Here is a strange story involving “knights,” a castle, an explosion, secret societies and lots and lots of helmets. It has the making of a Da Vinci Code setup, but is actually far less exciting – albeit interesting to collectors, history buffs and average curiosity seekers.
The story revolves around Francis Bannerman VI, a Scottish immigrant who started a business in 1865 purchasing surplus military equipment at the close of the American Civil War. Bannerman opened a store on Broadway in New York City and supplied volunteers for the Spanish-American War, and then playing war profiteer on both ends of the conflict bought up surplus Spanish weapons and equipment following the war, along with equipment captured by or sold for surplus by the U.S. government.
Bannerman, who was already publishing a catalog, expanded it to 300 pages. Among the buyers were various “secret societies,” and fraternal organizations, who looked to acquire military-esque uniforms and hats.
In 1900 Francis Bannerman bought Pollepel Island in the Hudson River, north of New York City, to store his arsenal of weapons and ammunition. Bannerman designed the structure himself and it had the look of a European castle.
While much of it was just really a warehouse, a small “castle” was build that served as residence. However, while it served as a giant advertisement for his famous catalog, it wasn’t actually finished by the time of his death in 1918.
Two years later in August of 1920, 200 tons of shells and powder exploded and destroyed the complex, leaving the castle in a semi-ruined state.Tours continued to be given however and the castle was a popular sight along the Hudson River.
A fire in 1969 further destroyed much of the castle, reducing it to a mere shell. The entire island is now off limits to visitors and can only be seen by boat or from the shore.
The catalog however continued to be published, with a shift from firearms (for obvious reasons) to other surplus military goods. Collectors today often marvel at the prices of items – but must remember that inflation very much needs to be considered. You don’t build a castle by giving away stuff!
Publication of the famous catalog finally ceased in the late 1960s after the fire that gutted the castle. And with it an era came to an end.
Two organizations that likely obtained their unique “helmets” from Bannerman were the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, which was founded in Baltimore, Maryland in 1819; and the Knights of Pythias, which was founded in Washington, D.C. in 1864.
While considered “secret societies” neither was actually all that “secret.” The Odd Fellows is still around today – without the helmets – and has 12,000 lodges and nearly 600,000 members.
As of 2003 the Knights of Pythias had 50,000 members, and the lodges are reportedly called “castles.”
From the late 1890s to the 1920s both groups used white helmets that were likely based on the American summer sun helmets used by the U.S. Army and various National Guard units. Because of the reduced size of the U.S. Army in the post-Civil War era the helmets were not likely of “military surplus” despite claims from many helmet collectors.
The Odd Fellow helmets do tend to feature surplus hardware, including a spike base and spike. Most feature a skull and cross bones and this has lead to confusion with sellers at militaria shows and on eBay suggesting that these are “military” helmets possibly from Germany or used by Dragoons, Lancers or other cavalry units. Instead these are simply lodge hats, and while potentially interesting these are not military surplus.
However, the catalog did sell a great deal of military surplus, including helmets, and this could help explain why so many American white “summer” helmets are so often seen with hardware including helmet plates, spikes, side buttons and chin chains.
Mark Kasal and Don Moore note in their book A Guide Book to U.S. Army Dress Helmets: 1872-1904 that “At no time were the helmet plate, bands, plume, and plume socket intended by the regulations to be worn on the helmet, and none were prescribed. It can be assumed that a number of officers did add these items.”
It can also be assumed that since the helmets, and more importantly the accoutrements were available through various catalogs, including Bannerman’s – that much of this hardware could have been added later. It is also impossible to know whether complete helmets with added hardware were sold, or if the items were added by individuals.
However, given that there are helmets that are mismatched with the wrong side buttons for the plate (i.e. infantry buttons but with artillery plate) these could likely have been done by individuals over time – while the helmets that match with complete hardware could have been done by officers looking to use their white helmets as a summertime dress helmet. Period photos do support the latter case – but again, how widely this practice was done is an unknown.
What is absolutely certain is that those other helmets from the fraternal groups feature military hardware on shells that are not military. These often feature full silk linings – often red – whilst the headbands provide no ventilation. In fact many of the lodge helmets/hats lack any ventilation and this is an easy indication that these were never intended to be military sun helmets.