At the southeast corner of Madison Square Park stands a statue marked by a laconic plaque: Roscoe Conkling. A towering figure in 19th-century politics, Roscoe Conkling owes this monument to a mighty nature calamity that led to his untimely demise.
March 12, 1888, started as an ordinary spring day but ended as a major climate catastrophe. The whole East Coast was struck by a powerful snowstorm that went down in history as the Great Blizzard or the White Hurricane. One of the most severe in recorded history, it dumped 40 inches of snow; sustained winds of 45 mph created snowdrifts up to 50 feet in height!
On March 12, 1888, Roscoe Conkling left his Wall Street office in order to get to his club located around Madison Square Park. As the storm was already raging, finding a horse-drawn cab became challenging. An entrepreneurial cab driver offered Conkling a ride at a “special” storm-inflated price… The politician indignantly refused to be taken for a ride – literally – and set out on a journey uptown on foot. Mountains of snow and ferocious winds brought the city to a complete standstill, making the streets virtually unpassable. It is a wonder that Conkling made it all the way to Union Square. He was so close to his destination, but in the blinding gusts of snow, he got lost, disoriented, and finally collapsed in Union Square. Even though he got to the club with some help from others, the ordeal cost him his life: a few days later, Roscoe Conkling was dead.
Roscoe Conkling was a prominent political figure in the late 19th century. The undisputed leader of the Republican party in New York State, he was one of the most powerful men in the country. He served in the Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives and was an ardent supporter of the Grant administration. He was pro-Lincoln and pro-Grant in New York—a city hostile to the idea of the Civil War. Conkling championed the 14th amendment and led Radical Republicans, a major faction within the Republican Party dedicated to the goal of immediate, complete, permanent eradication of slavery without compromise. Conkling’s disagreeable personality and unwillingness to compromise made him unpopular, his reputation – negative, and his name largely forgotten.
Following his elaborate funeral, the funds were raised to erect his monument in Union Square — the place he collapsed at, making his way through the blizzard. The Parks Commission refused since Union Square was reserved for statues of “great Americans” such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Marquis de Lafayette. Instead, a Roscoe Conkling monument was erected in Madison Square, along with his contemporaries such as Chester Arthur, the 21st President of the United States from 1881 to 1885, and David Farragut, America’s first admiral and a Civil War hero.
Roscoe Conkling, whose name is essentially forgotten and does not mean much to contemporary passers-by, is depicted delivering a speech before the United States Senate—possibly arguing for the 14th amendment.
Sculptor: John Quincy Adams Ward