The Search For The Missing King

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If, one of these days, someone in England comes across a huge chunk of lead, rather battered and defaced, but recognizable as the head of a certain British monarch, the finder will have his hands on a part of the most famous statue in early American history.

This was the equestrian statue of King George III which was pulled down by patriots in New York City on July 9, 1776, and hacked into pieces, some of which were subsequently cast into bullets. Although 42,088 bullets were made from the royal lead, some fragments escaped the bullet mold and, having gone through various adventures, remain today—some in private hands, others in a museum—to make a close tie with those first exciting days of the Revolution. It is also possible that other pieces will turn up and that even the head, last seen in London in 1777, still exists.

It all started on July 9, 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was read aloud to the American troops in New York for the first time. Its unflattering references to His Absent Majesty spurred the listening soldiers and civilians to immediate action. Somebody thought of the statue of the King, which had been made in London by Joseph Wilton and erected with such ceremony only six years before, and, in the early evening, a crowd gathered at Bowling Green, where the 4,000-pound image stood on a high pedestal in the center of a little park. Ropes were thrown over the figure and made fast. Strong arms pulled. There was a heavy thud, then cheers and the clang of metal being chopped into pieces. Men cut the head from the body, then disfigured it by chipping the nose away and prying off the laurel wreath with which the head was crowned, finally they formed a noisy procession and straggled away into the night with their booty, while a life and drum played “The Rogue’s March,” the tune commonly used at a tar and feathering.

Before long the metal started on its travels, British forces were slowly closing in on Manhattan and it was only a matter of time before the city would be attacked. The head was filched at once by a group of American soldiers who lugged it up to their Fort Washington encampment on upper Manhattan. They had the idea of mounting it on a spike in the traditional English treatment of traitors and erecting it in front of the Blue Bell Tavern, which stood at what is today the corner of Broadway and 181st Street.

News of this plan reached the ears of Captain John Montresor, an engineer with the British army. He had his contacts, having lived in New York for years (his home was Randall’s Island), and he got word to one Corbie, an American who spied for the British. Corbie and John Cox, a Tory, seized the head and buried it, presumably near Cox’s Tavern. It remained hidden until after November 16, when the Americans lost Manhattan. Then the two men dug up the battered relic and delivered it to Montresor.

Meanwhile, the rest of the lead started on its way from New York to Litchfield, Connecticut, a burgeoning military depot which had sufficient equipment for a big bullet-making venture. Probably the metal was loaded on a coastal vessel and sailed up Long Island Sound to Norwalk, then transferred to carts and headed north. Eventually, after a stop at Wilton, Connecticut, the wagon train arrived at Litchfield, where General Oliver Wolcott’s family and neighbors (five women and one small boy) promptly set to work. Using heavy iron molds the nimble-fingered ladies produced a total of 42,088 bullets, then rolled them into cartridges with powder and oiled paper and packaged them in lots of twelve. At the rate of twenty bullets to the pound, this accounted for about 2,000 pounds of George.

What happened to the other 2,000 pounds, excepting the head? Some of the lead disappeared en route to Litchfield, at Wilton, where it remained hidden for fifty years before it began to reappear. The first piece of the statue to turn up was a portion of the saddle and saddlecloth, found during the winter of 1832–33 in a swamp by someone working for the Comstock family. It was identified by an aged veteran of the Revolution as part of the statue.

Comstock kept the fragment for about ten years and then sold it to a man who in turn disposed of it to Thomas Riley of New York. Riley ran the Fifth Ward Museum Hotel at West Broadway and Franklin Street, where he displayed curios like Tecumseh’s rifle and Andrew Jackson’s pipe, and one of the Hawaiian clubs that had dashed out the brains of Captain Cook. To this interesting mélange Riley added the fragment of George III. It remained on display until 1864, when, after Riley’s death, the collection was sold at auction. Once again this piece of George disappeared. It is still unaccounted for.

In 1871 the biggest find of all was plowed up on the site of the old Sloane house in Wilton—four large pieces, including the horse’s flowing tail, another section of saddle and saddlecloth, and two pieces that might be the flank of the horse. Together they totaled about 200 pounds of lead.

One small fragment, perhaps found at the same time, was given in 1875 to the New-York Historical Society. Then, in 1878, twenty members of the society chipped in five dollars apiece to buy for the society’s museum the four pieces plowed up in 1871. These are on exhibition there today, along with the marble base of the statue, which had its own adventures, serving first as a tombstone, then as a doorstep in New Jersey, before being reunited with the fragments of the statue.