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The Muddled, Hilarious, and Strange History of Worcester's Turtle Boy Statue
How I came to Know About Turtle Boy...
There was time I lived not too far from Worcester Massachusetts where Turtle Boy lives his life in the Worcester Common. I had heard rumors and wild tales about a rapacious bronze boy, standing in the middle of this common, or rather, ahem, riding an anguished sea turtle through it. The statue has been standing in Worcester for over a hundred years and since the day it was conceived it's made a lot of people scratch their heads. On one hand it's beautiful. The boy in question is exquisite, absolutely perfect in Greek tradition, and the turtle? It looks so realistic that I actually felt bad looking into it's little metal face. On the other hand, the statue depicts a scene that can cause even the most innocent minds to topple helplessly into the gutter. Maybe that's why it's now an icon of sorts, used to advertise local beer and quirky tourism. In all honestly when I started hearing these stories I couldn't help but think that New Englanders are just weird, probably just looking too closely at something made in innocence, but after taking the time to see it for myself I was relieved of any doubt. There was only one thing this life size statue could possibly be depicting. I became consumed with learning about how and why it was even there. Just like many visitors before me I couldn't help but stare slack-jawed at it, giggling like a twelve year old. There was no nuance here. Even an a Catholic nun would blush seeing it. So where did the infamous Turtle Boy come from?
A Beautiful Concept is Born...
The statue in question was first commissioned by the city of Worcester by a local wealthy heiress at the event of her death. Her name was Harriet Burnside and she was the daughter of Worcester's most elite lawyer at the time, Samuel Burnside. She and her two sisters were well known for their humanitarian donations put to use around the city, so it wasn't surprising when Harriet died in 1904, that she would have left $5000 to the city of Worcester, not to remember her, but to erect a memorial to her father. She called for this memorial to be a fountain for animals, specifically the working horses, who brought people from place to place before cars were a big thing, and the dogs who also roamed about. It was a beautiful idea in the beginning but then things started to go a bit tipsy.
The City Attempts to Commission Two Artists...
At first the city didn't really know what to do with the $5,000 but eventually it settled down and attempted to hire Daniel Chester French to create the basin for the fountain, but he had too much on his plate already, and this job got shuffled off to Henry Bacon, who would later go on to create the fountain at the Lincoln Memorial in DC. It was named the Burnside Fountain, and was as utilitarian as it was beautiful, with each trough reaching to either dog or horse height and flushing on command to keep the water fresh, reducing the spread of disease. Had this been the end of it no one would be talking about it today but it needed something else, perhaps a bit of bronze art at the top to make it really pop! So Daniel Chester French designed the concept and gave the sculpting part to Charles Y. Harvey to create. Harvey was a graduate of the American Academy in Rome. He was talented and accredited and took on this job with great enthusiasm believing it would be his life's masterpiece.
Things Start Going Wonky...
Harvey may have been talented but he was also mentally disturbed. He was living in New York City at the time, which he had moved back to after graduating, because he believed the Italian police were after him. They were not. He was the sort of gent who heard voices, and a week after he took up the project it was probably those same voices that compelled him to go to the Bronx River and slit his own throat with two razor blades. He did not survive.
After hearing about the tragedy the city of Worcester then hired a fellow graduate of the American Academy, Sherry Fry, to finish the work. They arranged to have Harvey's sketches sent to her and asked her to complete it to the best of her ability to his design. So Fry did as she was told, or at least that what she claimed at the time. However it's really hard to say if what came out of that process was indeed the shockingly violent last images of a mentally disturbed man, or maybe just the work of a woman who had something a little more to say. Did she sculpt that tormented turtle face as some sort of message? Did she know Harvey? Was she trying to besmirch his reputation? Was she trying to pull one over on the City of Worcester? Or did she have some sort of grudge against the people who ordered and dedicated the statue? Perhaps she just had a very twisted sense of humor and took a glorious opportunity when she saw it. Or maybe she really did just quietly copy a design she was given. We will never know, but what seems very clear now, is that the city of Worcester did not know what they had ordered.
Turtle Boy Arrives.... to Stunned Silence
Eight years had passed since the statue was commissioned when it finally arrived, probably in a crate, much to the anticipation of the city council. However history's unusual silence on this event suggests that when the crate was opened it was then accepted with shock and horror. Here was the most exquisite statue, in all it's glory. It was sure breath taking!
There are people today that still argue that the statue imbibes the joyous spirit and innocence of youth. These people can tell you with a straight face that there is nothing at all salacious or salty going on here but those people... are really good at cognitive dissonance. They will tell you it was made in a simpler time by more innocent minds, that the fault is not with the statue but with the questionably dirty minded people looking at it. They cite proof of this is in the fact the boy's naughty bits are not visible on the statue, but the rest of us argue, "Well, yeah, that's because they're in the turtle..." There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the first people to see it in Worcester, back in 1912, saw exactly what we see today - a gorgeous psychopathic boy having some clearly not consensual carnal relations with a very unhappy wild animal. The look on the poor beast's face will haunt anyone, the look on the boy's... a calculating smile that will send chills down the shell of any turtle. What is this?! Could they really sully the memory of so many people involved with it's creation? Or could they just sweep it under the rug and never speak of it again?
The newspapers at the time make no mention of the statue's arrival except for this suspiciously vague comment, “Mayor O’Connell believes it will be well to have the fountain placed in use without ceremony.” This was after a whole flurry of people, over eight years, had quibbled and squabbled about what it should be, what it should include, who should make it, and lastly where to put it. One can only assume that there were a few voices in that crowd that probably suggested they should shove it back into the crate where it came from and pretend they never received it.
Instead it was put up, without ceremony, without further mention, one can only assume in the dead of night.
Turtle Boy Becomes the Unofficial Mascot for the City
It's hard to say what the word around the water cooler, er fountain, was after the statue was put up. Did well bred women walk by, hiding their childish giggles behind white gloved hands? Did men in pubs tell lecherous stories about how the turtle really came to be? Ah, to have a time machine!
All we really know that is whether you love it our hate it Turtle Boy is known throughout New England. In fact he's so well loved he's made his way into a children's book titled The Cloud Bird, I kid you not, and he is the icon for Turtle Boy's Blue Ale. He also has his own music awards, which is always interesting. He's on a lot of strange people's bucket list.
In fact he was so popular that in 1970 he disappeared altogether, going on his own adventure when someone stole him. A year later he was mysteriously returned, having done God knows what. Perhaps he held beers for frat bros. Perhaps he was placed on a satanic alter, perhaps he did a pro bestiality tour. We'll probably never know. Currently he's still such a divisive topic that the city of Worcester has not put any money into the restoration of his rusting aging process. Instead he is said to be receiving some complimentary lighting, because if ever there was a statue that should be illuminated at night, it'd be this one! I wonder if the lights will be shining upwards to aid in the movement of the piece.
I guess I will end this little story with a photo of me.... uncontrollably laughing in front of it because really, this was one of my favorite installments for my travel blog Catching Marbles. Now if you find yourself in the area of Worcester Massachusetts I strongly suggest a visit because it makes a hell of a story to write home about!