Capitol statues honor the famous, tragic and odd

In Capitol statues, nation's founders stand equal to ice machine creator, brutal king, spitter

Associated Press
Capitol statues honor the famous, tragic and odd

View photo

John Gorrie of Florida, inventor of the ice machine, stands next to the popular Rosa Parks, left, in Statuary Hall at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, July 2, 2013. A physician, scientist, and inventor, Gorrie is considered the father of refrigeration and air-conditioning; he died impoverished and virtually forgotten in 1855. Among the U.S. Capitol’s many statues which honor the nation’s founders, leaders and legends, the marble figure by scuptor C.A. Pillars, is largely overlooked by thousands of visitors who tour the Capitol daily. At right is Samuel Kirkwood who became famous as the governor of Iowa during the Civil War. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (AP) -- All summer, thousands of visitors traipse among the U.S. Capitol's many statues, which honor the nation's founders, leaders and legends.

There's George Washington, father of his country. Abraham Lincoln, preserver of the Union. John Gorrie, inventor of the ice machine.

Wait, what? Inventor of the ice machine?

Indeed, there he stands, next to civil rights leader Rosa Parks and near statesmen Daniel Webster and Henry Clay in Statuary Hall, just off the majestic Rotunda.

Gorrie, a physician-mechanic from Apalachicola, Fla., died impoverished and virtually forgotten in 1855. But he's hardly the only American with a Capitol statue and a biography likely to surprise all but the most serious history buffs.

He's one of 100 honorees chosen by the states. Starting in 1864, each state could donate two statues of people "illustrious for their historic renown."

Several of the lives, however, include details that might cause the average tourist to pause and ponder the vagaries of fame and commemoration. Usually, the guidebooks merely hint at such matters.

King Kamehameha of Hawaii was "ruthless in war and just in peace," says the National Statuary Hall pocket guide. Just how ruthless was the warrior-monarch, whose towering statue shows him with a sword, loincloth and gilded robe?

In the 1795 Battle of Nuuanu, Kamehameha's troops began to rout their enemies, and thousands "were pursued and driven over the steep cliffs to their deaths," says the website for Nuuanu Pali State Park. No one "escaped alive." A century later, workers found about 800 human skulls at the cliff's base.

Nearby, in the Capitol Visitor Center, is the marble statue of James Paul Clarke, a governor and senator from Arkansas. "Despite his notorious temper," the guidebook says, "the popular maverick was chosen by his colleagues to be the president pro tempore of the Senate."

Notorious temper? Maybe it's referring to an 1895 quarrel with William Robert Jones, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, in which Clarke spit in the chairman's face.

Americans, of course, can debate the worthiness of almost anyone chosen for a Capitol statue.

Jeannette Rankin of Montana is honored as the first woman elected to the House. "A devoted pacifist," the guidebook says, she was "the only member of Congress to oppose the declaration of war on Japan in 1941," after Pearl Harbor. It's easy to imagine a much uglier world had the United States not joined the war against Japan and, consequently, Nazi Germany.

Sen. James Z. George of Mississippi was "the Father of the Agriculture Department." Nothing shabby about that, of course. But perhaps it's lucky his statue isn't next to, say, that of Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, the third president and Renaissance man.

At least George was chosen by his home state. Virginia passed over Jefferson in favor of two other native sons, Washington and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Not that Jefferson is absent from the Capitol — thanks to rules allowing a limited number of artworks from gifts and congressional commissions, a Jefferson statue is in the Rotunda.

Some honorees' biographies include tragic or unorthodox tidbits, at least by today's standards. Brigham Young of Utah had 57 children, borne by 16 of his reported 56 wives.

Father Damien of Hawaii died of leprosy after a career ministering to lepers.

For tragedy, it's hard to beat Gorrie.

Believing cool air would help malaria patients, Gorrie spent years tinkering with a machine to make ice, using compressed air. He obtained a patent but failed to win financial or moral support.

"Suffering from a nervous collapse and devastated by failure, he died in 1855 at age 51," a Smithsonian magazine article said.

A half-century later, however, commercial air conditioning began making summers bearable even in Florida. Grateful residents hailed Gorrie's pioneering role. A Jacksonville Middle School named for Gorrie asked the state Legislature to honor him with a statue in the U.S. Capitol. Lawmakers complied in 1911.

Yet some Floridians still believe Gorrie doesn't get the respect he deserves.

The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History has stored his original patented machine, out of sight, for years. The John Gorrie Museum State Park, in Apalachicola, would like to borrow it, said park ranger Willie McNair. Smithsonian officials said that may be possible.

Despite the park's best efforts, McNair said, Gorrie "is still really not recognized. Everybody knows about Carrier rather than Gorrie."

But Willis Carrier, who produced the first modern electrical air conditioner in 1902, has no statue in the U.S. Capitol.


