Roscoe Conkling and the Blizzard of 1888
With little warning, the blizzard of March 1888 dumped over 40 inches of snow on New York City within 36 hours. Temperatures plummeted below zero. Winds gusted up to 48 miles per hour. Along the coast from Boston to Washington, about 400 people died.
In New York, communication and transportation failures led to laws requiring that telephone and telegraph lines be buried, and to replacement of elevated mass transportation trains with the subway system. (Details here.)
Patriot and poet Jose Marti, who was organizing the Cuban independence movement from a Manhattan office, penned a vivid account of the blizzard that was printed in Buenos Aires' La Nacion on April 27, 1888.
Never in this century has New York seen a storm like the one on March 13. The day before, a Sunday, had been rainy, and the insomniac writer, the ticket seller at the railway station, and the milkman on his cart making the rounds of the sleeping houses at dawn could hear the wind that had descended upon the city whipping in fury against the chimneys and in even greater fury against rooftops and walls, taking off the roofs, demolishing shutters and balconies in its path, clutching at trees, carrying them off, and pitching down the narrow streets with a howl, as if caught in a trap. The electrical wires snapped by its passage sputtered and died. The telegraph lines that had so often withstood it were wrenched from their posts. …
When New York was like an Arctic plain and night was falling with nothing to light it up, and fear was everywhere; when the generous mailmen fell face down, numb and blind, defending the mail sacks with their bodies; when families, gripped by mortal terror, tried in vain to open blocked doors in their search for a way out of houses that had lost their roofs; when the fire hydrants, like the rest of the city, lay beneath five feet of snow, hidden to even the most faithful hand - a raging fire broke out, tinting its snowy surroundings with the colors of dawn, and bringing down three tenements in as many gulps. - Jose Marti, Selected Writings, ed. & trans. Esther Allen (New York: Penguin Books, pp. 225-31)
Conkling the man
Roscoe Conkling (10/30/1829-4/18/1888) was a fascinatingly ambiguous political figure. One biographer wrote, "A political boss, indeed; and one of the harshest, strictest, most narrow-minded of all political bosses. Possibly like Pooh Bah he was born sneering." A contemporary wrote, "He stood for independence, for courage, and above all for absolute integrity." On how your knowledge of Conkling will affect your reaction to this sculpture, see Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide.
Conkling the sculpture
Conkling resolved to walk from his law office in Wall Street to his home in Gramercy Park at the height of the 1888 blizzard. At Union Square he became disoriented in the drifts. When he finally arrived home he collapsed, never to recover. He died a month later.
Friends raised funds for a statue by the eminent John Quincy Adams Ward, requesting that it be placed in Union Square. City authorities replied that the corners of Union Square were intended for statues of four great Americans, and that Conkling was hardly in the same class as Lincoln and Washington. The Park Commissioners instead allotted Ward's Conkling a site in Madison Square.
- The rest of Marti's essay on the blizzard is worth reading for its vivid glimpse of urban life in the 1880s. Marti's essay in Spanish is no longer under copyright, but does not appear to be available on the web. Esther Allen's translation of Marti, being much more recent, is still copyright. It's my best guess that the passage quoted above is about the maximum that can be uploaded under the doctrine of "fair use."
- For more on this sculpture, see Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan and the Guides Who Know Monuments of Manhattan app (with another page here).
- 1877 cartoon showing Conkling as Mephistopheles
The following pithy poem is by M. Keel Jones, about whom I've been unable to discover any further information:
Each day into the upper air
Ascends the politician’s prayer–
“Grant me the gift of swift retort
And keep the public memory short.”