Charles F. Gunther

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.[1]

Charles F. Gunther[2]

Early yearsEdit

Gunther and his family moved from Württemberg to Pennsylvania in 1842, then resettled in Peru, Illinois. In 1860, Gunther traveled south and landed a job with Bohlen, Wilson & Company, an ice distributor based in Memphis, Tennessee. When the American Civil War broke out, Gunther pledged to "stick by Memphis", and helped transport Confederate soldiers along the tributaries of the Mississippi River. 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 candy manufacturer, mainly selling goods throughout the southern states.[3]

Candy and collectionsEdit

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, which he is sometimes credited with introducing to the United States.[3] Gunther's business was destroyed in the 1871 Great Chicago Fire, but he quickly recovered and built a new factory on State Street. With wealthy customers like socialite Bertha Palmer, 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 heads. Gunther even claimed to own the skin of the serpent from the Garden of Eden and the mummy of Moses' foster mother, Bithiah (both assumed to be fakes).[3][4] One of Gunther's most important authentic items was Abraham Lincoln's deathbed, which he purchased in 1877.[5]

Gunther's collection continued to grow, and he eventually turned his sights to the Libby Prison, a former Confederate prison in Richmond, Virginia. Gunther purchased the structure and had it dismantled and shipped to Chicago, where it was reassembled 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.[3] The infirmary of the prison was converted into the Lincoln Room, in which Gunther displayed Lincoln's deathbed, along with other artifacts associated with Lincoln's assassination.[6] Gunther later tried to purchase an Egyptian pyramid and Philadelphia's Independence Hall so he could bring them to Chicago, but he was unsuccessful.[4]

During the 1890s, Gunther became involved with Chicago's growing convention industry. When the original Chicago Coliseum 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.[3]

Political careerEdit

Gunther served two terms (1896–1900) as a Chicago alderman and one term (1901–1903) as city treasurer. He was briefly a Gold Democrat and supported John McAuley Palmer for president in 1896. In 1908, Gunther sought the (regular) Democratic Party's nomination as an Illinois gubernatorial candidate, but lost to Adlai E. Stevenson I.[3]

Collection todayEdit

After Gunther's death in 1920, the Chicago Historical Society paid $150,000 for the bulk of Gunther's collection,[5] which by that point also included the table on which Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House.[6] Shortly afterwards, the society began building a $1 million museum to display its expanded collection. The building opened in 1932 at Clark Street and North Avenue, and is currently known as the Chicago History Museum.[1]

One of the objects purchased by (and still owned by) the Chicago Historical Society was Gunther's alleged "skin of the serpent" from the Garden of Eden. Though the skin may be that of a real 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.[7]


  1. ^ a b "About the Building Archived 2008-05-09 at the Wayback Machine". Chicago History Museum. 2008. Retrieved on July 17, 2008.
  2. ^ Donovan, Henry. "Chicago Eagle". Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections. Retrieved 29 June 2015.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Nancy Buenger. "Gunther, Charles Frederick". American National Biography Online. April 2003. Retrieved July 17, 2008.
  4. ^ a b "The Bloody Evidence Archived 2010-10-28 at the Wayback Machine". Retrieved on July 17, 2008.
  5. ^ a b Ted Knutson. "Believe it or not, museum collections tell a story". Chicago Tribune. July 27, 1984. LF16.
  6. ^ a b Andrew Ferguson. Land of Lincoln. New York: Grove Press, 79.
  7. ^ William Mullen. "Finding true history amid the false". Chicago Tribune. July 5, 2007. 4.

Further readingEdit

Silvestro, Clement N. "The Candy Man's Mixed Bag." Chicago History 2, no. 2 (1972): 86-99.

"Two years before the paddlewheel : Charles F. Gunther, Mississippi River Confederate," Bruce S. Allardice and Wayne L. Wolf, eds. College Station, Texas, State House Press, 2012.