Follow the Stories | Pittsburgh, PA (2012)
Who Was "Mr. Thompson"?
The inscription on the pistols' escutcheons reads "John P. Thompson Owensboro, Ky." (Photo credit: Fran Laks courtesy of History Detectives)
Dulcie brought the pistols into the Pittsburg Roadshow in August 2011. Her father purchased them about 30 years ago for around $500 to $600.
Appraiser Christopher Mitchell called the Deringers a rare cased pair, ca. 1845, and estimated their current value at $30,000.
At the Pittsburgh ANTIQUES ROADSHOW in August 2011, a woman named Dulcie came in with a pair of Deringer pistols her father had purchased 30-odd years ago, and which she suspected were from the Civil War.
His name's inscribed on the pistols' silver escutcheons, but who was John P. Thompson?
ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Arms & Militaria expert Christopher Mitchell told Dulcie the pair of pistols were made a good 10 to 20 years before the Civil War began, and were "prestige" pistols meant more for personal use than for any battlefield, and he imagined the easily concealable Deringers might have come in handy for any traveler. "If you're in a coach, or if you're on a riverboat, you find yourself in trouble," Mitchell told Dulcie, "this is what you use to hopefully get yourself out of trouble."
Mitchell knew that gun collectors would be excited by the set because they were cased, a rarity. The barrels also had "Louisville, Kentucky," stamped on them, designating the location of the merchants who sold them, making the pistols especially attractive to Kentucky gun collectors. The Deringers had one more intriguing feature: on the guns' silver escutcheons, were the place name, "Owensboro, Kentucky" and the name "John P. Thompson."
Dulcie said her father had bought the pair for roughly $500 or $600. Mitchell put the current retail value at about $30,000 — "and that's without knowing who Mr. Thompson is. .... If he owned a large home or a large plantation, they could possibly be worth more."
Picking up the story from ANTIQUES ROADSHOW, History Detectives, the PBS TV series that hunts down historical mysteries, hunted down Mr. Thompson's identity. They began with a few particular clues: the middle initial "P." helped narrow down the Thompson in question, as did "Owensboro, Kentucky." They also could assume, as Mitchell noted, that "whoever owned these was a fairly wealthy man or his friends were, [because] you wrote a big check to bring these home." By digging through property records, census records in Daviess County, where Owensboro is located, and records at the Kentucky Historical Society, History Detectives learned that a John P. Thompson did live in Owensboro as a single lawyer and a circuit court judge in 1860 and showed up again in 1870 as a married man.
Given Dulcie on-air comments, History Detectives researchers assumed Thompson served in the Civil War. But on which side? The answer wasn't obvious: Kentucky was a border state, and while it remained neutral for the first months of the war and sided with the Union for the duration, the state included many Confederate sympathizers. But clues to his allegiance had been saved with the Deringers: According to Jennifer Silverman, series producer at History Detectives, Dulcie had a parole document from 1865, given to Thompson when he was released from a Union prisoner-of-war camp at Johnson's Island in Sandusky, Ohio.
That was a start: Thompson clearly had sided with the Confederacy. But during the war, Thompson wasn't a typical soldier. Evidence revealed that he'd enlisted in 1861 and served as a captain in Company G, 1st Kentucky Cavalry. He went to Virginia, serving under Joseph Johnston, who was the commanding general of the Confederate army early in the war, but it's not clear what battles Thompson fought in, if any.
What is known is that he returned to Kentucky in 1863 to try to quietly recruit more soldiers for the Confederacy.
"He wasn't at battles such as Shiloh or Vicksburg, but was apparently working to get soldiers on his side," says Silverman. Thompson was caught by authorities in May 1863, and sentenced to be shot as a spy, but Confederate authorities apparently intervened and he was imprisoned instead.
Much of Thompson's story was confirmed by a descendant of his from Virginia named Lesley Foster, whom History Detectives tracked down. "He was my great-great-grandfather," Foster told us. Foster also had love letters that Thompson had written to Maria Cornelia ("Neilia") Cave. "He met my great-great grandmother while he was a soldier stationed in Virginia. He played the violin and she had a piano forte." The antebellum plantation home in Virginia where the Thompsons once lived is still in the family.
Foster has a small trove of Thompson letters, including a marriage proposal Thompson wrote Cave in June 1862, while he was staying in her house. In it, he describes Neilia as "a Diamond among gems, a pearl amid Sea Shells, a Hesperus amid the stars," and he swears that his love was "as sweet as the love of angels, as gentle as the breeze of evening, as firm as the Oak and cease only when life's last gleam goes out in death." Cave married Thompson in December 1865, after the war ended. They lived in Owensboro, Kentucky, until Thompson died in 1872, at which time Cave moved back to her family home in central Virginia.
Did this rich family history warrant an increase in value? Apparently not. "In order for the value to go up," says Mitchell, "he would have needed to be killed by an important battle, to go on to become governor of Kentucky, do something hugely meritorious in the war, or reprehensible, or be the owner of a famous plantation. He was a fairly prominent citizen who made a decent living, but that's not too big a deal. You want a guy who captured a flag at Gettysburg, not a guy who spent most of the war in a prison camp."
Through the generations, Thompson's descendants handed down his love letters, a photo depicting him, his violin, his prison diary, and to the surprise of History Detectives, the Deringers that Dulcie now had. When Foster was a girl, the Deringers were displayed on a pedestal table in the parlor of her grandmother's house, where John and Neilia first met.
"It was where the Thompsons would have entertained, the room they were married in, it was where her coffin lay when she died," Foster says. But then one night about thirty years ago, the Deringers disappeared. For more on that story, tune in to History Detectives, Tuesday, July 26 at 8/7C on your local PBS station and visit pbs.org/historydetectives to explore the case online.
A special thanks to Jennifer Silverman of History Detectives and to Lesley Foster for their assistance in researching this article.
More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Arms & Militaria category:
Deciphering Civil War Belt Buckles (Louisville, 2008)
What's the Deal with Confederate Flags? (Salt Lake City, 2007)
See the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (2012) page for a list of all appraisals from this city.
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.