William who? Morgenstern and his guns

In the June/July 2016 issue of Collectors' Arms & Militaria, while dealing with the guns tested by the U.S. Army in the late 1860s, I mentioned that the name of the inventor William Morgenstern had been lost to history. He had offered a breech-loader to the 1867 trials board, unsuccessfully, but it had been one of the few submissions to be denied a photographic record.

Subsequently, I wrote an article about Morgenstern which was intended largely to demonstrate that information could be retrieved in even the most unpromising circumstances. However, a change of editorial policy when Collectors' Arms merged with The Armourer meant that the material was judged to be too esoteric. It is published here for the first time in the hope that, by doing so, a Morgenstern rifle can be found!

In 2016, a search of the internet revealed only a single mention of any substance—published in 2005 in the third edition of my Rifles of the World…!  Yet Morgenstern had been granted nine gun-related U.S. patents from 40572 of 10th November 1863 (‘Improvement in Breech-Loading Fire-Arms’, granted jointly with Edward Morwitz) to 93330 of 3rd August 1869 (‘Improvement in Breech-Loading Fire-Arms’, part-assigned to Herman Funke).

The patent specifications list Morgenstern’s domicile variously as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Hartford, Connecticut; and New York City. However, almost nothing else is known and he passes without mention in Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Firearms.

The design of the rifle submitted in 1867 is not known with certainly, though it may have incorporated the sliding-block mechanism protected by US Patent 48133 of 6th June 1865.  The first of Morgenstern’s lifting-block guns was patented at the end of 1867 (US 72526 of 24th December), but there is nothing to show when protection had been sought and it seems unlikely to have been made prior to the U.S. Army trials. However, the application to protect the side-hinged block illustrated by US Patent 74712 of 18th February 1868 had actually been filed on 22nd May 1867.

What of Morgenstern himself, as enigmatic as his guns? On 5th November 1869, the steamship Leipzig docked in Baltimore harbour after crossing the Atlantic from Bremen. On board, according to the passenger list, was William Morgenstern, a ‘Gunsmith’ aged 37. There is little doubt that this is our inventor, or that U.S. naturalisation papers dating from 18th June 1868 and a passport application made on 22nd June 1868 also refer to him.  Charles Zöller witnessed both documents, and the signatures of ‘William Morgenstern’ are identical.

The passport application reveals that Morgenstern (birth-name ‘Wilhelm’) had been born on 28th February 1831 in Landsbeck, Prussia, and that he was 5ft 4in tall, with brown eyes and brown hair.

Unfortunately, the application says nothing about his domestic status. Yet the passenger list of an earlier voyage, from Liverpool to New York by City of Baltimore, docking on 4th November 1857, includes ‘Wm. Morgenstern’ (aged 26) and ‘Elizth’, ‘Wife’, aged 25. And though there is no direct link between this and the 1869 voyage, the 1860 U.S. Federal census includes ‘William Morganstern’, a Machinist resident in New York with wife Eliza[beth], young sons William and Thomas, and a female servant. It takes little stretch of the imagination to see ‘Machinist’ becoming ‘Gunsmith’, and to accept that these documents refer to the same people.

The trail goes cold after the 1860 census. Nothing could be found in the 1865 New York or 1870 Federal censuses, but Morgenstern’s first patent, granted jointly with Edward Morwitz on 10th November 1863, gives his domicile as Philadelphia. Unfortunately, nothing relevant has been retrieved from records in Pennsylvania even though this was the era in which all of Morgenstern’s guns had been developed and his surname is by no means uncommon in North America. [The most common variants are ‘Morganstern’, ‘Morgarnstern’ or ‘Morgernstern’, sometimes with a terminal ‘e’. The English translation ‘Morningstar’ can be found (and potentially confused with a Native American name!); ‘Morgensteine’, occasionally substituted, actually has different roots.]

So what had happened?  The 1860 census was taken before the Civil War began in April 1861; before the Homestead Act of 1862 began the scramble to open up the ‘Wild West’ by granting 160 acres of land to anyone who risked venturing westward of the Mississippi river; and before the Golden Spike was driven on 10th March 1869 to complete the transcontinental railroad, facilitating travel from one side of the U.S.A. to the other. It is also easy to overlook the belated incorporation of the western states, from Nevada (1865) and Nebraska (1867) to Oklahoma (1908) and New Mexico and Arizona (1912).

