BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Kenneth Silverman, author of "Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F.B. Morse," why was it accursed?
KENNETH SILVERMAN, AUTHOR, "LIGHTNING MAN: THE ACCURSED LIFE OF SAMUEL F.B. MORSE": Well, Morse felt that everything he accomplished -- and he accomplished a lot -- boomeranged on him. It all came back with some bad results. He could never have some kind of success without it being followed by some failure, some disaster.
LAMB: This cover has this photo on it, which you say in the book is about at age 60.
LAMB: Who was he? And what did he accomplish?
CARO:Well, very briefly, I mean, Morse`s family thought that he was fickle, that he moved around from one thing to another. And in fact, he accomplished a lot of things and moved into a lot of places. He was an important painter. He was an important inventor. He was an important politician. And he was a pioneer photographer.
LAMB: What did he paint?
CARO:Well, he painted portraits to support himself and to support his family, but he hated doing that. I mean, it was considered sort of the lowest branch of painting. What he wanted to do were these large historical canvases, like Raphael`s "The School of Athens," you know, that shows Socrates and Plato and everybody else. And he tried to do that, to get away from traveling around, itinerant -- as an itinerant portrait painter.
LAMB: Samuel F.B. Morse stands for Samuel...
CARO:Finley Breeze (ph) Morse. The Finley came from his mother`s family. His grandfather, his mother`s father, was the president of Princeton.
LAMB: What did he invent?
CARO:Morse -- he`s best known for, of course, the -- let`s call it the American electromagnetic telegraph. I`m -- I`m being that precise because there were other telegraphs around that were invented independently of Morse, others that didn`t work via electromagnetism, others that weren`t American. But the telegraph that we know, the telegraph that became the Western Union telegraph, sort of the world standard, that was really Morse`s invention.
LAMB: What did he teach?
CARO:Well, he taught at New York University. He was hired as the first professor of fine arts in the country. And he had a studio in the New York University building where he taught painting. It happened, though, that in the same studio, he was always putting -- also putting together his first telegraph. And he had wire stretched around the room and his franes (ph) and so on. Also in the same studio, he began doing photography at New York University, and he put up a photography studio on top of the building and was taking portraits of prominent New Yorkers. He had a lot going on at the same time.
LAMB: When was he a politician?
CARO:Well, he was a politician all of his life. I mean, Morse was a profound cultural nationalist. I mean, he had a very strong sense of identification with the revolutionary generation. I mean, his great heroes were Washington and Lafayette and, you know, the -- those people of the late 18th century in America. And he -- please repeat the question?
LAMB: No, I was just wondering when he was a politician, when he ran for office.
CARO:Yes. Well, throughout his life. I mean, he ran twice for mayor of New York. He ran once for his district, congressional district in Poughkeepsie, New York. And people wanted him to run for president, but he declined.
LAMB: Did he ever win?
CARO:He always lost badly, not -- not necessarily because of his politics but Morse, despite his, you know, great sophistication in invention and painting and everything else, many ways, a very naive person, and certainly very naive when it came to hardball politics. And for instance, in one New York mayoralty race, I think the Whigs -- some Whigs published a notice in the newspaper signed by him, by Morse, saying that he had withdrawn from the race. This is the day before the election. So he ended up with about 50 votes, I think, and James Fennimore Cooper said -- who was a friend of his, said, Well, he would have won the election if he had had another 15,000 votes.
CARO:He had no kind of sense of how to deal, I think, on this level with, you know, sort of tough, practical people.
LAMB: How did you get interested in him?
CARO:Oh, well, I write biography, and I look -- as I look back over things, I`ve been trying to do a kind of national portrait gallery of people who I think of as representative figures in American culture. I have a minister, Cotton Mather, whom I wrote a biography of. I have a poet, Edgar Alan Poe, who I wrote a biography of. I have an entertainer, Harry Houdini, who I wrote a biography of. And now I`m trying to do an inventor here, as a different sort of figure.
