Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Legend of "Turk's Head": In Charles Dexter Ward

While these serious steps were under discussion there occurred in the town an incident so terrible and inexplicable that for a time little else was mentioned for miles around. In the middle of a moon-light January night with heavy snow underfoot there resounded over the river and up the hill a shocking series of cries which brought sleepy heads to every window; and people around Weybosset Point saw a great white thing plunging frantically along the badly cleared space in front of the Turk's Head. There was a baying of dogs in the distance, but this subsided as soon as the clamour of the awakened town became audible. Parties of men with lanterns and muskets hurried out to see what was happening, but nothing rewarded their search. The next morning, however, a giant, muscular body, stark naked, was found on the jams of ice around the southern piers of the Great Bridge, where the Long Dock stretched out beside Abbott's distil-house, and the identity of this object became a theme for endless speculation and whispering. It was not so much the younger as the older folk who whispered, for only in the patriarchs did that rigid face with horror-bulging eyes strike any chord of memory. They, shaking as they did so, exchanged furtive murmurs of wonder and fear; for in those stiff, hideous features lay a resemblance so marvellous as to be almost an identity - and that identity was with a man who had died full fifty years before.

Weybosset Street is well known for the histric sky scraper "Turk's Head", but its predecessor is not as well known - except maybe to Lovecraft. Above you'll see a modern photo of the old place, and a postcard showing illos of the "new" skyscraper and its ancient predecessor. (More Images of the modern building tomorrow.)

A little history. The Turk's Head Building, a 16-story office high-rise in Providence, Rhode Island completed in 1913 - 215 feet (66 meters) tall it is currently the 11th-tallest building in Providence. When completed in 1913, the Turk's Head Building surpassed the 1901 Union Trust building to become the tallest building in downtown. It retained that title until 1922, when the Providence Biltmore was completed. Lovecraft would ahve been alive during all these constructions.

I suspect that the "the badly cleared space in front of the Turk's Head" would have been the excavation of the foundation circa 1912 when HPL was about 22. He would not have been a great fan of "new" construction razing an old structure.

The building was designed in a V-shape; the architects of the building "clearly had in mind Daniel Burnham's Flatiron Building" (in New York City). The skyscraper's peculiar name dates back to the early nineteenth century, when shopkeeper Jacob Whitman mounted a ship's figurehead above his store. The figurehead, which came from the ship Sultan, depicted the head of an Ottoman warrior. Whitman's store was called "At the sign of the Turk's Head". The figurehead vanished in a storm and today a granite replica of the original Turk head is found on the building's 3rd floor fa├žade. An alternate history (true story) was that the gale of 1815 swept away a store sign, and that the wooden Turk's Head was recovered and stored away for many years. The legend lived on. It had a turban and a horrid frown, according to legend.

One wonders if that "storm" and the "figurehead" might have had magical import in the tale of woe? Lovecraft could not contain all in his fiction, but read betwenn the historical lines! Maybe write your own Mythos story.

Jacob was a "west-sider" not a priviledged class in the council, but his power and prominence forced a position. He was well thought of by the "east-siders" and notably fought the council against splitting Providence into a new town of Westminster "west of Weybosset bridge, and the Harbour". This would probably have made Whitman a hero to HPL.


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Jared said...

Shucks. There's a Turk's Head Lane in London, about 30 seconds from my office. I was hoping that'd be the one.


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