Even now, 90 years later, comes a revelation about the controversial history of the 12-foot bronze, 4,600-pound “Doughboy” figure greeting visitors at the Evergreen Washelli Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Seattle.  

The statue honoring World War I infantrymen is an early example of the city’s cancel culture, that special outrage reserved for those deemed socially incorrect.

The sculpted, smiling U.S. infantryman once had two German helmets slung over his shoulder. The helmets were cut off surreptitiously decades ago, whereabouts unknown.

Now one of them has been found — in a box at the cemetery.

People visiting on Memorial Day, Veterans Day or just stopping by to pay their respects to the 5,000 or so white marble headstones likely don’t know the emotions the statue generated. The contentious helmet remains out of sight.

A Seattle Times front page headline from April 12, 1932, summarized what Seattle City Councilmember James Scavotto proposed for the Doughboy: “GET THE SAW!

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Now that’s canceling.

But 90 years ago, such a tempest, said Victor Menaldo, a University of Washington political science professor who’s written on cancel culture, “was more isolated. It didn’t go viral. Now, with a whole digital mob, it would be something because of the scale and scope of digital platforms.”

Let’s itemize the main complaints — even before the sculpture went on display — over Alonzo Victor Lewis’ work, for which he had a contract with the city.

  • The statue’s smile. Seattle Council President Phillip Tindall said in a Seattle Times story on Oct. 24, 1931, that the “triumphant smile on the Doughboy’s face is not characteristic of soldiers as they came out of the frontline trenches.”
  • Just the general look on the face of the Doughboy. “To immortalize this splendid soldier with such a bestial and animal expression is the greatest form of injustice,” wrote Carl Gould, president of the Seattle Arts Commission and a member of the City Planning Commission, on Nov. 11, 1928 in The Seattle Times. That resulted in Lewis suing Gould in 1931 for $50,000, or $920,000 today, for damages to his reputation. The lawsuit was later dropped.
  • The two German helmets the Doughboy had slung over his shoulder as symbolic war souvenirs. Around the base is the inscription, “American Doughboy bringing home victory.” Tindall said the helmets “might be interpreted as an affront to German visitors and German-American citizens,” instead of restoring “international friendliness.” For good measure, Councilmember Scavotto threatened but did not carry out, “Those helmets will be taken off if I have to do it myself.
  • The original name, said Jim Rupp, author of “Art in Seattle’s Public Places, An Illustrated Guide,” was to be the less diplomatic, “Bringing Home the Bacon.” But, he said, “That was thought to be inappropriate, hearkening back to Germans.” The name stayed a proposal.

Despite the city councilman’s threats, the Doughboy was untouched when unveiled on Memorial Day, 1932, in front of the Civic Auditorium, now the Seattle Center Opera House.

By 1962, when a photo was taken of the statue, the bayonet affixed to the rifle was gone. Likely sawed off. No culprit found.

The bayonet had to go, perhaps, because there had been complaints that the statue “should carry a wreath instead of a rifle,” said a Seattle Times story in Oct. 11, 1931. The story added that protests charged the Doughboy came across “as a monstrosity.”

“Basically people were upset with his lack of sensitivity. I guess you could call that cancel culture,” Rupp said.

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Somewhere between that 1962 photo and one taken on Veterans Day 1998, when Doughboy was moved and dedicated at Washelli, gone were the two German helmets. No suspects. Nobody in those decades claiming responsibility or saying they knew what had happened.

Then, about four years ago, said Aaron Sholes, operations manager for Washelli, he made a discovery while cleaning the cemetery’s operations base.

“Tucked away in a corner,” he said, was a box containing one of the big bronze German helmets, 1 ½ feet by 1 ½ feet, weighing around 35-40 pounds.

The second helmet is not around, and Sholes, who’s worked at the cemetery 15 years, has no idea how the one he found ended up in the box.

“We assume it probably came with the statue when we acquired it, but nobody opened it,” Sholes said.

Nobody opened the box? “It is a little odd,” he added.

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Lewis was a local artist whose name regularly appeared in The Seattle Times society pages, in the era of coverage of the well-offs.

He spoke on sculpture at the Music and Arts Foundation, and designed the banquet program for the Young Men’s Republican Club.

“He was a marketer,” Rupp said.

For Doughboy, it helped that Lewis got coverage like a Dec. 10, 1922, full-page story in The Seattle Times when he created a clay model of the statue.

The story said the sculptor “has been told by friends and critics who have seen his work that he has created a masterpiece.”

“Doughboy,” is a name with speculative origins. The site “The Great War Society” spends 13 pages on explanations for the moniker, ranging from the buttons worn by U. S. infantrymen that resembled doughboy dumplings to the whitish clay that soldiers used to polish their uniforms and which became “doughie” in rain.

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Lewis said he expected $25,000 or $427,000 in today’s dollars.

The City Council bickered about the $25,000 and in 1931 settled on paying him $5,000, with public donations generating another $4,000 (the two sums totaling $166,000 today). Even in 2022, that’s a sum many artists would gladly accept.

Once Lewis was paid, his attorney said, the city could do what it wanted with the helmets: “The reason we didn’t remove the helmets was that Mr. Lewis objected to mutilation of the statue … Of course, the city fathers can cut it up as they like, now. It is their property.”

Sholes said the cemetery knows it’s got a historical curiosity, right now out of the box, sitting in a corner in his office, seen only by staff and to visitors who happened to stop by.

How to display it? Sholes certainly finds it of historical interest.

Washelli does display some historical artifacts in its main office – an old horseshoe found on the property, for example – but Sholes knows that displaying a war trophy could be awkward.

“Maybe loan it out to MOHAI or some other museum that may be interested,” he said.