1868 – The Artist, The Philanthropist, And The Mad Doctor

The Lafayette Park Conservancy is a group dedicated to the preservation and improvement of the heart of Lafayette Square. In 2007, it set about the task of restoring a 22 foot tall monument to Thomas Hart Benton. As 2008 marked the 100th anniversary of the death of its creator, Harriet Hosmer, and the 140th year of the statue in the park, a program was devised to coincide those anniversaries with the unveiling of a thoroughly refreshed Benton in the park.

With thanks to the Conservancy upon the 150th anniversary year of the monument, we’ve shared their program from a decade ago HERE. It summarizes the events held then to commemorate Hosmer and to raise funds for the Benton project. The weekend was collectively called “Hats Off To Hatty”.

So let’s go back a ways to recall how this all came about. In the last post, we ended with why Lafayette Park was chosen in 1860 to host the statue. It was St Louis’ only city park, and so a logical place to put its first publicly commissioned monument. Now we can add some context as to why Hosmer, and why St Louis. A good story lies here.

Wayman Crow

Wayman Crow (1808-1885) was a man who, much like Henry Shaw, had amassed a fortune while still young and enterprising. Like Shaw, he looked to do more and benefit society along the way. By 1840, he was president of the St Louis Chamber of Commerce and was elected twice to the Missouri state senate. In 1846, he chartered the St Louis Mercantile Library, the first library west of the Mississippi River. In 1853, Crow incorporated Eliot Seminary, which became Washington University and he began funding its development. In 1881, he founded the St Louis School and Museum of Fine Arts. An all-around good guy to have in a fast developing city at the time. Something Crow is less known for is the role he played in the career of sculptor Harriet Hosmer (1830-1838).

Harriet Hosmer engraving by Auguste Rodin

Harriet was the daughter of a Watertown, Massachusetts physician. She lost her mother and three siblings to tuberculosis while very young. Her father encouraged Harriet to develop her strength with vigorous exercise, and she became adept at rowing, skating, and horsemanship. She developed, at an early age, an independence unusual for a woman of that time. She traveled by herself up and down the Mississippi River, and has a small mountain in Iowa named for her, having once raced to its top in a wager. Harriet was deeply interested in the human spirit during the time of great American transcendentalists like Thoreau and Emerson, who championed nature and individualism. She was enthralled by art, and particularly drawn to sculpture, in a day when carving stone was considered extremely unladylike. She had to work to overcome the limitations imposed on women, and became a trailblazer for it.

But Harriet’s life was not a miserable struggle by any stretch. She had a delightful disposition and demonstrated a consistent ability to charm influential people who then helped her forward. She also maintained an assortment of deep friendships over years and continents of separation.

Her father sent her to an exclusive girls school known as “the Hive” at the home of the Sedgwicks, a prominent New England family, in the Massachusetts Berkshires. The house attracted many luminaries of the time, including Hawthorne, Emerson, and Fanny Kemble, an eminent English actress. That combination of creative minds and inspiring scenery must have fired Harriet’s ambitions. Another student and one of her closest friends there was Cornelia Crow, daughter of Wayman Crow.

Wayman understood and appreciated Harriet’s urge to sculpt. He was aware of the barriers that confronted a woman attempting to gain entrance to an established and exclusive community of male sculptors. Overcoming the obstacles to developing her skills would require the assistance of another unconventional mind, back in St Louis. Enter Joseph N. McDowell (1805-1868).

J.N. McDowell From Becker Library Collection

Dr. McDowell began lecturing on the history of man at Kemper College in 1838. He used human skulls in his presentations, and students packed the lecture hall to watch his dissertations. Thin and shrill, with iron-gray hair falling nearly to his shoulders, he was a highly competent teacher, but offbeat in the extreme. By 1847, he had planned and begun construction of a medical school at 8th and Gratiot Streets. It was built like a fortress; octagonal, three stories tall, with a foundation eight feet thick. He bought 1400 obsolete muskets from the US government and stored them in the basement. He bought a pile of scrap brass and had it cast into eight cannons, which he and his students would fire on national holidays. McDowell appeared at these functions in a tricornered hat and brass breastplate, cavalry saber at his side. He would yell “Make Rome howl” and commence with the cannonade. Despite his pronounced eccentricity, he led a solid program of instruction, with anatomical dissection a feature.

