IT REFRESHED MORSE to be once again in France. Lafayette, Arago, and other notables had always received him warmly; the nation had formally adopted his telegraph system; the Emperor himself had arranged his indemnity from the other European states. His appearance marked him for attention, a fact recorded in the bearded bemedaled image of himself he referred to as the “family photograph portrait.” * His family had prodded him to have it taken, he often said. Some justification was needed. As a much younger man he had said he despised the “artificial distinctions” of the Old World, the “ribbons, and garters and crosses and other gewgaws that please the great babies of Europe.” Now, however, when sending out copies of the picture he explained in detail the decorations on his chest, sometimes listing the many other honors he had received as well, as if relishing to simply name them all.
The Abrahamic beard was a recent growth—a breastbone-length frizzy white cloud declaring settled strength, wisdom, and, of course, old age. He felt close to the end of his journey, “daily more weaned from earth, and have my nightly & daily thoughts more & more fixed upon him alone who is my trust, my Savior, my Life.” Neuralgia sometimes ached his face and head, but his five-foot-ten frame was still erect, his voice strong. His handwriting was tremorless, having retained for fifty years its crisp, steel-plate elegance.
Morse had always particularly loved Paris, now a city of nearly two million inhabitants, “the great centre of the world,” he called it. He found the place dramatically transformed since his last visit. Baron Georges Eugène Haussmann, the prefect of Paris, had overseen the destruction of the crowded medieval slums and open sewers, replacing them with handsome public spaces and sweeping tree-lined boulevards. “I used to think it the dirtiest city in Europe; now it is the cleanest.” And very grand. There were luxurious hotels, the nearly completed Théâtre de l’Opéra, the airy pavilions of Les Halles—everywhere “magnificent improvements in the multitude and beauty of the avenues and buildings.”
Morse lent himself to the style of the new Metropolis. He rented the entire third floor of a six-story house at no. 10 avenue du Roi de Rome, an expensive neighborhood of embassies and fine private homes near the Arc de Triomphe. The cream-colored stone building, only a year old, was exquisitely ornamented with wrought-iron balconies, classical columns, and sculpted figures. Morse’s apartment, elegantly furnished, provided him and his family a living room, two parlors, four bedrooms, and a dining room capable of seating twelve. There were three additional rooms for servants, which he presumably filled after engaging a valet, cook, chambermaid, and seamstress. And the rental entitled him to store his wine in the building’s cellar. “So far as material comfort is concerned,” he decided, “there is no place in the world that can equal Paris.”
Morse enjoyed playing the part of an haut bourgeois. With Sarah and the children he often drove to the Bois de Boulogne in a two-horse barouche. They circled the lake, greeting friends and ogling the celebrities whose afternoon rides made the tour du lac a great public spectacle. They spent a “quite gay” winter attending Baron Haussmann’s fete at the Hôtel de Ville and court balls at the Tuileries, mingling with princes and princesses, ex-queens, ambassadors, “the highest Society in the world.” As he did in similar circumstances, he reasoned away the moral and political distance he had traveled from being the son of a Calvinist minister, born in the shadow of Bunker’s Hill, to being a grandee in the flamboyant Paris of the Second Empire. “The evil does not lie in assembling in splendid rooms, and in wearing rich apparel,” he reflected, “but in so setting the heart upon such scenes as to have no room there for the more substantial pleasures of ordinary duties, whether domestic or more purely religious. There is such a thing as using the world, and not abusing it.”
Using the world very well indeed, Morse was presented at court— the most splendid in all Europe—to the Emperor Napoleon III and the Empress Eugénie. With Paris becoming the world’s fashion center, he had himself outfitted for the surpassing occasion in a resplendent full suit—chapeau bras, silk-lined coat embroidered with gold lace, cashmere vest with gilt buttons, white cravat, pantaloons with a broad stripe of gold lace, a small sword—“which last for a peaceable man like him,” he admitted, “was a little out of character.” He covered the breast of his coat with six of his orders and the plaque of Cavaliero Commandador of the Spanish Order of Isabella the Catholic(!), and hung around his neck his Nishan Iftichar, the diamonded gold brooch conferred upon him by the Sultan of Turkey. Standing in a receiving line among other brilliantly costumed notables, he got to meet the debonair mustachioed Emperor, as well as Eugénie, who said to him, he recalled, “ ‘we are greatly indebted to you, Sir, for the Telegraph,’ or to that effect.” He took some tempting-looking almonds and candies home for the children. To his surprise the bonbons turned out to be cunningly fashioned of fish.
From an even grander, historic event, however, Morse was painfully excluded. After thirteen years of single-minded perseverance, Cyrus Field at last succeeded in establishing telegraphic communication across the Atlantic Ocean, bringing London within minutes of New York and San Francisco.
On July 13, 1866, the 700-foot-long Great Eastern had once more taken off from the Irish coast, its iron hull scraped of a two-foot-thick crust of barnacles. Its paying-out machinery had been improved, the cable-insulation galvanized. After only one mishap at sea, when the cable fouled, the ship reached Newfoundland two weeks later and hooked its line onshore. Queen Victoria sent the first official transatlantic message, congratulating President Andrew Johnson on this new coupling of the United States and England. The immense promise of the cable was dramatized when Cyrus Field, in Newfoundland, received simultaneous messages from California and from Alexandria, Egypt. In a thrilling follow-up, the Great Eastern moved out six hundred miles to where its cable had snapped and sunk during the previous year’s attempt. Grapnels were sent down, on rope a half-foot thick. After thirty tries, the lost cable was recovered and landed, making a second usable transatlantic telegraph line.
