“No..it’s on your right!” Cara lounged in her kayak, holding the walkie-talkie close to her mouth and bleating instructions to Mike as he stood on the Hudson’s West bank, swinging his head about and looking for something.
“Just look around!”
“I don’t see it!” Mike’s voice crackled through the walkie-talkie. “Wait, is this it!?” He held up a thick length of something white that flapped around as he shook it in Cara’s direction.
“Someone took the head!”
“If the head is gone, it’s YOUR fault for not getting it earlier!”
Cara and Brother Tom were guides for SKAT—Storm King Adventure Tours—an expedition outfit based in Cornwall-on-Hudson in Orange County. There were leading me to Bannerman’s Island, an isle in the middle of the Hudson that features a giant, crumbling castle. On our way out, Cara decided to check out the remains of a sturgeon that had been chopped in half by a boat propeller. The mutilated half alone weighed 75 pounds…a monster of the Hudson.
Our group arrived at Bannerman’s and climbed off the steep shore to wait for the historian. He was late.
After ten minutes, a balding man with the remainder of his pale hair locked back in a ponytail suddenly materialized from down the trail.
“We were waiting here for a half hour!” Cara ribbed.
The historian raised his eyebrows and gave Cara a facetiously serious glare.
“I SAW you GET here ten minutes ago.”
Cara and the other two guides stayed behind while the group was led by Thom Johnson, the Bannerman’s Island historian, to the beginning of the tour. The guides had seen it before.
Francis Bannerman V immigrated to the US from Scotland in August of 1854. His family, including li’l Francis VI, came across that October. When the Civil War broke out, Francis V became a member of the Union Army, leaving his son as the family’s primary breadwinner at the age of 12.
To support his family, young Bannerman began hustling.
“He started his career at 12,” said Johnson. “…at that point, he would literally buy and sell anything.”
‘Anything’ apparently included items as basic as potatoes, as he was listed as a “country potato dealer,” earlier on in his hustling career.
In the 1870s, Bannerman began focusing on the re-sale of military hardware.
He lived in New York City, his Army & Navy surplus store taking up most of a block in Manhattan. By the 1890s, he had made enough off the business to buy 90% of the captured materiel from the Spanish-American War. This purchase included a massive amount of gunpowder that he stored at his warehouse in Brooklyn. The fire marshal was none-too-pleased at having hills of explosives located in such a populated area, so Bannerman was forced to find somewhere else to store his goods…
What came to be known as Bannerman’s Island was originally called Pollepel Island. There are numerous theories of the etymology, but Johnson thinks it can be traced back to the Dutch word for ‘Pot Ladle.’ Apparently, when the area was Dutch-controlled, the Navy would throw junior sailors into the Hudson as a kind of hazing, then scoop them out with a device that resembled a giant pot ladle. This was before weed was a thing in The Netherlands, and at the time the Dutch were mean enough to throw junior sailors overboard consistently enough for the Island to get this name.
In the late 19th century, Bannerman’s was a center for bootlegging and prostitution—Vice City on the Hudson. This pissed off Mary Taft, a distant relation of William Taft, the 27th President, to the extent that she bought the island just so the sinning would end.
Bannerman purchased the island in 1900 and began constructing his castle. Thompson called the architecture “pure American melting pot.” Bannerman was influenced by castles from Antwerp to the Moorish architecture in Southern Spain. But, being Scottish, his main influence was the Scottish Baronial style, a form of architecture that originated in the 1500s and was part of the Gothic revival during the late 1800s.
There are a lot of unnecessarily violent features in Bannerman’s castle. Numerous Portcullises are featured in the ceilings—grates that were constructed to be locked in the event of an armed breach of a castle’s lower floor, which could then have scalding water or oil poured through them onto the faces of the invading troops. Embrasures dot the walls—glassless windows that are thin on the inside of the wall and widen as the opening reaches the wall’s exterior, constructed so an archer could get good sniping angles when repelling barbarian hordes.
Bannerman continued to make loads of money. Some of the stranger items he bought from the military for re-sale include reindeer-fur coats and 2.5 tons of dehydrated beef specifically formulated to be taken on Artic expeditions. He also claimed he had—available for the right price—links from the massive chain that Washington’s Army strung across the Hudson during the Revolutionary War to stop the British Navy from using it. Johnson doubts the links were authentic.
…and he was able to hustle it all. Johnson puts Bannerman “solidly in the millionaires club,” in early 20th century dollars.
Being in the arms business, he pissed a lot of ethicists off. He even had an entire chapter devoted to him in the 1934 book “Merchants of Death” entitled “Second-Hand Death.”
He eventually ended up pissing off the US government, which suspected him of war profiteering during WWI. The manager of Bannerman’s awoke one morning to find that the US Navy had taken over the island, searching for evidence that he was selling to the Axis powers. The manager happened to be from Austria, and was promptly arrested and held until all the nastiness could be sorted out.
“But why a castle?” I asked Johnson later on the phone.
It may have been for the advertising. As soon as Bannerman finished the island’s first warehouse in 1901, he whitewashed the side and painted “BANNERMAN’S MILITARY MAGAZINE” (the catalogue of his items) on the side. Trains and commercial ships passed the castle constantly, which eventually had the words “BANNERMANS ISLAND ARESENAL” emblazoned in huge rock letters on the side.
There doesn’t seem to be a logical ostensible reason for building a giant castle to house your wares instead of using a normal warehouse like everybody else. Johnson sided with the advertising theory.
My theory was that a regular warehouse wasn’t pimp enough for a hustler.