A Missouri state law was passed in 1835, making the removal of bodies from graves, for sale or dissection, illegal. An infraction was classified as a misdemeanor, and some teaching hospitals, like McDowell’s Medical College sought to outflank the law by targeting the gravesites of slaves, transients, and the indigent whom few would miss. It is said McDowell led sorties by night to raid paupers cemeteries.

Legal or not, McDowell never seemed particularly troubled by his odd, and ever-growing odder reputation. He drew large crowds to his commencement exercises, and could hold an audience rapt with his addresses. Dr. Warrren Outten, a surgeon who attended Cathedral Male Free School (now CBC) next door in the 1850’s recalled:

“Dr. McDowell was to each and every student a marked and wonderful character. His intensity and tendency toward profanity, his swaggering and independent bearing made him interesting, awesome, and peculiar”.

As Joseph McDowell displayed a unique combination of skill and eccentricity, he seemed a likely person to break the established mold and let a woman attend his school. In fact, Wayman Crow anticipated this, and helped enable Harriet to enter McDowell’s anatomy course in 1850. Like almost everyone, McDowell delighted in having her around, and gave Harriet each day’s syllabus in advance so she could study in greater depth. She graduated with the knowledge of anatomy and physiology necessary to anyone serious about modeling the human form in stone. That deep familiarity had, until this point, been restricted in America to men.

At the age of 22, again with the assistance of Wayman Crow, Hatty (as he and many called her) moved to Rome. Writing at the time of leaving, “I am soul bound and thought bound in this land of dollars and cents”, she embraced a larger world that would impose fewer limits. This is consistent throughout Harriet’s life. For example, she deliberately and early rejected the idea of marriage, writing:

She often wrote to Wayman Crow back in St Louis. In fact, his daughter, who collected and published Harriet’s correspondence in 1912, noted; “To no one else did she write so freely and consecutively of her life and work abroad, as to her early friend, Mr. Wayman Crow.” She referred to him endearingly as “Pater”. This was to remain a special and lifelong relationship.

To say that Hatty took to Rome would be an understatement. She was, as she expressed in 1854, “merry as a cricket and happy as a clam”. She was the sole student of famed English sculptor John Gibson, in that city. Hatty shared a house with the most celebrated actress of her day, Charlotte Cushman. They attracted wealthy and famous travelers much like Gertrude Stein would in Paris seventy years later. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, George Eliot, Sir Benjamin Guinness of Dublin, The Empress of Austria, The Queen of Naples, American Admiral Farragut and General Sheridan, Hans Christian Anderson, J.P. Morgan, William James and many others enjoyed the hospitality of the home in Rome. Through it all, Hatty was, according to James, “the life of every party”, and a central player in the expat community there. She was lifelong friends with Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and frequently exchanged letters and poetry with them.

Elizabeth wrote: “A great pet of mine and Robert’s and who emancipates the eccentric life of a perfectly emancipated female”.

Hatty usually dressed like a man, would ride horses unescorted, and issued her opinions freely. She grew to champion the developing cause of women’s rights. She wrote:

“I honor every woman who has strength enough to step outside the beaten path when she feels that her walk lies in another; strength enough to stand up and be laughed at, if necessary.”

Puck Engraving by Hosmer

In 1854, she achieved a career breakthrough, with a sculpture of Shakespeare’s Puck. It was replicated 30 times at $1000 a copy, and provided her financial independence. She created a studio in Rome from where she worked for thirty years. Many of her works were of tragic women from classical myth. Her masterpiece, Zenobia In Chains sold for $400,000 in 1859. The wealthy and famous of Europe bid for copies of her work. In her own lifetime, she became the world’s preeminent female sculptor.

