New England’s working class heroes occupy far less space on commons and greens than soldiers and politicians. Few were laid to rest in lavish mausoleums. Police officers and firefighters are sometimes recognized for dying in the line of duty, but ordinary toil is rarely acknowledged.
Look hard enough, though, and you’ll find monuments to the people who strove for dignity in work.
In honor of Labor Day, we present six memorials to working class heroes: a servant, a carpenter, a machinist, a stonecutter, a mill girl and a lumberjack. Some are fictional or allegorical, others are very real.
Sadly, we couldn’t name a statue for each. So in one state, we chose a mental hospital where one of our heroes spent a decade – the price he paid for fighting for workers.
A bronze statue in front of the A.I. Prince Technical School in Hartford is one of Connecticut’s few homages to working people. It isn’t even clear that it was intended as such.
The seated sculpture represents a working man in rough clothes. His sleeves are rolled up. He studies a book, probably a repair manual. A few machine parts rest at his feet.
The statue was dedicated on Sept. 16, 1931, a time when Connecticut workers were struggling for better pay and working conditions. That year, fur workers went on strike in Danbury, textile workers walked out in Putnam and New London, garment workers walked off the job in New Haven and laborers struck in Newtown.
The Hartford statue’s lugubrious inscription reads,
Industry, given in honor of the pioneers of industry in the city of Hartford, men whose memory is revered, whose influence survives to inspire succeeding generations.
The inscription seems inappropriate to the statue, as The Shoeleather History Project notes. It doesn’t look like a pioneer of industry, but like an ordinary machinist who helped make the fortunes of the pioneers of industry.
But a group of Connecticut manufacturers paid for the sculpture, so they got to name it. The mismatch is reflected in the dual name: The Craftsman, or Industry.
The sculptor, Connecticut artist Evelyn Beatrice Longman, had created another worker monument decades earlier to the Lowell mill girls. It wasn’t known until years later that she carved still another one: a memorial to the six unknown victims of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. The fire engulfed a dangerous garment factory in New York City, killing 146 immigrant workers who were mostly young women. The tragedy spurred safety reforms and union organizing.
A kitschy, 31-foot-high statue of Paul Bunyon, the giant lumberjack of folklore, stands in front of the Bangor Civic Center in Maine. Bangor is one of at least six places that claim to be Bunyan’s birthplace.
The Paul Bunyan of folklore embodies working-class values of strength, skill and loyalty to his fellow worker — Babe the Blue Ox.
Folk tales say he was so fast he could turn out the light and jump into bed before the room got dark. He could clear vast tracts with a single stroke of the ax. When disappearing woodlands forced Paul Bunyan and Babe to move west, they dug the Great Lakes for Babe’s drinking water.
Paul Bunyan has a far greater presence in the Upper Midwest than in New England, but Bangor has reasons to stake its claim to him. The lumbering industry first took root in Northern New England, with old-growth pine trees providing masts for the British Royal Navy. By 1830, Bangor was the largest lumber shipping port in the world.
Plus, Maine has a dense Franco-American population and Paul Bunyan’s name sounds French. Many believe it is Franco-Canadian. ‘Bunyan’ is similar to the Québécois phrase “bon yenne!” expressing astonishment, which is how you’d react if you encountered a 30-foot tall lumberjack.
The statue was given to by a New York builder on Bangor’s 125th anniversary in 1959. A local artist, J. Norman Martin, designed it. He was said to have been paid $137
Mainer Stephen King brought the Paul Bunyan statue to life in his 1986 novel, IT.
Massachusetts Mill Girl
Louisa Maria Wells worked most of her life as a weaver in the Lowell mill of the Lawrence Manufacturing Co. Born in Proctorsville, Vt., she was part of the first wave of Yankee farm girls who went to work in the new textile mills. She never married, and she saved her meager pay a dollar at a time. When she died at age 70 in 1886, she directed her savings be spent on a gravestone. Her family contested the will. When the matter was settled 20 years later, the fund had grown to about $7,500.
Daniel Chester French was chosen to carve the statue, but he turned the commission over to his student, Evelyn Beatrice Longman. She carved a 15-foot-high statue depicting the Angel of Death hovering over a mill girl. The woman holds a bobbin with a broken strand of cotton, and another strand remains unbroken to symbolize immortality.
Longman said she wanted it to represent the quiet, peaceful ending of labor. The inscription reads, “Out of the fibre of her daily tasks/she wove the fabric of a useful life/Louisa Maria Wells/Died February 20, 1886.”
Longman carved many other works, including The Craftsman, the bronze doors to the U.S. Naval Academy chapel and wreaths and garlands for the Lincoln Memorial.
