History of the Figurehead on the Constitution.
The Constitution still sails today
Figureheads are often referred to as “Neptune’s Wooden Angels.” Early sailors believed a ship needed to find its own way and only could do that if it had eyes. Many figureheads were animals or religious symbols that were thought to protect the ships. A woman on ships was considered to be unlucky, but a woman showing one or two naked breasts was supposed to calm the seas.
The Constitution, America’s oldest commissioned naval vessel still serving and floating has a very interesting figurehead story. For 176 years the figurehead was missing. No one was really looking for it, but let’s see how it was found.
The first figurehead on the Constitution was designed to resemble Hercules. Hercules signified strength of the union and power of the law. This was a good representation of the Power of the United States Navy. This figurehead served well until September 12, 1804, when Hercules was splintered. The Constitution sailed for months with a wounded Hercules, but continued to win battles.
The Constitution fought and served without a new figurehead. In 1809, Commodore John Rodgers had a new billethead made for the Constitution. She proudly displayed this through the War of 1812. As newer vessels were introduced to the Navy, the older fleet and figureheads were retired.
Traveling to Paris
In May 1833, the Constitution was entering dry dock for restoration. Many citizens wanted the ship scrapped, but a famous poem, “Old Ironsides” by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., brought new life to the Constitution. While she was being restored in Boston, Massachusetts, Captain Jesse Duncan Elliott plotted to have a new figurehead made. He hired Laban S. Beecher to make a figurehead of then President Andrew Jackson.
Boston bankers and merchants were out raged. They had no use for President Jackson. The Mariners were also upset because an army general was going to lead a naval vessel. Captain Elliott had to provide protection while the figurehead was completed. In April 1834, the figurehead was placed on the Constitution. Public outcry was loud and strong. On July 2, 1834, a young man, Samuel Worthington Dewey climbed aboard the Constitution and cut Jackson’s head at the lower lip and chin. It was well known who did this deed, but no one wanted to press charges.
Dewey fled the state but before leaving, he gave the bottom portion of Jackson’s figurehead to the Secretary of the Navy, Mahlon Dickerson. The secretary took the figurehead to his home in New Jersey. The head spent some time at the Museum of the City of New York and then returned to the family of the Secretary of the Navy. They took the head for a vacation in Paris. The head was rediscovered in 1990’s by a curator from the museum who was vacationing in Paris. The museum bought the head back to New York where it was stored in a warehouse in Long Island City in Queens.
Found after 176 years
The top half of the figurehead remained on the Constitution until it was replaced. The bottom portion of the figurehead traveled to Roy’s Marina in Saranac Lake, New York. It was purchased via an exchange for a duck decoy. The wooden chin was wrapped in sheepskin and stuck in an old Sunbeam electric-iron box. Printed material inside the box described the chin as that of Andrew Jackson. The family contacted the television show, “History Detectives.”
After lengthy research it was verified as that of the original figurehead of Andrew Jackson. The family gave the bottom portion to the Museum of the City of New York. The head did some traveling, but came full circle back to the museum where it started.