Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Blizzard of 1888's Most Famous Victim: Roscoe Conkling

In Madison Square, near the corner of 23rd Street and Madison Avenue, stands a bronze statue of Senator Roscoe Conkling, a politician that almost nobody remembers today. The site of the statue marks the spot where Conkling collapsed in a snow drift at the height of New York’s most catastrophic weather event – the great blizzard of 1888. At the opposite corner of the park is another statue – this one of President Chester Arthur. The lives of the two men were linked in a dramatic tale of New York politics in the Gilded Age.

Conkling was a larger than life figure during the years following the Civil War. One of his senate colleagues said of him, “While his fellow senators favored black, Roscoe was a virtual bird of paradise – he sported green trousers, scarlet coats, striped shirts and yellow shoes.” Presumably not at the same time. He was a protean power in the New York Republican political machine, with a ferocious temper, an athletic figure in an era of portly public men and his personal charisma was said to be irresistible to women. Many men considered him a “strutting dandy”. His supposed affair with Kate Chase Sprague, wife of another senator and daughter of the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, was common knowledge. Mrs Conkling was famously patient. Hi long-time enemy Senator James G Blaine of Maine skewered Conkling in a well-known speech before Congress reviling his, “haughty distain, his grandiloquent swell, his majestic, supereminent, overpowering turkey-gobbler strut!” Twice offered a seat on the US Supreme Court, Conkling turned down both invitations. He was even twice considered a likely presidential candidate.

Democrats uniformly despised Conkling, including one William Goodrich Arbuckle of Smith Center, Kansas. When his son was born in 1887 the hard-drinking Arbuckle was nagged by the sneaking suspicion that his son was not biologically his, so he named the boy Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle. The child grew up in an atmosphere of distrust but went on to fame and fortune with great success as Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, a comic star of silent films, only to have his career cut short by a celebrated sex scandal – but that’s another story.

In a furious temper Conkling resigned his seat in the US Senate in 1881 after the new President Garfield appointed his own candidate to become Collector of the Port of New York. Unexpectedly the New York state legislature appointed another to replace him and Conkling retired from public life to resume a lucrative law practice on Wall Street, with blue-chip clients such as the notorious Jay Gould who was often in some sort of legal tangle.

March of 1888 was unseasonably warm in New York. Indeed it followed the warmest winter in seventeen years - the crocus were coming up and the trees in Central Park already budding. The United States Signal Service weather observatory in New York issued its forecast on Saturday morning, March 10, “Generally fair and a bit colder today and Sunday with partial cloudiness near the coast for Monday. Tuesday promises to be slightly warmer and generally fair.” Weekends the weather bureau offices around the country closed at noon on Saturday and opened again at 5:00pm on Sunday afternoon. Weather forecasts were chancy business in 1888, to be generous. Sunday and Monday were damp and gloomy and heavy rain fell from Sunday afternoon into Monday. The temperature began to drop late Monday afternoon as two vast storm systems coming from the west began to combine. A blast of cold air from Canada completed the mix and the wild nor’easter storm of the century was at hand. By midnight Monday sleet had turned to snow and the frigid wind increased. On Tuesday morning, March 12 the city awoke to heavy snow and a freezing wind. Senator Conkling, as usual, headed downtown to his Wall Street office from his apartment in the fashionable Hoffman House on Fifth Avenue, near the northwest corner on Madison Square. Telephone and telegraph wires, strung on poles along the streets, had come down in the wind, covered with ice so that no one could know just how serious the storm was going to be.

By 1:30 Tuesday afternoon it became clear to the senator that there would be no business done that day, so he and William Sulzer, a young lawyer in an adjacent office, agreed to walk up to Broadway and hail a hansom cab to take them uptown. The deserted streets outside were covered in deep snowdrifts and fallen telephone and telegraph poles. Sulzer later told a reporter, “There were great mountains of snow – we could hardly see Trinity Church or the buildings on Broadway. We stopped a cab and Conkling gave him our destination of Madison Square. ‘FIFTY BUCKS’, the cabbie said and the senator said something that you can’t print. Then we started up Broadway. When we had gone a few blocks to the Astor House(a fashionable hotel at Vesey Street) I told the senator that I was going inside but he insisted that he’d go on. That’s the last I saw of him.”

