Saturday, November 26, 2016

Welton Horse Fountain

The publication of Charles Monagan's novel about Carrie Welton has inspired renewed interest in the statue of a horse on the Green downtown. The novel is very good--I highly recommend reading it, especially if you have any interest at all in Waterbury's history. It blends fiction seamlessly with historical fact, making the past come alive. The Silas Bronson Library has copies of the book available to borrow. You can also buy a copy at John Bale Books on Grand Street, the Mattatuck Museum on the Green, or online at

For whatever reason, I have always been very passionate about defending the horse that was the inspiration for the statue. If you're not familiar with the story, here's the gist of it: the horse was modeled after Knight, Carrie Welton's favorite horse; Knight, however, was responsible for the death of Carrie's father, Joseph Welton. The condensed version of the story, as it is often told, is "that's Carrie Welton's horse Knight, who killed her father." Very dramatic and memorable, but the full story is more nuanced.

Newspaper accounts written while Joseph Welton was still clinging to life stated that the horse which kicked him was "an old favorite, and had not been used for two years, but was kept and petted for the good he had done." Was this Knight? A decade later, a disgruntled relative would claim it was, but that claim was part of a trial in which the Welton relatives were trying to prove that Carrie Welton was insane so that they could inherit her fortune. It's difficult to see that biased testimony as credible, although Knight certainly was an older horse and well loved, so it could have been him -- or it could have been one of the family's other horses. Regardless, I think it's important to bear in mind the realities of life with horses: one kick from a horse can easily kill a grown man. Joseph Welton's injury was viewed at the time as an accident, the sort of thing that could happen to anyone trying to handle a pair of unruly horses in a small space.

Waterbury American, 1874

Knight died a year or two after Joseph Welton. He was euthanized after Carrie learned he was suffering from heart disease. Heartbroken, she had Knight buried in expensive blankets under an old walnut tree and had one of his shoes gilded and presented to the New York SPCA. During a visit to the Calaveras Big Trees in California soon after Knight's death, Carrie was able to have one of the trees named after him: Knight of the Forest. Carrie's relatives would point to her extravagant memorials to Knight as proof of her mental instability, unable to understand her love for her favorite horse, her faithful companion for more than half of her life.

Dorothy Moreton, whose mother was Carrie Welton's cousin, published a brief account of Carrie and her mother, Jane Porter Welton, in 1969 in The New England Galaxy journal (the newsletter of Old Sturbridge Village). Moreton wrote the stories told to her by her mother, noting that Jane Welton's favorite charity was the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) and that she admired SPCA founder Henry Bergh's "gentle respect" for horses, dogs, cats, and "even mice." From Moreton's recounting, it seems that Jane Welton was just as eccentric as her daughter Carrie, urging young women to stand on their heads in order to "bring blood to the cheeks" to look less pale and tired. Moreton also wrote about Knight, who was devoted to Carrie (and she to him).

Dorothy Moreton, "Emerald Velour in the Kitchen,"
The New England Galaxy, Winter 1969

Carrie Welton died in 1884 while climbing Longs Peak in Colorado, only 42 years old. Her relatives, eager to claim her $200,000 estate--the equivalent of nearly $5 million today when you adjust for inflation--contested Carrie's decision to leave the bulk of her estate to the SPCA and another $7,000 to the City of Waterbury for the creation of a drinking fountain to benefit horses, cattle, dogs, cats, birds, and people. The average person during the 1880s thought it was outrageous to leave more money to animals than to one's own relatives, and Carrie's relatives were deeply offended that the SPCA would get the fortune they felt entitled to have. During Carrie's lifetime, her concern for the well-being of animals was considered very odd. These were the days when most people thought nothing of whipping, beating, drowning, hanging, or stabbing an animal. Even today, there are people who insist that some animals don't feel pain or fear the way we do, that they aren't conscious beings, that they are, in essence, robots lacking self-awareness.

The Welton relatives (not including Carrie's mother Jane) challenged Carrie's will in court. They brought in medical experts to help support their claim that Carrie was insane or delusional when she wrote the will. The jury eventually decided that Carrie was eccentric, but not insane. The SPCA inherited her fortune, and the fountain was built on the Waterbury Green.

During a recent trip to Canada, I was surprised to find a similar fountain in St. John, New Brunswick (where many Waterbury Loyalists moved to after the Revolutionary War). The St. John fountain is much smaller than ours, and lacks the horse on top, but the design is very similar. There is a water trough in front (now converted to a planter), decorative brass water spouts on the sides, and a drinking fountain for humans on the back. Engraved on the top are the initials, SPCA, and the fountain's date, 1882.

SPCA fountain for horses and humans, St. John, New Brunswick

Like Waterbury's fountain, the St. John fountain was a gift to the city by a staunch supporter of the SPCA. William Macara Sears presented his drinking fountain, dedicated to the SPCA, to the city of St. John shortly before his death at the age of 32.

Drinking fountains were a major charitable work of the SPCA during the 1870s and '80s. One of the top concerns of their Society's members was making clean drinking water available to work horses in cities (it was not uncommon to see a horse collapse in the street from overwork and dehydration). Drinking fountains for humans were part of the temperance movement, installed to give people something other than alcohol to drink. The two movements overlapped, leading to the installation of drinking fountains all over the U.S. and Canada.

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