From Paris, Morse sent Field congratulations on this revolutionary boon to human intercommunication, to “the great system of nerves that will make the world one great Sensorium.” He would profit from Field’s success, too, owning 600 shares in the cable company. He bought 200 more shares, speeding his order to New York across the undersea line itself, at the steep cost of nearly $30 in gold. Just the same, reading newspaper reports of the many London banquets and celebrations and toasts to “England and America United,” he felt left out. The reports said nothing of him. “My name in connection with the Atlantic cable, though it was my suggestion and built upon my assurances of its feasibility, is carefully excluded from mention.” Such, he concluded, was public opinion. Years ago the public had doubted his suggestion. Now it doubted that he ever made the suggestion.
As Morse had planned to do, he gave his family every advantage of European travel and education. He took them all on excursions to England, Scotland, Germany, and Switzerland. The children progressed in mastering French and German, learning to draw, and becoming accomplished musicians. The often mischievous Arthur played the violin in duets with his sister Lela, who was studying piano; his teacher, a celebrated German violinist, remarked that he had “extraordinary powers.” Morse indulged his own fondness for music by hearing performances in Dresden of Wagner’s Rienzi, The Flying Dutchman, and Tannhäuser.
Morse took particular delight in his grandson Charles Lind. As a child in Puerto Rico, Charles had shown an aptitude for drawing. By now he maintained his own atelier in Paris, studying painting at Julien’s Academy and readying some pictures to be shown at the exposition. Morse invited the young man to dine with the family once or twice a week, and to visit often, proud that his own daughter’s son seemed determined to become a first-rate painter: “I tell him the mantel [sic] is going into the Lind branch.”
Despite the seductions of Paris and his advanced age, Morse spent most of his time working. “I have so many irons in the fire that I fear some must burn. But father’s motto was, ‘better wear out, than rust out.’ ” As one way of staying busy he represented a group called the American Asiatic Society. With the Suez Canal under construction, promising greatly increased commerce between East and West, the Society hoped to persuade maritime nations to join in encouraging global trade. The Society had in view, for instance, tapping the potentially lucrative resources of undeveloped regions like eastern Africa. As President of the group, Morse undertook to personally present a memorial to the Emperor, requesting that he convene during the Paris Exposition an international conference on world commerce.
However flatteringly received at court in his medals and chapeau bras, Morse found the Emperor unreachable. He got a runaround from officials, and was hampered by his inability, still, to speak French. Anyway, Napoleon was tied up in cabinet meetings, preoccupied with the current war between Austria and Prussia, which threatened to engulf the Continent. When he at last replied to Morse, through the Minister of Foreign Affairs, he said that he looked favorably on the Society’s project. But he declined calling a congress. Unable to get anywhere, Morse resigned his presidency.
Much other time Morse spent writing. The ever-present desire to prove his claim of priority had become obsessive as he aged. The need to do so in Europe was urgent, for the counterclaims that Dr. Charles Jackson had submitted to the Académie des Sciences decades ago remained unchallenged in the academy’s records and continued to circulate: “How slander sticks!” In Germany, the author of a Handbuch der angewandten Elektricitätslehre fully retold Jackson’s version of The Sully Story and summed up what it revealed: “we involuntarily arrive at the conclusion that Morse’s attention was first directed to the subject of the electric telegraph and the employment of electro-magnetism, through Jackson’s ideas.” Morse bought up many other new books and articles on the history of telegraphy that in his view perpetuated errors and lies about his originality. He filled the margins with protests: “Infamous! … Is this a fair statement? … Was there ever such barefaced falsehoods crowded into so small a space as in this note?!!”
Morse labored to set the record straight, “the pen in my hands from early morning to late at night.” He published two pamphlets in Paris, the first a reissue of Amos Kendall’s Full Exposure … of Dr. Charles T. Jackson, published in America in 1850. Undying trust in Jackson’s mendacities, he explained, demanded the “exhumation”—for which he wrote a new preface. Out of a mass of books and papers brought from home he also composed and published an elaborate self-defense, Modern Telegraphy. Some Errors of Dates of Events and of Statement in the History of Telegraphy Exposed and Rectified. The pamphlet consists of a fifty-page narrative of his early work on the telegraph, valuably illustrated with detailed drawings, plus thirty-eight pages of letters and depositions from people who had observed his work firsthand at the time. He based his defense on what he called the “philological position”—the literal meaning of the Greek tele graphos: “I WRITE, AT A DISTANCE.” All telegraphs before his own, that is, had been semaphores, designed to communicate information but not to record it. He sent dozens of copies of his pamphlets to highly placed persons in Paris and in England, and planned to take three or four hundred back with him to America.
Morse took on additional work at the International Exposition. He accepted a federal appointment to the show as Honorary Commissioner of the American government. This involved writing a substantial report for the State Department on the telegraph display. He and his family watched the opening grand review of the French army from the Emperor’s own gallery—an unbeatable view of the 60,000 Zouaves, grenadiers, and foot soldiers colorfully defiling below. Afterward they mingled at a reception given by the City of Paris at the Hôtel de Ville for visiting dignitaries, including Bismarck and the King of Prussia, awesomely lighted by 70,000 candles.
Morse had plenty of company at the Exposition. Between April and October 1867 the fair drew over six million spectators. They included the crowned heads of state large and small—“as much of this world’s glory,” he said, “as has been seen in one spot since Solomon’s time.” The fairground stood on the Champs de Mars, in easy walking distance of his house, pennants everywhere flying from tall poles. The vast exhibition building was laid out as seven concentric iron, brick, and glass ovals, something like nested racetracks. Inside, the various national pavilions offered thousands of displays of arts and industry—“the world in epitome,” Morse said. Despite the overtones of a universal common bond—the gold prize medals were stamped “Social Harmony”—some criticized the Exposition as vulgarly materialistic and socially conservative. Little could be seen there of the hordes of urban poor, the quite other Paris of ragpickers, beggars, and teenaged prostitutes. Emile Zola called the event an “extravaganza of lies.”
