Kill Yr Idols—A Chicago History of Statue Desecration, Part 1

Note: As a pleasant side effect of the BLM protests, several statues of slavers, traitors, and genocidal invaders have been defaced, toppled, or removed from public view worldwide. Thus far, Chicago statuary seems immune (save for the Picasso—see photo; relax, it cleaned up fine). But the city has its own problematic sculptures, in addition to a history of more innocent statues desecrated through no fault of their own. Eight years ago, I wrote the following article for my blog The Steppes of Chicago. In light of recent events, Third Coast Review editor in chief Nancy Bishop suggested I update and rerun it here.


Why does Chicago hate statues?

Not all of them, of course. The Picasso in Daley Plaza (dedicated August 15, 1967, to hoots and howls) somehow stuck around to become a city symbol. Meanwhile, eastwards, the branding scheme known as “The Bean” bucks for the Picasso’s job. But many, lesser-known Chicago idols weren’t as lucky.

The city experienced a monument boom between the 1890s and 1930s, placing statues in parks, on streets, and elsewhere, funded by rich folks, children’s clubs, ethnic social clubs, and veteran groups. On August 17, 1972, Tribune writer Donald Yabushi wrote a bit about the destruction of various Park District statues through the years (79 in all at the time of publication). The article featured a seething quote from city architect Charles H. Dornbusch:

“It’s a damn shame that these morons and goons can’t find anything better to do than mutilate statues.”

An understandable reaction, but the morons and goons’ motivations have varied, running from kicks to politics to profit, and in one case to an act of God.


The Haymarket Police Memorial is the granddaddy of Chicago statue damage. Targeted for destruction by actual anarchists since its 1889 dedication, where other idols have fallen, the bronze cop remains standing like a bronze Rasputin.

The Haymarket Affair remains an open sore in Chicago history. On May 4, 1886, 1,000 protesters (mostly workers from the McCormick Harvester plant) gathered in Haymarket Square (on South Des Plaines Street, between Lake and Randolph). Speakers addressed the crowd from a wagon set up at the corner. After activist/anarchist Samuel Fielden finished talking, 180 cops arrived, headed by Captain William Ward and Police Inspector “Black Jack” John Bonfield. Ward held up his hand and said:

“In the name of the people of the state of Illinois, I command peace.”

Though another account claims he declared:

“I command you in the name of the law to desist and you to disperse.”

However, Ward might have said:

“In the name of the people of the State of Illinois, quietly and peaceably disperse.”

Accounts vary.

As Fielden stepped off the wagon, someone tossed a dynamite bomb at the police. It exploded, immediately fragging Officer Mathias Degnan, and peppering other officers. The cops started shooting. Some reports claim protesters shot back, while others say no. Chaos and carnage ensued. Degnan died immediately, six other cops died later, 60 more cops were injured, and an estimated 76 civilians were wounded (Fielden himself took a bullet to the leg). It’s unclear how many civilians were shot.

A trial quickly followed, finding several anarchists (including Fielden) guilty of conspiracy and murder, then sentencing them to hang. Illinois Governor Richard Oglesby commuted Fielden’s sentence to life, while another anarchist, Louis Lingg, literally blew his head off with a blasting cap smuggled into his cell. They hanged the four remaining men (Spies, Parsons, Fischer, and Engel) at the Cook County Jail on November 11, 1887. The bomber’s identity remains unknown. The entire story of the Haymarket Affair is too large and fractious to be adequately covered here, so I advise a visit to the Chicago Historical Society's site for greater detail. (That organization is now known as the Chicago History Museum.)

The statue brewed controversy before it existed. The city established a committee of 25 local businessmen to determine how to best consecrate the shadowed ground. No anarchists or laborers were consulted.

Danish-American artist Johannes Sophus Gelert got the commission. Not a plumb gig, Gelert had to cover all materials, transportation, casting, and remaining expenses with just $4,000 in his budget. The statue’s unveiling happened on May 4, 1889, the riot’s third anniversary. Committee member R. T. Crane presented the statue to Mayor DeWitt Clinton Cregier. The podium featured a default phrasing of Captain Ward’s words: “In the name of the people of the state of Illinois, I command peace.”

