Arch Conspirators:

The Free and Independent Republic of Washington Square

On January 22, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson stood before the United States Senate and proposed “that all nations henceforth avoid entangling alliances which would draw them into competitions of power; catch them in a net of intrigue and selfish rivalry, and disturb their own affairs with influences intruded from without. There is no entangling alliance in a concert of power. When all unite to act in the same sense and with the same purpose all act in the common interest and are free to live their own lives under a common protection”. Wilson was adamantly promoting unity abroad, but perhaps the United States government should have kept an eye on what was happening in their own Greenwich Village.

Gertrude Drick first conceived of her plan to claim Greenwich Village's independence when she noticed a discrete door on the West pier of the Washington Square Arch. And most significantly, the door was often unattended due to the resident policeman’s propensity to abandon his station for hours at a time. Drick, an artist and poet, had come to Greenwich Village from Texas to study under painter John Sloan. She had gained notoriety in the Village under the self-imposed nickname ‘Woe’, so that when asked her name she would respond ‘Woe is me.’ She was also a known prankster, and after seeing the door approached Sloan with a plan to hold a mock revolution, an opportunity to recapture Washington Square Park in the name of bohemian unconventionality. Drick and Sloan recruited their fellow bohemians: the actors Forrest Mann, Charles Ellis, and Betty Turner, and the artist Marcel Duchamp to join their rebellion. Duchamp was no stranger to controversy, his painting Nude Descending a Staircase scandalized the art community when displayed at the Armory Show in 1913 because of its total abandonment of realist principles. Together, these six revolutionaries plotted their secession from the Union.

Surprisingly, Drick was not the first to try and free Greenwich Village from the cultural oppression of the United States government. Less than a year earlier, Ellis Jones, an editor for Life magazine planned a “second American Revolution” in which Greenwich Village would become an independent republic through mass protest1. Jones was so confident he had his community’s support that he planned for the event to take place in Central Park Mall, believing Washington Square Park would be too small to contain the anticipated number of supporters. Jones also fatefully scheduled his revolution for a Monday, and although it was summer, it rained, causing only a handful of Jones’ followers to show up. Yet the opposition was there in force; there were dozens of police officers armed with machine guns and ambulances stationed nearby in anticipation of a major anarchist rebellion. Jones was quickly arrested and the call for revolution went unanswered…that is, until Gertrude Drick.

After dark on January 23, 1917, Drick and friends met on lower Fifth Avenue. With no sign of the meandering police officer, they opened the door, climbed up the spiral staircase, pushed open the trap door, and emerged on the top of Washington Square Arch. The bohemians came armed with food, plenty of liquor, hot water bottles for warmth, Chinese lanterns, red balloons, toy pistols, and of course, the Declaration of Independence of the Greenwich Republic, thought to have been written by Duchamp2. The conspirators sat around a small fire and recited verses of poetry while enjoying a picnic. Finally, Drick thought it was time to read aloud their Declaration of Independence. The document itself contained a mockingly high usage of the word ‘whereas,’ which was repeated again and again. The conspirators went through great lengths to ensure that their document was appeared legitimate, even providing mock seal, and making sure all present parties affixed their signatures on the bottom. Once their declaration was declared the balloons were released into the night, the cap guns shot off, and more wine was drunk in celebration. The Free and Independent Republic of Washington Square was born.

As morning crept up, and the group was beginning to disband, Sloan announced that they would leave the arch, “to ply our various callings till such time as the demands of the state again might become imperative”3. It seems Sloan expected to be able to return to their hideout. The next day, all that remained of their late night mischeif were several red balloons, but within a day almost “everyone south of 14th street knew of their status as a liberated community”, and the wealthier inhabitants of Washington Square North found little humor in the “bohemian tomfoolery”4. Sloan commemorated the event in his now famous etching, Arch Conspirators, depicting all six rebels reveling in their moment on top of the arch while Fifth Avenue continues to function like normal down below.

The revolution was farcical but its social implications indicate that this was a community in transition. Historian Ross Wetzsteon argues that the actions of Drick and her friends were a reaction to the greater socio-political shifts occurring in Greenwich Village during the 1910s, “all accounts agree that this mock session symbolized the Golden Age of the Village rebellion, against middle-class, puritan, capitalist America”5. The bohemians understood that their mores were radically different than those held by the rest of the country, and it is unsurprising that they desired to be part of a political state that reflected their social values. Perhaps Luc Sante states it best when he says that the mock Revolution of 1917, “actually named the thing that all the inhabitants of Greenwich Village bohemia of that time were aiming for, a revolution in more than just a legislative sense, a free territory untrammeled by convention”6. Indeed, The Free And Independent Republic Of Washington Square has had at least one lasting impact on Greenwich Village, as evidenced by the now ever-present lock on the West pier of the Washington Square Arch7.

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