Morse however found it all intensely interesting, not least the strong showing of Albert Bierstadt, Frederick Church, John Frederick Kensett, and other American painters in the art section. He also reported to Sidney on the display of the “Morse Bathometer” his brother had invented, though with discouraging news about its reception. Mostly he inspected the huge array of telegraphic apparatus laid out by seventy-five exhibitors—transmitters, receivers, batteries, magnets, insulation, and the like submitted by inventors and manufacturers not only from Europe, America, and Great Britain but also from Scandinavia, Turkey, Egypt, and Russia.
Press reaction to the display of recently invented telegraphs was divided. One French newspaper remarked that the new devices “function satisfactorily, but can’t supplant Morse.” Contrarily, the Paris Moniteur observed that years earlier Morse’s telegraph would have dominated the Exposition, but no longer did. “Ce n’est sans doute plus qu’un roi détrôné”—the Morse system is now nothing more than an overthrown king. For himself, Morse saw in the new instruments nothing so much as the features of his own. He could pass by scarcely any of them, he said, “that I do not hear the cry of father.”
Morse attended the award ceremony at the close of the Exposition, held before 20,000 persons including the Emperor, the Sultan of Turkey, and the Prince of Wales. In the telegraph section, one Grand Prize went to Cyrus Field for his transatlantic cable. Morse felt a fresh pang of resentment and exclusion when another Grand Prize went to the Kentucky music teacher David Hughes, for an improved version of his piano-like printing telegraph—the device that Field’s company had threatened to use in competition with Morse lines. “Many of my friends,” Morse commented, “think I ought to have received some prize of the kind as the original Inventor of the Recording Telegraph.” Adept at preserving his pride, however, he reasoned that he had received a “ Grander Prize” in his indemnity from the nations of Europe, and the provisional adoption of his system on all international lines. “An Honorary notice would of course [have] been agreeable, but in my case would be supererogatory.”
Getting started on his report to the State Department, Morse obtained a catalog of all the telegraphic apparatus and supplies at the Exposition, covering the displays of dozens of manufacturers. He also collected statistics about the use of the telegraph in various countries. This sometimes meant having the information translated into English from scientific journals in German and other languages. Assimilating the material and writing it up while abroad, in time for the next session of Congress, proved to be exhausting: “I shall think myself fortunate if I do not break down under this load.” To escape the summer heat of Paris he rented a six-room cottage on the Isle of Wight, hoping to write there as he and his family enjoyed the fine air and the sea bathing. He could not get around the pile of documents, however. In frustration, he resigned himself to completing the report when he returned to America.
Morse did return. Although he sometimes spoke of his life in Paris as “my exile” and thought of settling there, the dissipation of European society began to wear on him. He longed again for the quiet of Locust Grove and a Sunday at New York’s Madison Square Church, “the steady, rational, religious habits of our own Countrymen.” Since adolescence the Son of The Geographer had yearned to travel. Heading home he was nearly eighty years old, and crossing the Atlantic for the sixteenth time: “my age admonishes me that, in all probability, I shall never again visit Europe.”
Although more than a quarter century in use, Morse’s telegraph remained for many people an astonishment—“the greatest triumph of the human mind,” as one newspaper put it, “the most direct proof of man’s conquest of nature.” It had spread ever more rapidly, too; the more stations that became connected the faster the network grew. And telegraphy now reached Asia. In 1870 a line went up in the Mikado’s palace and sent the first message in Japan, reading: “The Emperor is highly pleased with the wonderful Western invention.” The Chinese government had been wary of the telegraph as a threat to its sovereignty, a means of prying the country open to foreign influence. But in 1871, after much public and official resistance, a four-digit code representing Chinese characters began whizzing through the dianxian, “lightning wires.”
Morse’s globe-circling invention gave him a quasi-mythical stature not much less fabulous than that of Washington. Engravings of him hung in many American homes, based on Christian Schussele’s famous Men of Progress (1862), a group portrait that imagines nineteen American inventors gathered in one room. Morse sits at the central table beside his telegraph, the focal point of the scene. Visitors to the U.S. Capitol who peered upward to the dome, now frescoed by Constantino Brumidi’s Apotheosis of Washington (1866), saw a giant Raphaelesque Morse, in company with Benjamin Franklin, Robert Fulton, and Minerva, goddess of the arts. Americans in all stations of life sent worshipful fan letters: “I can hardly tell how to express myself to you of the great obligation the People are under to you for the perciveriance in your worke [sic].” Other letters reached Morse’s town house with no more address than “Inventor of the Telegraph/New York City.” A photograph arrived from a couple he did not know, showing the child they had christened “S. F. B. Morse Ebbinghaus.”
Christian Schussele, Men of Progress (National Portrait Gallery)
Despite his fabulous renown, Morse’s last four years were a grim crescendo of unhappiness and abuse. Immediately upon his return to the United States, he discovered that Locust Grove had been burglarized, the locks broken. His town house, mistreated by its tenants, needed thousands of dollars in repairs. Pictures he stored in the cellar had been eaten through by rats.
Four months later Morse learned that his brother Richard was gone. Richard had never overcome what he called his “mental depression arising from ill health.” Wandering as usual, he had died in Bavaria of liver cancer. “And so the triple cord is broken,” Morse wrote, “the youngest, is the first of us to pass the dark valley.” He felt the blow more than he supposed possible.
The political situation distressed him, too, hardly less so than when he had left the country. The House had voted to impeach President Andrew Johnson. The vice presidential candidates in the November 1868 election were accused of corruption and drunkenness. Europeans would think the country depraved, “that our choice of Rulers is made from a class more fitted for the State’s prison than the State thrones.”
Even occasions that should have comforted Morse became trials. He had, of course, often been feted, but never before on the scale of the gargantuan six-hour banquet given in his honor by Western Union. The Times devoted virtually its entire front page to reporting what it called “one of the most magnificent affairs of the kind that ever took place in this City.” For the event, on the evening of December 29, Delmonico’s restaurant exuberantly sprouted profusions of flowers and flags, a representation of Franklin’s kite experiment, a statue of Jove launching bolts of lightning, among much else. A sixteen-piece orchestra played such operatic selections as “Barbe Bleu” and “La Grande Duchesse.”
