Did You Know?

Did You Know? A Perfect Paradigm

In a national political season that has seen, once again, diverse and outlandish rhetoric and behavior among the contenders, a bronze statue on the Capitol grounds pays tribute to a man whose political accomplishments make the current troupe of actors appear as rank amateurs.

Overseeing the intersection of Third and Walnut streets in Harrisburg and looking fondly at the Wells Fargo Bank – with a sidelong glance at Strawberry Square – Boies Penrose’s memorial sculpture with the simple inscription “Boies Penrose United States Senator 1897-1921” greets those ascending the steps to Capitol Park and has been doing so for 86 years.

Boies Penrose (November 1, 1860 – December 31, 1921) was not only legendary in Pennsylvania politics, but was also the longest-serving Pennsylvania Senator until the late Arlen Specter surpassed his record in 2005. A big man, in political circles of the 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as physically, Penrose stood six-feet, four inches tall and weighed 350 pounds. His statue suggests a sleeker version of the man than the one who dominated Pennsylvania politics from 1885 until his death in the last hour of 1921.

Having graduated second in his class at Harvard in 1881, Penrose was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar in 1883. He was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1884 and then to the Pennsylvania State Senate in 1886, serving as president pro tempore from 1889 to 1891.

Despite his size, prodigious appetite and seeming aversion to physical exertion, Penrose was an enthusiastic big-game hunter and outdoorsman. His considerable bulk required a custom saddle and an enormous horse, named “Senator,” to carry him on his hunting expeditions.

Paul Beers (1931-2011) wrote of Penrose’s size and appetites in his Pennsylvania Politics Today and Yesterday (copyright 1980, The Pennsylvania University Press, pp. 48-49): “Boies Penrose stood 6-foot-4 and weighed 350 pounds, and if there was any muscle to his shapeless body no one saw it. He abhorred physical contact to the degree that he didn’t like to shake hands. He didn’t like anyone to watch while he ate in public, so he had screens placed around his table when he dined at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel. He was so gigantic that he could balance a glass on the fold of his stomach.  …Penrose was a champion trencherman even in the era of such marvelous competition as William Howard Taft. In one sitting Penrose could devour a dozen eggs or an entire turkey, with either a quart of bourbon or coffee. Companions gasped when he ate a seven-pound steak. Because of his bulk and mustache, he was called ‘Big Grizzly.’”

Despite the statue’s prominence on the grounds of the State Capitol, Penrose was neither the most accomplished or most successful of four sons born to Dr. Richard Alexander Fullerton Penrose, the founder of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Boies, the eldest, and his brother, Charles, graduated together at the top of their class at Harvard. Charles went on to earn both an M.D. and Ph.D., becoming a nationally known gynecologist.  Richard Penrose, who preferred being known as R.A.F. Penrose, Jr., graduated from Harvard in 1885 with a Ph.D. for his work on phosphates. He turned his hand to geological surveys for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), with his most notable being the one at Cripple Creek, Colo.  Despite gold being found at Cripple Creek, R.A.F., Jr. refrained from purchasing or investing in the Colorado find due to his ethical responsibility as a USGS employee. However, he did purchase and invest in silver and copper mines in Arizona that made him extremely wealthy, so much so that he left bequests in the amount of $4 million to the Geological Society of America and the American Philosophical Society upon his death in 1931.

Perhaps the brother closest to Penrose in outlook and venality was the youngest of the four, Spencer, five years younger than Boies, and, initially, the black sheep of the family. He graduated last in his class at Harvard, making a name for himself as a ladies man and roué who made his first fortune capitalizing on brother R.A.F., Jr.’s survey of Cripple Creek. Rather than search for gold, he focused on supplies and as a gold assayer, eventually investing in his brother’s mine in Arizona and then purchasing Utah property containing large reserves of copper ore.

Spencer used his considerable wealth to later finance construction of a variety of well-known landmarks in Colorado: the Broadmoor Hotel, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, the Will Rogers Shrine of the Sun, the Pikes Peak Highway and the Glockner-Penrose Hospital.  Spencer, initially the wastrel in a family of leaders, returned from his initial Colorado adventure with a bag containing $75,000 in gold coin for Boies to continue his career in politics, and, for the rest of his brother’s career, Spencer made generous contributions.

Penrose first represented Pennsylvania nationally when he resigned his position as a State Senator in 1897 to take office as a United States Senator, defeating John Wanamaker for the position. In 1903, he was elected chairman of the state Republican party, succeeding fellow senator Matthew Quay who died a year later, allowing Penrose to succeed him as Pennsylvania’s Republican national committeeman and premier power broker within the Commonwealth.

Penrose became an influential member of the Senate finance committee, supporting high protective tariffs. One of his most important legislative actions was adding the “oil depletion allowance” to the Revenue Act of 1913. The Act allowed oil companies to write off 5 percent of the costs from oil and gas wells. A century later, oil companies were able to deduct three times the initial rate – 15 percent – although the largest companies no longer qualify. An unfailing supporter of pro-business policies, he opposed labor reform and women’s rights.

Penrose is also remembered for some of his seemingly outrageous quotes. And, in the current climate of political correctness, they would dismast the ship of anyone running for election. Possibly the one for which he is best known is, “Public office is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” And, another self-incriminating one from 1896, rationalizing the relationship between his politics and big business is, “I believe in the division of labor. You send us to Congress; we pass laws under which you make money. And, out of your profits, you further contribute to our campaign funds to send us back again to pass more laws to enable you to make more money.”

In 1919, the Pennsylvania State Legislature allocated funds for the construction of a statue of Boies Penrose. Receiving the commission for the bronze statue was Philadelphia sculptor Samuel Murray, who due to other commitments and poor health, failed to complete the sculpture until eight years after Penrose’s death. A protégé of painter Thomas Eakins, he is probably best known for his work on the Pennsylvania State Memorial on the Gettysburg battlefield. Murray modeled bas-reliefs of battle scenes over its four arches and the 21-foot-tall goddess crowning its dome.

In September of 1930, the nine-foot statue, standing on a seven-foot-high granite base, was dedicated on the grounds of the Capitol where it resides today. It is unknown why the sculptor slimmed Penrose down or why he placed the politician’s hand in his right pocket, which has given rise to many humorous observations.

Pulitzer-prize winning editor Michael Pakenham recounted an experience he had as he passed by the Murray sculpture with another prominent Pennsylvania politician: “I was in town to make sure that the Philadelphia Inquirer Harrisburg bureau’s employees weren’t abusing their expense accounts and to meet Milt Shapp for lunch. We were walking on the Capitol grounds and headed downtown. As we approached the Boies Penrose statue, the Governor stopped and turned to me with a grin, saying, ‘That statue is a lie!’ I was, to say the least, curious about his revelation. He continued, still grinning, ‘Boies Penrose never, ever had his hand in his own pocket!’”