There was also the fact that there hadn`t been a biography of Morse for about 60 years. That was another attraction. And also, I was very attracted to the huge amount of information that existed about Morse. I mean, here in Washington, in the National -- the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress has thousands and thousands of letters. The Museum of American History here has the fabulous Western Union collection on the telegraph.
I like to work with a lot of material, you know? And I don`t like to work where material is scarce. So that was another big attraction.
LAMB: Where do you live?
CARO:Well, he was born in Charlestown...
LAMB: No, where do you live?
CARO:Oh. I live in New York City.
LAMB: How long have you lived there?
LAMB: And what...
CARO:I was born in New York City.
LAMB: And what have you done most of your life?
CARO:Well, mostly I`ve taught at New York University. I taught American literature and some American history. My interest has always been, though, in American culture.
LAMB: And how long have you been writing these biographies?
CARO:Well, that depends. I mean, I wrote a book on the American revolution, what, 35 years or so ago, which was also very biographical. I mean, it was -- it`s called "A Cultural History of the American Revolution," and it followed the careers of painters like Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley and poets like Philip Frenow (ph) and actors and dancers and musicians during the revolution, see what they were doing. My -- sort of the thesis of it was that during the revolutionary period, there came into existence for the first time a really -- a sort of American artistic culture.
And I -- in sort of illustrating that, I followed the careers of painters and dancers and so on. So it`s very biographical. So I feel I`ve always been writing biography in my whole professional life.
LAMB: This is a self-portrait, you say, of Samuel F.B. Morse back in 1811, 1812. Why do artists do the self-portraits?
CARO:Interesting. Well, not so easy, I guess, to get a model. I mean, you`re there. You look at yourself in the mirror and sketch yourself. I don`t -- I don`t know another -- I don`t know another explanation. Maybe there is one.
LAMB: Where did -- you say in the book he was born in 1791, lived for 80 years. Where was he born?
CARO:He was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts. His father was the minister of the First Congregational Church in Charlestown, one of the oldest churches -- Congregational churches in America. Morse has a long background in New England Calvinist Protestantism.
LAMB: What was his father`s name?
CARO:His father was Jedidiah (ph) Morse and was very well known. We don`t know his name so well, and I don`t know that we know Samuel F.B. Morse, as a name, so well, either, now. But his father was -- he`s referred to as the father of American geography. In addition to preaching at the church and being one of the leading ministers in America, he produced the first American geographies. And it was said that every American house had three books. They had a Webster`s spelling -- they had a Bible. They had a Webster`s spelling book. And they had one of Jedidiah Morse`s geographies.
LAMB: His mother.
CARO:Well, his mother, as I mentioned, was the daughter of the president of Princeton University. She was a very sharp-witted, very tart woman, I mean, very -- very smart. And she didn`t -- she said what she thought, including about her son, Samuel.
LAMB: You say that they called him Finley in the early part of his life. Is that -- did they use that all of his life?
CARO:No. I think after -- he wanted, really, to be Morse. I mean, his father was very well known. His father had dined with George Washington. His father knew everybody in the country. His father had a large reputation. And he -- I think Samuel always wanted to have that sort of reputation for himself and to be Morse -- he -- for him to be the Morse.
LAMB: But you say -- I mean, first name was Finley for a long time. Did it change to Samuel...
CARO:It was a sort of nickname, you know, like Buster or -- a childhood name, although people close to him -- I remember his first wife, I think, still called him Finley.
LAMB: Where did he go to school?
CARO:He went to Yale. Well, first he had gone to Phillips Academy as a young -- as a boy and then went to Yale, as his father had gone. And his father, Jedidiah, was a Yale trustee. All the boys went to Yale. He had two brothers, too.
LAMB: Where did he meet his wife? And this is a -- did he do this portrait of his wife?
CARO:Yes. That`s a portrait of Lucretia (ph). He was -- in his itinerancy, he was traveling around from town to town, setting up as an itinerant portrait painter and advertising, Come and I`ll do a portrait of you. And he met her -- was in New Hampshire, as he was painting on one of his portrait tours.
LAMB: And back to his mother and father for a while because they play a role in the book. How many brothers did he have?