The many eminences among the more than two hundred diners included the presidents of Yale and Columbia, the British ambassador to America, the Attorney General of the United States, and Salmon P. Chase, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Morse’s family and friends attended—Sarah and their daughter Lela, Sidney Morse, Amos Kendall, Cyrus Field, Asher B. Durand, William Cullen Bryant. Telegrams arrived from Admiral David Farragut (“Damn the torpedoes”) and from President-elect Ulysses S. Grant. The menu, adorned with an engraving of Morse bemedaled, offered ten courses of Escaloppes de bass, aux éperlans dauphins, Grouses en salmis aux truffles, and Pain de faisans à la Chantilly, with six courses of wine and champagne, not to mention oysters, sorbets, sweets, and desserts. The guests hoisted sixteen toasts during the evening, with lengthy responses and speeches that heaped praise on Morse until after midnight.
But the regal blowout was not exactly the tribute it seemed. Western Union very probably dreamed up the event to win public support for itself. By now Western Union had absorbed all the chief American telegraph companies. Using Morse’s system, it commanded 37,000 miles of telegraph line and administered over 2000 stations. For this the transcontinental corporate giant was denounced by reformers and politicians who considered monopolies unhealthy in American economic life. At the time of the banquet, Congress was looking into proposals for the government to build and operate its own telegraph system under the Post Office Department, in competition with Western Union; or, alternatively, to buy out and operate all existing telegraph lines. And Western Union fought every move toward government control, publishing countless pamphlets in its own defense and lobbying vigorously in Washington.
Surely by no accident, a key speaker at Delmonico’s was William Orton, the tall, dignified president of Western Union. No one had been more energetic than he in speechmaking and testifying before congressional committees to oppose plans for federal intervention. In addressing the banqueters he attacked such plans as unconstitutional, amounting to government interference with free enterprise. “The American telegraph is on its trial,” he said, “and it feels honored on this occasion that that trial is in the presence of the Chief-Justice of the United States … and the distinguished Attorney-General of the United States.”
When Morse rose to speak, introduced by Chief Justice Chase, the two hundred guests stood up to give cheer after cheer. When the applause subsided a little it broke out again and again. He spoke for at least an hour, mostly explaining once more the grounds of his and America’s claims to priority. But indirectly he also addressed the issue of government control, by relating his experiences with Congress a quarter century ago. When he applied for an appropriation to erect an experimental line, he recalled, some House members ridiculed his invention, saying half the money should be given to experiments in mesmerism. And after the demonstrated success of his Washington-Baltimore line, he had offered his invention to the government for $100,000—and got no response, the then-Postmaster General having informed Congress that the telegraph would never produce revenue. He told the distinguished audience that he neither advocated nor opposed the plans now before Congress. He merely offered his remarks as timely, “useful to remember in endeavoring to reach a just judgment in the matter.”
Morse’s recollections, however, can have left little doubt about how far Congress could be entrusted with the future of American telegraphy. He did not escape brutal criticism for his remarks, especially in James Gordon Bennett’s Herald, which favored government control. In several editorials the Herald questioned the intent of the banquet: “It is difficult … to resist the conviction that the affair was got up less for the purpose of honoring Professor Morse than of advancing the interests of the Western Union Telegraph Company.” If proof were needed, the Herald said, William Orton’s “execrable” remarks made it clear that the homage to Morse was propaganda for an offensive, “a decoy duck to affect a great lobby movement upon Congress.” The revered guest and the influential diners had been bought off, “to spread abroad the erroneous impression that the Professor and the company assembled to meet him were all opposed to the absorption of the telegraph in the postal system.”
Whether Morse understood that the Pain de faisans was in reality decoy duck is debatable. He may have conspired with Western Union, willing to endorse its cause. He approved the company’s drive for power, having always believed that only under a single management could the nation’s telegraph network provide efficient and reliable communications: “[Western Union] is becoming, doubtless, a monopoly,” he told Kendall, “but … its unity is in reality a public advantage.” And he had a large stake in the company’s success. All of his patents having expired in 1867, he could no longer look to them for income. Instead he had sunk his money in Western Union, making it “the basket in which I have all my eggs”—eggs here being stocks apparently worth $400,000. On the other hand, Morse may simply have been gulled. Western Union would not have been the first seeker after power and respectability to play on his hunger for medals, diplomas, honorary titles, and testimonial dinners.
Morse’s hefty report to the State Department turned out to be not much more welcome than his speech at Delmonico’s. Between the writing and the arduous collection or making of diagrams, maps, photographs, and statistical tables, the work only crept along. He failed to meet several deadlines: “I fear I have assumed at my age, a task above my strength.” As he labored, too, the report became less a review of the Paris Exposition than a personal testament, “to settle once for all the disputed claim of my right to be considered the Inventor of the Telegraph proper.”
Morse’s claim, however, had expanded. Although his telegraph entitled him to be considered the most influential inventor America had so far produced, he had come to call his own almost every feature of its development, as if conceding one conceded them all. “I assert a truth, when I say that the Telegraphic system which I devised in 1832… has had no essential improvement added to it, to this day.” He granted importance to advances in conducting wires, batteries, and the like. But whenever he received suggestions for some improving modification of his basic apparatus he bluntly repulsed them as attempts to question his priority and nibble away at his reputation. “In regard to the ‘Electro-magnetic conductor of which you inquire my opinion … I really see nothing new or particularly useful in the plan.” “The idea of such railroad telegraphing is not new. I patented in France in 1838 a system of Railroad telegraphing.” “An arrangement for prolonging the sound of the dash in two ways, differing from yours, I put in operation as far back as 1844.”
