Monday, March 25, 2019

The Lost "Purity" Statue - Times Square

The statue sat in the skinny island between Broadway and Seventh Avenue, between 44th and 45th Streets.  photo from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

With no fanfare a tower of wooden beams surrounding a massive sculpture appeared in Times Square in the fall of 1909.  The New York Times cleared up the mystery on October 5 when it reported "For the last ten days thousands of persons traveling up and down Times Square have been wondering what might be the meaning of the strange high scaffolding at the upper end of the square between Forty-fifth and Forty-sixth Street, and the heroic-sized, snow-white figure growing up within it.  Two days ago the figure began to put on the face of a woman, whereupon the interest of Broadway concerning it grew more intense than ever."

For more than a week tourists and businessmen had questioned the workers, nearby shopkeepers, and policemen.  But no one had answers.   The Times, however, had ferreted out the explanation.  "There will shine out in the heart of the city's twenty-four-hour centre a snow-white lady of some fifty feet and eighty tons--plaster, it is true, but full of moral and meaning--to stand as the emblem of the city's purity and beauty, defending herself against the mud-throwers and slanderers that so often assail her."

So stated, the purpose of the allegory of "Purity" sounded noble.  It would be a few days before less honorable forces behind it would come to light.

The arcane Association for New York had applied for and received a permit to erect "The Defeat of Slander" or "The Defence of New York."  The permit gave the group permission to erect and maintain "a statue at its own expense until Dec. 1, 1909."  The cost was later placed at $5,000, or about $140,000 today.

William Harmon Black, formerly Commissioner of Accounts for the Tammany Administration, was the president of the association.  He told The Times reporter that the goal of the newly-organized group was "to challenge indiscriminate abuse and criticism of New York City, to set forth her advantages as a place of residence for the citizen, as a point of production and distribution for the manufacturer, and as a mart for the merchant."  That, too, sounded innocent and, in fact, commendable.

The group had commissioned Italian-born sculptor Leo Lentelli to design the monument.  Black described it saying "The figure will be fifty feet high, built of fifty barrels, or eight tons of plaster, at a cost of several thousand dollars...It will represent a tall and snow-white woman of majestic figure and mien, somewhat angry and even disgusted at the slander and unjust fault-finding she has been subject to."

The figure of Purity would hold a shield on her left arm bearing the inscription "Our City."  Dark blotches on the shield represented the mud slung by New York's detractors.  At night it would be lit by searchlights installed on the nearby Acme Building, and behind her diadem were hidden soft blue electric lights.  Black insisted that there was nothing political about the figure.  "It would simply stand as an artistic, silent exhortation to civic pride and confidence."

Three days later The Thrice-A-Week World reported on the unveiling.  Its reporter, too, interviewed Black and now the first hints emerged that Tammany Hall was behind the project.  Again Black insisted that "The statue is a protect against mud slingers," but was more specific in the mud being slung.  The "reckless statements" which offended the Association of New York had to do with the cost of city bonds, the city's take from Custom House and Post Office receipts, and such.  "The trouble is, New Yorkers have not realized how good a city they have been living in," he complained.

A workman rests at the base, with the rubble of the scaffolding yet to be removed prior to the official unveiling. Harper's Weekly Advertiser, October 23, 1909 (copyright expired)

The unveiling was well-timed.  In its October 1909 issue The Literary Digest pointed out "The colossal statue...variously known as 'Purity' and the 'Defeat of Slander' was erected in Longacre Square, New York City, at the beginning of the present municipal campaign.  It is regarded as Tammany's protest against criticism of city government."

On the southern side of the base was inscribed "Defeat of Slander" and "Erected by the Association for New York."  On the northern face was "Dedicated to New York--The Greatest and Best of Cities--Our Home."  The eastern side read "That man who defames an individual injures but one.  That man who defames New York injures four and a half million people."  

Newspapers were quick to join in exposing the political ploy.  On October 15 The East Hampton Star, calling the figure "this plaster amazon," suggested its purpose was "political and that the Tiger [i.e. Tammany Hall] is seeking in this way to discourage criticism of its own misdeeds.  Well, Tammany is not New York.  It is only a disease.  To confuse the two is like confusing a case of smallpox with its victim...To connect the name of Tammany with purity is a joke."

The Sun waxed sarcastic.  When Black (who, incidentally, was the only person permitted to give official comment) called the statue "a concrete object lesson," the newspaper noted "The fact that the lesson was to be administered during the month preceding election day didn't have the slightest possible significance or any relation whatever with any party."

from the collection of the New-York Historical Society
The Tacoma Times thought the artifice was laughable.  Its October 16 article entitled "You Mustn't Slander New York Any More," began "We folks out here in the west must stop talking about New York.  If we don't, the 'Big White Lady' will get us."  The reporter felt that if the published purpose of the statue was true it had a formidable job ahead.  "'Broadway and 42d st. is the mouth of hell,' said a visiting clergyman, several weeks ago.  So the 'Big White Lady,' with her raised arm, stands in an important situation."

Harper's Weekly took a conciliatory stance, but clearly pointed out "the citizens of the metropolis are in doubt as to the exact significance of the statue."

The Sun was not so diplomatic.  "The men who have erected the statue labelled the 'Defeat of Slander,' need to be reminded that the real defamers of New York are not the muckrakers who are the truth speakers, but the muckmakers who defile and pollute our city...It is not the slanderers and the defamers who have made the name of Tammany Hall a byword and a hissing throughout the civilized world, but the leadership and the following alike in Tammany Hall for nearly a century."  The article summed up the issue saying "These men dream of robbing and betraying our city and are wrathful because we will not desist crying 'Stop thief!'"

The statue's purpose as a Tammany Hall propaganda device had been exposed nationwide and continued to draw anger, parody and criticism.  On October 19 The Evening Post wrote "If Praxiteles and Phidias could visit New York now they would get some fresh ideas on statue-cutting.  For Sculpture is being made the handmaiden of Politics."

The reporter managed to interview Leo Lentelli--a feat few had managed to accomplish.  He rather apologized for the quality of his work saying "Of course, if I had more time to do it I could have made a better-finished job of it, but as it stands I think it expresses pretty well the note that it was intended to strike."  Pressed on what that note was, he admitted with a smile, "Oh yes, it is, I suppose, really only a political matter, and it does well enough for that."

"Purity," as it turned out, failed in her mission.  Tammany candidates lost the election.  Just six weeks after its unveiling, workmen began smashing the statue.  On November 20, 1909 The New York Times entitled its article "Miss Purity Displaced / Back to the Dust Pile for Her, Election Being Over."  The story continued, "The first workman was presently joined by a second, who climbed on the shoulders of Miss Virtue and began to hammer away at her left arm, which held the shield with which she fended off the mud supposed to have been thrown against the city in the ante-election period."  

from the collection of the New-York Historical Society
The article described the process in detail, reporting, for instance, "When the huge head had fallen in pieces to the street below it made a very small pile of white bits."  The newspaper summed up the failed political ploy in its closing paragraph.

Miss Purity has not stayed her full time at the head of Times Square.  She had permission to remain there until early in December, but after the election she seemed to think that her work had been done.  Tammany's defeat--for she was a Tammany daughter--must have made her sorrowful, and maybe she didn't care whether she lived her full span out or not.

Anyhow, she goes back to the dust pile to-day.

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