Born in Wildberg, Württemberg, Germany on March 6, 1837. He emigrated with his parents to Pennsylvania when five years old in 1842. They moved from Pennsylvania to Peru, Illinois in 1850.
At the age of 14, he was employed as a clerk in a country store and later went to work in a drug store “where he gained quite an insight into the art of pharmacy.” Gunther became a manager of the post office in Peru, Illinois. He spent five years employed by a banking house. Then moved to Memphis, Tennesee, and was employed by a local ice dealer in 1860.
Upon the outbreak of Civil War he was employed as purchasing agent and purser of the steamer “Rose Douglas” in Confederate Service, being captured when blockaded in the Arkansas River by Federal gunboats in Van Buren, Arkansas “he was released in a prisoner exchanged and made his way north until he finally reached Peru.”
“His life while acting in this capacity was anything but peaceful and his adventures were many.” Gunther returned to Peoria where he was employed by a banking house. Then Gunther joined C. W. Sanford, a Chicago confectioner, as traveling salesman visiting the principal cities of the South as well as those in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, and West Virginia.” In the Fall of 1863, he next entered the employ of a wholesale grocery house, but the line was not to his taste and he entered the employ of a New York confectionery house, which he represented in the New England, Middle, and Western states.
In the meantime, Gunther had traveled extensively in Europe and Asia and had a knowledge of how these people prepared confections and, combined with what he learned of the business while representing manufacturers of confectionery on the road, made him finally decide to enter business on his account.
Captain William Barker of Hook and Ladder Company № 9, Chicago Fire Department, was born in Chicago on October 13, 1863, and joined the Fire Department on April 14, 1887. Due to the "Saturday Night Fire" on October 7, 1871, there was an empty water reservoir. At the disastrous fire in the Gunther confectionery establishment on October 8th the building was razed by the Great Chicago Fire. Gunther did not have insurance on his inventory.
But great feats of heroism were performed during the fire. About 250 panic-stricken girls who were at work making bonbon's for the autumn festival, were rescued uninjured. Baker and his men were badly burned about the face and hands. They said that hey would never forget this experience because the spectators were yelling at the firefighters begging them; "for God's sake, come down the ladder!"
—Encyclopedia of Illinois, Cook County Edition, Vol.2, Published 1905.The factory and retail store at 125 South Clark Street was completely destroyed, leaving Gunther with almost no resources. Besides the building and inventory lost in the fire, his newly formed collection of rare artifacts that included a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation were also destroyed.
|Interior of Gunther’s Confectionery, 125 South Clark Street, Chicago, c. 1870.|
|The Exterior of Gunther’s Confectionery, 125 South Clark Street, Chicago, c. 1870.|
Excerpt from "Chicago by Day and Night. The Pleasure Seekers Guide" Published in 1892.
Coming to the consideration of candy, confectionery, and fine fruits, the name of Charles Gunther first challenges attention. The Gunther store, 212 State street, is without doubt one of the sights of the city, containing, as it does, in addition to the regular stock-in-trade, the Gunther museum, which the proprietor has spent the best years of his life in collecting. The museum embraces curios of all sorts and some of them are of great value. The entire collection is worth a fabulous amount and there is a well-defined impression abroad that the owner intends to give it to the city some day. The furnishings of the Gunther store are magnificent. Tall mirrors reflect the customer's shape at every step. The rear part of two floors is dotted with tables, at which iced drinks, ice cream, and light luncheons are served. Whether with a view of purchase or not, the store will well repay a visit. Gunther's candy is advertised the country over, and the concern enjoys an enormous out-of-town trade.
|Gunther's Candies Company on the northwest corner of|
South Wabash Avenue and Harmon Court, Chicago, Illinois.
|Gunther Confections Box Lid.|
At that time he began decorating his candy store with antiques and artifacts, coins, and curiosities. In 1877, he purchased the deathbed of Abraham Lincoln which he set up in his store.
|Gunther Confections Tin Box.|
Frederick "Fritz" William Rueckheim and his brother Louis claim to have sold Molasses and sugar-coated popcorn mixed with peanuts at 113 Fourth Avenue (today's Federal Street), in Chicago beginning in 1871. The issue is that type of product was already known by the 1860s.
|An original package for Cracker Jack.|
As a frequent business traveler, he used his trips to the East and South to scour for items to add to his collection. As his reputation grew, many people, including Civil War veterans, anxious to turn what they had in storage into cash, would contact him in Chicago. With wealthy customers like socialite Bertha Palmer, Gunther amassed a fortune and began purchasing historical artifacts to display in his factory. Many of the artifacts were from the Civil War, but there were also more unusual items in his collection, such as shrunken heads. Gunther was extremely naive and was easily bilked by flimflam artists who sold him fake relics and antiquities like the West Point Chain, the mummified remains of Moses' foster mother Bithiah, and the "Skin of the Serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden."
Garden of Eden Serpent Skin
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.
The Libby Prison War Museum was on Wabash Avenue between 14th and 16th Streets, opened to the public in 1889, and hosted thousands of visitors within its first few months of existence. 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. Although the Museum was in Chicago during the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, it had no connection with the World's Fair and was never considered as a Fair attraction. Gunther later tried to purchase an Egyptian pyramid 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 industry. When the original Chicago Coliseum burned down in 1897, Gunther decided to build a new Coliseum on the site of the Libby Prison War Museum, since attendance at the museum was beginning to wane. He was the organizer of the Coliseum Company and its first president. He gave many paintings to the Y.M.C.A. hotel, and some of his finest works adorned the walls of the South Shore Country club, to which they had been loaned.
The prison building was disassembled, and parts of it were donated to the Chicago Historical Society, of which he was a director for twenty years. Gunther offered the rest of his collection to the City of Chicago, 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 public parkland.
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.
He offered his entire art and historical collection to the city of Chicago, providing a fire-proof building was erected for it. The city made no appropriation and in his will, he left it to his widow and son. Gunther was a thirty-third degree Mason, a member of the Medinah Temple shrine. Other affiliations were the Academy of Sciences, of which he was a trustee; the Art Institute. Geographical association, Chicago Association of Commerce, and Illinois Manufacturers Association. His clubs were the Iroquois, Union League, Illinois Athletic, Aero, Germania, and Press Club. Mr. Gunther was also a member of the Illinois State Historical Society.
He died of pneumonia on February 10, 1920, at the age of 83, at his home 3601 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago.
|3601 SOUTH MICHIGAN AVENUE, CHICAGO|
2019 Estimated Market Value = $1,186,710
Three Story, Single Family, Masonry, 4 full bath
Full and Unfinished Basement and Attic - No Garage
Age 130 years - built 1889
Building Square Footage = 6,360
|The Gunther family mausoleum at Rose Hill Cemetery in Chicago.|
By that point, Gunther's collection included Lincoln's deathbed, Lincoln's piano, Lincoln's carriage, Lincoln's dispatch to Gen. U.S. Grant saying, "Let the thing be pressed," a towel used to soak up Lincoln's blood, a shoe from John Wilkes Booth's horse, and other Lincoln memorabilia. Also in his vast collection was the table on which Gen. Robert E. Lee accepted Civil War surrender terms at Appomattox Court House.
Shortly afterward, the Chicago Historical Society began building a $1 million museum to display its expanded collection. The building opened in 1932 at Clark Street and North Avenue and currently is known as the Chicago History Museum.
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.