“What country on Earth, then, did ever give birth
To such a magnanimous saint?
His acts are excel all that history tell,
And language too feeble to paint, my brave boys.
“Now, to finish my song, a full flowing bowl
I’ll quaff, and sing all the long day
And with punch and wine paint my cheeks for my saint,
And hail ev’ry First of Sweet May, my brave boys.”
~ From “The First of May, a New Song, in Praise of St. Tammany, the American Saint,” sung to the tune of “The Hounds Are All Out, &c” ~ Via St Tammany and the Origin of the Society of Tammany, by Edwin P. Kilroe, 1913
* * *
The WPA artwork above is believed to have been inspired by the figure of St. Tammany that once stood atop an 85-foot-high pole at York Road and Wood Street in Philadelphia.
In Travels in Philadelphia (1920), Christopher Morley writes:
As I turned off Callowhill street, at the oblique junction of York avenue, leaving behind the castellated turrets of a huge brewery, I came upon an interesting sight. Where Wood street cuts York avenue and Fourth street there stands a tall white flagpole, surmounted by an enormous weather-vane representing an Indian with bow and quiver, holding one arm outstretched….
Mr. Renner, who has taken the landmark under his personal protection, tells me that the weathervane was erected many years ago to commemorate the last Indian “powwow” held in Philadelphia, and also that it is supposed to have been a starting place for the New York stage coaches. However that may be, at any rate, the original pole was replaced or repaired in 1835, and at that time a sheet of lead (now kept by the Historical Society) was placed at the top of the pole bearing the names of those who had been instrumental in the restoration. The work was done at the expense of the “United States” Fire Engine Company, that being the day of the old volunteer fire departments.
Apparently the Indian Pole became a kind of rallying point for rival fire engine companies, and there was much jealous competition, when steam fire apparatus was introduced, to see which company could first project a stream of water over the top of the staff. This rivalry was often accompanied by serious brawls, for Mr. Renner tells me that when the Indian figure was repaired recently it was found to be riddled with bullet holes. This neighborhood has been the scene of some dangerous fighting, for St. Augustine’s Church, which was destroyed in the riots of 1844, stands only a few yards away down Fourth street.
In 1894 the pole again became dangerous, not as a brawling point, but on account of age. It was removed by the city, but at the instance of Mr. Howard B. French, of Samuel H. French & Company, the paint manufacturers on Callowhill street, the Indian figure and the ball on which it revolved were kept and a new pole was erected by Mr. French and four other merchants of the neighborhood, T. Morris Perot, Edward H. Ogden, John C. Croxton and William Renner (father of the present Mr. Renner).
That pole, which is still standing, is eighty-five feet from ground to truck. The Indian figure is nine and one-half feet high; it stretches nine feet from the rear end of the bow to the outstretched hand. The copper ball beneath it is sixteen inches in diameter. Mr. Renner says the figure is of wood, several inches thick, and sheathed in iron. He thinks that the hand alone would weigh 150 pounds. He thinks it quite remarkable that though many church steeples in the neighborhood have been struck by lightning the Indian has been unscathed. On holidays Mr. Renner runs up a large flag on the pole, twenty-one by thirty-six feet.
No sign of the Indian Pole remains today. Philadelphia historian Harry Kyriakodis writes:
I liken the mysterious Indian Pole to the Colossus of Rhodes, the huge statue of the Greek Titan Helios erected between 292 and 280 BC. That hundred foot tall work was destroyed in an earthquake after standing only 56 years, but remained (broken) on the ground for 800 years–!–for travelers to see. Yet the Indian Pole, standing on the same spot in Philadelphia for at least twice as long, is entirely and utterly gone, including all memory of it. You’d think that the final removal (or the toppling over) of a 9.5 feet tall wooden Indian figure from up high would have been recorded somewhere.
“Tammany, the tutelary saint of America, as a character stands unique,” writes Edwin Kilroe:
Much has been written concerning his virtue, prowess and achievements; and about his memory a kind and bounteous tradition has woven numberless romances which rival the tales of Heracles and Theseus and give him a place in the Indian lore of America analogous to that held by those demi-gods in ancient Greek mythology.
According to Native American legend he once fought mammoths:
The Evil One sent a great drove of mammoths and other monstrous and destructive creatures from beyond the great lakes to consume the corn and fruits of the Delawares. Again Tammany was relied upon to rid the land of this plague also. He soon found that their hides were too thick to be penetrated by arrows and that some other means must be devised to destroy them. Now these animals were in the habit of going down to the salt licks so Tammany caused many great pits to be dug which he covered over with branches of trees and shrubs completely concealing them and so these destructive creatures were all caught and slain in these traps and there it is said that their bones may still be found.
So rightly we take walrus tusks and Tammany Cocktails in hand to say:
To Tammany let well-fill’d horns go round;
His fame let ev’ry honest tongue resound.
* * *
(Images: Vintagraph * American Folk Art Museum * Florida Memory)