|photo by Alice Lum
In 1869 sculptor John Quincy Adams Ward’s ground-breaking statue “The Indian Hunter” was unveiled in Central Park. It was notable not only because it was the first work by an American artist in the park; but because the subject was a uniquely American subject. Ward depicted the hunter and his dog in truly naturalistic poses; a stark departure from the neo-classical style Victorians were accustomed to. It was just the first of four bronze statues Ward would execute for the park.
Three years later Ward’s statue of William Shakespeare was installed, followed two years later, in 1874, by his Seventh Regiment Memorial. Now, in 1884, with its 75th anniversary approaching, the New England Society commissioned Ward to design a monument to the Pilgrim fathers who landed in Massachusetts in 1620.
On October 12, 1884 The New York Times described “Mr. J. Q. A. Ward’s ideal figure of a New-Englander for Central Park.” A reporter visited Ward’s studio and deemed the statue “one of Mr. Ward’s best efforts and will doubtless rank next to his Shakespeare, already in the Park.” The journalist commented on Ward’s details. “It was possible to be picturesque by using boots such as we associate with the Cavalier rather than the Roundhead, an old-fashioned belt with archaic powder and shot pouched, a cuirass, a rolling collar of the period, and a ‘steeple’ hat.”
The Pilgrim stared off into the distance while his right hand rested on the muzzle of the flintlock at his side. “The face is eminently characteristic of certain New-Englanders, wince it is handsome in feature but not amiable in expression. It is a fine face with a discontented and somewhat sullen look,” said the writer.
At this point the critic let his imagination get the best of him. He compared the figure to Captain Underhill of the Massachusetts colony who sought to exterminate the Native Americans. “’I will exterminate the vermin round here,’ he seems to be saying, ‘if you Dutch sons of Belial will give me seawant enough to trade with the Mohawks up to Rensselaerswyck.’ It is a very confident face, and his attitude also shows an almost childlike confidence that his flintlock will not go off suddenly, as guns do nowadays, for if it did he would have no right hand left.”
The Times critic was undecided as to whether Ward’s fine statue was the result of talent or luck. “The statue is thus not only a good piece of work artistically, but the cleverness or the good luck of the sculptor has made it the fittest of all representative New-Englanders for a place in Manhattan’s chief park.”
At the time of the article the Park Commissioners had not yet formally approved acceptance of the statue. Letters were received from the Presidents of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Academy of Design and the New York Chapter of the American Institute o Architects; all of whom gave their support. On Wednesday, December 17, 1884 the Board voted, agreeing to accept the gift of the statue.
|The statue not long after its unveiling -- photograph by Augustus Hepp from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWE7U47X&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915
The statue was unveiled on June 6, 1885. Nine-feet high, it sat upon a granite pedestal designed by Richard Morris Hunt (another, more massive, pedestal by Hunt for the Statue of Liberty was under construction at the time). The impressive ceremony began at 2:00 with a 20-block procession of 225 members of the New England society up Fifth Avenue; accompanied by the 7th Regiment Veterans. John Quincy Adams Ward personally unveiled his statue. The New-York Tribune reported that “His work was received with every expression of appreciation.”
|Ward included four bronze tablets in the base; this one depicting the Mayflower -- photo by Alice Lum
Perhaps the bronze Puritan symbolically represented purity and morality for German immigrant George Bessendorf. Whatever the reason, he chose the statue as the site for murder-suicide just four months later.
On October 3 he and a woman “whose Christian name appeared to be Maria,” according to The Sun, spread a coarse black lap robe over the grass. They wore their finest apparel; and Maria seemed to be dressed for her own mourning. “The couple were Germans,” said The Sun, “of decent and respectable appearance, and traces of an effort at holiday making bedecked what was evidently their Sunday attire. The woman’s black silk dress was trimmed with black velvet, her beaded black jersey had a neat nosegay at the throat, and the left hand was squeezed into a black kid glove. Her neat black straw hat was high crowned, as of recent purchase, and an amber-handled and silk umbrella completed her equipment.”
The newspaper was detailed in its description of the woman. “She seemed like an industrious German servant, long enough in this country to have acquired the art and earned the means of making a very good appearance. Her face was of the heavy German type that in death was not particularly attractive.”
Like Maria, George was dressed in his best black suit and a derby hat. “The care that he had taken in his appearance was indicated by a buttonhole bouquet that matched the woman’s.”
Around 7:30 that evening Park Policeman William Dugan heard pistol shots from the vicinity of the Pilgrim Statue and rushed to the scene. George Bessendorf and Maria were dead on the lap robe. Beside them was a small collar box addressed “To the Coroner of the city of New York.”
Inside were various letters; some of recommendation that proved George’s respectability, other were love letters from him to Maria. In several he acknowledged “that he had wrought the ruin of the woman, and expressed regret,” said The Sun.
Because Maria was ruined, the pair devised their suicide plan as the only way out. The bodies were taken to the Central Park Arsenal where Captain Donovan noted that Maria had taken care not to damage her handsome dress. She “had evidently opened her clothing and bared her breast to be shot. The skin was blackened and burned by powder marks, but the clothing was only marked with blood. Two bullet holes were in the body, one in the left breast and one in the right.”
George apparently buttoned her dress after having murdered his loved one. He then shot himself in the chest. He held the pistol so close to his body that his clothing was on fire when Policeman Dugan arrived on the scene.
In 1895 the National Sculpture Society expressed its disappointment in the location of the statue. The Sun reported on August 1 that the society had sent a report to the Park Commissioners in which “The statues of the Pilgrim in Central Park and Admiral Farragut are cited as examples of bad location.”
At the turn of the century Warner Van Norden was a member of the Holland Society of New-York; an organization whose members’ Dutch ancestry was reflected in names like Van Schaick, Van Santvoord, Van Wyck, De Peyster and Hasbrouck. At the group’s 27th annual meeting, in 1912, Van Norden expressed his disappointment that the New England Society’s statue depicted a generic pilgrim; rather than a specific figure.
As the Holland Society discussed its own statue, Van Norden noted “It has always been my opinion from the very first…that the statue ought to represent some colonial worthy, of some one who represents the ideal of our colonial ancestors, just as the Puritans have put up a statue to the Pilgrim Fathers in Central Park; they did not put up a statue of Oliver Cromwell.”
|photo by Alice Lum
The Pilgrim Statue stands atop a long slope which earned the name Pilgrim Hill. Over the decades the stern-faced Puritan has watched from his granite perch as generations of New York children sledded down the snowy slope.
The Pilgrim was the first of Central Park’s statues to be restored when, in 1979, the Central Park Conservancy initiated its ambitious program to restore its collection of statuary. In 1999 the powder flasks, by now 115 years old, were recast and replaced.