Monday, August 11, 2008

When the Head of George III Rolled Down Broadway

“Charging Bull”,sculptor Arturo DiModica’s 1989 larger-than-life bronze bull at the north end of Bowling Green Park on lower Broadway is a magnet for tourists. Every day, rain or shine, they line up to photograph their smiling youngsters astride the snorting bull’s huge neck.
Nearby street vendors even sell miniature replicas of the sculpture. Tourists as well as most New Yorkers are unaware that just a few steps away stands a genuine relic of the American Revolution. The black iron picket fence enclosing the park has been in place since 1771 when it was originally installed to protect an impressive statue of King George III erected by the loyal citizens of the colony of New York in tribute to their king. Recently the little half-acre park was renovated and the fence carefully cleaned and painted. This is the story of that ancient relic.

In 1765 Parliament in London decide to tax the American colonies to cover some of the huge deficit left over from defending the colonists from the French and their Indian allies during the French and Indian War just concluded. Their solution was impose a tax on all paper transactions in the colonies. The Americans were furious. Issac Sears, a privateer (sort of a licensed pirate) during the war and now a merchant, led a rowdy bunch called the Sons of Liberty. Along with many of the city’s other merchants Sears proposed tarring and feathering any agents of the King who would dare to distribute the hated royal tax stamps. When the colonists successfully launched a boycott of British goods Parliament relented and the King revoked the Stamp Act. In loyalty to the crown and gratitude to the King, the New York Assembly voted in June of 1766 to place a statue of his Majesty on the Bowling Green, “to perpetuate to the latest posterity its deep sense of the eminent and singular benefits received from him, but in particular in promoting the repeal of the Stamp Act.” They resolved to spend 1000 pounds on a two-ton gilded lead statue of his Majesty on horseback, wearing a Roman toga and crowned with a laurel wreath. In London the sculptor Joseph Wilton, coach-carver to the King, chose as his model the ancient Roman equestrian statue of the philosopher/emporer Marcus Aurelius that Michelangelo had placed in his Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome in 1538.

The statue was unveiled on August 16,1770 – the birthday of the King’s son Prince Frederick, Duke of York. Loyalty to the King was short-lived. Sears and his Liberty Boys (often a mob of rum-fueled louts) taunted the British troops stationed in the city with “Liberty Poles” and inflammatory patriotic broadsides plastered to the walls of their barracks on the commons (where City Hall stands today). The soldiers responded with harassment and contempt and a slow fuse had been lit.

Sometimes nothing seems to change in New York, like graffiti and vandalism – in 1771 the King’s statue and its fifteen-foot white marble pedestal attracted graffiti and vandals - so the common council passed some anti-vandalism laws and appropriated 834 pounds, contracting with Richard Sharpe, to “build a fence of iron railings and a stone foundation” to enclose the park. The fence was to have sharp-pointed iron pickets and the posts were each to be topped with a ball surrounded by a crown. Now that should do it. Well, at least it kept out the many pigs that roamed freely through the streets of old New York as a sort of unpaid and edible sanitation crew.

Centered on the Bowling Green, in front of Fort George, the de facto seat of government, and at the foot of the Broad Way(even then the city’s main street) the statue of King George III was the proudest monument in New York. When John Adams, one of five Massachusetts delegates to the first Continental Congress in 1774, traveled to Philadelphia he stopped for a week in New York. In a letter to his wife he observed, “Between the fort and the city is a beautiful ellipsis of land, railed in solid iron, in the center of which is a statue of his Majesty on horseback, very large, of solid lead gilded with gold, standing on a pedestal of marble very high.”

The first Continental Congress had convened in Philadelphia to deal with the British blockade of Boston Harbor that followed the celebrated Boston Tea Party. Further tweaking the sensibilities of the colonists, Parliament had passed a Tea Act in May of 1773 that allowed the East India Company to bring tea to the colonies without paying custom duties at American ports, thus undercutting wealthy smugglers like Boston’s own John Hancock. This aroused his friends in the Boston chapter of the Sons of Liberty to dump 45 tons of East India Company Tea into Boston Harbor on the night of December 16, 1773. Now with an occupying British army in the city and gunboats in its harbor Boston was primed for this powder keg to explode. And it did, just as the sun was rising in nearby Lexington on April 19,1775 when British light infantry fired into ranks of militiamen formed on the Lexington commons.

