When Harriet Burnside died in 1904, she left $5,000 in her will to finance a commemorative memorial for her father.
Whether or not she would have approved of the memorial that ultimately emerged will forever remain a matter of speculation, and it is not the only unanswered question surrounding the Burnside Fountain, known locally simply as “Turtle Boy.”
The fountain, originally intended to provide water for humans, dogs and carriage horses, made no immediate “splash.” Though the basin itself was designed by Henry Bacon (who went on to design the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC) a newspaper from the time reported “Mayor O’Connell believes it will be well to have the fountain placed in use without a ceremony.” Why the clandestine unveiling? The reason may be that the body of the statue’s designer and sculptor, Charles Y. Harvey, had not long before been discovered in Bronx Park, New York, with his throat slit and near two straight razors.
It appeared as though this gruesome death was by his own hand, and the shadow of that tragedy may have overshadowed the fine craftsmanship he poured into the fountain. Harvey hadn’t finished the statue by the time of his suicide and the task was completed by Sherry Fry, a sculptor most well known for camouflaging front-line American units during the first World War. Adding to the string of strangeness attributed to Turtle Boy’s story was his theft in May of 1970 and subsequent anonymous return in September of that same year.
Turtle Boy is less known today for his history than for his form: it is impossible to view the sculpture without questioning the claim that it represents a boy riding a turtle. The boy’s determined gaze and the turtle’s strained expression suggest a more bestial interpretation. There are no angles from which the sculpture’s innocence is obvious. What Harvey’s original intentions were for the design of the Burnside Fountain are unknown.
Today Turtle Boy has been accepted–reluctantly by some, enthusiastically by others–as Worcester’s unofficial mascot. Shirts have been printed and songs have been written to commemorate Turtle Boy’s lascivious engagements but nothing beats a look, up close and personal, at the real thing on the south-east corner of Worcester Common.