By David Albert
The 137th National Rifle Association Annual Meetings & Exhibits were held in Louisville, Kentucky on May 16-18, 2008. Louisville provided a wonderful venue for the largest convention ever hosted by the city. Firearm and accessory vendors assembled for the weekend exhibits at the Louisville Expo Center to display their wares in a setting similar to the S.H.O.T. Show. Since 1960, the NRA has provided space at the exhibits for collector displays, where affiliated clubs may apply to feature their firearms and related material for public viewing.
Members of The American Thompson Association (TATA) participated in the event, and assembled a historic display that will surely be remembered for many years to come. With the support of the Berrien County, Michigan Sheriff’s Department, TATA displayed the two notorious Colt Thompsons used in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre on February 14, 1929.
The effort focused upon Dr. Calvin Goddard’s crime scene investigative techniques, and respectfully presented the two Thompsons. Dr. Goddard had previously worked on the Sacco & Vanzetti case of the late 1920s, where he established some of his forensic principles. Immediately following the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, Dr. Goddard’s expertise was sought to assemble a crime lab at Northwestern University in Chicago to enable investigation of the case. It was the massacre of the century, purported to have been initiated by gangster heavyweight Al Capone, and law enforcement wanted to solve it quickly. As a result of the murders, and the subsequent investigation, Dr. Goddard pioneered many standard forensic methods used by law enforcement, including acid etching to reveal a ground off serial number on Thompson #7580, as well as rifling, cartridge case, and primer marking forensics.
Colt Thompsons serial number 2347 (Model of 1921A), and serial number 7580 (Model of 1921AC), which were recovered from a Berrien County hideout of “Killer” Fred Burke in December 1929 were featured on display. Also included on display were many artifacts, including one of three bullet proof vests recovered from Burke’s weapons cache, two bricks from the wall of the building where the murders occurred, an original full box of ammo from the same lot as used in the killings, various drums and magazines from the hideout, as well as several Goddard ballistic test artifacts.
The American Thompson Association was also fortunate to obtain the support of the Newark, Ohio Police Department, who lent their ballistic comparison microscope, which appeared on interactive display to the public. The microscope demonstrated some freshly spent cartridge casings from Colt Thompson #7580, and attendees could examine the markings left by the weapon on the casings as its own, distinctive fingerprint. The casings could also be compared to sample photos from the report produced by Goddard, showing the same markings.
The two Thompsons on display were undoubtedly the best documented firearms in the entire exhibit hall. Their provenance was apparent, as they could be spotted in several period photographs on display, and their descriptions and involvement in the murders were forensically proven in Goddard’s investigative report. It should also be noted that the deeds performed by gangsters with the two Thompsons drove much of the anti-machine gun sentiment of the time, and more than likely inspired passing of the National Firearms Act of 1934, therefore affecting many of our actions today. The Thompsons are truly historic artifacts for many reasons, and this was the first time they appeared to such a large audience, with over 71,000 attendees. Some fortunate audience members received unique souvenirs from the display; actual bullets and shell casings with documentation indicating they were fired through one of the SVDM Thompsons. These were highly sought mementos, and did not last long.
Goddard’s work was presented to a Coroner’s Jury to account for the seventy .45 ACP shell casings, and two “Climax” Brand 12-gauge shotgun shells found at the scene. All ammunition used was manufactured by the U.S. Cartridge Company. At the time he presented the evidence, the weapons had not been recovered. Goddard was able to determine the killings were performed by two different Thompson Model of 1921 submachine guns; one emptying an “L” drum of 50 rounds (later determined to be #2347), and one presumably emptying 20 rounds out of an “XX” magazine (later determined to be #7580). There were also two shotgun rounds fired from the same pump or automatic shotgun, probably as a “coup de grace” to Reinhardt Schwimmer, an optician by profession, and a gangster “groupie” who found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time on that fateful day.
It is important to note that no one was ever prosecuted for involvement in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Captured in 1931, Fred Burke was jailed for life for the murder of police officer Charles Skelly of the St. Joseph, Michigan Police Department. Burke died in prison of a heart attack in 1940.
As a result of the amazing display, and the provenance of the Colt Thompsons, each Thompson was awarded a silver “Best Arms” medal by the NRA. To top it off, the overall effort won the 2008 “Best Display” award, which is a perpetual silver cup that is engraved with the winner each year. Very significantly, this was the first time that all 11 NRA judges unanimously chose one display to receive the top honor. Also awarded was a certificate of recognition for the accoutrements on display from Dr. Goddard, including pictures from his report, and boxes of labeled test bullets from his laboratory.
The display was produced through the efforts of several individuals. First of all, Lt. Mike Kline, who is the caretaker of the SVDM Thompsons in Berrien County, Michigan, and also Sheriff L. Paul Bailey supported the project. Tracie Hill, President of TATA, put together the incredible display, and coordinated the club’s involvement. Many tireless hours were spent by Tracie to make it possible, and his experience with previously designed firearms displays proved invaluable. Also critical was Chuck Schauer, whose display at the 2006 TATA Show & Shoot inspired this one. Mr. Schauer initiated the involvement of Berrien County, without whom the SVDM Thompsons would never have been possible to display. Also, Bill Helmer, author of the 1969 classic Thompson narrative, The Gun That Made The Twenties Roar, contributed artifacts and much of the historical account that was featured in the program handout that accompanied the display. Many other TATA members helped with construction, and staffed the display while providing historical tutelage to those who viewed it on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
Much fun was had by all who participated from the club, and countless people were amazed and grateful for the opportunity to view such historic firearms presented in an interactive manner. The NRA provides an unbeatable collector display forum, and attending their annual events held in cities around the country is highly recommended. Nowhere else can one see so many firearm displays, vendor exhibits, along with Ted Nugent’s enthusiastic support of the second amendment, followed by his amazing guitar rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner,” all in the same day. The next NRA Annual Meetings & Exhibits will be held in Phoenix, AZ, May 15-19, 2009.
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