Perturbed by the highlighting of cops over civilians, and Spies, Parsons, Fischer, and Engel’s executions, anarchists, workers, and citizens’ feelings about the statue remained raw for the next century.

The statue never had an easy time in Haymarket Square. In seven short years it looked shabby. Per reports, the iron fence surrounding the base was “bent and twisted” from constant side-swiping by passing wagons, and mud, bricks, rotten fruit and vegetables, and tin cans spattered and surrounded the pedestal. The city relocated the statue to Union Park, near the elbow of Ogden and Randolph.

Despite the move the cop statue continued to be brutalized. Coincidentally, on the 41st anniversary of the riot, a street car carrying 20 passengers hopped the tracks and smashed into and toppled it. Motorman William Schultz broke his ankle and several passengers were treated for slight injuries. Luckily, it was the first year since 1886 that the surviving Haymarket Square cops (a scant 23 alive by that point) hadn’t assembled to commemorate the event.  The cop was none the worse for wear, despite resting on the ground, but was otherwise undamaged and soon restored.

Across the 20th century, the Haymarket cop moved thrice, eventually returned to Haymarket Square near Randolph and Des Plaines, and granted a brand-new pedestal. On June 2, 1957, the cop relocated to its original site at the northeast corner of Randolph and Union Streets. Speeches were made, though most of the original participants in the Haymarket Affair were long deceased—the last cop standing, Police Captain Frank P. Tyrrell, died 10 years before, but was represented by his son. The rededication couldn’t keep the bronze cop on his new beat though. A year later he was removed to the Randolph Street overpass, commanding peace over the newly built Kennedy Expressway. In 1965, it was designated an historical landmark, but the quiet days were over.

Dynamite exploded between the cop’s legs on October 5, 1969, toppling it from its pedestal, shattering nearby windows, and showering the Kennedy with debris. History repeated itself, and the new bomber remained unknown, but at least no one was hurt.

A year to the day, the statue was again dynamited from its pedestal, but this time an individual identifying himself as “Mr. Weatherman” called the papers, claiming credit for the Weather Underground. Mr. Weatherman declared the statue was blown up “to show allegiance to our brothers in the New York prisons and our black brothers everywhere.” Days later, another story emerged when an unidentified woman wrote to the Chicago Free Press, claiming she’d participated in the bombing, intending it to be a signal for further explosions. “Blowing up the pig statue was easy,” she said, stating that months before a Weatherman cut his hair and took a job in southern Illinois as a construction company watchman to pilfer explosives.

The original Mayor Daley was livid, and ordered 24/7 police protection for the statue. This prompted a peculiar letter to the Trib from one “S.J. Mirecki.” Mirecki calculated that the round-the-clock guardianship of the Haymarket cop was running about $50 grand a year (the Tribune says it was $68 grand), and suggested instead that the statue be covered by a plastic bubble, “television replay cameras,” and “bulletproof floodlights” The idea went unheard, and the statue was instead moved again.

Deciding the best defense was a building of cops, the peace-commanding statue received a transfer to Police HQ. After a thorough cleaning and a few years in storage, the Haymarket cop moved to the Chicago Police Academy’s courtyard (1300 W. Jackson), and then, in 2007, had a re-rededication at its current location, the Public Safety Headquarters Building at 3510 S. Michigan. The statue is on public display, in that you can see it a few hundred feet away if you stand on the 35th Street sidewalk.

By the way, the police-focused Haymarket Memorial is no longer the sole monument to the tragedy. A semi-abstract, labor-friendly statue by artist Mary Brogger, featuring faceless figures propped around and atop a wagon went up in 2004 on Des Plaines Street., the location of the original wagon. Also, in Forest Park’s German Waldheim Cemetery, a heroic Albert Weinert statue of Lady Justice—laying a laurel on a dead worker’s head while drawing her sword—stands guard over Lingg, Spies, Fischer, Engel, and Parsons’ graves.


General John A. Logan’s 1897 monument in Grant Park saw less abuse over the years, but also faced its share of vandalism. A Civil War hero and politician, Logan also worked for the creation of Memorial Day. His monument, however, is best known for being infested with yippies during the 1968 Democratic Convention. When not crawling with young revolutionaries, however, the General regularly had his sword snapped off by souvenir-seeking idiots. By 1972 the General had been symbolically castrated no less than four times, each sword costing 400 bucks (1970s money) to replace.