By June of 1775 an American army of militiamen from most of the colonies was gathering in Cambridge and the new congress appointed George Washington Commander-in-Chief. Washington was en route to Boston to take command of the army when news arrived of the bloody Battle of Bunker Hill. By the following spring the American siege of Boston had succeeded, the British left to regroup in Canada and New York prepared to be the next battlefront.

In the late spring of 1776 Washington arrived in the city with an army of 10,000 militiamen and by early July a British fleet arrived in New York’s harbor with 30,000 professional soldiers and 600 ships. As his headquarters Washington chose the Kennedy mansion at number 1 Broadway – literally a stone’s throw from the Bowling Green. This is where a messenger from the Continental Congress in Philadelphia delivered a copy of the new Declaration of Independence on the morning of July 9,1776. The army was ordered to gather in ranks on the commons that afternoon and, at 6pm, as the commander sat on his white horse, his adjutant read the declaration. The soldiers cheered and then began moving down Broadway, toward the largest symbol of royal power in the city – the King’s statue on the Bowling Green. As darkness fell a mob led by Issac Sears gathered around the fence with axes and crowbars. After many rounds in nearby taverns toasting the new declaration they were ready for some action. Some shook the locked gates, others began using their axes to lop off the gilded crowns atop the brittle cast iron posts of the fence. Using their crowbars, others wrenched the fence from its stone foundations. 23-year-old Captain Oliver Brown of the Massachusetts Artillery had concealed 40 men, about 20 soldiers and 20 sailors, in a dark alley near the park waiting for an opportune moment. As the mob pulled down the fence he saw his opportunity. Many years later he recalled the details of that night, “Several of the sailors, having no fear as to punishment for lese majeste, climbed up the leaden image of the King and tied ropes around it. When the ‘pull-all-together’ came these ropes broke. The second attempt however was successful. The statue came crashing down on the iron fence that had cost the city $4000.”

The mob sawed off the head from the shattered lead statue and passed it around the crowd and when the heavy object was passed to an old man standing in the street he dropped it and the gilded head rolled several feet along the cobblestones of the Broad Way. Captain Brown and his crew of volunteers loaded the broken remains of the statue onto wagons and headed for the docks where they placed it on a small schooner and headed up the East River, through the Hell Gate and into Long Island Sound to avoid the British war ships at anchor in the bay. They landed their heavy cargo at Norwalk, Connecticut and then transported it on oxcarts it to the Litchfield home of General Oliver Wolcott. He set up a shed in his Litchfield orchard and supervised his family and neighbors in the casting of 42,088 lead musket balls from the melted lead fragments of the statue. The general’s ten-year old son Frederick was proud of his total 936 lead balls. The careful account was registered in a document that has somehow survived. Many years later Frederick Wolcott, by then Judge Wolcott, was interviewed by Rev George woodruff for his History of Litchfield, “My father chopped it up with an axe and the girls had a frolic running it up into bullets.”

The next day General Washington registered his displeasure over the events of the previous evening with a mild rebuke to Captain Brown and his men, “The General doubts not that the persons who pulled down and mutilated the statue were actuated by zeal in the public cause, yet it has so much the appearance of riot and want of order in the army that he disapproves the manner and directs that in future these things shall be avoided by the soldiery and left to be executed by proper authority.” Washington very well may have watched the entire event from the large windows of his headquarters at the Kennedy mansion directly across Broadway from the park.

Captain Brown “always declared” later in his life that, “this was the one act of his career of which he was really ashamed”. Oliver Brown turns out to have been a fascinating figure who observed and often participated in some of the key events of the American Revolution. He was born in Lexington, Massachusetts in 1753. In February of 1845, at the age of 92, at his son-in-law’s home in Wellsburg, West Virginia, he dictated a “memorandum” about his life. It began with a sentence that was later carved on his tombstone, “I stood in front of the first cannon fired by the British on the Americans in the affray at Lexington”. At 20 he was there for the Boston Tea Party as one of dozens of spectators (he said, “I was a looker-on only.”) watching from Griffin’s Dock as the Sons of Liberty dumped tea into Boston Harbor. In the spring 1775 he was a private in the Lexington Alarm on that fateful morning of April 19 when blood was spilled at dawn on the Lexington green. Many believe that Oliver’s 16-year old brother Solomon fired the first shot that morning, an event that Emerson called “the shot heard ‘round the world.” His 17-year old brother James was among the brave farmers standing in ranks on the green, his cousin Frances was wounded and his cousin John was among the first killed by the British regulars. The British commander, Colonel Smith, continued the march on to Concord as 4000 Massachusetts militiamen left their plows and responded to the alarm. When the British began their march back to Boston the patriots harassed them along the road with musket fire from behind stone walls and trees, panicking the soldiers and some of the officers as a retreat turned into a rout. Lord Percy arrived at Lexington at about 2:00 with reinforcements and two field pieces just as Colonel Smith’s soldiers approached like a fleeing mob with a regiment of militia in hot pursuit. Percy ordered his artillery to fire into the American line and the militia ran in all directions. These must have been the cannons that Brown referred to in his recollection.

