items is the dedication and incredible teamwork from cultural institutions, private citizens, and law enforcement agencies, a striking example of the power of working together.”