Some statue defilers are art critics. The Weathermen editorialized with dynamite, but some vandals prefer mixed media. Graffiti-scribblers’ defilements are mostly motivated by self-promotion, and rarely directed at the work itself. Art-hating vandals, however, often presented color-coded commentary.

The Goethe statue, in Lincoln Park received its share of anti-German sentiment during WWI. The fact that German immigrants loyal to the US had built (and rebuilt) Chicago in the previous century was irrelevant. Sculpted by Herman Hahn and dedicated in 1913, the statue can be found saucily thrusting out his derriere while proudly displaying his pet eagle at Sheridan Road and Diversey Parkway. The statue doesn’t depict Goethe, but instead represents his art, ideals, and status as (per the inscription) “The Master Mind of the German People.”

On the evening of May 7, 1918, two anonymous individuals splattered the statue with yellow paint. Well, its shins, at least, due to the statue’s massiveness. The vandals left a note explaining their art action and revealing the country had a more literate brand of jingo back then.

“An empathic protest from a free people against the retention of what has always been an offense against art, and now is a challenge to loyalty. Shall this park, named for the illustrious Lincoln, continue to harbor such an enormity or will the people of Chicago insist on its immediate removal? TWO AMERICANS”

The Goethe statue’s fiercest critic was Mother Nature. On the rainy morning of September 14, 1951, an enormous thunderclap shook local residents awake. After the storm the base was permeated with cracks and the statue reportedly “twisted.” The left foot received the worst of the damage, being splayed open. In all likelihood, a lightning bolt smote the statue, exiting through its body and out the furthest limb. The police cordoned off the area, and the Goethe statue stood on its sore foot for two years before being removed for repairs when Chicago sculptor Fred Torrey cast a new bronze foot from the original model.

Decades later, under Mayor Jane Byrne, workers nestled Joan Miró’s sculpture Chicago (originally titled The Sun, the Moon, and One Star) between the Cook County Administration Building and the Chicago Temple, in a face-off with the Picasso across the street. In a bare few days, on May 1, 1981, art student Crister Nyholm beheld it, frowned, and returned home to pour red paint into an orange juice container. Returning to the Miró, Nyholm hurled paint at it, then sat down and waited for the police, telling the cops he did it because, well, he didn’t like the statue. In a later TV interview, Nyholm presented a better, if more bizarre, art statement, claiming that 20th century art “disgusted” him, and the statue reminded him of a “dead body.” Art Institute conservators stripped the paint, and the judge sentenced Nyholm to 30 months felony probation and a cleaning bill of $17,037.21.


Statue-erecting often happens during periods of prosperity. Comparatively, statue theft occurs during lean years, when thieves topple idols for scrap metal. Statues costing thousands of dollars can end up melted down for a pocketful of bills. Vandalism is unsightly, but at least there’s a statue to repair. Not so with several that vanished, a crime often disguised by the invisibility of familiarity.

Few folks know about the bust of Beethoven that once occupied a spot in Lincoln Park’s Grandmother’s Garden near Stockton and Webster. Dedicated on June 19, 1897, and donated by Chicago concert pianist and ardent CSO supporter Carl Wolfsohn, the bust was another work by Johannes Gelert. It sat there for 74 years—though no media mention is made about it until 65 years later when people lodged complaints about its down-at-the-heels appearance. Park District officials investigated, discovering someone had slathered the composer’s face with a “black substance.” The offending ink/paint was buffed away without disturbing the patina. Eight more years passed before the bust was heard from, or rather not heard from, again. Sometime before April 26, 1971, a rube with a truck pulled down the composer of the “Moonlight Sonata,” and likely toted him off to be sold for scrap. Police found no clues other than an abandoned rope. A part of the unadorned base remains in Grandmother’s Garden.

Read part two here.
Picture of the author
Dan Kelly

Dan Kelly has been a writer and editor for 30 years, contributing work to Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Journal, The Baffler, Harvard Magazine, The University of Chicago Magazine, and others.