Follow Charles Babington on Twitter:

View Comments (0)

Recommended for You

  • Senate fails to override Obama's veto of Keystone XL approval

    By Susan Cornwell WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate failed on Wednesday to override President Barack Obama's veto of legislation approving the Keystone XL oil pipeline, leaving the controversial project to await an administration decision on whether to permit or deny it. The Senate mustered…

    Reuters59 mins ago
  • US billionaire says WWII Japanese ship found in Philippines

    Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen said Wednesday he had found one of Japan's biggest and most famous battleships on a Philippine seabed, some 70 years after American forces sank it during World War II. Excited historians likened the discovery, if verified, to finding the Titanic, as they hailed the…

  • France, Cameroon wouldn't take foreigner later shot by LAPD

    LOS ANGELES (AP) — A homeless foreigner shot to death by Los Angeles police was in the country illegally after serving time for a bank robbery but couldn't be deported because no country would take him, U.S. immigration authorities said Wednesday.

    Associated Press
  • 175-Pound Pit Bull Hulk Shatters Misconceptions About the Breed

    This dog just may be the world's largest Pit Bull. Only 18-months-old, Hulk weighs a hefty 175 pounds. He's also best friends with a 3-year-old boy.

    ABC News
  • U.S. may review 1959 airplane crash that killed Buddy Holly

    (Reuters) - U.S. transportation safety investigators said on Wednesday they are reviewing a request to reopen a probe into the 1959 airplane crash that killed musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. Richardson, better known as "The Big Bopper," and their pilot. The original investigation 56…

  • Former marine reported killed in Syria

    A former Royal Marine has become the first Briton to be killed while fighting with Kurdish forces battling Islamic State jihadists in Syria, leaving his family "devastated" Wednesday. Konstandinos Erik Scurfield, 25, died on Monday in a battle with IS militants, a source in the Kurdish People's…

  • Australians on Indonesia death row arrive on execution island

    Two Australian drug smugglers were taken Wednesday to an Indonesian island where they will be executed despite frantic diplomatic efforts to save them, as Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Australia was "revolted" by their looming deaths. Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, the ringleaders of the…

  • Mom convicted of killing son, 5, by poisoning him with salt

    WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. (AP) — A woman who blogged for years about her son's constant health woes was convicted Monday of poisoning him to death by force-feeding heavy concentrations of sodium through his stomach tube.

    Associated Press
  • Marijuana Growers Arrested After Pocket Dialing 911

    Three men in California were arrested Monday night after one of the suspects pocket dialed 911. The emergency operator who took the call heard two of the men talking about the possibility of getting pulled over, leading to a major drug bust.

    KSWB - San Diego
  • Iranian president says Israel 'greatest danger'

    Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday said Israel creates the "greatest danger" in the region, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned against a nuclear deal with the Islamic republic. In a speech on Capitol Hill, Netanyahu said Tuesday the nuclear agreement US President…

  • Killers sought in deaths of 300,000 chickens in South Carolina

    By Harriet McLeod CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) - Revenge may be the motive for the killings in South Carolina of more than 300,000 commercial chickens worth about $1.7 million over the past two weeks, authorities said on Monday. Birds have been found dead of unnatural causes in 16 chicken houses at…

  • Survivor testifies about 2 friends stabbed, bound, drowned

    PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A man who survived being beaten, bound, stabbed in the neck and kicked into the Schuylkill River took the stand in a hearing Tuesday and described the night his two friends lost their lives.

    Associated Press
  • Americans Love K-Cups, but Their Creator Regrets Inventing Them

    Now it seems that John Sylvan, the inventor of the tiny containers, is firmly on Team #KillTheKCup too. “No matter what they say about recycling, those things will never be recyclable,” said Sylvan.
  • Chad president tells Boko Haram leader to surrender or face death

    By Madjiasra Nako N'DJAMENA (Reuters) - President Idriss Deby of Chad said on Wednesday he knew the whereabouts of Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the Nigerian militant group Boko Haram, and called on him to surrender or risk being killed. Chad's army has waged a series of battles against Boko Haram…

  • View

    Turkish jetliner skids off on runway (9 photos)

    A Turkish Airlines jet landing in dense fog in the Nepalese capital Wednesday skidded off a slippery runway but there were no serious injuries, officials said. Officials at Kathmandu's Tribhuwan International Airport said the plane with 238 people on board was coming from Istanbul when the…

    Yahoo News
  • Paris Hilton brother Conrad to plead guilty to plane assault

    LOS ANGELES (AP) — Paris Hilton's youngest brother, Conrad, agreed to plead guilty to assaulting flight attendants on a trip from London to Los Angeles last year when authorities say he called other passengers "peasants" and threatened to kill crew members.

    Associated Press
  • Mexico nabs Zetas drug cartel leader 'Z-42'

    Mexican authorities captured Zetas drug cartel leader Omar Trevino Wednesday, dealing a blow to the feared gang and giving the embattled government a second major arrest in a week. The suspect known as "Z-42" was detained by federal police and soldiers in San Pedro Garza Garcia, an upper-class…

    AFP53 mins ago
  • View

    Hello kitty and kitty and lots more kitties on Japanese island where cats rule (17 photos)

    An army of feral cats rules a remote island in southern Japan, curling up in abandoned houses or strutting about in a fishing village that is overrun with felines outnumbering humans six to one. Originally introduced to the mile-long island of Aoshima to deal with mice that plagued fishermen's…

    Yahoo News