Ironically, it can be easier to follow the career of a Civil War soldier than a civilian, as lives of the latter often passed unnoticed and unrecorded: deaths in epidemics and when wagon trains of prospective settlers disappeared, or when people simply moved thousands of miles in pursuit of gold, silver, copper or land.

The spread of railways encouraged an unparalleled movement of people, as the Hell-on-Wheels settlements that advanced with the rail-heads pushed ever farther into the heart of the continent.  These shanty towns of tarts and touts, gamblers and gunmen—and gun dealers!—usually flourished briefly before being stripped, packed onto railroad cars, and sent to the next site.  But there were exceptions: Cheyenne, Wyoming, now a thriving city of more than sixty thousand people, had grown in a few weeks of the winter of 1867 from a cluster of huts into a town with a population of four thousand.  The ‘Land Rush’ to grab 3000 square miles of Oklahoma, beginning at noon on 22nd December 1889, had an even more obvious effect. By nightfall, Guthrie was a brand-new tented city with a population of 15,000!

Consequently, the 1870 census was widely believed to have been under-counted even as it was being analysed.  In addition to the unsettled and unincorporated lands west of the Mississippi, the principal areas of doubt concerned New York and Pennsylvania—ironically, the two places in which the Morgensterns could have been expected to live.

Perhaps Elizabeth Morgenstern and her two sons had died before the Civil War had ended or during the New York cholera epidemic of 1866, which claimed at least 1200 lives? There is no supporting evidence for this claim, and, given William Morgenstern’s connexions with the Jewish and commercial communities, it seems unlikely that the family would have failed to comply with enumeration. Departure for Philadelphia in the wake of the New York Draft riots seems a better possibility.

The riots of 13th-16th July 1863 had their origins in the Enrollment Act passed by Congress to boost the strength of the federal armies, which were reliant on a nucleus of regular soldiers and legions of enthusiastic but poorly-trained volunteers.  When the draft was enacted, however, protests which had begun largely against the ‘commutation fees’, allowing the wealthy to avoid service by paying a surrogate, spiralled uncontrollably. Blacks and immigrants were specifically excluded from the draft, and so were perceived to be taking employment from those who were being forced into military service.  The Irish community was particularly volatile, but the troubles evolved into anti-black and, to a much lesser degree, anti-Semitic hostility.

At least fifty buildings were razed, including two churches, an orphanage, and the Phoenix Armory (bringing work on the Gibbs carbines to an end). The official death toll of 119, possibly excluding about eleven lynchings, is suspiciously low; a claim that two thousand had died is undoubtedly wildly over-stated.  The most important effect of the draft riots (unseen at least until the 1870 census had been analysed) was to force blacks and some of the ethnic minorities away from the troubled districts.  They included some of the Germans—who in 1860 formed more than twenty per cent of the population of New York—and, in particular, Germans of Jewish race if not necessarily faith.  The Morgensterns could easily have been among them.


Above: William Morgenstern's applications for U.S. citizenship (left) and a passport (right) hold invaluable clues to his life. [U.S. National Archives, Washington DC]

William Morgenstern was never rich. Consequently, his inventions were often assigned or part-assigned to sponsors and financiers.  The earliest, protected by U.S. Patent 40572, was granted on 15th November 1863 jointly to Morgenstern and Edward Morwitz, both of Philadelphia. Morwitz (1815-93), a doctor of medicine, had been born in Danzig and was a leader of the German-Jewish community in his city. He was also in a good position to fund the project.

U.S. Patent 48133 of 6th June 1865 was part-assigned to William P. Wilstach, born in Philadelphia in 1816 of German stock. The 1860 census credits Wilstach, a Merchant, with real- and personal estate valued at $30,000 and $60,000 respectively. Backing Morgenstern’s ideas would have been trifling by comparison, even though William Wilstach—who died on 17th September 1870, less than a month after returning from Europe on the Cunard steamship Scotia—would not have lived to see long-term success.

U.S. Patent 72526 of 24th December 1867 was part-assigned to Charles Herold, Treasurer of the Hartford Capitol Brewing Company of Bellevue Street, Hartford, Connecticut. Born in Saxony in 1834, Herold was also Treasurer of the German Rifle Club of Hartford and had not only a real interest in firearms but also money to invest.

