Did Cincinnati Invent Statue Cancel Culture in 1872?

Here’s the story of how our city’s original Lincoln statue got canceled, more than a century before cancel culture was cool.

Seven score and eight years ago, our fathers brought down in this city a new statue. It was 1872, so the odds are good that Cincinnati was America’s first city to angrily tear down a marble monument of Abraham Lincoln. Eliminating statues in 2020 may eventually leave no dead white man standing, or sitting, or on a horse, but Cincinnati was ahead of the curve on this by almost 150 years. No more jokes, please, about our town doing everything 10 years late.

Photograph (Lincoln) by Celso Diniz/stock.adobe.com; photograph by Aaron M. Conway

Abraham Lincoln has not been immune to the frenzy over unworthy historical statues. Sure, he ended slavery, but he also made it plain that he was against full racial equality. To mangle a famous quote from Marge Schott: “He was good in the beginning, but he didn’t go far enough.” That’s why Abe is on current-day Statue Naughty Lists, his name lumped together with vastly more deserving targets.

But go back to the period right after his death, and statues honoring him couldn’t be built fast enough. Lincoln’s omnipresent chiseled marble figure made him, literally, a rock star. So you’d think that Cincinnati’s first Lincoln monument would have lasted for generations and that you’d know about it. It didn’t, and you don’t. The statue suffered through a train wreck of skulduggery, bad faith, bad luck, and an actual train wreck. Here’s the story of how our city’s original Lincoln statue got canceled, more than a century before cancel culture was cool.

Just to be clear, we aren’t talking about the beardless Abe Lincoln in Lytle Park downtown, the world-famous bronze dude whose height and hands make him look like he was born too soon for the NBA. No, this is about Cincinnati’s lost memorial to the Great Emancipator: a majestic 25-foot-tall domed display of marble pillars with a large bust of Lincoln in the center perched upon a heavy granite base (remember that detail, it’ll be back) and guarded by two marble lions. It had been unveiled to loud cheers, but only a few years later it was unceremoniously brought down. After a few more years, it was destroyed again. And then—stay with me here—some years later it was broken into pieces yet again. If this all seems impossible, well, let’s go there and see.

Oh, wait, you can’t go there. The monument stood in Lincoln Park, a West End expanse of greenery, lakes, and playgrounds that’s long gone. Union Terminal and the Cincinnati Museum Center—with its long, wide entrance and parking lots on either side—is there now, after Big Railroad gentrified it in 1932. The park survives in photos and picture postcards, and you may even know an elderly Cincinnatian who remembers being there. But Lincoln Park’s namesake marble memorial is completely forgotten, existing only in musty newspaper stories with no images.

It had begun, as things often do before going wrong, with noble and lofty plans. In 1865, Cincinnati was about to open the new West End Park. City officials quickly changed the name to Lincoln Park after the president was assassinated. Whatever the name, West End residents would finally enjoy a gathering place that was attractive and clean—two rare adjectives for 19th-century Cincinnati. Thomas White of downtown’s T. White & Sons Marble and Granite Works offered to build a large marble monument to the beloved Mr. Lincoln: dome, pillars, bust, lions, everything. It would cost his company about $10,000, but White declared that nothing was too good for our martyred president. Besides, patriotic Cincinnati citizens would surely express their appreciation through a reimbursement fund the city promised to set up.

On October 26, 1867, every pompous and stuffy pageantry of the era was put into service for the monument’s dedication. Political bigwigs gave speeches, each demonstrating that they would never, ever come close to writing a Gettysburg Address. A local judge described Mr. Lincoln as “one of the noblest specimens of our race.” The mayor’s speech was similarly eloquent, calling the president “so great and so beloved while living, and dead, so sincerely lamented.” The grand Lincoln monument was then unveiled, certain to be Cincinnati’s eternal beacon of freedom, exemplifying the Queen City’s patriotism and civic pride forever!

Um, no. It was gone in less than five years. The issues were minor at first, such as some bickering over the accuracy of Abe’s likeness. Passions about Lincoln were still running hot at the time, and without a photo we’ll never know how justified these complaints might have been.

Regardless, bigger problems emerged. A few months after the monument went up, Thomas White died, and his son Alfred took over the marble company. It was noted that although a reimbursement fund for the company was supposed to be up and running, it was not up, not running, and not even started. After four years the city had submitted only $700 to pay for the bust’s granite base. Alfred therefore decided that Cincinnati’s sole legitimate claim to the monument was all about that base, and he wanted the rest back.

It is here that our story goes from ordinary to juicy. White respectfully requested the city’s permission to remove the monument from Lincoln Park so he could place it at his father’s grave in Spring Grove Cemetery. After all, his dad had designed, built, and paid for it. Permission was granted, and on April 1, 1872, a derrick rolled into the park and repossessed Abe, the pillars, and the lions. The base stayed. It turned out to be Alfred’s April Fools prank on Cincinnati, because the monument never showed up at Spring Grove. Instead, he sold it to an organization in Philadelphia planning a monument for someone else.

White simply stored away his bust of Lincoln, made a bust of the Someone Else, bundled it with the pillars, the lions, etc., and charged the folks $5,000. This was only half of the original value, but a hell of a lot better than $700. Everything was put on a train to Philadelphia.

It is here that our story goes from juicy to bonkers. The train never made it. A bridge collapsed on the way, dropping 10 railroad cars into the Susquehanna River and shattering everything. In a sense, Alfred White kept his word: He’d relocated the monument from Lincoln Park to a grave—albeit a watery one. White was later informed that the salvaged pieces from his $10,000 memorial, already discounted by half, were now worth about $75.

Well, at least he still had the original bust of Abe Lincoln stored at his factory. The glo­rious day would surely arrive when an eager Lincoln fan wanted to build America’s next big monument to the Great Emancipator, and that bust would fly off the shelf.

It is here that our story goes from bonkers to just-plain-off-the-charts ridiculous. The glorious day did arrive, but it went like this: Abraham Lincoln, cast in marble imported from Italy, the sole surviving evidence of Cincinnati’s grand eternal monument at Lincoln Park, didn’t quite fly off the shelf. He just fell. Thud, clunk. The bust hit the floor, and the head broke off. Now, the only damn thing left of the entire damn monument was that damn block of granite, still back at the park with an urn of flowers on it.

The monument seems to have become something of a He Who Shall Not Be Named; I can’t find a single mention of it after the 1800s. The city did eventually put a new statue in the same spot, but not of Lincoln. It was John J. Desmond, martyr of Cincinnati’s infamous 1884 Courthouse Riots. Desmond died fighting the mob that torched the Courthouse and became a huge local hero. His statue’s unveiling was even bigger than Lincoln’s: an official Desmond Day featuring parades, closed businesses, and even the Reds postponing that day’s ballgame. Lincoln Park never changed its name, even though Desmond loyally stayed there until the place got railroaded by Union Terminal. That statue survives, standing today inside the Hamilton County Courthouse. And it’s paid up.

In summary: Cincinnati once had a park named Lincoln, featuring a statue of a guy named Lincoln. Makes perfect sense. Then we had a park named Lincoln, featuring a statue of a guy named Desmond. Doesn’t make any sense. Maybe the city should have balanced things out by building another park/statue name imbalance. Maybe something like a park named Lytle, featuring a statue of a guy named…oh, wait.

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