Century-old mystery of Philly-Russia connection

With the resignation of Michael Flynn and recent uptick in Ukrainian unrest, Russia has infiltrated news feeds across the United States. A hundred years ago, the Eurasian country garnered perhaps as many American headlines. As we approach the centennial of the Russian Revolution’s outbreak, consider a mysterious local connection to the upheaval’s royal victims, the Romanovs.

First some background. Ravaged by 21/2 years of fighting in the First World War, Tsar Nicholas II’s Russia was in a bad way by February 1917. Battlefield disasters mounted as bread queues grew.

According to the Julian calendar that Russians still followed, events came to a head on Feb. 24 (March 8 for Americans) in Petrograd (today’s St. Petersburg).

Hungry protesters and striking workers took to the streets in the tens of thousands. Dispirited soldiers garrisoned in the city swelled the demonstrators’ ranks. Calls for the Tsar’s crown soon followed.

“The slogan ‘Bread!’ is crowded out or obscured by louder slogans: ‘Down with autocracy!’ ‘Down with the war!'” revolutionist Leon Trotsky declared.

Marches and intermittent street fighting led to the Tsar’s abdication, bringing to an end three centuries of Romanov rule. Little more than a year later, in a basement, Bolsheviks butchered the Tsar, his wife, and their five children.

Philadelphia connections to the Russian monarch and his family would seem to be rare. Archivist Megan Sheffer Evans, however, discovered such a link through the unlikeliest of sources: department store magnate John Wanamaker.

w-41911 photograph of Tsarevich Alexei Nikolaevich and Tsar Nicholas II. From the Mary Brown Wanamaker photo album, 1909-1910, John Wanamaker collection (Collection 2188)

While organizing the 438-box Wanamaker collection owned by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Evans came across an innocuously titled photograph album.

“Mary Brown Wanamaker Europe trip, 1909,” was all that the spine revealed.

It belonged to Wanamaker’s daughter, Mary “Minnie” Brown, and the first half of the album contains what the title suggests. Filling the pages are images of her and her husband, Maj. Barclay Warburton, gallivanting across the Old World with their family.

“As I reached the end of the album,” Evans said, “I began to see some very familiar faces.”

No, not more Wanamakers or Warburtons but rather the doomed Romanovs, albeit in earlier, happier years.

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Undated photograph of Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, Tsar Nicholas II, Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, and Grand Duchesses Xenia Alexandrovna, Tatiana Nikolaevna, and Olga Nikolaevna. From the Mary Brown Wanamaker photo album, 1909-1910, John Wanamaker collection (Collection 2188)

Caught on camera are the mustachioed Tsar and white-suited royals casually smoking cigarettes on the Crimean coast. Other snapshots feature the Tsarina Alexandra and Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna lounging topside on the Russian monarch’s yacht.

In one photograph, the Tsar stands next to his cousin, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II. It’s difficult to tell the two apart.

For Evans – now an archivist at the State Archives in Harrisburg – the album begged an obvious question.

w-1Undated photograph of unknown Russian officer, Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and unknown Russian cavalryman. The two monarchies would be at war with each other beginning in the summer of 1914. From the Mary Brown Wanamaker photo album, 1909-1910, John Wanamaker collection (Collection 2188)

“Why in the world would Mary Wanamaker have such photographs in her possession?” she wondered. “My initial reaction was to assume that these images were clipped from newspapers or magazines.”

The mystery grew murkier upon closer inspection. These weren’t clippings but original photographs. Several bore the signatures of their subjects.

Evans dived deeper. She discovered that both the Wanamakers and members of the Romanov family owned property in the south of France at Biarritz, where European royalty and other one-percenters had vacationed since the 19th century.

Unconvinced that the Romanovs were simply sociable neighbors, she persisted.

The archivist caught a break with a 1914 New York Times article. The connection looked to be through Warburton, Wanamaker’s husband, and Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, the Tsar’s brother-in-law.

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Undated photograph of Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich at Biarritz. European royalty began visiting Biarritz, a seaside town in southwestern France, in the 19th century. From the Mary Brown Wanamaker photo album, 1909-1910, John Wanamaker collection (Collection 2188)

“Of late years Mr. Warburton has interested himself in the sale of the Lewis automatic gun . . . this gun and other war material he has sold to the Russian government,” the article recounted. “He is well known in Russia, and is the personal friend of Grand Duke Alexander, who, on his visit to America last summer, was Mr. Warburton’s guest.”

Serving as an admiral in the Imperial Navy, the grand duke seems to have met Warburton sometime before 1910. Owing to their cozy relationship, it is perhaps no coincidence that he appears in more photos than any other member of the royal family.

The final photographs are ominously dated 1914, the last vacation the Philadelphians would spend with the Russian court.

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Undated photograph of Grand Duchess Xenia, Tsar Nicholas II, and Grand Duke Alexander posing for the camera with friends in better times. From the Mary Brown Wanamaker photo album, 1909-1910, John Wanamaker collection (Collection 2188)

The extent of the families’ relationship remains unknown, but they were certainly comfortable around each other. In one photograph the grand duke is either pinching snuff or picking his nose.

What became of him? Unlike the Tsar and his immediate family, the grand duke managed to escape the Bolshevik executioners with his wife and seven children.

“I was unable to find any evidence that he maintained his relationship with the Warburtons after the end of the war, although it is certainly possible that they stayed in touch,” Evans said.

“Additional processing of the collection . . . may very well one day uncover more information.”

Want to help solve this history mystery and others like it? Visit hsp.org/AAC to learn more about the Adopt-a-Collection program.

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Undated photograph of Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich. From the Mary Brown Wanamaker photo album, 1909-1910, John Wanamaker collection (Collection 2188)

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