East 23rd and Madison Avenue, Madison Square
This monument to the Republican machine politician Roscoe Conkling strikes an oddly dramatic pose in the southeast corner of Madison Square in Manhattan. There are four historical monuments in the park; the other three are all contemporaries and friends of Conkling’s: Chester A. Arthur, the 21st president, is at the northeast corner of the park; the former secretary of state William H. Seward on the corner of East 23rd and Broadway; and, at the north end of the park, about in the middle, is the statue of the Civil War hero Adm. David Glasgow Farragut.
The figure is eight feet tall and made of bronze. It sits on a six-foot granite pedestal, which is inscribed only with the words “Roscoe Conkling.” It was sculpted by John Quincy Adams Ward, one of America’s most distinguished artists.
Ward said he had seen Conkling speaking once in New York City, and the pose evinces a bit of that rhetorical drama. Ward was stumping for James Garfield (who was elected president in 1880) and, as Donald Martin Reynolds tells the story in his book “Monuments and Masterpieces,” Ward says that Conkling suddenly stopped speaking, jabbed his thumb in his pants and extended his right hand, then said, “The die is cast. Garfield will be elected.”
Who, you might ask, is Conkling? An intriguing character in American politics, that’s who. (Google him if you’re so interested. Sarah Vowell’s book “Assassination Vacation” includes a lively telling of the high points.) In short, Conkling started out as a lawyer, then began a career in politics, serving as a district attorney and winning an election as the mayor of Utica. He grew into a powerful machine politician, effectively controlling the Republican party in New York and lucrative federal patronage in New York City, and serving in both the United States House and Senate.
The story of his statue begins, perhaps naturally, with his death. Which is an odd little tale in itself. Conkling died April 18, 1888, about six weeks after getting caught in a blizzard. In the city. He apparently, according to a press release by the parks department in 2001, fell into a snowbank in Union Square, then spent three hours trying to walk to his club at East 25th Street. (It must have been a hell of a storm.) He thawed out, but never recovered.
The statue was commissioned (of course they picked Ward, who at the time was probably the Michael Jordan of American sculptors; he also had just completed a bust of Conkling, which is now at the New York Historical Society) and money duly raised, but a request by the organizers of the drive to have the statue placed in Union Square, where Conkling’s mortal coil began its shuffling off, was roundly rejected. The parks department commissioners were amenable to a monument to Conkling, but did not want it to take its place in Union Square. That park, the commissioners sniffed, was reserved for “Great Americans.” (Today, the Union Square is home to monuments to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, uhm, the Marquis de Lafayette and, err, Mohandas K. Gandhi.)
The commissioners were willing to compromise, and proposed a site in not-far-away Madison Square. But, thus defeated, Conkling’s supporters apparently lost interest. The statue was installed without a ceremony on Dec. 1, 1893.
Conkling was born in Albany, N.Y., on Oct. 30, 1829. He was a lawyer and politician, who was a district attorney, the mayor of Utica, and served in the U.S. House and Senate. He died April 18, 1888.
This doesn’t have anything to do with anything, but it is said that the 1920s movie comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle is named for Conkling. Apparently, Arbuckle’s father suspected the boy was the product of an illicit affair, so he named the child after Conkling, a politician he hated as a boy.
The statue was moved about 20 feet to its present location in 2000, and refurbished by the city in April 2001.