The Giant In The Earth

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One morning in early November of the year 1868 three men appeared at the railroad depot in Union, New York, just outside Binghamton. The most imposing of the trio, a tall, heavily bearded figure in his mid-forties, dressed in funereal black, identified himself to the station agent as George Hull and explained that he wanted to collect a shipment being held for him. After the necessary formalities the visitors carefully levered a heavy, iron-strapped wooden box almost a dozen feet long into their wagon and set off in a northerly direction.

Their journey was a slow and circuitous one, for they were at pains to avoid settled areas. It took them five days to travel sixty miles as the crow flies. At stopovers curious farmers or tavern loungers were told, variously, that the big crate contained castings, a tobacco press, or a monument to fallen heroes of the late war. Finally on the night of November 9, in a pounding rainstorm, they pulled up at the farm of Hull’s brother-in-law, William C. Newell, near Cardiff, a village twelve miles south of Syracuse. The box was unloaded behind Newell’s barn and covered over with straw. Hull and his two helpers left the next morning.

Two weeks later Hull returned. He and Newell dug a pit five feet deep in a low, marshy area between the barn and nearby Onondaga Creek. The crate was opened to reveal an enormous stone figure, which with the aid of block and tackle they buried in the pit, planting the site in clover. When Hull left this time, he told his brother-in-law not to expect him again for a year.

George Hull’s thickening plot, already two years old, now required him to be patient. By trade a cigar maker in Binghamton, Hull was a man of unbridled imagination whose reach for the main chance had so far always fallen short. A variety of inventions had brought him disappointing profits, and certain of his tobacco dealings had brought him only trouble with the internal-revenue laws. A plunge into the study of the natural sciences had led him to alchemy experiments, with predictable results. Never before, however, had any scheme so engaged his full powers of creativity as this one.

In 1866 Hull had journeyed to Ackley, Iowa, to straighten out a tangle over a shipment of cigars consigned to another of his brothers-in-law. While in Ackley he became involved in a heated discussion with a visiting revivalist preacher, one Reverend Turk. Hull was a confirmed and argumentative atheist, and the revivalist raised his temperature. The debate got around to the biblical reference “There were giants in the earth in those days” (Genesis 6:4), which the prescher insisted on interpreting literally in the face of Hull’s scoffing. Then the flash of inspiration: suddenly, Hull later related, he “thought of making a stone, and passing it off as a petrified man.”

The inspiration fermented slowly. Two years later, in June, 1868, Hull returned to Iowa, to the gypsum quarries at Fort Dodge. He engaged a quarryman to cut him a block 12 feet by 4 feet by 2 feet for what Hull described as a piece of patriotic statuary. In its sedimentary form as found in the Fort Dodge deposits, gypsum is soft and easily worked; it is also heavily striated, or veined. But the five-ton block frustrated Hull’s best efforts to reach the railroad forty miles away; several bridges as well as his wagon broke down under the load. He finally had to hack off a sizable piece of the gypsum, putting a crimp in the figure that loomed in his soaring imagination. The abbreviated block was soon on its way to 940 North Clark Street in Chicago.

The North Clark Street address was the establishment of a journeyman stonecutter named Edward Burghardt, to whom Hull had entrusted the task of (so to speak) bringing his petrified man to life. To ensure security Burghardt and his two assistants, Fred Mohrmann and Henry Salle, did the carving in off hours and on Sundays. The sound of their hammering was quieted by draping the studio with quilts and carpeting, and Hull supplied buckets of beer to keep the artisans from spilling the story in a neighborhood saloon.

Through the summer months the sculptors chiseled away. Hull, who supervised every detail, ordained that his biblical Giant assume a supine position, turned slightly to the right with the left leg drawn up. The left arm extended straight along the side and somewhat underneath the body, while the right hand clutched the stomach. The overall impression of this posture was of an agonizing death—perhaps from a stomachache. In striking contrast were the Giant’s features: regular, composed, with even the hint of a smile. An anguished facial expression may well have been beyond the limited skill of the carvers; or possibly HuJJ, who unblushingly served as the model, was too pleased with his scheme to put on a suitable face. In any event, the final effect was intriguingly mysterious.