U.S. Patent 74712 of 18th February 1868 was part-assigned to Ernest (‘Ernst’) von Jeinsen, who appears to have owned the San Francisco Riding School before settling in New York in the late 1860s. German-born, von Jeinsen filed naturalisation papers from 385 Bowery, New York City, on 13th October 1868; New York directories describes him as ‘pianoforte dealer’ in 1870, and as ‘inventor’ a year later. He was even granted U.S. Patent 74922 of 15 December 1868 to improve on the Morgenstern design; an application had been made on 21st January, before 74712 had even been granted. Jeinsen subsequently returned to California, where he was listed as a Mining Broker in San Francisco in 1875 and as a Mining Engineer in 1878.

U.S. Patents 79291 (23rd June 1868) and 93330 (3rd August 1869) were each part-assigned to Herman Funke of New York. Born in Krefeld, Funke (1825-90) arrived in the U.S.A. on 5th July 1850 and in October had married Sophia Spangenberg, born in Hannover. The 1870 Federal census lists Funke as a Hardware Merchant with real estate valued at $50,000; his wife ‘Emilie’ (Sophia’s third forename) had a personal estate of $25,000. The family included nine children, a governess and no fewer than eight servants. Supporting Morgenstern required very little commitment by comparison.

However, despite the assistance he had undoubtedly been given, Morgenstern was unable to make money from his firearms. An entry in a diary kept by General William B. Franklin, Vice-President of Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Mfg Co.—part of the Colt Papers now held by the Connecticut State Library in Hartford—notes that William Morgenstern had visited the Hartford factory on 19th March 1867, at a time when Colt was considering if a rifle of tabatière type could be developed for the Russians. Morgenstern sought $4000 for a half-share in his patents, but Franklin, unimpressed, refused. The inventor, ‘out of money’, borrowed from Franklin to ‘buy his fare home’ (to Philadelphia?) and left the gun as collateral.

A U.S. Army Board of Officers convened in St Louis Arsenal, Missouri, on 2nd March 1870 to test not only rifles and carbines, but also pistols and a variety of accessories. The rifles included seven Remingtons, five Roberts of various types, a Sharps, three Ward-Burtons, two Martini-Henrys, ten of Peabody type—including four Wessely modifications, withdrawn before testing began—and Morgensterns submitted by Herman Boker & Co. of New York in .42- and .50-calibre.

The Board selected six of the submissions for long-term trials, which included fifteen shots at 100 yards to assess accuracy and five hundred at 100 yards to assess durability. All of these were fired from a rest so that an idea of accuracy could be gained.  The usual sand, rust, defective and overloaded ammunition tests were also to be faced.

Oddly, the Morgenstern was selected alongside the Springfield-Allin, the Sharps, the Martini-Henry, the Remington and the Ward-Burton. But the firing trials were disastrous: in the second phase of the endurance trial, for example, the .42 Morgenstern failed to fire the 75th cartridge and then did the same with the next twelve.  A .50-calibre barrel was substituted, but a repeat of the trial encountered the same problems. The hammer-shoulder washer had worked loose, but misfiring continued even after it was re-tightened. A stronger hammer spring improved performance, until, finally, the fifth 100-round series was negotiated without difficulty.

The Springfield-Allin passed all the tests with almost no mishaps, perhaps not surprisingly as it had already been tried at length with government-made ammunition; the Remington and the Sharps suffered purely minor problems; but the Martini-Henrys, a 'Long Body' gun chambering staight-case cartridges and a 'Short Body' gun firing necked cartridges, suffered the extraction problems that would become notorious in British service.

The Ward-Burton had also performed flawlessly, but when the Board came to rank the six breech systems in order of preference, the ill-favoured bolt action was placed last! The Morgenstern was fourth behind the preferred Remington, though the Chief of Ordnance was not prepared to accept this recommendation, made in the final report submitted on 10th June 1870, to the exclusion of the Springfield and the Sharps. Eventually, another round of trials began. 

The carbine tested by the U.S. Army Board of Officers convened on 3rd September 1872, as ‘Morgenstern No. 15’, apparently chambered the .42 Russian (Berdan) cartridge. Photographs taken at the time of the trials shows it to have been the lifting-block pattern of the same general type that had been extensively tested in 1870.

