Ross E. Beard, Jr. became a historian because of guns. As a young boy, he did not consider the possibility of one day knowing the intimate details of notorious early 20th century criminals’ deaths, such as those of John Dillinger and Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd. However, when Melvin Purvis, Jr., famed Chicago FBI agent, USC graduate and, incidentally, Ross’s godfather, gave Ross the guns he had used to kill these men, a spark ignited that became a lifelong passion. When Melvin asked Ross, then 10 years old, to clean and categorize a shipment of 500 guns from Germany that Melvin had purchased, Ross stepped onto the road of becoming a renowned gun collector and historian. Ross’s father, a police officer in Florence, was a friend of Melvin’s, a Timmonsville native. While maintaining the guns in Melvin’s collection, Ross learned about the details of each one.
Melvin’s original guns and the more than 1,000 guns that Ross has collected during 75 of his 85 years are now on display in a permanent collection named for Ross at the Camden Archives and Museum. Instead of trying to sell the amassed collection, worth well more than $1 million if sold to individual collectors, Ross decided to offer it for a fraction of the price to the Camden Museum so that others could enjoy the rich history attached to each item.
“Camden has been so good to me. I wanted something to reflect well on Camden. So many community people have come out to help with this,” he says.
According to Rickie Good, the museum’s curator, about half of the firearms are currently on display, while many other historical items, including war uniforms and military emblems from all over the world, are cataloged in the building’s basement. The Camden Archives and Museum will have to expand the building in order to display the rest of Ross’s collection. A discussion about adding onto the museum is underway. “The collection has attracted visitors from as far away as Canada, Spain, France, Germany and all over the United States, while those traveling Interstate 95 see a billboard advertising it and decide to stop,” says Rickie. “Plus, military stationed at Fort Jackson or Fort Bragg have learned about the collection and many have added Camden as a weekend destination spot.”
In addition, Rickie added Beard guns to at least five historical presentations focusing on everything from 1481 to the current date. “The guns from the Beard collection have helped tell a more comprehensive story. The sheer amount he collected is amazing –– that one person could pull all of that together in a lifetime,” she says.
Prominent in the Beard collection is a tribute to his godfather. Besides a photograph of Melvin and some information about his life, there is Dillinger’s sawed-off shotgun and Tommy gun as well as a July 1934 edition of the Baltimore Post announcing Dillinger’s death. The leg irons and handcuffs Melvin used on captured criminals are on display, as are bullets and shells from the highly publicized Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929. In this case is also the Smith & Wesson revolver Melvin used in the shoot-out that killed Floyd. There is even a Parker Brothers board game called Melvin Purvis: G-Man and a book written by one of Melvin’s sons, Alston Purvis, entitled The Vendetta. The case also showcases the gun responsible for misfiring and accidentally killing Melvin. Despite popular belief, it was later determined that Melvin was simply trying to remove a tracer bullet that was stuck in the pistol with a full magazine of six other rounds still left in it. His gun acted incorrectly and did not lock, causing the gun to shoot forward killing Melvin with a gunshot wound to his neck.
“He was a wonderful man,” says Ross about Melvin, “the most incredible man I ever met — a polished gentleman.” When Melvin handed Ross a pistol for the first time, Ross immediately opened the chamber to check for a cartridge. One was there, so he took it out and closed the chamber. Melvin told him he had planted it there to test Ross’s responsibility and maturity with guns.
“He treated me like his fourth son, and his teaching and guidance have influenced my entire life. He made me a gun collector and gave me a wealth of knowledge and deep interest in history. He was like a second father to me, and today, Alston, his only living son, is like a brother to me.”
Ross ended up in Camden after a stint in the U.S. Army and was employed with E.I. Du Pont de Nemours in the Production Planning and Control Department. He worked there for 16 years before leaving for the Greater Kershaw County Chamber of Commerce, at the request of Senator John West. Through this experience, he says he began to realize the rich history of Camden and became close to the people of the community. He was named “Young Man of the Year,” served as director of Civil Defense for the county and was awarded the Order of the Palmetto for services to the state. For the rest of his career, he was director of management for a large company that constructed shopping malls and high rise offices throughout the United States and other countries.
