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05 September 2016

Gullabi Gulbenkian: Dodged a Priest-Led Gangland Death Warrant But Still Died By a Bullet

*NOTE: The hyperlinks in square brackets [ ] do not work in this blog, please scroll to the bottom to read the links.

I don’t normally stray far from the stories of Armenians in India and SE Asia, but on this occasion I shall.

As I researched something completely unrelated I came across that well known name of Gulbenkian.  Armenians around the world know of the Gulbenkian Foundation and the important work they do in supporting many great projects and causes. The familiar name of Calouste Gulbenkian was not what caught my attention, but rather a cousin whose own legacy also went on to set up a foundation.

Gullabi Gullbenkian. Courtesy of AGBU Flickr.
Gullabi Gulbenkian, arrived in the USA around 1890[1] and very soon started Gullabi Gulbenkian & Co[2], a rug and carpet business in New York. A few years later he was joined in the family business by his brothers Badrig and Haroutiune Gulbenkian.
1897 Advert. As wholesalers
the Gulbenkians often held sales
through retailers

 1911 Advert

1920s Advert

All took naturalisation in the USA. Another brother, Garabed settled in England in 1903 with his family.  The three New York brothers made regular trips back to Constantinople to source rugs of every size, colour, design, and rarity at prices to fit all budgets.
26 July 1907
Stark County Democratic,
Canton, Ohio

Gullabi was the driving force of the business quickly gaining a reputation as a reliable supplier and with it, respect among fellow traders. In 1892 he traded from 119 E. 61st in New York, by 1903 the business had moved to Broadway and by 1910 it was on 5th Avenue where it remained for many years.

It was in 1907[3] that the brothers’ lives were put in serious jeopardy.  In New York, businesses were being targeted by blackmailers and the Gulbenkian brothers found themselves caught up in this gangland terror. They were threatened several times to comply or suffer the consequences. The gangs grew frustrated by the defiant stance the Gulbenkian brothers took, and the ultimate threat was made. A death warrant had been issued on all three Gulbenkian brothers. 

In a high profile case reported in several newspapers across the USA,  it was alleged that an Armenian priest, Father Levont Martoogessian of New York, was involved with extortion and blackmail of the Gulbenkian brothers, and other wealthy Armenian traders of New York. These threats came on the same day as the murder of another Armenian rug dealer Tavshanjian who had refused to give in to the extortion demands.

An extract from one of the newspapers:

“It is alleged that Father Levont Martoogessian, sometimes laid aside his priestly robes to practice extortion and blackmail.[4] The priest is now the central figure in the conspiracy which the district attorney seeks to prove had for its object the robbery of wealthy Armenians and led to the murder of the rug merchant Tavshanjian, in New York, and others who refused to be financially bled……one of the charges against him (Martoogessian) was that of a blackmail letter which the District Attorney states Father Martoogessian either sent the letter or caused it to be sent. The letter was mailed in New York on the afternoon of July 22, [1907] the day that Tavshanjian was shot. It was written in red ink in the Armenian language and was signed by the symbol of the terrorists, three hands with daggers uplifted, posed above a red heart. The letter was addressed to the Gulbenkian brothers:

Gulabi Gulbenkian & Co
Brunswick Building, New York.

Death Warrant:

The executives of the Constantinople Armenian Revolutionary Terrorists’ Organization condemn to death Haroutian Gulbenkian, Gulabi Gulbenkian and Patrick (sic) Gulbenkian, three brothers, who entirely have deaf ears to all appeals for national freedom.  Our executive board, having given its decision to Haroutian and Gulabi Gulbenkian, in Armerica, give theme 24 hours’ time to decide between their duty and death.


The letter is dated “Constantinople, June 27, 1907.” Following the letter is a postscript, also in red ink, which reads as follows:

“Although neither prison nor hanging can prevent us from fulfilling our duty to the end, it is necessary that you should know.  If you betray this letter or cause harm to one hair in the heads of one of us – against that consider your whole family wiped out.”

A witness stated that he had often attended meetings of the Hunchakist Society at which Martoogression presided.”[5]

2 August 1907
Norfolk Weekly Journal

This became a long and protracted case, covered extensively by the press.

The outcome found Fr. Levont guilty, he was unfrocked and sent to prison for 2.5 years.