CARO:He had two brothers. It had been a very large family. Always astonishing to me. I think they lost something like nine children. I think the -- he had had nine other brothers and sisters. All died.
LAMB: And Richard and Sidney played a role in his life.
LAMB: How much of a role?
CARO:A huge role. Sidney was a very respected newspaper editor in 19th century America. I mean, he was the publisher and editor of the best known, I suppose, religious journal in the country, "The New York Observer." I mean, it had very big subscription. It was very prosperous. Sidney was able to buy a newspaper office building on Nassau (ph) Street, I think it was, in New York. And for a while, Richard -- brother Richard -- also worked with "The New York Observer," although Richard, rather like Samuel, seems to have been afflicted with, oh, the family gremlins. I mean, he was a very depressed guy. He -- Richard, always wandering around and searching for some kind of relief form his heavy-heartedness and generally unable to settle down. But Morse kept in very close touch with his brothers for his whole life.
LAMB: How many children did he have, Samuel Morse?
CARO:He had three children by his first marriage, and again, I think, two died in infancy -- two others died in infancy, and then I believe, as I recall, four, I think, by his second marriage.
LAMB: In the back of the book, you list a whole bunch of illustrations and art that you have in the book. One of those in there that we have spent some time capturing on video is the one that`s right here in Washington, and it`s called "The House of Representatives."
LAMB: What -- what role did that particular painting play in his life?
CARO:Well, it`s a wonderful painting. I mean, it`s, as you say, at the Corcoran Gallery. He worked on it -- my recollection is that he worked on it for almost a year. I mean, this is the kind of painting Morse really wanted to do.
LAMB: By the way, on the screen -- I didn`t mean to interrupt -- that`s the Old Executive Office Building next to the White House. That`s the Corcoran you just mentioned.
LAMB: And we`re going to go inside and show the audience in a moment...
LAMB: ... the actual painting...
LAMB: ... in some detail. Go ahead. I didn`t mean to interrupt.
CARO:Well, he worked on it for, I think, really, almost a year. He was given a room in Congress, and people were very -- representatives were very helpful. They came in and sat for him in the mornings. And I think altogether, he painted -- if I`m -- I think the number`s correct -- 68 portraits in this painting. It`s a very -- very, very ambitious...
LAMB: Sixty-eight members.
CARO:Sixty-eight members, sixty-eight members of Congress, yes.
LAMB: And -- because they do have a -- you know, a list of all the people that are in here.
LAMB: This painting is at the Corcoran, and the public can go in and look at it. That`s the old House of Representatives, which is now called the Statuary Hall over in Congress.
LAMB: Have you been -- have you seen this portrait itself?
CARO:Yes. You know, I`m very, very fond of it, in many ways. In addition to the members of Congress, well, he has this whatever guy lighting the great lamp there, the great chandelier. Others -- the members of the Supreme Court are there. Some reporters are there. His father is there, Jedidiah Morse. And Morse worked on it for a very, very long time and very, very hard. It was very tricky in other ways, too. The lighting is tricky. The architecture`s very tricky. He worked -- again, he did sketch after sketch, trying to get this vaulted ceiling correct. And this is -- this is what he wanted to be as an artist. It`s a very, very nationalistic painting, I think. I mean, it`s a commemoration of America.
LAMB: You say that the -- that Congress gave him a room for four months, and where he could do this work. Did they pay him anything to do this?
CARO:Good question. I don`t know. I don`t think so. The painting, while he was working on it, had a lot of publicity in Washington, though. I mean, it got into the press, and people followed it. They wanted to know, you know, who he was painting next and how far along he was. It got him a lot of notice.
LAMB: Did each of the members, the 68 members that he captured in the painting, sit for a portrait themselves?
CARO:I think that they did. I believe that`s true. I think so. Morse -- he did most of the work in Washington, and then took this large canvas -- and I think it`s something like 80 square feet -- took it back to New Haven, where his father was living, to complete it.
LAMB: By the way, this was shot by Jamie Sides (ph) of our C-Span group, and it`s done with available light. There are no special lights put in that room. And these shots, these very close-up shots can`t give you the sense of how big it is. It covers that whole wall. There you have the people in the shot so you can see how big it is.