The gun was operated by retracting the handle projecting above the hammer block to disengage ribs on the sides of the block from undercut grooves in the rear of the action-body. This partly cocked the striker, and allowed the breech-block to be rotated up and forward. At the end of the stroke, a spring-loaded extractor/ejector mechanism—the subject of US Patent 86434 of 2nd February 1869—expelled the empty case and the chamber could be reloaded.  As the breech-block was closed and the hammer block was pushed forward to its locked position, with the ribs securely in the grooves, compression of the mainspring was completed.

the only known image of a Morgenstern rifle (No. 15, top), photographed for the 1872 U.S. trials with Broughton No. 18, Remington Locking Rifle No. 21, Elliott No. 24, and the luckless Ward-Burton No. 26.

It is not clear why the Morgenstern was summarily rejected in 1872, unless it had failed to fire in the same way that its 1870 predecessor had done. In addition, the absence of an external hammer and the cock-on-opening feature would have been unpopular. Many senior officers objected if the state of loading could be determined only by opening a chamber, and any self-cocking mechanism that relied on something other than an external hammer was regarded as potentially dangerous in the hands of untrained men.  Consequently, ‘Morgenstern No. 15’ was not amongst the guns retained for additional trials and, presumably, returned to the inventor.

William Morgenstern was clearly struggling financially in the late 1860s, but his fortunes may have been improved by water-tap and bottle-stopper patents, the last of which, no. 154510, was granted on 5th August 1874.

U.S. Patent 131111, ‘Improvements in Bottle-Stoppers’, had been granted on 3rd September 1872; when the time came to arrange a re-issue, however, RE 7847 of 14th August 1877 was made to ‘Henry W. Puttnam of Bennington, Vermont, Assignee by Mesne Assignments of William Morgenstern, Deceased’.

Henry W. Putnam (alias ‘Harry’, ‘Puttnam’, 1825-1915) was a multi-millionaire, President of the Brooklyn Elevated Railway, and involved with banking, real estate and water supply. ‘Mesne’ simply signifies an intermediate assignment within a series of assignments, owing, in this case, to the fact that Morgenstern’s will had not been enacted at the time of transaction.

The date of the Morgenstern’s death has not been confirmed, though he was still listed in the 1877 New York City directory.  City archives hold probate documents for his Last Will and Testament, signed on 9th October 1875 and proved on 13th April 1877, which are revealing: ‘…I give devise and bequeath to my son Charles Morgenstern all my right title and interest in all Patents obtained by me in the United States. I also give devise and bequeath to my son above named my gold watch and chain, to have and to hold the same for ever. All the rest residue and remainder of my property, I give devise and bequeath to my beloved wife Eliza, to have and to hold to herself her heirs, Executors, Administrators and Assigns forever…’

This confirm that Eliza Morgenstern was alive in 1875, and that there was another son. However, it is assumed by their absence that the two boys named in 1860, William and Thomas, were both dead.

Tracing the fate of Eliza and Charles Morgenstern is complicated by the loss of virtually all details of the 1890 Federal census, first to a fire in 1921 and then, inexplicably, to the destruction in the 1930s of all surviving material other than summaries. New York City directories reveal that Eliza worked as a hairdresser and supplier of ‘hair goods’ into the late 1880s, entries made after 1878 also describing her as ‘Widow of William’. The date of her death has yet to be found, as identification is complicated by the existence of at least three ‘Elizabeth Morgensterns’ in New York at this time. One (‘Betsey’) died in 1898 and another in 1899, but neither fits the criteria for the widow of William.

Neither can the Morgenstern's surviving son be found with certainty, unless he was the ‘Charles Morgenstern’ who was buried in Mount Hebron Cemetery, Flushing, Queen’s County, New York, on 4th April 1942. It seems that as there was no-one to give details at this particular burial, his age was estimated to be 72 and so a notional birth-year of 1870 was proposed on the death record. This is in keeping with that of William and Eliza Morgenstern’s son, but by no means conclusive proof that they are one and the same.

The career of William Morgenstern gives an insight into the influence of German immigrants in North American society in the decades after the Civil War, and on their contribution to the arms industry of New York and New England.  It also highlights the uncertainty of life in an era in which infant mortality was high, and how research can be handicapped by the extinction of family lines. Unfortunately, no Morgenstern rifle or carbine is known to survive…but there is always a possibility that one languishes somewhere, as yet unidentified.


The article has benefited greatly from the assistance of the U.S. national archives in Washington DC, and the Connecticut State Library in Hartford, Connecticut.