“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” reads the iconic poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty. For generations, the gift from France to the United States has served as a beacon of hope for those in desperate need of a better life. Everyone’s familiar with the magnificent statue’s torch and her commanding spiked crown, but there’s a whole lot more going on with Lady Liberty’s design than people realize.
Look at Lady Liberty gazing out over the New York Bay, holding her flame up high to signify hopeful light at the end of the long tunnel of life. A lot of people visit every year to bask in her patriotic glory — over 4 million per year. And yet most of them miss some key details.
Granted, there’s a lot of the monument to take in, both inside and outside, from her head to her feet. While Lady Liberty is quintessentially American, it was a Frenchman who first envisioned her, and he had big plans for what this statue could represent to the broader world.
Scholar and poet Édouard de Laboulaye first came up with the idea in 1865 to celebrate the upcoming 100-year anniversary of the United States’ independence. Being a man of the written word, he lacked the design experience the project would need, but luckily a famous sculptor stepped in.
French artist Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi caught wind of Laboulaye’s idea, and he loved it so much he dedicated his time to making it a reality. However, even he needed assistance figuring out how to make the 300-foot copper statue stable.
So, none other than Alexander Gustaf Eiffel stepped up to the plate to offer his engineering talents. Name sound familiar? Yep, he was the brains behind the Eiffel Tower. He helped the French sculptor implement some very meaningful symbolism.
For example, the spiked crown that’s resting atop Lady Liberty’s head signifies light beaming out across the entirety of Earth. Of course, another important part of the monument was nestled in her left hand.
Though it’s hard to see, the large tablet the statue holds has Roman numerals marking the date of the Declaration of Independence — a reference to the founding of the United States. However, the plan to honor the Declarations anniversary didn’t go exactly as planned.
Bartholdi began building Lady Liberty in France in 1875, hoping to have her finished by July 1876 in time for the hundredth anniversary of the United States’ Declaration of Independence. However, he severely underestimated it; the statue wasn’t completed until 1884. Better late than never?
In fact, during the decade-long delay of the statue’s construction, the American people were on the fence about the new monument. Suffragettes protested her unveiling — she was a woman representing liberty, while American women didn’t have the right to vote. Luckily, their mission was acknowledged in the symbology of the torch.
Some might argue that the torch is the most important part of the whole monument. It stands for enlightenment, lighting the way to freedom and illuminating the path to liberty. While all these pieces were laden with meaning, Eiffel faced the challenge of actually building and transporting them across the Atlantic.
The logistical challenges didn’t stop them. Once the structure was completely assembled in Paris, it was then disassembled and shipped in pieces on a frigate to New York. It arrived June 17, 1885, and the new construction then began in America.
Once the statue was finally rebuilt more than a year later, it soon welcomed large groups of immigrants who poured in off of ships from overseas, seeking the exact life of freedom the monument symbolized. However, visitors back then had an experience with the Statue of Liberty that few have had since.
Up until 1916, visitors could ascend all the way up into the torch. However, a massive explosion caused by German spies during World War I permanently closed the area. This wasn’t the last time the monument had a role in a war, either.
In 1970, a group of women’s rights activists held protests on Liberty Island, and one year later it yet again garnered attention for protests against the Vietnam War. But, through all this admiration of the statue’s symbols, there’s one few know even exist.
Why would anyone pay too much attention to the statue’s feet when clearly the most important symbols are the torch, crown, and tablet, right? Well, notice how her right foot is slightly lifted off the ground. This was very deliberate.
Take a look at her other foot now. See that broken chain? It’s supposed to show Lady Liberty freeing herself from shackles, and this lesser-known symbol was all due to deeply held beliefs Laboulaye carried with him.
Not only did the Frenchman respect and admire America, but he was also an abolitionist who was president and co-founder of France’s Anti-Slavery Society. Although slavery was outlawed in France at the time, the group believed there was no place for it anywhere.
While the Statue of Liberty is a clear symbol of freedom it also delivers a more pointed message about banishing slavery and spreading enlightenment to the world. And it doesn’t end there, there’s still one more vital piece to the monument no one can ignore.
A poem titled “The New Colossus,” written in 1883 by poet Emma Lazarus to help raise money for the statue’s massive installation project, was meant to paint America out as a safe sanctuary. But, in 2019, it fell into some controversy.
Opponents of immigration suggested the famous line, “Give me your tired, your poor…” should be amended to end with, “who can stand on two feet and won’t become a public charge.” The addition wasn’t taken seriously, but it did spark a bigger conversation.
