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Monday, 5 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

Monday, 18 July 2016

Lost In The Passage Of Time: The Origins Of One Of The Other St. John's Church of Rangoon

This story is brought to you with the support of the
AGBU UK Trust.

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

Generally speaking, when one thinks of St. John’s Church Rangoon one normally thinks of the Armenian Church. Currently enjoying a renaissance in popularity, the Yangon St. John the Baptist Armenian church is breathing easier these days, thanks to the recent intervention of the Armenian Holy See to reclaim and revive it from years of stifled possession of an unauthorised non Armenian incumbent.  Rescued in the nick of time, its beginnings, roots and history are once again proudly and rightly lauded by Armenians around the world. Its precious fabric now rests securely for future generations and visitors to worship in.

But what of the other St. John’s Church of Yangon? No, it is not Armenian, but it does have a significant Armenian association, and one that is sadly forgotten today.   Even the St. John's Catholic Church website cannot fully recite its own early years. 

Time has diluted the importance of the Armenian connection.  Let me try to revive it.

St. John’s Catholic Church Yangon. Built in extraordinarily quick time, within a 20 month period. It was made possible by the generosity of a Catholic Armenian of Rangoon, Gregory Avanis.
Image courtesy of

The basic foundations were dug after the end of the second Burmese-Anglo war in 1853.  Bishop Balma had decided to make the city his permanent place of residence, and it was at this time that he laid down in the military cantonments, the foundations of the church of St. John the Baptist.” This early development was “left in an unfinished state until the year 1857.[1] Questionable as to whether it would ever be built, it remained like this until a Catholic Armenian, Gregory Avanis came to the rescue.

In his Will[2] he donated the entire cost of the structure, bequeathing the sum of Companys Rupees 20,000 and ensuring its completion.
Gregory Avanis stated in his Will that he had a number of valuable Bengal Promissory notes, these totalled Companys Rupees 54,000. Declaring his bequests, he went on to say: “I further leave and bequeath one Bond for the sum of Company’s Rupees twenty thousand for the purpose of building a Chaple (sic) at Rangoon in the name of Saint John.”

Over the last few years, I have read hundreds, probably even a few thousand pages of old Armenian Wills and Inventories in an attempt to piece together many fragments of lost Armenian family history in India. The Will of Gregory Avanis is written in the same vein as scores of others in Asia. He could not have realised how his act of generosity would help build a church that continues to stand today. He died in Madras in April 1858, having declared his final wishes less than a month before in Madras. 

It seems his heart was in Rangoon.

Leaving a legacy such as this in a Will does not necessarily mean the wishes of the testator would be fulfilled. It is fortunate that in the book “An Outline of the History of the Catholic Burmese Mission” by Reverend Bigandet he gave crucial details of the re-commencement of the building process of the church. 

“In February 1858, the corner stone of the church of Rangoon was laid down amidst a great concourse of people. The ceremony was presided by the Bishop, assisted by the Rev. P. Barbe, C. Paruza, C. Pacchiotti and V. Gabutti. The band of the European Regiment enlivened the ceremony. M. Th. Chrestian laid down the corner stone. During the rainy season, the work was interrupted, to give time to the foundations to sit well in the ground.

The work resumed in the month of October, and carried on without interruption. The church was blessed and, for the first time, opened for divine service on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, of the year 1859. It was erected solely at the expense of Mr. Gregory Avanis an Armenian, native of Rangoon, who since the war of 1824 had migrated to Madras, where he died on the 2nd of April 1858 having just received the information that the work of laying the foundation of the church had been begun.

He bequeathed the sum of 20,000 Rupees, for building the church, and a similar sum in Company’s papers, with the injunction that the interest should be used for repairing the church, and praying for the repose of his soul.”

Rev. Bigandet’s recollections are the perfect independent proof and provenance that St. John’s Catholic Church, Rangoon was started by a Bishop, completed by an Armenian and enjoyed by all who worship there.

