“A statue of General Washington, 10 feet high…. It is of carved wood, painted, and represents the Father of his Country in Continental uniform — blue dress-coat with brass buttons, buff breeches, and riding boots. The right arm hangs extended by his side, and the left, holding a cocked hat, rests lightly on the hip. This statue is said to have been erected on the Battery in 1792, and to have been the first [figure of Washington] erected in this city. It bears evidence of great age.”
–Harper’s Weekly, 4 May 1889
So wrote Harper’s Weekly in 1889, but, according to the New York Historical Society, the prior history of the George Washington statue that graced the early Washington Square Arch in the late 1800s may have been fudged. Another version of the history for the statue stated that it came from Bowling Green, not the Battery. The Historical Society questions this too and surmises that this history may have all been invented for a good story: thereby making the statue more valuable for its owner, Joseph Liebman. It had been loaned to the city to top the first Arch by its previous owner.
The Arch, of course, was designed by Stanford White, first in wood. It was such a success that the community paid for a permanent marble Arch to be erected at the entrance to Washington Square Park, completed in the early 1890s.
But what about the original statue of George Washington? Here is one history via New York Historical Society:
George Washington stood there until 1843, when Bowling Green was redesigned and the city fathers deemed the wooden figure out of fashion. They sold it at auction to a Mr. Jaques, who kept it in South Norwalk, Connecticut, until his death in 1860, when it passed to subsequent collectors. It eventually came into possession of Frederick J. Theobald, who ran a cigar shop on 125th Street in Harlem. Theobald sold his business — and the statue — to Joseph Liebman in 1892. (It was Theobald, presumably, who three years earlier lent the figure for display atop the temporary Washington Arch.)
Liebman had the statue photographed at least twice inside his shop at 266 West 125th Street. In one shot he stands next to Washington, dwarfed by comparison. On the back of the other photo he printed his “history” of the statue, presumably to lend it an air of authenticity (if it’s in print, it must be true, right?). Unfortunately, Liebman’s claims lack proof. Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, who scoured every available record to assemble his monumental Iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909, was adamant that “the wooden effigy never stood on either the Battery or Bowling Green.”
Despite the possibly invented history, the statue did not ultimately pay off for Liebman. The New York Historical Society says that the statue ended up at the Delaware Historical Society; yet a search of the records within their system did not turn it up. Are you still there, George Washington Statue?
One of the most popular posts at this blog is about the George Washington family Coat of Arms which contains the words, “Exitus Acta Probat,” Latin. You can read that post here. The figure of Justice aside Washington at Peace on the Arch holds a book with the words Exitus Acta Probat on it.
I am trying to picture the Arch with a statue atop it now but just can’t. It works so well as it is.