Sunday, September 5, 2010
Killed by a Snowstorm -- The Roscoe Conkling Statue in Madison Square
Roscoe Conkling. Another historical figure, memorialized in bronze, whom nobody remembers. Conkling did a lot in his 58 years. Born in Albany, he was a lawyer, a district attorney, and a member of both the United States Senate and the House of Representatives. At one point he was the uncontested leader of the Republican Party in New York State.
Despite his political successes and failures, the married Conkling became widely known for his philandering. The New York Times gleefully reported on his extramarital affairs, most notably with Kate Chase Sprague. Kate was the wife of Senator William Sprague IV and the daughter of Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase. The Times printed the scandalous story of Senator Sprague discovering the couple in his Rhode Island summer residence, then chasing Conkling with a shotgun.
On March 12, The Great Blizzard of 1888 struck New York. The storm, also referred to as The White Hurricane, was one of the most severe in recorded history. Forty inches of snow was dumped on New York and sustained winds of 45 mph created snowdrifts up to 50 feet in height.
While the rest of New Yorkers hunkered down in their homes, Roscoe Conkling decided to walk from Wall Street to The New York Club on 25th Street. He lost his way in the blinding storm and suffered from exposure before reaching his destination.
Somewhat embarrassed by the newspaper accounts of his travails, Conkling trivialized the attention in a letter to a friend written from his bed a few days later:
“My dear sir, Bless your kind soul. You know one can’t step foot in the snow without stepping into the newspapers. I had an ugly tramp in the dark – the lights out, from Wall Street up, over drifts so high that my head bumped against the signs, and dug-outs opposite the store doors suddenly letting a wayfarer down a foot or two over snarled telegraph wires and slippery places, with a blizzard in front not easy to stand against, and so cold as to close the eyes with ice, and drifts were not packed enough to bear up, in which one sank to the waist. Bumps and falls, and strains and tugs made it quite an interesting excursion, but not one worth anyone’s while to talk about.”
Conkling neglected to mention that upon becoming lost in Union Square he spent nearly a half an hour trying to find his way. The entire ordeal lasted over two hours. While he initially seemed to recover, working on his legal papers and other business, doctors noticed he was talking incoherently a few days later. On the sixth day after the storm, Roscoe Conkling was dead.
The scandals that had surrounded the politician were seemingly forgotten. Following his elaborate funeral funds were raised to erect a statue to him. The esteemed artist John Quincy Adams Ward, later referred to as “The dean of American sculptors,” received the commission. Mrs. Conkling requested that he depict her husband speaking before the Senate. The statue, completed in 1893, captures Conkling with his thumb jauntily stuffed in his pants pocket.
Supporters petitioned to have the memorial placed in Union Square where Conkling had suffered so.
The Parks Commission, however, was less than enthusiastic. Union Square, it was felt, should be reserved for statues of “great Americans” such as the equestrian statue of George Washington and the sculpture of Abraham Lincoln.
On June 1 of that year the Parks Commission met and agreed to the suggestion by Parks Landscape Architect Calvert Vaux to place Roscoe Conkling in Madison Square – the second most prestigious spot. With no formal ceremony, as requested by Conkling’s family, the eight-foot, 1,200-pound statue was placed on its granite pedestal in December, 1893.
During World War II all the bronze statuary in Madison Square Park was painted brown – reportedly to prevent the figures from being scrapped as part of the war effort.
In the summer of 2000 the Conkling statue was moved 20 feet and a year later it received a full restoration as part of the Citywide Monuments Conservation Program. At a cost of $12,000 it was chemically re-patened to its historically correct color and tone, and cleaned of dirt and corrosion.
The restoration did not, however, help anyone to remember who the unfortunate Roscoe Conkling was.