On the evening of July 9, 1776, downtown New York City was in a rebellious mood. The Declaration of Independence had been read aloud that day in lower Manhattan for the first time, announcing to the city that the Revolution against British rule had begun. That night, 40 colonial soldiers and sailors under the command of Capt. Oliver Brown crept into a dark alley near the park at Bowling Green. Their mission? To pull down a statue of King George III.
There’s no lack of priceless Revolutionary War artifacts on view in the New-York Historical Society. But perhaps none have the wild backstory of one of the signature pieces in our collection: the lead horse’s tail that was ripped from the statue that night. How it came to the Museum involves a century-long story about patriotic vandalism, metal recycling, and a detour to a Connecticut swamp.
Sculpted by Joseph Wilton in England, the statue had sat in Bowling Green since 1770 and depicted King George III astride a horse in a pose that New-York Historical’s Alexander J. Wall once said was modeled on a statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome. Erected on a heavy pedestal and plinth, it stood at about 15 feet and was made of lead gilded with gold. As the New York Times recently wrote of the figure: “With right arm upraised over the heads of the rabble, his message to a colony in revolutionary turmoil was plain enough: Don’t even think about it.”
But the patriots did more than think about it that night. They climbed the statue, tied ropes around it, and—after a one failed attempt—heaved it to the ground. A furious George Washington quickly heard about the act and, while he commended the soldiers’ “zeal,” he decried anything that looked like “a riot or want of order.” But the deed was done. Wall quotes press reports in his 1920 Quarterly Bulletin: “The equestrian statue of King George III which tory pride and folly erected in 1770, was by the sons of freedom, laid prostrate in the dirt; the just desserts of an ungrateful tyrant!”
After the gold was removed, the broken statue was carted off to Litchfield, CT, where the 4,000 pounds of lead were supposed to be melted down into musket balls for the coming war. In all, over 40,000 balls were made, but some key segments went missing along the way: The head, for instance, was apparently returned to England, where it disappeared from record. As for other pieces, the legend goes that the cart’s drivers stopped in a tavern in Wilton, CT, and local loyalists took the opportunity to spirit some of the segments away—including the horse’s tail.
What happened to the tail after that is not known. Nearly 100 years passed before it and several other pieces were found in a swamp near a Wilton farm in 1871. They were irresistible artifacts of the American Revolution, and in 1878, members of the New-York Historical Society banded together to purchase the fragments for one hundred dollars. They’ve been in our collection ever since, and the horse’s tail is on view in our second floor Dexter Gallery.
The tale of the toppled statue continues to be a source of fascination. The original iron fence from that time still stands in Bowling Green and includes a plaque commemorating the statue’s ignominious end. A reproduction of the statue was created in 2016 and is now part of a tableau at Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution. Meanwhile, visitors to New-York Historical can examine the painting Pulling Down the Statue of King George III by Johannes Adam Simon Oertel (circa 1852-1853), also in the second floor gallery. Of course, the oil-on-canvas work is a heavily fictionalized depiction made 83 years after the fact. To experience the real deal, visitors need only look at the glass case below it and the weathered tail that was right there at the tumultuous birth of America.
Written by Kerrie Mitchell, content editor