The Strange Odyssey of Charles Tallman

In 1845, Charles Tallman married Elizabeth Peck in Skaneateles. He was 46, a businessman from Syracuse; she was 27, the daughter of Noah Peck. Her sister, Caroline, was married to Daniel Earll of Skaneateles, and eventually the two men went into business together, investing in a distillery. At the time, anyone with money could make more money by investing in a distillery; it was akin to printing your own currency. Tallman kept up his investments in Syracuse as well, including the Syracuse & Geddes Railway, a street-car company.

Later in life, as a man of wealth and position, Tallman sat for a bust of himself. The sculptor was Richard Henry Park (1832–1902), best known today for his monument to Edgar Allan Poe in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Drake Fountain in Chicago. Park usually worked in New York City and Florence, Italy, but in 1877, he spent the summer at 59 South Salina Street in Syracuse. In a temporary studio, he accepted commissions, sculpted the local worthies and entertained “prominent citizens” who came to see the artist at work. After being sculpted in clay, the busts were sent to Park’s studio in Florence to be finished in marble by stone cutters.

Charles Tallman died in 1880, and somehow his bust made its way to the Onondaga Historical Society. I believe it led a quiet life until it was kidnapped in 1950, and, like the garden gnome in Amélie, began to see the world.

Reported stolen on April 14th, 1950, the errant statue was first turned up, literally, by Frank Still, who was operating a bulldozer on the property of Edgar Snitchler in Hamilton, N.Y. A helpful fellow, Mr. Still moved the statue, said to weigh between two and three hundred pounds, to his employer’s front porch. Mr. Snitchler suspected the statue had come to his farm as the result of a college prank, with the culprits burying the evidence when it became too hot to handle, or too heavy. He picked up the phone and called nearby Colgate University.

A Colgate art professor and the school’s archivist came out to have a look, but they were baffled. And before anyone could do more detective work, the statue vanished again.

Two days later, Charles Tallman’s likeness turned up at Harvard, apparently conveyed there by some exceptionally brawny Colgate students. It was offered to officials at Harvard’s Fogg Museum, but they would not accept the purloined bust. Snubbed, the bust was moved to M.I.T. and the steps of Walker Memorial Hall, where it was abandoned. There, the Harvard Crimson reported, “an art-loving janitor took it in tow, and presented it to puzzled M.I.T. officials, who had absolutely no idea where Charles Tallman came from, who he was, or what to do with him.”

The Cambridge police stepped in, carried the bust to the station house on a canvas stretcher, and after reviewing a New York State Police report, called the Syracuse Police and told them to come and retrieve their statue, which they did. Today the bust rests again at the Onondaga Historical Society in the company of a dozen other elderly members of the marble brethren, not on display, but safe from unscheduled overnights.

* * *

“A Work of Art,” Syracuse Daily Courier, August 19, 1877; “Statue from Syracuse Receives Snub Here,” Harvard Crimson, May 22, 1950; “Case of Stolen Bust Cloaked in Mystery,” Binghamton Press, May 22, 1950; “Stolen Syracuse Bust Is Found on MIT Campus,” The (Gloversville) Morning Herald, May 23, 1950.


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