08 August 2010

American Vikings

Lured by the intriguing headline 'The ruins of Viking Boston' (Massachusetts, not Lincolnshire, where it might have been more plausible), I went to the Boston Globe website to see what that was all about. It turned out to be yet another fascinating example of the 19th-century obsession with Vikings, as chronicled for Britain in Andrew Wawn's splendid book Vikings and Victorians. This particular Victorian was one Ebenezer Norton Horsford, described as a chemist, entrepreneur, and amateur archeologist, who was responsible for many of the Viking memorabilia still visible in Boston today. I followed him up in Geraldine Barnes's Viking America: The First Millennium, which puts him in the context of other Vinland-obsessed Americans of the time. I don't think that any of these mention the fine runic inscription on the statue, which says Leifr hinn hepni Eirikssonr in quite acceptable runes (see photo, above left).
This obsession extended well beyond the 19th century. I am reminded of a statue I had ignored all through my childhood, when playing in Fairmount Park, in Philadelphia, little knowing how interested I would be in such things later in life. It is a statue of Thorfinn Karlsefni, by the well-known Icelandic sculptor Einar Jónsson, and is one of a series of historical statues from throughout a century and a half in the parkland along the Schuylkill River. The history of the Thorfinn statue is explained in a book I picked up in a secondhand shop some years ago, printed in Philadelphia (no date, but not earlier than 1920) 'for private distribution by J. Bunford Samuel': The Icelander Thorfinn Karlsefni Who Visited the Western Hemisphere in 1007. Mr Samuel was carrying out the wishes of his late wife Ellen Phillips Samuel, who left money for the erection of 'statuary emblematic of the History of America'. The whole family was clearly fascinated by this kind of stuff, as the book includes a 'Story of a supposed runic inscription found at Yarmouth, Nova Scotia', by Ellen's brother Henry, and it was on Henry's suggestion that Mr Samuel chose a statue of Thorfinn to be the first in the series. The book contains all kinds of gems, including correspondence with the sculptor, with the Park Commissioners who were apparently not always as helpful as they could be in getting the statuary up and going, a detailed account of the dedication ceremony in 1920, and further ruminations on the non-runic stone from Nova Scotia. There's also a splendid (signed) photograph (above right) of Einar Jónsson working on the statue.


  1. I am Scottish from my grandmother and Danish from my grandfather and this caught my attention because it was my grandmother's family that started out in Massachusetts, not my Danish grandfather.

  2. See also http://www.connectivevisions.com/2011/07/overlooked-philadelphia-a-scandinavian-figure-in-public-art/