Charles F. Gunther

Charles F. Gunther

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Charles Frederick Gunther (March 6, 1837–February 10, 1920) was a German-American confectioner and collector. He purchased many of the items now owned by the Chicago History Museum.

Early years

Gunther and his family moved from Württemberg
Württemberg , formerly known as Wirtemberg or Wurtemberg, is an area and a former state in southwestern Germany, including parts of the regions Swabia and Franconia....

 to Pennsylvania
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is a U.S. state that is located in the Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic regions of the United States. The state borders Delaware and Maryland to the south, West Virginia to the southwest, Ohio to the west, New York and Ontario, Canada, to the north, and New Jersey to...

 in 1842, then resettled in Peru, Illinois
Peru, Illinois
Peru is a city in LaSalle County, Illinois, United States. The population was 10,295 at the 2010 census. It is part of the Ottawa–Streator Micropolitan Statistical Area...

. In 1860, Gunther traveled south and landed a job with Bohlen, Wilson & Company, an ice distributor based in Memphis, Tennessee
Memphis, Tennessee
Memphis is a city in the southwestern corner of the U.S. state of Tennessee, and the county seat of Shelby County. The city is located on the 4th Chickasaw Bluff, south of the confluence of the Wolf and Mississippi rivers....

. When the American Civil War
American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...

 broke out, Gunther pledged to "stick by Memphis", and helped transport Confederate
Confederate States of America
The Confederate States of America was a government set up from 1861 to 1865 by 11 Southern slave states of the United States of America that had declared their secession from the U.S...

 soldiers along the tributaries of the Mississippi River
Mississippi River
The Mississippi River is the largest river system in North America. Flowing entirely in the United States, this river rises in western Minnesota and meanders slowly southwards for to the Mississippi River Delta at the Gulf of Mexico. With its many tributaries, the Mississippi's watershed drains...

. He was captured by Union troops in 1862, but was released and traveled back to Illinois. During the later years of the war, he worked as a traveling salesman for a Chicago
Chicago is the largest city in the US state of Illinois. With nearly 2.7 million residents, it is the most populous city in the Midwestern United States and the third most populous in the US, after New York City and Los Angeles...

 candy manufacturer, mainly selling goods throughout the southern states.

Candy and collections

After the Civil War, Gunther traveled to Europe to learn from the candymakers there. He started his own candy company in Chicago in 1868, specializing in caramel
Caramel is a beige to dark-brown confection made by heating any of a variety of sugars. It is used as a flavoring in puddings and desserts, as a filling in bonbons, and as a topping for ice cream, custard and coffee....

, which he is sometimes credited with introducing to the United States. Gunther's business was destroyed in the 1871 Great Chicago Fire, but he quickly recovered and built a new factory on State Street
State Street (Chicago)
State Street is a large south-north street in Chicago, Illinois, USA and its south suburbs. It begins on the Near North Side at North Avenue. For much of its course, it lies between Wabash Avenue on the east and Dearborn Street/Lafayette Avenue on the west...

. With wealthy customers like socialite Bertha Palmer
Bertha Palmer
Bertha Palmer was an American businesswoman, socialite, and philanthropist.- Biography :Born Bertha Matilde Honoré in Louisville, Kentucky, her father was businessman Henry Hamilton Honoré...

, Gunther amassed a fortune, and began purchasing historical artifacts to display in his factory. Many of these were artifacts from the Civil War, but there were also more unusual items in his collection, such as shrunken head
Shrunken head
A shrunken head is a severed and specially prepared human head that is used for trophy, ritual, or trade purposes.Headhunting occurred in many regions of the world. But the practice of headshrinking has only ever been recorded in the northwestern region of the Amazon rain forest...

s. Gunther even claimed to own the skin of the serpent
Serpent (Bible)
Serpent is the term used to translate a variety of words in the Hebrew bible, the most common being , , the generic word for "snake"....

 from the Garden of Eden
Garden of Eden
The Garden of Eden is in the Bible's Book of Genesis as being the place where the first man, Adam, and his wife, Eve, lived after they were created by God. Literally, the Bible speaks about a garden in Eden...

 and the mummy
A mummy is a body, human or animal, whose skin and organs have been preserved by either intentional or incidental exposure to chemicals, extreme coldness , very low humidity, or lack of air when bodies are submerged in bogs, so that the recovered body will not decay further if kept in cool and dry...

 of Moses
Moses was, according to the Hebrew Bible and Qur'an, a religious leader, lawgiver and prophet, to whom the authorship of the Torah is traditionally attributed...

' foster mother, Bithiah
According to Hebrew beliefs; Bithiah or in Modern Hebrew Bityah was an Egyptian princess, and a daughter of Pharaoh. The name of her father is not in the Bible, but Rabbinic Midrash makes her the daughter of one of the Pharaohs of the Exodus,...

 (both assumed to be fakes). One of Gunther's most important authentic items was Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States, serving from March 1861 until his assassination in April 1865. He successfully led his country through a great constitutional, military and moral crisis – the American Civil War – preserving the Union, while ending slavery, and...

's deathbed, which he purchased in 1877.