Morse completed the 300-page manuscript around June 1869. He sent it on to Washington, where it was vetted by Professor W. P. Blake, general editor of the government reports. Surprised and disappointed by what Morse submitted, he twice wrote back tactfully asking for revisions. He recommended large cuts in the material on priority. Morse should take it for granted that he had invented “ the” telegraph: “For you to argue it … implies, at the least, that there is room for explanation and discussion.” Blake also asked for revision of another matter, “upon which I know that you are sensitive.” Scientists generally acknowledged the “radical importance and value” to the telegraph of the experiments of Joseph Henry, who went unmentioned in the report.
Morse conceded that on the priority issue he had been “too weakly sensitive.” But he more than ever had it in for Henry. He now believed that the influential attack on him published a decade ago by a prestigious committee of the Smithsonian Institution had actually been written by Henry himself, deceptively “prepared for the Committee to father.” Blake’s criticism caused him much puzzled distress. He drafted memo after memo and note after note, trying again and again to come up with some innocuous way of bringing Henry into the report.
Late in November the Government Printing Office issued Morse’s work, as Examination of the Telegraphic Apparatus and the Processes in Telegraphy. Whatever he may have cut from the manuscript, the 162-page published report remained largely a brief for himself, his final and fullest attempt to compile an unassailable historical record of his invention. “The Morse system was the introduction and the addition of a new art to the means of communicating at a distance …. It was emphatically the first realization of a telegraph.” In discussing the recently created telegraphs exhibited in Paris he explained that people tend to mistake modifications for entirely new things. “It will not be deemed egotistical on the part of an inventor,” he wrote, “if in the attempts of others to improve his invention he should now and then recognize the familiar features of his own offspring, and claim the paternity.” He therefore traced back to himself most of the “improvements” on display, including the invention of the “acoustic semaphore” (i.e., his sounder) and of submarine telegraphy. In passing he mentioned Henry’s work on the lifting power of electromagnets, slyly putting Henry down as someone who demonstrated “the practicability of ringing a bell by means of electro-magnetism at a distance.”
Morse’s difficulty in completing the report made up the lesser part of his misery at the time. He was forced to do some of his writing in bed, having injured his leg worse than ever before. Slipping on the stairs at Locust Grove, he fell with his whole weight and broke the leg in two places below the knee. Given his age, some feared he would not survive the shock. The injury laid him up for more than three months. After that, grown pale, he managed to hobble about on two sawhorse-like supports.
In August, having sent in his report but apparently still bedridden, Morse was confronted by a family crisis. Susan, Charles, and Finley, the children of his first marriage, had turned out to be helpless adults—gullible, sickly, or disabled. Two of the boys from his second marriage were turning out to be scoundrels. Twenty-year-old Arthur, for all his promise as a violinist, had a weakness for bad companions, a “disgusting filthy” habit of chewing tobacco, and little self-control. While abroad, in Dresden, he had nearly gotten into a duel with some young German army officers. His “rude brusqueness,” Morse lamented, belonged not to the family’s ideal of the Christian Gentleman but to “corner grocery New York rowdies.”
That August, Arthur got into serious trouble—serious enough for Morse to book him passage on a ship bound for Valparaiso. Hustling Arthur out of the country to Chile seems a desperate move, suggesting some offense on the order of fathering an illegitimate child. Whatever the trouble, it left Morse “greatly depressed.” He asked Sidney to come to Locust Grove to discuss the situation. Perhaps worse, Christmas Day came and went without a letter from Arthur or report of him. Morse and Sarah wept, hoping he was safe. “We cannot forget him,” Morse said, “although he has given us such great pain & anxiety.” After more than five months he still had not heard from Arthur and felt unstrung: “No one, not even any in the family, can know the secret yearnings of my heart towards him. Many are the hours when I am in bed that I think of him, and pray for him.”
Morse worried that Arthur’s brother Willie, now seventeen, might also be headed for some Valparaiso. Morse had sent him for schooling to Phillips Academy in Andover, where he had been sent himself. There Willie showed a taste for vulgar “Velocipede rinks,” patronized by “low company.” The school notified Morse that the boy had played hookey, too. “See what evil it has already brought upon your poor brother Arthur, and what grief it has caused us all,” Morse wrote to him; “Oh, my dear Willie, are you going to be also a source of grief to us.” He had greatly desired the boy to master Greek and Latin, and to follow his father and grandfather into Yale. But he began thinking it might do Willie more good to expect something different from him. The boy was “unusually strong” and might succeed in some profession that called on his physical gifts.
In November 1869, just as his government report appeared and as he waited anxiously to hear from Arthur, Morse had one more shock. Amos Kendall was dead. He died in Washington, a wealthy man but desolate. He left unfinished the biography of Andrew Jackson he had worked on for years. No complainer in his lifetime, he brooded near the end over the anguish he had endured, including the deaths of nine siblings, the murder of one son, and the deaths by typhoid of another son and a wife. “My first marriage was into a family consisting of a father, mother, four sons, and three daughters. They are all dead. My second marriage was into a family consisting of a father, mother, two sons, and two daughters. They are all dead. I have had two wives, five sons, and nine daughters. The wives and the sons are all gone, and only four daughters are left.”
Kendall had been declining for three months, so his passing was not unexpected. Morse nevertheless felt bereft and damaged. He had confided in Kendall as in a father. Unlike many others, Kendall had never manipulated him or betrayed his trust. Thankful, too, for Kendall’s sound business sense and untiring effort, he grieved that he had lost his one necessary friend—“to whose energy & skill … I owe (under God) the comparative comfort which a kind Providence has permitted me to enjoy in my advanced age.”
The record of Morse’s life is scanty for the fifteen or so months between the end of 1869 and the summer of 1871. He complained of weakness, and in answering his correspondence sometimes used an amanuensis. Commuting between two residences had become wearying. He considered selling Locust Grove, although parting with it, he said, “is like amputating my right arm.” Items in the press occasionally announced that his health was failing.