Upon his release from jail Martoogessian rallied his supporters who, he claimed would not allow their children to be baptised by anyone else other than him. He declared he: “..was wrongfully expelled from his church, and that the charges brought against him were false.” He went on: “ that he had been out of the Hunchakist Society for a full year when he was condemned, and that the extortion indictments were absurd, as he was only collecting money to aid the Armenians….” [6]He and his followers denounced the Gulbenkians and other Armenians of New York, announcing a “strike against God” to try and force his position to be reversed. He declared that Armenians across the country would stop attending church until he was returned to the priesthood where he said was his rightful place. It never happened.

It is cruelly ironic that 11 years later after the ‘death warrant’ incident, and having survived  numerous  serious threats aimed at him, his family and other Armenian merchants,  Gullabi Gulbenkian was callously shot at point-blank range and murdered by a disgruntled employee of his carpet business on 5th Avenue, New York.

From The Evening World 24 July 1918

“Inspector Cray of the Homicide Bureau sent out scores of detectives today to search for Mugriditch Mihitarian, who killed his employer and benefactor, Gullabi Gulbenkian, and mortally shot Serope Gulbenkian, his nephew, in the Gulbenkian rug emporium at No. 225 Fifth Avenue. Serope died at 9pm in New York Hospital. Inspector Cray has taken personal direction of the case.

Gulbenkian, the murdered man, was one of the wealthiest Armenians in the world, and his friends today declared it was one of the freaks of fate that after he had refused for years to pay tribute to Armenian blackmailing organisations who repeatedly threatened him with death, he should have been slain by a man he had befriended and whom he wanted to pension for life at $25 a week.  The slayer lives with a wife, a daughter, fourteen, and a son, eleven, at No. 235 East 25th Street.

The killing took place late yesterday in the rug establishment, at the corner of 27th Street, over Brentano’s bookshop.  The slayer was employed as a porter in the store.

According to his friends and associates, Gullabi Gulbenkian, with his brothers Haroutiune and Badrig and his dead nephew, have given hospitals and relief stations, food and supplies to Armenia to the extent of $5,000,000 since the beginning of the war.  Their home is in Pelham.  The older victim was fifty four years old; his nephew, thirty one.  The slayer is forty seven.

The porter for years had taken advantage of the protectorate of the elderly merchant, fellow employees said, neglecting his work, flying into rages with every one and making himself a general nuisance about the shop.

The Gulbenkians as well as their assistants grew tired of the tantrums of Mihitarian, and recently it was decided to pension him off.  For eight or nine months he had shown up only for a couple of hours each day.

The subject of pension was broached to him Monday.  He assented seemingly. Yesterday afternoon just before 4 o’clock he appeared at the shop and said:

“If I am to work here no more I want a letter of reference.”

A letter was made out for him and he was given the money due him. He went about shaking hands with the other work people and saying goodbye. He reserved his last farewell for his employer.

As Gullabi Gulbenkian extended his hand the porter pulled a revolver from his pocket.

“Mugriditch! What do you mean?” exclaimed the merchant.

The porter fired, with the muzzle of his gun so close that it burned the clothing of his employer.  The bullet tore a huge hole through Gulbenkian’s side, coming close to the heart.

The nearest person was the nephew, Serope.  He saw the preliminaries and grappled with the porter just as he fired.  Mihitarian stepped back a pace and fired a shot into the nephew’s abdomen.  Serope fell too. Others overpowered the porter, who suddenly broke away and fled.”

Serope Gulbenkian was the son of Badrig, Gullabi’s brother. Serope had just completed three years with the Armenian military and had travelled to New York to help run the business. His life cut short trying to save his family. Badrig had previously suffered close family bereavements with the loss of his wife in Turkey in 1903, one cannot imagine how he must have felt to lose a son in such terrifying circumstances.

Extracted from The Monumental News, Vol. XXXIII, No.1, January 1921, P.21,
the Gulbenkian monument was erected following the death of Gullabi Gulbenkian

Via BillionGraves. Several members of the Gulbenkian family are buried close to this monument at Woodlawns Cemetery, including the murdered uncle and nephew Gulbenkians.

A year later in 1919 Gullabi’s Will was eventually filed for Probate[7] and it can be seen that his bequests towards Armenians were generous, leaving $300,000 for Armenian philanthropy, which at today’s purchasing power equals over $4.7 million.[8]

The Evening World, 3 April 1919

Via 'Hoosharar' Obituary June 1930
Following the death of Gullabi’s brother, Badrig in 1930, and out of such a tragic event of Gullabi’s murder, came some good. The Gullabi Gulbenkian Foundation, based in New York was formed and today helps a number of deserving causes, including much needed help for the Armenians in war-torn Syria. The foundation has made regular generous contributions to the Armenian Church in Damascus and Aleppo over the last few years, and in particular large contributions to the beleaguered Vergine Gulbenkian Maternity Hospital in Aleppo. 