You say that it was displayed in many cities but didn`t make a dime.
CARO:Didn`t make a dime, lost him money. It was taken to New England and put on display. It was taken to New York and put on display, lost money -- not only didn`t make money, lost money. Various explanations. I mean, it had -- when it was in New York, he thought it had competition, you know, from whatever, the circus, from other exhibitions, and so on.
That`s what I meant -- it`s one of the things I meant in calling Morse`s life accursed. I mean, here was his greatest effort to date. I mean, this is the early 1820s, I think, and I think he felt -- he felt the painting had ruined him. He had invested all his talent in it. He had given it his -- you know, his best abilities, and it went absolutely nowhere.
LAMB: You learn early in your book that he was a very outspoken anti-Catholic. Why?
CARO:Well, of course, you know, as -- given Morse`s Congregationalist background -- you know, in the 1660s in Puritan Boston, when the Pope has appendicitis, it`s front-page news in the press. I mean, it`s partly just the old, you know, Calvinist Congregationalist antipathy to Catholicism.
But Morse also spent time in Italy. I mean, he -- Italy was a great training ground for painters. He had been preceded there by people like Benjamin West. You know, there was nothing to see in America. There were no great paintings, really, around for an artist to look at. You wanted to see great art, you went to Italy or to France. Morse went there I think -- I think he spent two years and loved -- loved the art. I mean, he saw everything, was just overwhelmed by what he saw.
At the same time, thought that the omnipresence of Catholicism had destroyed the country. I mean, people -- the streets were full of beggars. Everything was dirty. He blamed it all on the church. Not only that, but he -- well, there was one episode when Morse was -- it was a celebration of the Host that Morse attended, and he was standing on the street when a kind of canopy came down the street with the Host underneath it, and everybody watching took off their hats and bowed or made a sign of the cross or something. And Morse was taking notes and kept his hat on. And when the Host passed, a soldier came up to him and started cursing him out and then knocked his hat off with the butt of his rifle.
That`s an episode Morse never forgot, and he keeps repeating it in one political tract after another. But as he saw it, Catholicism was a religion of force. This is as opposed to, let`s say, Protestantism, where you heard sermons. You know, your reason was appealed to. All that made -- kept people in line in Catholicism was guns. And he brought this back to America and became a leader of American nativism and wrote and spoke constantly and very loudly against Catholic immigration to America.
LAMB: As a matter of fact, you write, "Like actors speaking their parts, worshipers at mass mouth the words of priests, priests he often caught yawning, and his rushed inarticulate recitation of the Latin prayer struck him variously" -- and these are in quotes -- "as `whining,` `drawling,` `brawling` and `gurgling.` Indeed, the playhouse is but the secular offspring of the church, a `daughter of this prolific Mother of Abominations and a child worthy of its dam.` "
How could somebody -- and we`ll talk later about his position on slavery, which he was for, you say. How could somebody so "Christian," supposedly, in quotes, hate so -- the Catholics as much as he did?
CARO:Well, of course, I mean, nativism, you know, in America in the 1830 and `40s, is pretty widespread. I mean, the nativist candidates did pretty well in local and state elections in the 1830s and `40s. There was a lot of fear of immigration. You know, we can understand it, I think, ourselves now, from the point of view of 9/11 or, you know, the French are having some -- some worries like this, too.
Morse`s thought in -- was that the church really intended to topple American government and really to take it over. People, you know, in the 1830s were still not far from the War of 1812. The British had come into Boston, you know -- come into Washington, burned the Capitol. The French and the Spanish government still had various designs in the early 19th century on America and Mexico, and so on. The idea that things were brewing in Europe to take over the government, to come back, to restore monarchism or something like that in America was very close to their thinking.
LAMB: To review where we`ve been -- he was born in 1791 in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Is that right outside of Boston?
CARO:Yes, just across the bay there.