The Lazarus poem still reads the same as it has for generations, and Lady Liberty still stands for a welcome escape from persecution for all. Long has she stood, emboldening all those who look to admire her copper strength.
Her entire story from start to finish is a magnificent journey, and it’s one that has tons more tidbits of information only a few really know. From secret inspirations to changes over time, Lady Liberty is chock full of secrets.
The Statue of Liberty is undoubtedly an icon of America, but the figure actually has its roots in France. It was there that sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi first came up with the idea of creating a monument to the friendship between France and the United States. However, he had never even set foot on U.S. soil by that point.
Bartholdi’s design for the Statue of Liberty was based on a previous idea of his for a monument he’d proposed for the Suez Canal entrance in Egypt. This new design the sculptor planned for the United States was called “Liberty Enlightening the World.” And while Bartholdi had originally eyed up Central Park as a location, he eventually settled on a site that was then known as Bedloe’s Island.
In France, Bartholdi sought the help of his friend Edouard de Laboulaye, who was a proponent of a French-American monument. The latter then created the Franco-American Union in 1875 to raise $250,000 to fund the statue. That way, all the Americans needed to pay for was the base of the monument.
Laboulaye’s motivation for helping to get Bartholdi’s creation off the ground was explained in an episode of the Raising the Torch podcast in 2019. Historian Alan Kraut revealed, “Laboulaye was a very great admirer of the United States. He was particularly excited about the outcome of the American Civil War, the emancipation of four million slaves, and also the long relationship the United States had [enjoyed] with France.”
Work on the monument then began in 1875. Interestingly, it’s been rumored that Bartholdi based the woman’s face on that of his mother. He enlisted the help of the famous French engineer Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel in order to create the framework of his design. The latter in turn created a skeleton that Bartholdi layered copper over to form the figure.
But getting New Yorkers and Americans in general to back the statue wasn’t easy. As a result, Bartholdi decided to exhibit Liberty’s hand and torch at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. The sculptor suggested he might place his monument in Philadelphia after receiving skepticism from New York. This, in turn, established a rivalry between the two cities and it led to the torch also being exhibited in Madison Square.
In the 1880s the American Committee for the Statue of Liberty came up with a novel idea to raise funds for the monument’s pedestal. They sold souvenir models of the statue across the United States. These mini icons soon spread throughout the country, and the Statue of Liberty became a symbol of America even before the full-sized one was ever complete.
Pulitzer’s plea to help fund the statue’s construction ultimately paid off. His newspaper helped to raise $100,000 towards the completion of the pedestal – much of it coming in donations of $1 or even less. The monument arrived in New York in 1885, but it took a year to assemble its 350 pieces. Consequently, the Statue of Liberty officially opened in October 1886.
The Statue of Liberty quickly became a popular tourist attraction. However, it also served a more honorable purpose – standing guard over the federal immigration station at nearby Ellis Island which opened in 1892. An incredible 12 million immigrants were processed at the checkpoint between then and 1954 – many of them passing the monument as they arrived for their new life in the U.S.
However, the Statue of Liberty was closed once more in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. The island the monument sits on was inaccessible to the public for a total of 100 days. Meanwhile, visiting the actual statue was prohibited for three years. Access to the crown wasn’t restored until 2009, and even then, visitors had to reserve a spot to climb up to the crown or the pedestal.
But while the Statue of Liberty had slowly reopened to visitors in the wake of September 11, there was at least one part of the monument that remained off-limits to the public. And – echoing the events of 2001 – the secret room was locked up following a shocking event that had rocked New York City almost a century before.
The incident in question occurred on July 30, 1916. It was then that there was an explosion on Black Tom Island, which – like Liberty Island – is situated in New York Harbor. The blast went off in the dead of night and could be heard from miles around – breaking windows in Manhattan and ending seven lives.
The devastating blast was unprecedented in the city at that time. Kenneth Jackson is an expert on the history of New York and a professor at Columbia University, and he talked to NBC News about the incident in 2018. Jackson explained, “It was a terrific explosion – the worst that had ever happened in New York.”
The blast on Black Tom Island saw two million pounds of munitions go up in smoke and measured 5.5 on the Richter scale, according to The New York Times. That’s a force 30 times greater than the collapse of the World Trade Center. In fact, until September 11 the blast was believed to be the most destructive terrorist attack on American soil.
World War I was in full swing in Europe when the explosion happened. Black Tom was an important location in the transportation of armaments, where the Lehigh Valley Railroad connected with warehouses stocked full of weapons. From there, they were sent to Gravesend Bay then onwards to Europe.