After Gregory’s death a tablet was placed in his memory at the St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, Madras by his brother Stephen whose own family continued to reside in Rangoon. The memorial inscription reads: “Sacred to the memory of Gregory Avanis, Esq., aged 75 years. This tablet was erected by his affectionate brother Stephen Avanis.[3]

With a little digging, some patience and a lot of time this is another small piece of forgotten Armenian family history brought back to life.

For my earlier story on another Armenian who built a Catholic  church you can find it here “Catholic Armenians: Let’s Build a Church”.


Image of St. John's Catholic Church, Yangon Architecture

[1] An Outline of the History of the Catholic Burmese Mission From The Year 1720 to 1887.  By Paul Ambroise Bigandet
[2] The Will of Gregory Avanis. British Library L/AG/34/29/258/7 1858.
[3] List of Tombs and Monuments of Europeans in the Madras District. P.55

Monday, 4 July 2016

Archbishop Guregh Israelian, Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem:Early Days in India

This story is brought to you with the support of the
AGBU UK Trust.

Archbishop Guregh Israelian, Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

 This year sees the wonderful achievement of the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy in Kolkata reach its 195th anniversary.

To help mark the occasion I thought it would be appropriate to highlight some of the old ex students from this long established Armenian school in the heart of the busy city.

Throughout this year I will be showcasing a number of ex students in my blog and telling the story of how they ventured forward in their lives. I make no apology for using the invaluable publication from 1965, “Armenian College Old Boys’ Union Souvenir. Golden Jubilee 1909-1959”. This booklet was written and compiled by the then managers of the Armenian College in their capacity as leading members of the Armenian College Old Boys’ Union: Messrs. Haik Nadjarian, John Michael, Joseph Joe Arathoon and Mack Arathoon respectively.

I reprint in its entirety the brief but informative biography on the late Archbishop Guregh Israelian the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem. Many do not know of his early life in India, and the Old Boys’ Souvenir has invaluable biographical detail of Archbishop Guregh’s time in the country, in particular at the Armenian College,  and I believe it is most worthy of a complete re-print.

Image courtesy of Liz Chater’s private archive
 Extract from the Armenian college Souvenir book on Tigran Israelian, later Archbishop Guregh Israelian.

“Tigran Israelian was born in Julfa in Iran on the 18th January 1894 and was baptised as Tigran. He was the son of the late Revd. Father Mashtots Israelian, Arch Priest of the Indo-Iranian Diocese, who served the Armenian Churches at Julfa, Calcutta and Madras for 50 years during his lifetime.

Tigran Israelian received his primary education in Julfa in the Armenian schools of St. Katherine, Gevork Kbananian and Kendronakan (Central). At the age of 12 he accompanied his father, who was journeying to Madras as an officiating priest. There he was placed in St. Joseph's School of Madras and after a year, on his father being transferred to Calcutta, Tigran was brought to Calcutta and placed in the Armenian College on the 13th December, 1907 with the Roll No. 305. He appeared for the Matriculation Examination of the Calcutta University and was placed in the 1st Division. Later he took the Intermediate Arts Examination at St. Xavier's College, Calcutta . In 1911 and on completion of this course he contemplated taking a course in Divinity to qualify for holy orders but with the outbreak of the First World War his programme was changed. Meantime, he had been appointed a teacher in the Armenian College, and during the time Mr. lsraelian acted as a teacher he spared no effort for the improvement of his beloved school and concentrated all his efforts for the betterment of education. He taught Armenian, English, Mathematics, Science, History. Geography and Religious knowledge.

