The Devil made me do it
by Terry Wieland
Obsession is one of that sad list of words, along with paranoid and amazing, which have lost all genuine meaning. Originally, according to the Compact Oxford, it denoted an act “inspired by an evil spirit,” an “unhealthy or malign” preoccupation, which may well have been the origin of the other somewhat devalued defence, “the Devil made me do it.”
Regardless, there are authentic historical obsessions, and it’s fair to say Charles Gordon had one. Or several. Or, perhaps, one all-encompassing obsession to acquire and possess. Gordon was the noted Victorian Scottish eccentric who spent himself into bankruptcy buying, among other things, custom-built guns from John Dickson (primarily), Joseph Harkom, James Purdey, and Alexander Henry, to name just the main ones.
By the time he was declared incompetent and his estate placed in the hands of a Curator Bonis (trusteee) in 1908, Gordon had acquired more than 300 rifles, shotguns, and pistols, almost all of which had never been fired. Eventually, they were sold at auction, most bringing mere pennies on the pound, and many then disappeared. Others, however, were purchased more as curiosities, and appear periodically on the collector market. Today, an auction item billed as a “Charles Gordon gun” commands attention—they were all ‘best’ quality by big-name makers—and usually bring a premium price.
Quality, condition, and provenance are critical factors with auction items, and the Gordon guns have all three.
Pedro Arrizabalaga, ordered in 1998, delivered in 2000, in the style of a Boss game gun, with Boss-style engraving by José Alberto Garate Ormaechea. In the early stages, the ordering of a custom gun is an intoxicating experience. In the later stages? Sometimes, not so much. But this gun was no disappointment.
In 2010, historian Donald Dallas published, privately, a biography of Gordon which, if you’re interested, is the bible on the subject although, as biographies go, it’s pretty dull because, essentially, Charles Gordon’s life was dull: He had a disjointed childhood, inherited a modest fortune, and when he took control of his money in 1878, at the age of 25, then proceeded to buy guns, wine, books, fishing tackle, and anything to do with Scottish history. And he did, essentially, little else.
By 1908, his property vastly diminished and heavily in debt, his three spinster half-sisters had him declared incompetent, the estate was liquidated to pay his debts, and he died, alone and in vastly reduced circumstances, in 1918.
For some reason, Gordon’s gun collection gets the most attention and the lion’s share of the blame for his fate but, as Dallas points out, his 2,400-bottle wine cellar and his vast book collection also went to separate auctions. The books alone took three days to sell off. Obsession-wise, he was not a gun-loving one-trick pony.
Here I would like to point out that, in sheer numbers, I have personal acquaintance with four men who own many, many more guns than Gordon did. One has, last I heard, around 1,250; another is north of 600, and a third around 450. The late Robert M. Lee had God knows how many—he was pretty secretive, and not only about that—and, like Gordon, a huge number were custom made. In any given year, in terms of custom guns underway, he could have given Gordon a run for his money. Bob Lee was considered somewhat off-beat—not unusual for a multi-gazillionaire—but no one ever called him obsessed or unbalanced.
So are these obsessions? I don’t think so. The operative word in defining an obsession is “unhealthy.” Ah, you say, but what is unhealthy? I think we can agree that, if it leads to bankruptcy, it’s probably unhealthy. Therefore, by that measure, we would have to include as an obsession Lord Walsingham’s continual hosting of massive driven-game shoots, which eventually led to his bankruptcy and exile in France, living on a pittance.
Charles Gordon lost his relatively modest Scottish estate while Walsingham lost—among other things—the land on which the Ritz Hotel now stands in London. A slight difference of scale, yet Walsingham is never written about in the same pitying but superior tone as Gordon. Shooting aside—and he was superb—Walsingham was a man of considerable accomplishments, being a noted entomologist and writing significant portions of the Badminton Library on various subjects. His fate is generally regarded as unfortunate, not tragic.
Charles Gordon never married, had no close relatives and, so far as we can tell, no close friends. He lived alone on a rather remote Scottish estate with nothing to do but sip his wine, read his books, admire his guns, and ruminate on his ancestry.
Some writers have concluded that, because his collection consisted largely of guns that were obsolete when he had them made (muzzleloading flintlocks and percussion guns) and were never fired, that he didn’t shoot. This is not the case. Large parts of his estate were acquired for their grouse moors, and he even built a shooting lodge in one corner of it—a lodge that would be considered a mansion today.
My suspicion is that one reason he continually ordered new guns was the warm welcome one enjoys from a gunmaker when you walk into his shop and declare your intention of spending serious money. Having done this once or twice, I can attest to the intoxicating feeling. It’s much the same when you order a tailor-made suit or, presumably, a new fly rod.
Amid all the speculation as to why Charles Gordon did what he did, I believe at least part of the answer is fairly simple: He was a lonely man, leading a life without purpose, and he craved some attention.
Who can blame him? And, it must be said, he hurt no one but himself.
Gray’s shooting editor Terry Wieland has never faced bankruptcy from tailor-made suits or new shotguns. But give him time.