Most of the arms sent forth from Black Tom Island were bought by the British, French, Russians and Japanese. The U.S. was officially neutral at this time, though Germany was mostly excluded from buying Americans weapons as they could not afford them. As Jackson explained to NBC News, “The Germans probably saw that as an act of war.”
Inspector Thomas J. Tunney from the New York Police Department Bomb Squad felt that sabotage was a likely cause of the explosion – given the significance of Black Tom Island. It was suggested that Indian or Irish nationalists who were opposed to British rule may have been responsible. However, there was no evidence to prove either of these theories.
A then-23-year-old German immigrant called Michael Kristoff was also arrested in connection with the blast, but he was later released as a result of insufficient evidence. A German seaman named Lothar Witzke was later implicated in the conspiracy after he was condemned to death in another spy case. But his sentence was eventually commuted.
German terrorism was eventually ruled out at a cause of the explosion. The owners of railroad cars, barges, warehouses and the watchmen on Black Tom Island were instead accused of being negligent. Nevertheless, the U.S. declared war on Germany in April 1917 – officially entering into World War I.
It wasn’t until the aftermath of WWI that the mystery behind the Black Tom Island bombing was solved. In 1921 lawyers working on a peace treaty between the U.S. and Germany proved that agents from the latter country had indeed been responsible for the attack. Furthermore, they organized their plot from a Manhattan rowhouse belonging to a German-American opera singer.
The owners of the property on Black Tom Island and their insurance companies were awarded $21 million in damages and a further $29 million in interest as part of a peace treaty in 1939. These sums equated to the largest settlement awarded by an international tribunal. As a result, Hitler – the then Chancellor of Germany – felt that it was unreasonable.
The settlement was eventually renegotiated by the Federal Republic of Germany in 1952. An initial payment of $3 million was made in 1953 and the final 26 years later. So, with that, the case seemed largely settled, and before long the Black Tom bombings were largely forgotten about – even in New York.
Jackson speculated to NBC News on why the explosion on Black Tom Island has seemingly fallen from public consciousness. He said, “Black Tom is certainly not well known… I think partly because of the isolation of the explosion. Most people had never heard of that island, they don’t even know where it is.”
But the legacy of the Black Tom blast lives on. The Statue of Liberty was struck with shrapnel in the wake of the explosion, and her extended arm and torch were closed off to visitors. It was deemed unsafe for them to climb a 40-foot ladder to the summit of the monument, which boasted views of New York Harbor.
The military allowed important visitors to ascend to the torch after the Statue of Liberty first opened. But in 2018 superintendent of the Liberty National Monument John Piltzecker told The New York Times that this was a rare privilege only offered to the odd few. He explained, “… You had to be pretty special to do that.”
In 1916 the flame of the torch was altered by Gutzon Borglum – the sculptor behind Mount Rushmore. He added windows to the design, which were attractive but they leaked whenever it rained and subsequently drenched the torch. Then, in July of that year the Black Tom explosion occurred and the weakened torch was ultimately closed to visitors.
The only people who’ve been granted access to the Statue of Liberty’s torch since its closure have been maintenance workers. But that hasn’t stopped some visitors from telling others that they have been up to the top of the monument. Though they are probably getting confused with the crown, which is still open to the public.
Stephen A. Briganti is the chief executive officer and president of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation. And he told The New York Times, “I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, ‘I’ve been up to the torch. I say, ‘No, you probably haven’t, unless you’re really old.’”
The Statue of Liberty torch eventually fell into disrepair over the years – despite the decreased footfall. So, when work to restore the monument was carried out in the 1980s it was decided that this section should be replaced. What was at that time the biggest scaffolding to ever be constructed was then put up to get the original part down. And in 1984 the torch was lowered on a crane.
The torch was eventually installed inside of the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal, where a museum was established. In its new home, visitors were given the chance to see the flame up close for the first time in decades. It would remain there until 2019 when it was moved to another part of Liberty Island to accommodate the ever-growing numbers of visitors to the monument.
The original torch had to be split into two pieces so that it could be transported to its new home. One consisted of the flame and the tube it sits in, while the other was the base of the torch. This latter section was too wide to fit through the door of the pedestal, so it had to be flipped sideways in order to get it out.
The historic move was commemorated in a post on the Statue of Liberty National Monument & Ellis Island Museum of Immigration Instagram page. The caption read, “Today many gathered to watch a colossal event at the Statue of Liberty National Monument where the original torch made its official move from the interior of the monument to the new museum. The torch will soon be displayed so millions can continue to be inspired and enlightened by Liberty and its story.”