So it was a big deal indeed, when, in 1860, the Missouri Legislature awarded the commission for a statue in bronze, honoring Thomas Hart Benton, to Harriet Hosmer. Her patron Wayman Crow was on the approval committee, and he was ecstatic. So was Hatty, who, in June of that year, wrote:

“I may say that I don’t think I have ever been half so tickled before. Think what a start it gives me, what a thing to have a public work! And above all, how rejoiced I am that it will be in St. Louis.”

In late 1861, a plaster cast of the Benton model was sent to Munich, to be recast in bronze by the Royal Foundry. The American Civil War then interfered with any further move to ship and install the monument, until 1867.

McDowells Medical College

Meanwhile, Dr. Joseph McDowell, who was thoroughly pro-slavery and eventually secessionist, donated his cannons to the Confederacy, and moved to Memphis. Perhaps in the spirit of good riddance, his medical school/fortress was turned into a prison for war criminals. At one time it confined 1300 inmates. It was then called the Gratiot Street Prison. Today it is gone, and the site is a parking lot for Nestle-Purina. McDowell died in 1868, and is (securely) buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery.

Also in the same year:


And in reply, along with a bust of Crow she had shipped to him:

So in the end, we have this magnificent monument made possible through the workings of the State of Missouri, a local philanthropist, a renegade sculptress, and maybe even a madman. In an excellent recent book about Hosmer, Kate Culkin makes the argument that Hatty was, beyond her skills as an artist, the beneficiary of being in the right place at the right time, among the right people. I might counter that the same could be said of most intersections of great times and famous people. Hatty was intuitive enough to steer a steady course toward exactly what she felt most compelled to do. Henry James stated Hosmer “was, above all, a character, strong, fresh and interesting, destined, whatever statues she made, to make friends that were better still even than these at her best.” My own opinion is that the perception of something as art lies in the appreciation of one’s own sense of it. Hatty herself was greatly appreciated by those around her, and whether it affected their perception or appreciation of her craft is really secondary. Andy Warhol’s works reside in exclusive galleries for much the same reason, perhaps representing an appreciation as much of Warhol as of his art. Artists often have patrons. True art survives the years.

A final thought on this 5’2” dynamo named Hatty. She recognized early on that her efforts were unusual and could be misinterpreted. As mentioned, she was outspoken in her advocacy for the rights of women. Later on, she befriended Susan B. Anthony, and the cause of women’s suffrage. One last excerpt from her letters:

Perhaps Hatty’s wandering ghost is having a good time seeing “what has been going on” 150 years later. Here’s hoping this essay increases your enjoyment next time you pass by the Thomas Hart Benton statue in Lafayette Park.


Many thanks to research sources, including:

Harriet Hosmer Letters And Memories – Edited by Cornelia Crow Carr; Moffat, Yard & Co; 1912

Harriet Hosmer: A Cultural Biography; Kate Culkin; University of Massachusetts Press; 2010

Missouri’s Mad Doctor McDowell; Cosner & Shannon; History Press; 2015

St Louis Post-Dispatch at stltoday.com Article by Jane Henderson; October 25, 2015; http://www.stltoday.com/entertainment/books-and-literature/book-blog/when-body-snatching-came-to-s-st-louis/article_22da7cff-e391-5adf-9e63-4755069e04d2.html

The Harvard Square Library; http://HarvardSquareLibrary.org/biographies/harriet-hosmer


New England Historical Society; http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/harriet-hosmer-pioneering-woman-artist/

The Lafayette Square Marquis; March – July 2008; with special thanks to Carolyn Willmore who wrote and edited most of the articles dealing with the re dedication events.

The Tracy Family History; http://www.thetracyfamilyhistory.net/co_62_prison.htm for an interesting perspective on Dr. McDowell.





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