WASHINGTON — 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.
But Willis Carrier, who produced the first modern electrical air conditioner in 1902, does not have a statue in the U.S. Capitol.
Architect of the Capitol: www.aoc.gov/the-national-statuary-hall-collection