Born and brought up in the atmosphere of a religious home. Tigran Israelian had a desire to be ordained as a clergyman, but his duel professional and directorial position forced him to remain in the College until a suitable opportunity could arise. It was in these days that His Eminence Thorgom Ghooshakian, the delegate of His Holiness Khoren, Catholicos of all Armenians, arrived in Calcutta on a mission of mercy to collect funds for the orphaned and scattered Armenian victims of the massacres and deportations by Turkey during 1915. Here was the opportunity and Mr. Israelian, on coming to know His Eminence, conveyed to him his heart's desire. After obtaining approval of His Eminence, Mr. Israelian took leave of the College and his beloved pupils and joined His Eminence as his personal secretary, travelling with him to Singapore, Java, and back again to Singapore, Rangoon and Calcutta, all the while accomplishing his secretarial work conscientiously. He was now prepared to go to Jerusalem with His Eminence and travelled with him to Cairo, where he took up the post of a teacher in the National Galoostian School and also became the secretary of the Prelacy of Egypt in 1921. During the same year Mr. Israelian accompanied His Eminence Thorgom Ghooshakian to Jerusalem as his personal secretary.

In Jerusalem. Mr. Israelian won the attention of the Brotherhood of St. James and was especially noticed by the then Patriarch, Egishe Durian, who accepted. him as a member of the Brotherhood of St. James. Three months later be was ordained a deacon by His Grace Mgerditch Agavnounian and while still a deacon he became a teacher in tbe "Jarangaworats" Seminary and worked as the secretary of the Chancery of the Throne of St. James.

In 1923 he was ordained an Archimandrite by His Beatitude Patriarch Durian who gave him the Ecclesiastical name of Revd. Guregh (Cyril). Hereafter the Very Revd. Guregh was appointed as Vice-Principal and later the Principal of the Seminary and the head of Thargmanchats (Translators) Co-educational School. He also took up the responsibilities of the two libraries, Gulbenkian and Manuscript Libraries until 1939.

In the same year in recognition of his ardent and meritorious work he was elected as the head of the Sacristy, which is the most important and responsible office after the Patriarch's.

In 1945 Revd. Guregh proceeded to Armenia, where be participated in the election of the New Catholicos in Echmiatsin in the person of His Holiness George VI, who also consecrated the Revd. Guregh as a bishop.

After the death of the Patriarch of Jerusalem His Beatitude Archbishop Mesrovb Nshanian, the very Revd. Guregh assumed the position of Locum Tenens and later in the year was elected as the Armenian Patriarch to the Apostolic Throne of St. James in Jerusalem.

The Patriarchship of His Beatitude Archbishop Guregh Israelian coincided with the terrible days of 1948 in the history of Palestine. In May, 1948, Great Britain's mandate over Palestine ended by the decision of the United Nations. The departure of the British caused great alarm because of the imminent clash between the Jews and the Arabs. The Armenians in Palestine considered the safety of their lives only and thousands of Armenian families left everything behind them and, only with the clothes in which they stood, took refuge inside the courtyard of the Cathedral in St. James.

Like a "good shepherd that knoweth his sheep", the Patriarch gathered around him the members of the Brotherhood and shouldered the responsibility of the welfare of his flock, both spiritual and material by providing shelter, food and clothing for all who had left their towns on account of the bombardment of their homes. The years 1948-49 were extremely difficult days for the Patriarch and his health deteriorated considerably, owing to the incessant work he was engaged upon. He was overcome by illness, necessitating his going to the hot water springs of El Hamma in Syria and thence to the American Hospital in Beirut. The strain and stress of the two previous years had been too much for him and his illness took a serious turn. A few days after an operation he died on the 28th October. 1949.

For the work he accomplished, for the service he rendered, for the love for his people which he displayed, with complete disregard for himself, he "laid down his life for his friends" he will live for centuries in the pages of Jerusalem's Armenian History and will be considered a true successor of the earlier patriarchs. Paronter and Sheghtayakir.

His Eminence is the most precious jewel in the crown of our Alma Mater. May his soul rest in peace and his spirit permeate the members of our College.”
One of many impact stories from the Armenian community in India: Archbishop Guregh Israelian.