New-York Historical Society

The Tale of the Wandering Washington

Written by Joseph Ditta, Reference Librarian.

In honor of Presidents’ Day, come with us back to 1889, when the celebrations marking the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration as first president of the United States were in full swing. Perhaps the most impressive manifestation of New York’s pride of place as the location for that memorable event was the triumphal arch the City erected across the foot of Fifth Avenue, just north of Washington Square. Designed by Stanford White, the graceful arch of plaster and lathe was topped by

A statue of General Washington, 10 feet high…. It is of carved wood, painted, and represents the Father of his Country in Continental uniform — blue dress-coat with brass buttons, buff breeches, and riding boots. The right arm hangs extended by his side, and the left, holding a cocked hat, rests lightly on the hip. This statue is said to have been erected on the Battery in 1792, and to have been the first [figure of Washington] erected in this city. It bears evidence of great age.” (Harper’s Weekly, 4 May 1889)

The temporary Washington Arch, 1889. Note the statue at top. (PR-042)

Stanford White’s arch proved so popular that a committee secured funds for the immediate construction of a permanent marble version inside Washington Square Park. As any modern tourist will report, however, there is a major difference between the current, iconic arch and its predecessor: the design no longer includes the wooden statue of George Washington. What happened to it? Where did it come from, anyway? Did it really stand down at the Battery in 1792? Intriguing questions without easy answers, but they didn’t stop Joseph Liebman, an imaginative Harlem tobacconist, from inventing some.

The "Old Wooden Washington" at Joseph Liebman's tobacco shop, 266 West 125th Street, circa 1898. (PR-052)

Liebman repeated the tale that this “Old Wooden Washington” was carved in 1792, but rather than site it on the Battery, he put it at nearby Bowling Green, the small park at the foot of Broadway, where it replaced the equestrian statue of King George III that patriotic New Yorkers pulled down in 1776. George Washington stood there until 1843, when Bowling Green was redesigned and the city fathers deemed the wooden figure out of fashion. They sold it at auction to a Mr. Jaques, who kept it in South Norwalk, Connecticut, until his death in 1860, when it passed to subsequent collectors. It eventually came into possession of Frederick J. Theobald, who ran a cigar shop on 125th Street in Harlem. Theobald sold his business — and the statue — to Joseph Liebman in 1892. (It was Theobald, presumably, who three years earlier lent the figure for display atop the temporary Washington Arch.)

Joseph Liebman's fanciful history of the "Old Wooden Washington," circa 1898 (PR-052)

Liebman had the statue photographed at least twice inside his shop at 266 West 125th Street. In one shot he stands next to Washington, dwarfed by comparison. On the back of the other photo he printed his “history” of the statue, presumably to lend it an air of authenticity (if it’s in print, it must be true, right?). Unfortunately, Liebman’s claims lack proof. Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, who scoured every available record to assemble his monumental Iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909, was adamant that “the wooden effigy never stood on either the Battery or Bowling Green.” According to Stokes,

There is no petition or permit in the minutes or filed papers of the city clerk, at any time, referring to this statue on either of these or other public lands. Had it been placed there even briefly, without official authority, for some temporary celebration or otherwise, it would have been noticed and made known by some newspaper paragrapher, some correspondent, diarist, traveller-author, or guide-book writer; but no such mention of it has been found….”

Joseph Liebman with his "Old Wooden Washington," circa 1896. (Private collection)

In any case, Liebman hawked his treasure to various patriotic societies and museums as the genuine object, and even offered it for sale to the New-York Historical Society, but his $5,000 asking price was too high. It is unclear if he ever found a buyer, but in 1913 the statue could be seen gracing the front of a barbershop at St. Nicholas Avenue and 182nd Street. The barber had goals even loftier than Liebman’s: he wanted $10,000 for the statue. Eventually it landed in a junk shop from which Delaware Senator T. Coleman du Pont (1863-1930) rescued it for a mere $800. He presented it to the Delaware Historical Society, where it remains to this day, its wanderings at an end.

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