There was a lot for the people of Wyoming Valley to talk about back in the early months of 1914.
Unfortunately, much of what was going on was pretty bad: rumblings of war in Europe, scores of local residents dying in the coal mines, a blizzard that dropped a foot of snow, an earth tremor that rocked the valley, flooding from the Susquehanna River.
But there was something else that generated a lot of news coverage and doubtless sparked many a conversation in living rooms, bars and offices a century ago this winter.
A local man was hauling a statue of himself to Washington, D.C., with the intent of getting Congress to place it on display alongside Washington, Jefferson, Webster and Lincoln.
Today we could probably call John Jay “Butch” McDevitt a performance artist. This man, who according to people who knew him never worked a day in his life, enjoyed creating and acting out wild adventures. He gloried in the press coverage (which was always extensive) and spent many an evening regaling local clubs with after-dinner speeches about his escapades.
By 1914 McDevitt was already enjoying local fame from his “millionaire for a day” stunt two years earlier. Taking a blatant political bribe to get off the Democratic Party’s county ticket (which he’d used subterfuge to get on in the first place), he chartered a train to New York City. There, accompanied by friendly reporters from Wilkes-Barre papers, he tossed cash around lavishly in the restaurant of the ritzy Waldorf Hotel and presented gifts to the cast of a Broadway show he took in.
“I’m going to be a millionaire just like you people for a little while,” he was quoted as saying to the hotel dining room crowd.
On Feb. 3 he began his Washington escapade, taking his plaster of paris statue – accompanied by a “guard” and a movie camera operator – by train to the nation’s capital. News stories say he contacted Speaker of the House Champ Clark, who rebuffed his offer of the image. Apparently McDevitt had a remarkable ability to get people to go along with his projects, though, since the news stories also say that the trip included a motorcade through Washington streets and music by the Marine Band. He also handed out photos of himself.
Even Clark’s refusal didn’t get him down. With the Capitol closed to him, the statue was to be “unveiled in a hotel room” with McDevitt giving his own “dedicatory speech,” copies of which would be handed out to the press, reported The New York Times.
Said McDevitt, according to a newspaper, “I am not appreciated by this generation. Homer wasn’t appreciated; neither was Burns. I don’t mean Burns the (Wilkes-Barre) detective, but the poet.”
A day later, he was back in Wilkes-Barre, his statue rejected but his reputation bigger than ever.
Some years ago I met two local men who, in their own younger years, had known McDevitt. James Law, a Wilkes-Barre political activist in the 1920s and 1930s, and Tom Phillips, a newspaper editor from the same period, described McDevitt as a wonderfully engaging fellow.
They told stories of McDevitt shamelessly pocketing money given him by clients for ads in Phillips’ paper and of his becoming a Sunday school superintendent despite having no religious background.
McDevitt died in 1951, at 75, his wild adventures long in the past but his reputation as a wickedly entertaining speaker (and piece of local folklore) secure.