I have found Jose Marti’s famed Ybor City pistol … well, kind of.
My July 7 history column raised questions about whether a gun once carried by Jose Marti in Tampa made its way back to Cuba and was used in the 1951 suicide of Cuban revolutionary Eduardo Chibas — an event some historians believe inspired Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution.
According to newspaper accounts, when Chibas visited Tampa in 1950, a woman named Rose Soriano allowed Chibas to use Marti’s gun in a speech at Cuscaden Park.
A few weeks after the column ran, I received an email from Albert Soriano. He said Rose Soriano was his mother and that his family never would have allowed that gun out of their sight to be taken to another country.
He even disputed the newspaper account that his mother allowed Chibas to borrow the gun for a speech. His mother was living in Miami by then, he explained in his email. He does not remember her returning to Tampa in 1950 to meet with a Cuban revolutionary.
Soriano said his older brother was in possession of Marti’s gun at the time of Chibas’ visit, and he cannot imagine his brother parting with the gun, if even for a few minutes. According to Soriano, his brother guarded that gun closely; he believed it would one day bring him fame and fortune.
Then, during a follow-up phone conversation with Soriano, he articulated the most exciting phrase my nerdy historian ears have ever heard, “And I know where the gun is now. My nephew, my older brother’s son, now possesses it.”
The gun in question, in my opinion, is the holy grail of Tampa artifacts. My first thought was that if I could track down the gun and bring it to this city, I would be Tampa’s version of Indiana Jones. That is, if rather than battling the Nazis to track down priceless artifacts, all Indiana Jones had to do was open an email.
The Marti gun dates back to the late 1800s, when the famed Cuban poet and revolutionary regularly stayed in Ybor City to plan Cuba’s war to oust their Spanish colonialists. Because Marti’s life was in constant danger from Spanish spies, Maximo Gomez, the Cuban general who went on to lead the war against Spain, gave Marti a pistol to carry for protection.
According to Soriano, when the war began and Marti was to leave Tampa to join in the fight, his friend Estansilao O’Halloran told him he needed a proper gun, not the tiny pistol.
Soriano’s mother’s maiden name was O’Halloran. Her father was Estansilao O’Halloran.
“My grandfather gave Marti a western-style Colt-45 to use,” Soriano said. “And Marti asked him to hold some possessions for him until he got back. One was the pistol — it has a white handle. Perhaps it is made of ivory or pearl. It is about four inches long and has an internal trigger.”
Marti also gave the O’Hallorans a gold ring, a pocketknife, and a chaveta — a knife used to make cigars.
The chaveta is an artifact of great historical importance for the nation of Cuba. The O’Hallorans were one of Tampa’s early cigar factory owners. With that particular chaveta, Blas O’Halloran, Soriano’s uncle, made a cigar that was used to smuggle Marti’s order to begin the revolution in Cuba.
Marti was killed in battle, and the artifacts remained with the O’Hallorans.
Besides making the famed cigar and being close with Marti, the O’Hallorans donated quite a sum of money to the revolutionary cause and rallied their friends to do the same.
“It would equal tens of millions of dollars by today’s standards,” Soriano said.
He said his family once owned countless Marti artifacts, mostly letters he sent to the O’Halloran family thanking them for their support or requesting more. But, as the O’Hallorans began passing on, Soriano’s mother became enraged that the Cuban Club never bothered to honor them, despite their importance to the city’s Cuban history. Out of spite, according to Soriano, his mother burned all the Marti letters, purposely destroying the history.
“She had a real Irish temper,” Soriano said and laughed.
Soriano’s nephew possesses the remaining items.
Although antique dealers have been able to verify the age of the items, there is no proof that they ever belonged to Marti.
The circumstantial evidence is overwhelming. Soriano has photos of the items in the possession of family members over the past half century. And though it is possible that the Soriano family found a pistol that looks exactly like the one Marti carried, as well as a gold ring, pocket knife and chaveta that date back to the 1800s, it seems unlikely.
However, perhaps the only way to authenticate the items would be to have them studied by Tampa’s top historians.
Unfortunately, the chances of that occurring seem bleak. Soriano provided me with his nephew’s contact information, but I never received a reply. Soriano also unsuccessfully reached out to his nephew.
Soriano said it is possible his nephew has been on an extended vacation, which he is known to do, and has not checked his emails or phone messages. But he said it is also possible his nephew has little desire to help Tampa chronicle its history and has just ignored the messages.
It now seems fitting that my first thought upon learning of the location of the Marti artifacts harkened to Indiana Jones. In the conclusion of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the Ark of the Covenant is placed in an unmarked crate alongside hundreds of other unmarked crates in a warehouse, probably never to be opened again.
That is how I picture Marti’s historical items — locked in a box somewhere in this country, with an owner who has little desire to share them with the world.
I’m hoping Soriano’s nephew is on a long vacation and that when he returns he will contact me. Perhaps he will agree to bring his artifacts to Tampa for verification, and these pieces of Tampa history will finally come back home.
Paul Guzzo is a freelance journalist who specializes in Tampa history. He wrote the documentary on Tampa gangster Charlie Wall and the book “The Dark Side of Sunshine,” which chronicles some of the city’s most infamous people and events of the past century.