Morse tried to keep up his many interests. He followed political movements abroad; endorsed Cyrus Field’s proposal for laying a San Francisco–to–Yokohama transpacific cable; agreed to serve as a vice president of the just-launched Metropolitan Museum of Art, with no duties to perform. The best of his remaining energy he devoted to Christian charities and evangelical work: “if I can use the little strength, and the few years that remain in furthering the cause of our Divine Master, I ought perhaps to rouze myself.” He found strength enough at least to address a convention of the Y.M.C.A., and draft a memorial to Czar Alexander II on behalf of persecuted Protestants in the Baltic provinces. He happily gave consent to Finley—now forty-five and seeming to him “old & sunburnt”—to become confirmed in the Episcopal church, whose clergy he had always respected.
For many years Morse had fought foreign conspiracies against America, as he and others viewed anti-democratic forces abroad. But unknown to him, a cabal was now forming at home to make his last days a torment. It grew out of widely publicized plans for erecting two statues of him. The National Monument Association proposed placing his figure on the pedestal of a huge sculptured memorial to the telegraph, in Washington. Western Union also proposed a statue, to be raised in New York City. As President William Orton explained in a company circular,
The venerable “Father of all the Telegraphs” … is nearing rapidly the verge of that dark river from whose further shore no message ever comes. It becomes, therefore, all those who know and love him … not to delay their tributes of respect and affection.
Maybe so, but with Congress now debating a bill for establishing a federal postal telegraph system, Morse had good reason to be wary of further homage from Western Union. He managed to think of the statue as a gesture of friendship. “I rather shrink from the notoriety while I cannot but feel gratified at the kind feeling manifested to me personally.”
Western Union telegraphed a message through its nationwide network, soliciting $1 contributions from the company’s superintendents, operators, and messengers. The $5000 statue was fashioned by a sculptor named Byron Pickett. He rendered Morse eight feet tall in bronze, bearded and frock-coated, standing beside a waist-high column supporting a telegraph receiver. Given a preview, Morse thought the figure both successful aesthetically and a faithful likeness.
Western Union got permission from local officials to place the statue at a prominent, indeed celebrated point in New York City, the Central Park Mall. Monuments to Shakespeare and Schiller already ornamented this promenade, but Morse was the first American to be honored there. The statue was raised on a seven-foot-high granite pedestal, the name MORSE boldly chiseled into the block. It was unveiled on June 10, 1871, a cool sunny day, before a crowd estimated at ten thousand persons. The sea of top hats, bustles, and parasols included a thousand or so telegraph workers who had come from around the country. After William Orton and the Governor of Massachusetts threw aside the drapery, a military band played “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Then William Cullen Bryant addressed the throng, remarking that the statue could be deemed unnecessary: “the great globe itself has become his monument.”
Morse did not attend the unveiling—out of modesty, some said. But he did come to the follow-up ceremony the same evening, held at the plush Academy of Music. Opened in 1854 as the largest opera house in the world, the hall seated 4000 but was packed for the occasion. In the dramatic highlight of the evening, the telegraph instruments used on the original Washington-Baltimore line were placed at center stage, but set up to connect with lines all over the world. A young female operator clicked off to the global telegraph community a greeting chosen by Morse, the same one he had selected for the opening of the transatlantic cable: “Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace, good will to men.” As she left the table, Morse approached it, Morse statue in Central Park (Princeton University Library) escorted by Orton. The tremendous applause ceased as his hand touched the key and began slowly tapping the letters of his name in the dotdash code. As he came to the final e, a single dot, the telegraphers in the audience stood up, cheering and waving handkerchiefs. Speaking from the stage, Orton commented to the crowd, “Thus the Father of the Telegraph bids farewell to his children.”
Morse statue in Central Park (Princeton University Library)
Responses to Morse’s message began coming in to the Academy of Music from all over the earth. They arrived first from nearby cities, then from New Orleans, Quebec, San Francisco, lastly from Hong Kong and Bombay. Morse was almost overcome with emotion. By one account, he sat for some time with his head in his hands, weeping, trying to regain his self-control.
Morse Celebration at the Academy of Music (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, July 1, 1871)
The tribute left Morse feeling washed out for days afterward: “I Morse Celebration at the Academy of Music (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, July 1, 1871) find it more difficult to bear up with the overwhelming praise that is poured out without measure, than with the trials of my former life …. the effect on me, strange as it may seem, is rather depressing than exhilirating.” Others also found the event depressing, but for different reasons. Amanda Vail—Alfred’s second wife, now his widow—was present at the Academy, together with Vail’s three sons, her stepsons. It angered her that Morse’s valedictory address to the audience allowed Alfred but a single sentence, thanking him and his family for their financial aid. She considered the acknowledgment “meagre.” Her dead husband, after all, had made many improvements in Morse’s apparatus, and in her view had also invented the dotdash code and suggested the submarine cable. Altogether he had been Morse’s “truest, best, most faithful, most efficient friend.” And having made Morse and Kendall rich, Alfred died poor. On hearing her husband merely alluded to, she said, and only for his financial aid, “my whole soul filled with indignation.”
Amanda Vail confronted Morse at his town house two days after the event. The interview is known only through her account of it, which depicts Morse’s behavior as glib and hypocritical. Morse ushered her into his library cordially, she recorded, but was embarrassed to see her. She frankly told him that his remarks at the Academy “greatly disappointed” her, they said so little about Alfred:
“Professor Morse you know that I have in my house an immense amount of manuscript, letters, journals, drawings left by Mr. Vail and I have heard him say that some of the most important parts of the telegraph were his invention and the proof of it existed in these papers.”
By her account, Morse evaded the accusation:
“Oh yes, Mr. Vail preserved his letters and papers just as I did. I know I intended to have gone out to Morristown and seen them.”
