Saturday, June 21, 2014

The 1871 Samuel Morse Statue - Central Park

photo by Alice Lum

In 1825 portrait artist Samuel Finley Breese Morse was in Washington DC working on the portrait of Lafayette commissioned by the City of New York.  His work was interrupted by a horse messenger who delivered a letter from Morse’s father that read “Your dear wife is convalescent.”  As Morse scurried to return home to New Haven, he received a second letter the following day telling him that his wife had died.

Realizing that the slow means of delivering messages was to blame for his not being aware of his wife’s sickness and death, the disconsolate artist focused on discovering a process of rapid long distance communication.  Nearly two decades later, in 1842, Morse had developed the single-wire telegraph and co-developed the Morse code.  Following a demonstration of his device between two committee rooms in the Capitol, he awaited passage of a Senate bill to approve $30,000 for construction of an experimental 38-mile telegraph line between Washington and Baltimore.

On the last day of the session the bill had not been voted on and Morse was told there was no hope it would be.  The disappointed inventor went to his hotel to leave for New York the next day.  As he was heading to breakfast the following morning, a woman, Annie Ellsworth, was waiting for him.  She congratulated him on the passage of his bill.

He replied “You are mistaken.  I was told last night it could not be reached this session, and I was just about returning to New York, quite disappointed.”

Assured by Miss Ellsworth that the bill had indeed passed, the elated Morse promised her that when the line was completed, she would dictate the first message relayed.  A year later, in May 1844, the line was ready and Samuel Morse sent to Annie Ellsworth asking what her choice for the first message would be.  Her return message was “What hath God wrought.”

Samuel F. Morse’s telegraph changed communication in the 19th century no less than the internet did in the 20th.  By 1865 a movement was underway in New York to honor the inventor with a statue—a highly unorthodox concept considering that Morse was still alive. 

On December 23 Mayor C. Godfrey Gunther vetoed the idea of the Common Council; but not because he was opposed to the statue. Instead, Gunther objected to the proposed site at Broadway and Sixth Avenue, which he deemed “ineligible.”  “The appropriate place, in my judgment,” he wrote, “is in the Central Park.”

Fund raising proceeded, nevertheless, and in July 1870 publisher and committee chairman James D. Reid announced that “over a thousand contributions, amounting to nearly $2,000, have been received.”  The New York Times on July 7, reported that “The subscriptions are mainly from superintendents, operators and messengers in the telegraph service throughout the Union, and range in amount from twenty-five cents to $25.”

At the time the committee envisioned “a marble statue, standing by the side of which will be placed the first form of the Morse register, on a suitable support, the whole to be raised upon a single step of plain white marble, and encircled by an open railing to protect it.”  The final cost was projected to be $5,000; and The Times expected that “the work will probably be begun by a New-York sculptor within a few days.”

Now the committee needed to secure a spot in Central Park.  In his application to the Park Commissioners on July 22, 1870, James D. Reid wrote in part “Prof. Morse’s fame rests on a basis so permanent, so cosmopolitan and beneficent, that it leads us to the assurance that you will assign to our use some distinguished spot in the beautiful grounds under your control.”

By now the cost of the memorial had doubled.  The New York Times reported on December 4, 1870 "The statue will cost $10,500."  That figure would translate to about $181,000 today.

The intention was to unveil the statue on Morse’s 80th birthday, April 27, 1871.  No time could be lost.  By now the idea of marble statue had changed to one of bronze.  Sculptor Byron M. Pickett had been chosen for the project and on December 4, 1870, The New York Times reported on the accepted model.

“The statue is seven feet high, and is at once a striking likeness and highly-finished work of art.  The figure is standing, dressed in an ordinary frock coat, with a large fur-collared cloak hanging loosely over the right shoulder, and drooping down the back.  The left hand is resting on a telegraphic instrument from which a strip of paper is issuing, the other end being held in the right hand.”  The strip of paper drooping from Morse’s hand would hold the words “What hath God wrought.”

The telegraph strip in Morse's hand reads "What hath God Wrought."  photo by Alice Lum
The newspaper made one slight criticism.  “the head and face are strikingly like the original, although the statue appears to be that of a person some few years younger than Prof. Morse.” 

Delays prevented the unveiling to be held on Morse’s birthday as hoped and June 10 was set for the event.  A week before, The Times updated readers on the pending “imposing ceremonies.”  “Platforms for speeches in the public parks, bands of music, &c, all have been duly arranged; also, an excursion down the harbor.  Gen. Davis, military commander of the Port of New-York, has placed at the services of the Inaugural Committee, the fine United States Army Band stationed at Governor’s Island.”

Decades later, in 1914, Morse’s son, Edward Lind Morse, remembered “It was a perfect June day and the hundreds of telegraphers from all parts of the country, with their families, spent the forenoon in a steamboat excursion around the city.  In the afternoon crowds flocked to the park where, near what is now called the ‘Inventor’s Gate,’ the statue stood in the angle between two platforms for the invited guests.”

Fabric awnings protect dignitaries from the sun as well-dressed attendees watch the unveiling -- Hearth and Home, July 1, 1871 (copyright expired)

Governor John T. Hoffman presided and speeches were given by Mayor Abraham Oakley Hall and William Cullen Bryant, who presented the statue to the City. (Later Bryant would joke about the awkward circumstances, since the Park Commissioners had earlier refused to erect a statue of him because he was still alive.)  Obviously absent was Samuel F. Morse, himself.  His son would explain “Morse himself refused to attend the ceremonies of the unveiling of his counterfeit presentment, as being too great a strain on his innate modesty.”

James D. Reid agreed, writing in his Telegraph in America, “Mr. Morse was incapable of such an indelicacy…Men of refinement and modesty would justly have marveled had they seen him in such a place.”

In glowing Victorian prose The New York Times remarked on Pickett’s ability to treat Morse’s advanced age with dignity.  “The head is excellent.  The difficulties of age have been successfully combated, and the sculptor, realizing the scope of his work, has brought out in the Professor’s face all the glowing majesty that has decked it in those moments when the situation called up his powers, and flashed his soul through the mask of his features.  The resemblance has been carefully preserved, while the beard has been arranged so as to increase the air of majesty so conspicuous on the brows.”
Central Park visitors contemplate Morse's statue -- from the collection of the New York Public Library
Taste in art constantly changes and within two decades The Sun would be less appreciative of Pickett’s work.  On November 2, 1890 an article mentioned “At Seventy-second street and Fifth avenue is the Inventor’s Gate, so called possibly because a rather humorous statue of Prof. Morse stands near it.”

Three years later vandals made off with the statue’s bronze tape.  On December 19, 1893 The Evening World reported “the telegraphers of the city were given permission to put a new bronze tape in the hands of the statue of Prof. Morse, in Central Park, as the original tape is missing.”

For decades, however, the statue was revered and visited by those in the telegraphy profession.  On May 31, 1902 the New-York Tribune remarked “A delegation representing the Morse Club went to Central Park yesterday morning and placed a wreath and some flowers on the monument of Samuel F. B. Morse, the inventor of the telegraph.”

photo by Alice Lum
But more than a century later few visitors to the Park make note of the statue to the inventor who revolutionized communication.  The man whose invention was so important that a memorial was erected while he was still living is little noticed by passersby who do not look up from their cell phones.

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