Traveling presented him with the opportunity to purchase more guns — and to delve into the history of those guns. The current collection in Camden begins at, well, the beginning. Ross’s oldest gun is an Arab Camel Rifle from the 1400s. Alongside this gun is a German and Chinese Wheel-Lock dating to the 1540 and 1514 Turkish Blunderbuss. Case 1 and Case 2 begin to tell some of the history of America: an air rifle that needed no gunpowder, like the one used on the Lewis & Clark expedition; muskets and training rifles used in the Civil War; and a nine-shot revolver and shotgun used by Jeb Stuart, a Confederate colonel.
There are guns used by cowboys and Native Americans in the “Wild West,” such as a Smith & Wesson American M3 as well as a Remington Rolling Block Rifle which was confiscated by a warrior in battle –– the warrior then wrapped it in buffalo hide and decorated it with horse hair that has 29 scalp beads hanging from it. A tiny Derringer is also on display and is part of the myth of the Old West as the firearm of choice for gamblers and prostitutes. A Pony Express rifle features engravings of a horse and rider and the owner’s name. Guns used in World War I and World War II include an Artillery Luger and German Lugers.
A particularly ominous gun in the collection is a .44 Magnum Desert Eagle made by Israel Military Industries. It is considered to be one of the heaviest and most deadly semi-automatics ever made. It features a gold-plated trigger.
Some unique “guns” resemble items used in James Bond movies: actual Russian Spy Guns that look like a pen, mechanical pencil, or cigarette but are actually guns that fire a 4mm center-fire cartridge. The cartridges for these guns have not been manufactured since 1945. There are experimental guns, designs made specifically for the user, and even a custom-made gun for a one-armed man. Plus, the collection has a gorget: a metal throat guard for soldiers that became a symbol in the South Carolina seal. Gradually, that symbol was turned on its side and now looks like a half moon on the South Carolina state flag.
A few guns are prized for their looks. An 1861 Blunderbuss is hand inlaid with gold wire. A Turkish gun is adorned with turquoise and silver.
Additionally, the Beard collection pays tribute to David Marshall “Carbine” Williams, the principal designer for the M1 — a .30 caliber, lightweight, semi-automatic firearm that became the standard issue weapon for U.S. military soldiers from the 1940s through the Vietnam War. Ross was so fascinated with Carbine that he researched his life and learned that the North Carolina native had been convicted for moonshining. It was later publicized that he also killed a sheriff’s deputy who was part of the raid on his moonshine still. Carbine served many years in prison before becoming a recluse back at his North Carolina home. Ross managed to locate him and begged for a meeting. What resulted was a 15-year friendship and eventually a book that Ross authored entitled Carbine: The Story of David Marshall Williams.
Carbine –– who made a wooden pistol at 10 years old that fires using black powder, buckshot and tissue paper –– even continued inventing while in prison and had 61 patents registered before he died. Several variations of the M1 Carbine are exhibited, photos of Carbine along with guns he signed and a copy of Ross’s biography about his friend’s life. “He invented three different types of guns while in prison and revolutionized weaponry in America,” says Ross.
Ross says that Carbine was an interesting character. Visiting him one day, Ross asked about a particular gun. He told Ross to follow him “closely” through the snow-covered yard as he zig-zagged for many yards before coming to a shed where he uncovered some hidden gun parts. Before returning back across the yard, Ross asked him why he was walking in such a bizarre way. Carbine told him he did not want anyone getting his stuff and that they had just walked through a minefield. “You can bet I was stepping right in his steps on the way back!” exclaims Ross, chuckling.
But Ross has not just collected a myriad of guns to gather dust. During his lifetime, he has shot just about every one of them. Before handing most over to the museum, he would sometimes invite area law enforcement to nearby Hermitage Farms shooting range to enjoy the guns as well. Ross has even more guns, at least 130, as well as innumerable historical items, at his home in Camden that he plans to leave to the museum upon his death.
Gun collecting has been a passion and an education, but it has also been a way to meet intriguing people. Occasionally, Ross is asked to guide visitors through the museum’s collection. Sharing his vast knowledge with local and out-of-state visitors has given him an opportunity to meet even more fascinating people — many of whom share stories loaded with history about their own guns.