He's no Mel, but statue of Wallace is still striking

June 10, 1995|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff Writer

Neither his eyes nor half his face are blue, his hair doesn't fall below his shoulders and he doesn't look anything like Mad Max.

Nevertheless, that is a statue of Scottish patriot William Wallace lording over the western shore of Druid Lake -- the very same William Wallace portrayed by Hollywood heartthrob Mel Gibson in the film "Braveheart."

Rising more than 25 feet, the statue has been greeting visitors to Druid Hill Park since 1893. Cast in bronze and modeled after a figure atop Abbey Craig in Sterling, Scotland, Sir William is clad in armor, shield at his side, holding a sword aloft. In Scotland, he is revered for leading his fellow Scots against a corrupt British ruler, only to be tortured and put to death by Edward I.

"He's the No. 1 hero in Scotland, that's for sure," says Alfred Schudel Jr., past president of Baltimore's 400-member St. Andrew's Society. "Maybe not as much as George Washington is here, but people all over Scotland know who he is."

Of course, the curious are no doubt wondering what a statue to such a prominent Scotsman is doing in Baltimore -- home to large German, Italian and African-American populations, but hardly a town known for its Scottish heritage.

The answer lies in the life of a 19th-century businessman and philanthropist who made his fortune in Baltimore.

William Wallace Spence was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1815. Enthralled by tales of America, he left for New York at age 18 with less than $100 in his pockets -- despite the pleadings of friends, who warned that he was sure to be greeted by hostile Indians upon his arrival.

The Indians never showed up, however, and Spence thrived. He moved to Baltimore within a few years and began work in the shipping business and as a financier. Heearned the basis of his fortune in 1847, the year of the Irish potato famine, when the price of corn climbed from just a few cents a bushel to $1. He ended up with a profit of $75,000.

After his retirement, he devoted his remaining years to a combination of philanthropy and civic service. He lived in a mansion named Bolton, on the site now occupied by the Fifth Regiment Armory. The neighborhood of Bolton Hill gets its name from his house.

He was a founder of the Mercantile Deposit and Trust Company, worked with Johns Hopkins on many projects, and donated the statue of Christ in the lobby of the Johns Hopkins Hospital. He also served as a city finance commissioner with Enoch Pratt.

Spence, who lived to be 100, remained a proud Scotsman, serving as one of the local St. Andrew's Society's founding members and donating the statue of Sir William to ensure a continuing Scottish presence in the heart of the city.

On the day of the statue's dedication, Nov. 30, 1893, Mayor Ferdinand Claiborne Latrobe, Mr. Spence and 12,000 spectators watched as a procession of bagpipers, military bands and members of the St. Andrew's Society paraded by. The next day's Sun devoted an entire half-page to the ceremonies.

Since that day, Wallace has never left his post, and a vigorous cleaning a few years ago has left him looking pretty much as he must have in the 1890s.

"It's something that we're very proud of," says Mr. Schudel, who helped organize a re-dedication ceremony two years ago, "although I must admit that most of us had forgotten it was there until we read a story in The Sun about 20 years ago."

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