In June of 1775 he was commissioned Lieutenant in Colonel Richard Gridley’s regiment of the Massachusetts Artillery, just in time to see action in the battle of Bunker Hill. By December he was a lieutenant in General Henry Knox’s Continental Artillery and found himself in New York in the spring of 1776. After his adventure on the Bowling Green he’s next heard from in September with Washington’s army facing the British on Harlem Heights. “I was with our army on York Island and participated in the battle of Harlem Heights where we beat the British. I commanded a company of thirty men and two field pieces and lost fifteen of my men, killed and wounded.” Then he is at the Battle of Trenton on Christmas night, 1776. He would have been with Washington, crossing the ice-choked Delaware with his cannons that harrowing night. On New Year’s day, 1777 he is made captain-lieutenant of the Third Continental Artillery. He went on to see action in the battles of Princeton, Brandywine and Monmouth and resigned his commission in April of 1779. Quite a military career for a 25-year old.

But what of the dismembered statue that Captain Brown had deposited in Connecticut? 42,000 musket balls only account for half its weight. Evidently secret Tory sympathizers in Wilton made off with fragments while the teamsters, on their way to Litchfield, rested for the night at the Clapp Raymond Tavern. Behind the tavern was a pond called Davis Swamp and it was there that the fragments were hidden while the teamsters and their oxen slept. In 1822 the grandson of the tavern keeper was digging in the swamp and uncovered a 75 pound chunk of lead that village old-timers identified as a part of King George’s statue. A few years later another fragment was found under the milk room of a farmhouse a half-mile up the road. Another piece was found by a local plumber who nearly melted it down for his own practical purposes. By 1830 three more pieces were found in the Davis Swamp. Eventually the complete tail of the horse and parts of the saddle appeared when a farmer was plowing his field and they found their way to the New-York Historical Society, where they can be seen today.

The decapitated head that rolled along Broadway was quickly taken up to the Blue Bell Tavern (at present-day Broadway and 181st Street), on the Kingsbridge Road where it was placed on a pike by the side of the road. After General Howe’s army captured Manhattan in November of 1776 Captain John Montresor rode up to the Blue Bell Tavern and retrieved the King’s head and sent it back to London where it found its way to the home of Lord Townshend. Thomas Hutchinson, the exiled colonial governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, noted in his diary that he was shown the head when he visited Lord and Lady Townshend in 1778. It has not been seen since. Perhaps it is today collecting dust in some country house attic or decorating someone’s garden.

The balls wrapped with gilded crowns hacked from the tops of the fence posts began surfacing in the last quarter of the nineteenth century as gifts for officials on Evacuation Day, but these seem to have disappeared as well. The fifteen-foot marble pedestal remained on the Bowling Green until 1818 when this was the heart of the city’s most fashionable neighborhood. Fort George was razed after the revolution and the rubble dumped along the water’s edge to extend the old Battery and create a pleasant park overlooking the harbor. The site was used to construct Government House, which was meant to be an official residence for President Washington. The capital was moved to Philadelphia before it was complete and the President never lived there. In 1914 the IRT subway was extended to the Battery and Bowling Green Park was selected as the site of the station. To prepare the site the contactor dismantled the old fence and put it in storage. By the time the project was completed everyone had forgotten where the fence had been stored until it finally it turned up in 1919 in the basement of the Central Park Armory, headquarters of the Parks Department and was re-erected on the original site.

If you go to visit this remarkable survivor at the foot of Broadway be sure and feel the uneven tops of the posts between the pointed pickets. No one ever bother to file down the rough edges left from that hot July night in 1776 when the patriot mob hacked off the crowns. This is a unique place where you can actually touch a piece of the American Revolution.

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