With this, Morse went to a cabinet, took out a box, and showed her what it contained—his medals, the glittering gifts of foreign courts and potentates. “Some of these belong to you,” he said. “I am going to have some of these jewels set for you. I have for some time been intending to have it done.”
But Vail doubted that Morse would ever do so. It seemed to her that he handled the medals as if unable to part with them, “regarding with eye intent these gifts of God he had so long worshipped!” At that moment, some new guests entered, giving him an excuse to get rid of her. “I am glad to have seen you,” he said, handing her a photograph of himself. So ended what she called “this unsatisfactory visit to Professor Morse the Inventor! of the telegraph.”
Whatever Amanda Vail may actually have said to Morse, it hardly suggested the depth of her bitterness. Unknown to him, she had for some time been gathering supporters to prove her dead husband the driving force behind the telegraph, the man “to whom he owed his fame and fortune.” She sent extracts from Alfred’s letters and other papers to everyone who wrote about the telegraph or about American technology, pressing them to give Vail the credit she believed he deserved. She was listened to. Morse had never lacked critics, and since Western Union’s Delmonico banquet, several had grown increasingly irritated by the public attention lavished upon him.
In two of Morse’s former associates, Amanda Vail found especially willing allies—the much-scarred Henry O’Reilly and ever-vengeful F. O. J. Smith. Since his failure in the telegraph business, O’Reilly had moved on to other, also unsuccessful ventures: a machine called the Terracultor, meant to replace the plow by pulverizing soil; the National Anti-Monopoly Cheap Freight Railway League. The ex-“Napoleon of the Telegraph” had been constantly in debt, and one of his sons, a Union soldier, had been killed during the Civil War. His grudge against Morse took in both past defeats at court and present neglect. “I projected, constructed and organized the first great range of about eight thousand miles,” he boasted. Yet neither in print nor before an audience did Morse ever mention him. He responded eagerly to Vail’s campaign to disabuse the public. “Never was greater fraud & humbug about any inventions or patents,” he wrote; “it is high time that one of the most monstrous humbugs and frauds of the age should be thoroughly blown up.”
Fog Smith needed no prodding to join Vail and O’Reilly. He was, as an associate correctly remarked, “one of the most heartless and vindictive villains that ever trod in shoe leather.” Involved the past few years in water companies, railroads, and numerous other business projects—and many more lawsuits—he had been indicted by a grand jury in 1864 for six cases of adultery, and convicted the following year of subornation of perjury. He encouraged Amanda Vail to think that her husband had transformed “very nearly the entire mechanism,” turning a gadget into a practicable invention: “the absolute monopoly … to which Professor Morse aspires, must become divided, when the public shall possess the actual truths of history.” He particularly wanted to expose the testimonials to Morse as undeserved and self-serving charades staged by William Orton: “the world will be astonished at the humbuggery that has been practiced from sordid motives, principally by the instrumentalities of the Western Union Telegraph Company in and with the name of Professor Morse as inventor of the telegraph.”
During the last six months of 1871, Vail, O’Reilly, and Smith made a concerted effort to destroy Morse’s reputation. For ammunition they had at their disposal the depositions and other testimony in voluminous court records, and several hundred personal letters Morse had written to them over the years. These they now exchanged with each other, collated, and reassembled to build a ruinous case against him. Using such material, O’Reilly and Smith had already been composing what they called a Colloquial History of the telegraph—dedicated, for extra punch, to Joseph Henry. “Professor Morse,” they announced in their preface, “has been too ambitious of realising and enjoying prematurely, a pretension to immortality as one of the great creative, original minds among men.” In reality, his pretensions as an inventor were “groundless, and hollow, as soap bubles [sic] which amuse frolicksome childhood.”
Vail was not through. She put O’Reilly and Smith in touch with her cousin Lyman W. Case, who was writing a chapter on telegraphy for a forthcoming encyclopedic volume entitled Great Industries of the United States. O’Reilly and Smith promised to supply him with evidence of “the gross deception which this Morse has practised upon the world.” Vail also joined Smith in protesting to the National Monument Association its plan to cap the proposed telegraph memorial in Washington with a statue of Morse. “Prof. Morse cannot justly claim, nor will authentic history sustain such pre-eminence for himself,” Smith wrote; “it is my conviction, that the statue most worthy to stand upon the pedestal of such monument would be, that of the man of true science … and that man is, Professor Joseph Henry.”
The results of this cabal began to reach Morse in mid-January 1872. At the time he was uniquely vulnerable. A few weeks earlier, on December 23, his brother Sidney had died at the age of seventy-eight, following a stroke or heart attack. By one account Morse sat beside him as he lay paralyzed on his bed, speaking into his ear, but Sidney gave no sign that he heard. Morse found consolation in knowing that his brother—a deeply religious man, equal to him in piety—was now “a happy spirit in the presence of his Savior.” But he and Sidney had always been extremely close and, as the minister of his congregation put it, he “began to die also.” Feeble and lame, his head pains growing more intense, he became housebound.
It was in this deteriorated condition that Morse came upon articles in the press with outworn titles like “Who Invented the Telegraph.” The impulse to freshen such stale news, he discovered, came from Fog Smith’s letter to the Monument Association, calling on it to honor Henry, not Morse, on the telegraph memorial. Smith cared nothing for Henry, Morse believed: “It is simply a matter of spite, carrying out his intense & smothered antipathy to me.” But Smith’s protests, and those of Vail and O’Reilly, succeeded in scaring off the memorial committee and, according to one of its members, “killed the project.” No statue of Morse was erected in Washington. “I plead guilty,” Smith said, contented.
In February—perhaps the most harrowing month of his life—Morse received advance sheets of “The American Magnetic Telegraph,” a sixteen-page chapter from the forthcoming Great Industries of the United States. It seemed to him the monstrous climax to a lifetime of slanders, “the most atrocious and vile attack upon me, which has ever appeared in print.” The writer wiped him from the record as an unscrupulous charlatan, eliminated him as an utter fake:
In the whole range of “pious frauds,” romantic imaginings, and spurious pretences of all kinds, perhaps there never was a more ludicrous and lamentable delusion practised than that which … has been practised upon the credulous masses, causing them to believe that Prof. Morse is the inventor of the practical telegraph known by his name.
