Monday, December 12, 2011

Whitney Meglone Artifacts at the KY Historical Society

I was recently contacted by a researcher with the Kentucky Historical Society about this blog and my research specifically on Whitney Meglone. The researcher was looking for information about Whitney to include with some historical items that are in the collections of the KY Historical Society in Lexington: two rifles and a locket.

Needless to say, I was thrilled to hear from him and to learn that Whitney actually "made" rifles! I had just assumed he worked in a shop that may have mostly done repairs, or that maybe Whitney was still in an apprentice stage. The rifles are part of the Marsh Collection of the KY Historical Society which includes other rifles by gunsmith Benjamin Mills and his apprentices (Whitney was one of his apprentices!). The Marsh collection was covered in the publication KHS Chronicle. Benjamin Mills lived in Harrodsburg, KY, prior to and just after the Harper's Ferry incident, and continued gunsmithing there during the Civil War. Whitney's mother married a man from Harrodsburg about 1859/1860 so Whitney could have begun his apprenticeship at about that time, or earlier since the 1859 City Directory lists Whitney as a gunsmith.

The locket and rifles can be viewed at this link, or by going to and clicking on "Search Our Collections," then click on the link to the KHS Objects Catalog and enter the search term "Meglone":

Both rifles are muzzle-loaders and one is dated 1861, so it can be assumed the other is of a similar date or within a few years prior to that date, since it may not be likely that he built any rifles or guns during the Civil War because he spent so much of that time as a prisoner of war.

The locket was only recently posted to the online collection and reveals that Whitney apparently made the locket for his sister Mary while he was imprisoned at Camp Douglas. It is very detailed and looks like a small book, and is made of ivory and gold and silver decorative pieces. A small photo of Mary is still in place on the right side, but the photo of Whitney was stolen out of the locket in 1995, while in the possession of the Historical Society. Why someone would go to those lengths to steal a tiny photograph is beyond me. I can only assume that the photo must have been of Whitney in uniform and that maybe someone thought it had significant monetary value. So somewhere out there may exist this photo of Whitney, so if anyone has any information about the theft of this picture or has seen a photo of this small size that might be the one of Whitney that was stolen, please contact the KY Historical Society to let them know.

The engraving on the locket was done on the center decorative pieces on the front and back of the locket as well as on the latch. It appears that when the person stole the photo of Whitney that they may have also broken the piece of ivory it was set into, because it is now in two pieces but is still held together by the decorative metal pieces.

Did prisoners, especially at Camp Douglas, have access to these kinds of materials (ivory, gold, silver)? Could this locket have been made from items he already had on him at the time of his capture, or maybe that he could have bartered for amongst other prisoners or maybe Union soldiers? I don't know enough about the history of items made by imprisoned soldiers during the Civil War to know how he might have made something as delicate as this. Would he also have been able to have it sent to his sister while he was imprisoned?

Someday I hope that the picture of Whitney is found and that it is returned to it's rightful place back inside this locket. And who knows, maybe there are more rifles out there marked "W W Meglone, Lexington KY."