Sometimes presidential memorials are the scenes for inspiring moments – there’s no better example than Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. But they can also be the scenes of moments that don’t exactly fill you with hope for the species. Counterfeiters once tried to steal Abraham Lincoln’s body in Springfield. Souvenir hunters nearly roasted Ulysses S. Grant’s family, days after his death, when they stole the lightning rod from the house in which the family was staying – just before a huge lightning storm.
And then, in New York City, someone stole Chester Arthur’s glasses.
Arthur, of course, took charge of the government after the death of President James A. Garfield. The country had low expectations for the man who was considered nothing but a pawn for powerful New York political boss Roscoe Conkling, but Arthur rose to the occasion, leaving Conkling and other machine politicians wondering what had happened to their man Chet Arthur. “He isn’t ‘Chet’ Arthur anymore,” one concluded. “He’s the president.”
In gratitude for his honorable conduct as president, supporters decided to honor the president with a monument near his grave in Albany, New York. They raised plenty of money – so much so, in fact, that there was money left over for a statue in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park, not far from Arthur’s house. Sculptor Ephraim Keyser finished the original statue in 1892, but the New York parks commission rejected it, officially because it was “not equal to the average of the sculpture in Central Park,” but I suspect it had something to do with the statue being “adorned with granite nymphs.” (The Keyser statue is now at Arthur’s alma mater, Union College, in Schenectady.)
After several years of nasty debate (which the New York City Statues site recaps much better than I ever could) George Edwin Bissell won a $25,000 commission to do a new statue, which was finished in 1898 and installed the following year. The always well-dressed Arthur stands at the southeast corner of Madison Square Park, as if he had just been reading in his favorite chair when he rose to greet passersby. His right arm is up toward his chest, as if he’d been holding something in his hand, and that’s because he had. The original statue was holding a pair of bronze eyeglasses, which someone stole right out of Arthur’s hand. Supposedly Bissell planned for this eventuality by making several casts of the glasses, but if so they were all gone by 1912.
While his glasses may be missing, the rest of Arthur looks pretty darned good, as the “Dude President” would have expected; the city has cleaned the statue up several times over the years, avoiding the bright green sheen that older statues often get. Arthur now looks on at a children’s playground, as if he were there to keep an eye on the people even all these years later. Too bad he has to squint to do so.