Morse could not have produced the so-called Morse telegraph, the writer went on, because he lacked the requisite scientific knowledge, mechanical skill, and entrepreneurial ability. These had been supplied by its actual inventors: by Joseph Henry, “the legitimate father of the American electro-magnetic telegraph”; by Alfred Vail, “the brains of the mechanical portion”; and by F. O. J. Smith, who “made it a commercial success.” The writer also trashed the “almost divine honors” recently bestowed on Morse by the crowds of dupes Western Union had lured to Central Park and the Academy of Music, “as the necessary stock actors in a play.”
Morse sidelined and annotated passage after passage of the proof sheets: “false …. false …. false …. false …. oh!” He wrote to the publishers—Burr and Hyde, in Hartford—asking them to withhold the chapter from the published volume, as being “spiteful, distorted and untrue.” Probably because the chapter contained information from his private correspondence with Smith and O’Reilly, he believed it to be the work of these “ancient enemies.” For confirmation he wrote repeatedly and urgently to Lyman Case, editor of the volume, unaware that Case had written the chapter himself, from material supplied by Smith and O’Reilly and by his cousin Amanda Vail.
Case again and again fended off Morse’s inquiries. He said that the name or names of the author(s) might be given out later; that the “chief author” was little known; that he was too busy to reply. Morse never learned how the information in the chapter was collected, or who shaped it into a murderous assault on his reputation. Nor was the chapter suppressed. The popular volume in which it appeared, a celebration of American technology, quickly sold 10,000 copies.
February brought another jarring surprise from the past. Upon the death of Archbishop M. J. Spalding of Louisville, the New York Herald published a eulogistic letter to the editor recalling the prelate’s newspaper duel with Morse eighteen years before. Morse had attributed to Lafayette the remark that “American liberty can be destroyed only by the Popish clergy.” Spalding had countered with a pamphlet and newspaper articles claiming that the partial quotation reversed the meaning of Lafayette’s full statement, which was that Americans had no reason to fear Catholicism. His admirer in the Herald now recalled that Spalding’s powerful arguments, “the rude force with which his blows fell,” had compelled Morse to retract. Morse saw the letter and in his greatly weakened state wrote a five-and-a-half-page retort—a full column of print presenting a detailed case for the attribution. “I retracted nothing,” he said. He mocked Spalding’s eulogist for thinking that attempts to defame him would go unnoticed: “He may have supposed I was dead.”
During the same few weeks Morse received a troubling letter from his son Willie, in New Orleans. Having apparently quit or been withdrawn from school at Andover, Willie had headed west to seek his fortune in Texas. “We part with him with great anxiety for his welfare,” Morse said. There was reason to worry, for the physically powerful young man was turning out to be much like his brother Arthur, impulsive and hot-tempered. Morse had sent him off with money to start a business, but the letter asked for more money. He feared that instead of settling down, Willie was dawdling with his much-loved dogs and gun, and reaching for the bottle. “I hope you keep rigidly to your resolution not to touch for drink any alcoholic liquor,” he wrote to him; “we pray for you that you may be kept from temptation.”
Ill and besieged, Morse at the same time tried futilely to reach a man named John Lindsay, to whom he had handed over more than $25,000. The nervewracking predicament arose from his son Charles’ continued inability to support himself and his family. “There is a ‘screw loose’ somewhere,” Morse told him, “with all my efforts to help you, you are just where you were years ago.” Making one more effort, he had set Charles up as manager of a store near Wall Street, the Lippiatt Silver Plate Company. He arranged for the job by purchasing stock in the company and allowing his name to be used as President. To his grief, he had learned a few months earlier that as President he was liable for Lippiatt’s many debts. This Lindsay, an acquaintance of Charles, had persuaded him that his best strategy was to acquire the company.
Now, having given Lindsay $25,000 to buy Lippiatt Silver Plate, Morse was unable to reach him. He had nothing to show for his money but dread, “a state of anxiety which is seriously affecting my health.” He died without learning that the swindler—later arrested for fraud—had bought the company for less than half the money and kept the rest for himself.
In March, Morse suffered severe head pains and became so weak that he had to remain in bed. All but one of his last few letters are in the hand of his son Arthur, his physician having forbidden him to read or write. He apparently defied both orders, however. He probably read Fog Smith’s latest anti-Morse tract, History Getting Right on the Invention of the American Electro-Magnetic Telegraph. And he wrote in his own hand what seems to be his final letter, dated March 14. It begins: “I should be much gratified to know what part Prof. Henry has taken, if any, in this atrocious & absurd attack of F. O. J. S.”
By the end of March, Morse was comatose. He briefly regained consciousness on April 1 and smiled at Sarah, but could not speak. He died just before 8 p.m. the next evening, three weeks short of his eighty-first birthday. As his death was recorded in the family Bible at Locust Grove, he “entered into life on the 2nd of April 1872.”
According to his death certificate, Morse died of “Subacute Cerebral Meningitis.” But his physician added a note to the document, naming a secondary or complicating cause: “Unusual anxiety & exertion of brain for some months past.”
Others also understood that in his debilitated physical condition, Morse had been subjected to a punishing psychological ordeal. The New York Times speculated that “the vexations and annoyances, the troubles and sorrows of the last few weeks of his life … contributed, in a great degree, to bring on his last fatal attack.” F. O. J. Smith agreed. With rabid ill will, he told Amanda Vail that he had greatly desired Morse to live longer—to cope with the many new charges they and O’Reilly had brought against him. “But I was fearful that the strong visions recently opened to him, of receding glory, would overload his brain as I doubt not they did.”