New Hampshire Servant
The Harriet Wilson Monument in Milford, N.H., celebrates a biracial woman who wrote the first novel by an African-American in North America.
She was born Harriet Adams on March 15, 1825 in Milford to Margaret Ann Smith, an African-American washerwoman, and Joshua Green, an Africa- American hooper of barrels. Her father died when she was young and her mother abandoned Harriet, leaving her with a Milford farmer. The court bound the orphaned child to the farmer as an indentured servant.
On April 19, 1859, Harriet Wilson copyrighted her novel titled Our Nig and deposited a copy in the Office of the Clerk of the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts.
In the book Harriet Wilson told her story of her mother’s abandonment, of her indentured servitude to a cruel mistress, of her eventual decision to fight for herself. She wrote it to earn enough money to survive.
The book, an indictment of Northern hypocrisy about race, didn’t make her rich. It faded into obscurity and Harriet moved to Massachusetts to become a spiritualist and trance healer.
The novel was little noticed until 1983, when scholar Henry Louis Gates established her identity. The Harriet Wilson Project of Milford then raised money to commission and install the Harriet E. Wilson Memorial Statue in 2006.
Rhode Island Carpenter
Crippling debt turned Seth Luther from a model citizen to a firebrand labor organizer.
He was born in Providence in 1795, the son of a Revolutionary War veteran. He became a successful carpenter and a member in good standing of the First Baptist Church.
Then in the summer of 1822 he fell ill. He couldn’t work for two months and received no wages. Though he rallied, he ruptured a blood vessel. That cost him $38.50 in medical expense and four more months’ lost wages. He owed his boarding house owner, a grocer and a lumber dealer. Two of his creditors had him sent to the state jail (now Providence Place Mall). In his fetid cell he was given corn beef hash spiced with dead flies. Six weeks later he emerged from prison a champion of equality, a pioneer in union organizing and a fighter for voting rights.
By 1832 Seth Luther was agitating in Providence for the 10-hour work day. When he was attacked for his activism, he wrote, “I glory in these wounds knowing they would not have been inflicted had I not advocated the cause of the suffering children incarcerated in the cotton mills of our once happy New England.”
Later, when he joined the Dorr Rebellion, he delivered a speech promising the vote to workers with the famous phrase, “Peaceably if we can, forcibly if we must.” He was imprisoned in Newport but escaped briefly after setting fire to his cell. Charges were eventually dropped.
By 1846 he had gone over the edge. He tried to rob a Boston bank with a sword, and he was incarcerated for a decade in the new Butler Hospital for the Insane. He was later sent to a mental hospital in Brattleboro, Vt., where he died.
The Providence Journal wrote in his obituary that Luther “had considerable talent for both writing and speaking, but he was too violent, willful and headstrong to accomplish any good.” His life, the newspaper concluded, was worse than useful.
There is no memorial in Rhode Island to Seth Luther. But the Butler Hospital still stands.
The life-size memorial to Elia Corti in Barre’s Hope Cemetery is a masterpiece of the stonecutters’ art. Carved from a single block of granite, it is a fitting tribute to one of Barre’s most talented stonecutters.
Elia Corti emigrated from Italy in 1892 at the age of 23. He settled in Barre, which considers itself the granite capital of the world. At the turn of the 20th century, Barre was a hotbed of radicalism. Its immigrant community – skilled, literate Italians — divided into socialists and anarchists, who warred over the direction of the union movement.
Corti joined the anarchist cause as a young man. He fell away from ‘the faith’ after he became business partners with another stonecutter. Corti also married and fathered three young daughters. He is best known for carving the panels at the base of the Robert Burns Monument in Barre.
On the night of Oct. 3, 1903, Corti attended a funeral supper. Then he headed to the Old Labor Hall where a crowd had gathered to hear a New York socialist leader, G.M. Serrati. Corti probably went to the meeting to prevent his brother and brothers-in-law from getting into trouble. A fight broke out, and a a socialist tool-sharpener named Alessandro Garetto fired wildly, hitting Corti.
Corti died the next day. The trial that followed exposed the simmering rivalry between the anarchists and socialists.
Corti’s family and the townspeople came together to erect a memorial to him. His melancholy figure, wearing a suit and tie, was carved by his brother and brother-in-law. Grieving stonecutters from all over Vermont carved the base, which includes the stonecutter’s tools: calipers, square, hammer, chisel and pneumatic carving tool.
You can still visit the scene of the crime. Barre’s Old Labor Hall at 46 Granite St.
Photos: Paul Bunyan statue By Dennis Jarvis – http://www.flickr.com/photos/archer10/4447762402/sizes/o/in/photostream/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22033451. Photo of Harriet Wilson statue courtesy The Harriet Wilson Project.