Remembering the Arch (and other) Conspirators

Washington Square Arch at night. Image via archive.gvshp.org

On January 23, 1917, poet Gertrude Drick, painters John Sloan and Marcel Duchamp, and actors Russell Mann, Betty Turner, and Charles Ellis climbed to the top of Washington Square Arch. Drick read a declaration of independence for the “Free and Independent Republic of Washington Square” with the intent of having a neighborhood free from mainstream convention. 

We have written about this formative event in the past, and in 2017 GVSHP held an event to remember the 100th Anniversary of this short-lived secession plan. In 1917, Greenwich Village was a neighborhood in transition. Although Greenwich Village has been “in transition” for most of its 300+ years, the early 20th century was the period when Greenwich Village solidified its reputation as the center for bohemian culture, attracting the types of artists and people who may want to declare independence from convention and conformity. While Sloan and Duchamp went on to prominence in their field, the actors involved in the plot had less illustrious careers and are probably most remembered by history as conspirators in this not-so nefarious plot. At the time, the Provincetown Playhouse was just one year old. Allen Russell Mann was also known as Forrest Mann, Betty Turner was a few years older than the more famous actress of the same name, and Charles Ellis married Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sister, Norma.

Following the reading of the declaration, according to the Daily Plant, the paper of the City’s Parks Department, “These six so-called ‘Arch Conspirators’ then spread out blankets, hung Chinese lanterns, tied red balloons to the arch’s parapet, sipped tea, shot off cap pistols, and conversed until dawn.” 

“Arch Conspirators” by John Sloan. Image via NYU’s Bobst Library.

Oddly enough, this wasn’t even the only time Greenwich Village declared its independence. According to Luc Sante in his book Low Life, and Ross Wetzsteon in his Republic of Dreams: Greenwich Village: The American Bohemia, 1910-1960, Ellis O. Jones, an associate editor at Life and a member of the editorial staff of a populist magazine The Masses, announced the formation of the Republic of Washington Square in 1913, inviting fellow Villagers to join him in a second American Revolution declaring their community independent of the United States. He announced his rebellion would begin in Central Park, and although believed to be a gag, the police weren’t laughing. Anticipating a possible anarchist riot, Jones was arrested for disorderly conduct and sent to Bellevue. It seems silly now, but anarchists were a real threat. Following the assassination of President McKinley by an anarchist in 1901, dozens of New Yorkers were killed by anarchist bombs in the 1910s and 20s.

Want to know more?  Read more about the Arch Conspiracy plot here.

Read more about John Sloan here.

Read more about Marcel Duchamp here.

See pictures from GVSHP’s 100th-anniversary celebration of the Arch Conspirators here. 

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