Gunther's collection continued to grow, and he eventually turned his sights to the Libby Prison
Libby Prison
Libby Prison was a Confederate Prison at Richmond, Virginia, during the American Civil War. It gained an infamous reputation for the harsh conditions under which prisoners from the Union Army were kept.- Overview :...

, a former Confederate prison in Richmond, Virginia
Richmond, Virginia
Richmond is the capital of the Commonwealth of Virginia, in the United States. It is an independent city and not part of any county. Richmond is the center of the Richmond Metropolitan Statistical Area and the Greater Richmond area...

. Gunther purchased the structure and had it dismantled and shipped to Chicago, where it was reassambled and converted into a museum to house Gunther's artifacts. It opened to the public in 1889 and hosted thousands of visitors within its first few months of existence. The infirmary of the prison was coverted into the Lincoln Room, in which Gunther displayed Lincoln's deathbed, along with other artifacts associated with Lincoln's assassination. Gunther later tried to purchase an Egyptian pyramid
A pyramid is a structure whose outer surfaces are triangular and converge at a single point. The base of a pyramid can be trilateral, quadrilateral, or any polygon shape, meaning that a pyramid has at least three triangular surfaces...

 and Philadelphia's Independence Hall so he could bring them to Chicago, but he was unsuccessful.

During the 1890s, Gunther became involved with Chicago's growing convention
Convention (meeting)
A convention, in the sense of a meeting, is a gathering of individuals who meet at an arranged place and time in order to discuss or engage in some common interest. The most common conventions are based upon industry, profession, and fandom...

 industry. When the original Chicago Coliseum
Chicago Coliseum
The Chicago Coliseum was the name of a succession of three large indoor arenas in Chicago, Illinois from the 1860s to 1982 that each served as a sports venue, convention center, and exhibition hall over the course of their respective histories. The first Coliseum briefly made an appearance in the...

 burned down in 1897, Gunther decided to build a new Coliseum on the site of the Libby Prison, since attendance at the museum was beginning to wane. The prison building was disassembled, and parts of it were donated to the Chicago Historical Society. Gunther offered the rest of his collection to the city, with the hope that the city would build a museum for it in Garfield Park, but Illinois law prevented such a building from being constructed on parkland.

Political career

Gunther served two terms (1896–1900) as a Chicago alderman
An alderman is a member of a municipal assembly or council in many jurisdictions founded upon English law. The term may be titular, denoting a high-ranking member of a borough or county council, a council member chosen by the elected members themselves rather than by popular vote, or a council...

 and one term (1901–1903) as city treasurer. He was briefly a Gold Democrat and supported John McAuley Palmer
John M. Palmer (politician)
John McAuley Palmer , was an Illinois resident, an American Civil War General who fought for the Union, the 15th Governor of Illinois, and presidential candidate of the National Democratic Party in the 1896 election on a platform to defend the gold standard, free trade, and limited...

 for president in 1896. In 1908, Gunther sought the (regular) Democratic Party
Democratic Party (United States)
The Democratic Party is one of two major contemporary political parties in the United States, along with the Republican Party. The party's socially liberal and progressive platform is largely considered center-left in the U.S. political spectrum. The party has the lengthiest record of continuous...

's nomination as an Illinois gubernatorial
Governor of Illinois
The Governor of Illinois is the chief executive of the State of Illinois and the various agencies and departments over which the officer has jurisdiction, as prescribed in the state constitution. It is a directly elected position, votes being cast by popular suffrage of residents of the state....

 candidate, but lost to Adlai E. Stevenson I.

Collection today

After Gunther's death in 1920, the Chicago Historical Society paid $150,000 for the bulk of Gunther's collection, which by that point also included the table on which Robert E. Lee
Robert E. Lee
Robert Edward Lee was a career military officer who is best known for having commanded the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in the American Civil War....

 surrendered at Appomattox Court House
Appomattox Court House
The Appomattox Courthouse is the current courthouse in Appomattox, Virginia built in 1892. It is located in the middle of the state about three miles northwest of the Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, once known as Clover Hill - home of the original Old Appomattox Court House...

. Shortly afterwards, the society began building a $1 million museum to display its expanded collection. The building opened in 1932 at Clark Street
Clark Street (Chicago)
Clark Street is a north-south street in Chicago, Illinois that runs close to the shore of Lake Michigan from the northern city boundary with Evanston, to 2200 South in the city street numbering system...

 and North Avenue, and is currently known as the Chicago History Museum.

Perhaps surprisingly, one of the objects purchased by (and still owned by) the Chicago Historical Society was Gunther's alleged "skin of the serpent". Though the skin may be that of a real anaconda
An anaconda is a large, non-venomous snake found in tropical South America. Although the name actually applies to a group of snakes, it is often used to refer only to one species in particular, the common or green anaconda, Eunectes murinus, which is one of the largest snakes in the world.Anaconda...

 or python, the museum staff assumes it did not come from the Garden of Eden, since the hieroglyphic markings in its frame are merely gibberish
Gibberish is a generic term in English for talking that sounds like speech, but carries no actual meaning. This meaning has also been extended to meaningless text or gobbledygook. The common theme in gibberish statements is a lack of literal sense, which can be described as a presence of nonsense...