From the discoverer of anaesthesia to a big rock commemorating the Charter Oak
BY WILLIAM WEIR
August 20, 2010
Approved by the city in 1854, Hartford's Bushnell Park became the nation's first publicly funded park.
It was not an easy road. Local businessmen opposed the plan to spend a considerable amount of public money on the project. Not to mention that the space allotted for it was occupied at the time by a garbage dump, pig sties and tanneries.
No doubt you've used the park often, especially the area that holds the carousel and the Pump House Gallery. Perhaps you've wondered about the story behind some of the Bushnell's monuments. We offer a bit of their back story for you to consider next time you're wandering the park's paths:
Built in 1874 by Truman Bartlett, this statue's incription, "The Discoverer of Anaesthesia, " only hints at the unusual events of this Hartford resident's life. For someone best remembered for relieving others' pain, Wells had a pretty tortured life.
He discovered the pain-relieving effects of nitrous oxide after volunteering for demonstration at a traveling circus. As a dentist, he saw the practical benefits and began administering it to his patients. He provided the service at no charge, believing that painless health care should be free. He did, however, want credit for his discovery.
Unfortunately (for both Wells and patient), a public demonstration went awry when the anaesthesia was administered improperly. The disgraced Wells quit dentistry to sell canaries door-to-door, before leaving Connecticut for Paris. He eventually returned to both dentistry and Connecticut. But then he began self-medicating with chloroform. He bacame increasingly erratic and one night he threw sulfuric acid on two prostitutes and was arrested. That same night, he killed himself with a razor.
Charter Oak Scion
In 1660, Charles II of England granted Connecticut a charter, allowing it a fair amount of freedom. He died and James II (boo! hiss!) took over in 1685. Not caring much about charters, freedom, or Connecticut, James sent one of his men to the state to discuss lumping Connecticut into one large dominion with other New England states. Sir Edmund Andros called a meeting of Connecticut officials and demanded that he be given the charter. Suddenly, the candles were snuffed and the room went dark. Defenders of Connecticut freedom got the charter in the hands of Capt. Joseph Wadsworth, who hid it in the 800-year-old oak in the park.
None of this actually changed the course of events; James was overthrown a few years later and everything went back to normal. In fact, the tree didn't take on much historical significance until the mid-19th century when the tale was retold in a biography of Samuel Colt. In 1856, the tree was felled in a storm. In its approximate location, we have this monument.
Something of an anomaly, the 28-foot-tall, bronze and granite Corning Fountain features not classical figures — as would be typical of the time it was built in 1899 — but native Americans. Specifically, sculptor J. Massey Rhind featured members of the Saukiog (the very first Hartfordites) and Oneida tribes. But he didn't stop there. He also included a puma, a bear, a beaver and a fox. And he topped it all off with a stag (the archaic word for stag is "hart," as in Hartford).
It's one of the great features of Bushnell Park, but not without some effort. Less than three years after its installation, the fountain began to leak, requiring the services of Rhind himself. Further restorations were required in the 1950s and 1980s and a major fundraiser for its maintenance was held for its 100th anniversary.
Spirit Of Victory
Built in 1927, the Spirit of Victory is dedicated to the Hartford soldiers who served in the Spanish-American War. It features the goddess-like Columbia, the feminine personification of America, and was built by Evelyn Longman Batchelder, who often was referred to at the time as "the foremost living woman sculptor." By the 1940s, she would be best known for a 28-foot bronze statue, "Spirit of Communication," an image of which which would grace the covers of phone books.
Raised in a log cabin on a Canadian farm, Batchelder was taken out of school at age 14 to work. She nonetheless found a way to continue her sculpting and eventually became the first woman to join the National Academy of Design. She lived in Windsor with her husband, the headmaster of the Loomis School.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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