Vergine Gulbenkian
via public tree on
The hospital was named after Badrig Gulbenkian’s late wife,Vergine, he was brother of Gullabi.  Vergine died in child-birth in Turkey in 1903, and according to Edward Gulbenkian Jnr “…..Badrig wanted to have this situation never happen again…..”

It was opened in 1935, five years after the death of Badrig, the mantle of philanthropy being taken up by his son Nerses who oversaw the hospital project. However, according to Edward Gulbenkian Jnr, President of the Gullabi Gulbenkian Foundation, as at June 2016 the hospital has illegally been taken over as an old peoples’ home and the Gullabi Gulbenkian Foundation who fund the hospital, have been unable to get any maternity service up and running.  A short video has been made by Edward Gulbenkian on the situation with the hospital and you can watch that here.

Badrig and his surviving brother Haroutiune continued importing and trading in rugs and carpets in New York with continued success. Haroutiune passed away in 1947[9] in New York, Badrig’s son Nerses passed away in 1957 in Wales.[10]

A further blog is required to discuss the lives of Badrig and Haroutiune, something I may write in due course. Both men continued to be hard-working and successful, generously giving back to the community, although further tragedy dogged the family later in years.

Gullabi was incredibly generous towards Armenians when he was alive and it continues long after his murderous death.


Gullabi, Badrig and Haroutiune’s brother who settled in England was called Garabed he and his wife Marie had a son Krikor Serovpe Gulbenkian. He was born in 1891, in Kensington.  Both Garabed and Marie were from Talas and Constantinople, respectively.

Krikor  received his education at St Paul's School before entering his father's business. At the time of the 1911 census, Krikor Gulbenkian was working as a clerk to his father while living with his family at 2 Holland Park, Notting Hill. A number of other Armenian families with connections to India lived in Holland Park, such as the Apcar’s, Bagram’s and Gregory’s.

Krikor enlisted on the outbreak of war in 1914, joining the Middlesex Regiment as a 1st class signaller. After being recommended for a commission in February 1917, Krikor trained as an officer in Britain before returning to the Western Front as a second lieutenant on 1 September. His death came just nineteen days later, on the 20th, in the Third Battle of Ypres, while serving with the 23rd (Service) Battalion (2nd Football), as a 2nd Lieutenant of the Duke of Cambridge's Own (Middlesex Regiment). [11]


He has no known grave but is commemorated at TYNE COT MEMORIAL, West-Vlaanderen Belgium.

Middlesex Regiment Medal Role, Krikor Gulbenkian WW1

War Register entry for Krikor Gulbenkian WW1

I have contributed this small biography entry on Krikor Gulbenkian to the “UK Armenians & WW1” project being undertaking by the Centre for Armenian Information and Advice in London.

UK Armenians & WW1 project is being funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and delivered by the Centre for Armenian Information and Advice from April 2016 to December 2017. The project will undertake archival research; record and preserve personal memories, photographs and other media relating to this period for future generations.

It will cover a wide range of multimedia activities, including talks, research, workshops, interviews, photographic exhibition and film production, and will create a comprehensive resource for the UK Armenian experiences in the WW1.”

Sources used for this blog entry:

AGBU on Flickr
British Library
California Digital Newspaper Collection
Digital Library of India
Families in British India Society
Find A Will, Government Website
Forces War Records
Gullabi Gulbenkian Foundation
Hathi Trust Digital Library
Hong Kong newspapers online
Liz Chater’s Private Archive
London Gazette
National Archives Kew
Papers Past. New Zealand newspapers online
Singapore newspapers online
Trove. Australian Newspapers online

[1] United States Federal Census, 1910
[2] US City Directory, 1892
[3] New York Times 4 August 1907
[4] The Norfolk Weekly News 2 August 1907
[5] Alexandria Gazette 1 August 1907
[6] New York Daily Tribune 19 September 1910
[7] The Evening World, 3 April 1919.
[8] Calculated using
[9] Court Case: In the Matter of the Construction of the Will of Gullabi Gulbenkian, Surrogate’s Court, Westchester County, 16 Misc.2d 1054 (N.Y. Misc. 1959). States dates of death of Badrig and Haroutiune Gulbenkian respectively.
[10] England and Wales National Probate Calendar
[11] The National Archives of the UK; Kew, Surrey, England; WWI Service Medal and Award Rolls; Class: WO 329; Piece Number: 2240