Conkling trudged on. At 58 he was proud of his fitness. He didn’t smoke or drink, exercised regularly and considered himself a skilled boxer. No snowstorm could stop Roscoe Conkling from walking up Broadway to his club. He later told reporters, “It was dark and it was useless to try to pick out a path, so I went magnificently along shouldering drifts. I was pretty well exhausted when I got to Union Square and, wiping the snow from my eyes, tried to make out the pathways, but it was impossible. There was no light and I plunged right through on as straight a line as I could determine. I had got to the middle of the park and was up to my arms in a drift. I pulled the ice and snow from my eyes and held my hands up there till everything was melted off so that I might see – but it was too dark and the snow too blinding.” For twenty minutes he struggled in the drift. “I came as near giving right up and sinking down there to die as a man can and not do it. Somehow I got out and made my way along.”

He kept moving now, up Broadway where workmen frantically dug away at the mass of snow as the wind shrieked and roared between the elegant storefronts of the Ladies’ Mile. The force of the gale often tore the shovels from the hands of the workmen. Conkling trudged on.

At 23rd Street He could dimly see the lights of the Fifth Avenue Hotel to the left and realized that the safety of his club was just ahead, on the other side of Madison Square Park. Out of the slight protection of the buildings along Broadway the ferocity of the wind seemed to increase, but he struggled along into the park.

The porter at the New-York Club at 25th Street and Madison stood in the doorway looking out at the blizzard when he saw a figure in the snow off to his left. Falling, then rising , moving a few feet, then falling again. Wrapping his greatcoat tightly around himself he headed out into the park where he found the half-conscious Conkling sprawled in the snow. He dragged the senator two blocks into the clubhouse and the ordeal was over – for now.
By Wednesday the storm had dropped 40 inches of snow on the city in 36 hours with winds up to 48 miles per hour. Along the Eastern Seaboard, from Washington up to Boston 400 people had died.

For the next week, from his sickbed, Conkling regaled his friends and newspaper reporters with descriptions of his narrow escape from the great blizzard – but he sensed that something was not right and soon he was back in his bed at the Hoffman House. The diagnosis was mastoiditis and pneumonia and two weeks later Roscoe Conkling drew his last breath.

His friends and family pressured the city fathers to erect a memorial statue to the great man in Union Square, near the spot where he had first fallen, but the officials felt his memory was not worth a position in a place that honored Washington, Lincoln and the Marquis de Lafayette. As a compromise Madison Square was proposed and accepted. The city’s pre-eminent sculptor, John Quincy Adams Ward was chosen for the job and in 1893 it was unveiled pot at the southeast corner of Madison Square Park where Conklin was rescued by the New-York Club porter. And there he stands today, his only visitors the pigeons. He is a mystery to modern passersby.

Senator Conkling’s current neighbor on the north corner of the park, President Arthur, was the senator’s political ally, indeed Arthur’s career was Conkling’s creation. In 1874 he arranged for his political henchman, good old Chet Arthur, to be appointed to the lucrative post of Collector of Customs for the Port of New York. Arthur did his best, but the post-Civil War era was one of the high water marks of patronage and political corruption and in 1876 incoming President Hayes dismissed Arthur. In the election of 1880 Arthur was named to be James Garfield's vice-presidential candidate. Garfield was elected and shortly afterward asassinated, making good old Chet Arthur President of the United States. Senator Conkling was not amused.

And what of Kate Chase Sprague, Conklin’s inamorata at the peak of his career? Washington’s most glamorous hostess when her widowed father was Lincoln’s wartime Secretary of the Treasury, Kate had married William Sprague, a textile tycoon from Rhode Island to help her father finance his run for the presidency in 1864. When she was scandalously linked to Conklin her husband had become a “drunken philanderer” and soon lost all his money. Kate spent her final, impoverished days selling chickens and vegetables door-to-door. She died broke in 1899.

1 comment:

Lolly said...

This is very informative.