Kyle Hamblett, cappuccino in hand, had just stepped into Meridian Hill Park on Friday morning when he began to explain to his companion the troubling act of violence committed here a few days ago.
Joan of Arc had gotten mugged in the nation’s capital.
Someone had stolen the French warrior-saint’s cast-bronze, 3½ -foot sword, Hamblett told his friend, Tegan Campia, as they strolled south along the sidewalk. They walked closer and squinted up at the statue, now sitting atop the galloping steed with only a bladeless handle in her right fist.
“Bummer,” Campia said, succinctly summarizing how the Northwest Washington park’s legion of devotees have felt since the theft was first noticed earlier this week.
This isn’t the first time vandals have targeted the park’s half-dozen inanimate figures, a tradition that dates back even further than its famed drum circle. Serenity, the white marble maiden reclining along 16th Street, has lost her nose and left hand, and the James Buchanan memorial is often marred by graffiti. On Friday, a seated female statue known as “Law” had a red third eye painted onto her forehead.
None of them, though, has been victimized more than Joan, who overlooks the cascading fountain and resides in perhaps the park’s most prominent position. She has been climbed upon, covered in a sweater, adorned with a pumpkin head and repeatedly disarmed since she began living in Meridian Hill Park 94 years ago.
The most recent assault has left her admirers dismayed and bewildered: Who did it? And how? And, above all, why?
Statues and memorials all over Washington get defaced. The Grant Memorial, just west of the Capitol, had 60 swords, scabbards and other pilfered items replaced during a major restoration last year.
Stealing Joan’s sword, though, was no easy heist. The statue is 9 feet high and rests atop a 6-foot granite pedestal, according to park officials. A threaded rod attached the blade to the hilt, which had been welded in place.
The U.S. Park Police investigated the theft, said to have occurred last weekend, but have no leads.
“There really aren’t any details,” Sgt. Anna Rose said in an email. “We took a report after searching the area for evidence [none found], and that was all.”
The clue shortage hasn’t dissuaded park regulars from developing their own theories.
“My guess would be some kids,” David Buskell, a UPS driver, theorized as he and his poodle, Tuli, played a game of fetch just beyond Joan’s now slightly diminished shadow.
“What’s somebody doing with it?” wondered Campia, 25, who works with Hamblett, 27, at a tech company. “Is it ‘ha, ha, ha, I have a sword’? Is it a statement?”
“Maybe to use it on somebody?” asked one regular park walker, who would not give her full name but has lived in the neighborhood for 25 years.
“Maybe the robber was a Trump voter,” offered Steve Coleman, only sort of joking as he pondered whether the pilferer might oppose feminism and Joan’s 15th-century battlefield exploits.
Coleman heads the nonprofit organization Washington Parks & People, which has offered to host a “celebratory reception” in honor of anyone who finds the sword.
A century ago, the theft might have qualified as an international incident.
The statue of Joan was a gift from the “Ladies of France in Exile in New York,” according to the park service. Historic video of her unveiling on a blustery day in January 1922 looked more like an inauguration than a ribbon cutting. Both President Warren G. Harding, who wore a top hat, and his wife, who wore a thick fur coat, were in attendance. Hundreds of people listened to men in ornate uniforms give speeches before an American and a French flag were pulled away to reveal the sculpture.
The vandalism seems to have begun decades later.
In 1980, the Washington Star quoted parks employee Burnice T. Kearny as saying that the sword had been broken off “maybe a dozen times.”
“We put a new sword up,” Kearny said, “and every time it was there less than a month.”
In 1992, for Joan’s 580th birthday, Coleman and others held a rally as part of their campaign to have the statue refurbished and moved to its originally intended location along 16th Street, a spot in such regular public view that any mischief-makers would be easy to spot.
The event, Coleman recalled, included the French ambassador’s wife, a brass quintet and a woman in actual armor riding an actual horse.
Their effort failed, and the statue stayed in place. For more than two decades, Joan also had no sword until, in 2011, she was rearmed.
As the park service prepares to replace the blade yet again, people have begun to suggest ideas, with varying degrees of seriousness, on how to prevent another theft.
“Maybe light it on fire?” Campia said.
Two Washington Post commenters requested that she be given a light saber, and another recommended that the entire statue be electrified “like a cattle fence.”
Coleman has long argued that it be made of rubber.
On Friday, down a long line of steps from Joan, an anonymous author’s suggestion remained scrawled in black on a wall behind the disfigured Law statue.
“Report vandlism,” the spelling-impaired vandal wrote. “US Park Police.”
Dana Hedgpeth contributed to this report.