Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Troubled Origin and Clumsy Theft of “Turtle Boy”

The Burnside Fountain (Turtle Boy). by Travis Simpkins

The Troubled Origin and Clumsy Theft of “Turtle Boy”
by Travis Simpkins

     A work of public art with a foredoomed history resides in a back corner of the Common behind City Hall in Worcester, Massachusetts. It's official name is The Burnside Fountain, but that title wouldn't spark much recognition in the ears of local citizens. The subject matter of a boy riding a sea turtle (in what some misconstrue as a suggestive and bizarre manner) has earned the bronze statue the unofficial title of “Turtle Boy.” It is an unlikely and unique Icon. Sprung from the mind of a troubled artist, the 102-year-old “Turtle Boy” has been stolen and returned, vandalized, fallen into disrepair, honored, parodied and currently ranks #11 on cracked.com's list of “The Most Disturbing Tourist Attractions Around the World.”
     The fountain was commissioned in 1905, with funds provided by Harriet F. Burnside, who felt the city needed a drinking trough for horses. The pink granite basin was designed by Henry Bacon (who later designed The Lincoln Memorial). The job of creating the sculpted figure, however, was given to New York artist Charles Y. Harvey. Harvey was a promising young sculptor who suffered from mental health issues, but he was determined that this would be his masterpiece. Within a week of starting work on “Turtle Boy,” Harvey started hearing voices coming directly from the unfinished statue. The auditory hallucinations commanded that he kill himself, and even specified the date on which he was to end his life: January 27, 1912. On that Saturday, Charles Y. Harvey set down his sculptor's tools, walked to Bronx Park and slit his own throat with a straight razor along the west bank of the river. Sculptor Sherry Fry was asked to complete Harvey's work, and the bronze statue was delivered to Worcester in October of that year. There was no formal dedication or unveiling of the monument, no fanfare (presumably because of Harvey's suicide). The Burnside Fountain was already obsolete upon being installed in Central Square. By 1912, automobiles were fast becoming prevalent, and the horse trough saw very little use over the next 57 years. In 1969, the City of Worcester opted to move the fountain to the Common behind City Hall.
     One year later, in May of 1970, thieves set their eyes on “Turtle Boy.” The statue was dislodged, brutally ripped from it's pedestal and spirited away in a nearby vehicle. The well-known stolen statue, damaged on the bottom, apparently proved useless to the thieves and “Turtle Boy” was anonymously returned later that same year. The city, however, waited two years in restoring him to his pedestal. “Turtle Boy” rested atop The Burnside Fountain for another 32 years, corroding and in disrepair, but relatively undisturbed (except for the occasional spray-paint vandal). In 2004, a second clumsy attempt was made at stealing “Turtle Boy.” The sculpture had been firmly reattached to the pedestal after the first theft, and the would-be thieves were unprepared, forced to abandon their efforts at prying the artwork loose. “Turtle Boy” was found dangling on the edge of the trough basin, suspended by a few gnarled bolts and twisted steel rods. To their credit, this time officials uprighted and reattached the statue within days.
     As “Turtle Boy” neared 100 years old in 2012, there was a renewed interest in caring for it. A concerned group of volunteers have done an admirable job in cleaning up the monument, planting flowers and making it more presentable. Professional conservation treatment seems unlikely at present, though, as there are no funds set aside for it (my guess is that it would cost upwards of $50,000 to fully restore).

The Burnside Fountain (Turtle Boy)- Worcester, MA