LAMB: He finished the painting that we looked at in 1822. Was he -- was he making any money? He`s in his 30s along the way here. Is he -- is he making -- he`s married -- making any money? Is his -- are they living together?
CARO:No. That was -- in a way, that`s the most difficult part of Morse`s life, that itinerant portrait painting kept him on the road and his -- apart from his family, apart from his children, for -- when he went to paint in Charleston, South Carolina, she did stay with him for a while. But otherwise, she and the children were there in -- either in New Haven or somewhere in New England and he was on the road.
LAMB: 1837 -- the panic of 1837, the depression...
LAMB: How big a depression was it? And what impact did it have on his life?
CARO:Well, he had had a very good year in Charleston, South Carolina, the year before. He went back in 1837-38 and -- actually, he did fairly well. The other painters in Charleston, he found, were starving. But the depression had had hit Charleston, too, and it -- yes, it lowered his -- even though he hated doing portraits, he was doing them and making some money, but now it was hard to even get commissions for portraits.
LAMB: How did he get into the electromagnetic telegraph business?
CARO:Yes. That`s -- that`s a good one. That`s a tough one, actually. As a student at Yale, he had liked science, and Yale had one of the best science departments, probably the best science department in the country. And he had attended some -- at college, he had attended some demonstrations on electricity that fascinated him. At one demonstration, as I recall, the students held hands, and the first student was given an electric shock, and it went through all of them holding hands. And he spent a summer working in -- as it was called, the natural history cabinet at Yale, doing some kind of experimentation.
He had also done some invention with his brother. They invented a flexible pump -- excuse me -- a flexible piston for pumps that could be used for fire engines or garden hoses. The idea of invention and an interest in science and electricity was there pretty early.
What brought it to the stage of wanting to invent the telegraph -- it`s a complicated story. Apparently, he was coming back from France in, what, 18 -- this is 1830 or -- and there was some talk about sending electrical current among the passengers and whether a current could be sent instantaneously across a long wire. According to Morse, that gave him the idea that if -- if that was true, if a current could be sent instantaneously through a wire, it might be possible to send messages by electricity. And according to him, as soon as he got home, he started working on the problem in his artist`s studio at New York University and put together his first telegraph.
LAMB: But that -- the ship`s name was Sully (ph).
LAMB: That -- that turned out to be a controversial trip.
CARO:Very, very controversial.
CARO:Well, another passenger on the Sully, named Charles Jackson, Dr. Charles Jackson, who was a geologist and physician with interest in science and also interest -- some interest in the arts -- he later claimed that it was he who gave -- on the Sully trip who gave Morse the idea for the telegraph and who said, Well, if you can send electricity instantaneously through a wire, it should be possible to send messages. And in fact, as soon as Morse brought out his first telegraphs, Charles Jackson threatened him in all kinds of ways, with exposure, challenged him as the inventor of the telegraph, and so on.
Charles Jackson is not someone you`d like to believe, though. For one thing, he later also claimed to have discovered anesthetic.
LAMB: He was a doctor, and he was only 28 years old on that voyage, if I remember.
CARO:Right. He was a young guy.
LAMB: But Morse was in his 40s.
LAMB: So he -- the name Leonard Gale (ph), who he started working with in 1836 -- who was he?
CARO:Leonard Gale was a professor of physics at New York University. When Morse did his first telegraphs, they were not strong. I mean, one of the problems -- he could send an impulse through, say, 40 feet of wire. However, if this thing was going to succeed, it obviously needed to be sent through much longer distances.
Leonard Gale was himself interested in magnetism, and he understood, first of all, that instead of winding the wire around the horseshoe magnet a few times loosely, as Morse had done, what was needed was to wrap it tightly a lot of times, that that would increase the transmission power. He also understood that Morse was using a battery that -- I guess it was nitric acid and a couple of metal plates -- that he needed a much more powerful battery. And Gale then put together for Morse -- it was a battery, as I recall, with several more cups to it, cups of nitric acid, that was a huge boost for Morse`s telegraph, and instead of sending it 40 feet, he was sending messages then, whatever, 1,500, 2,000 feet, something like that. So Gale helped him very much.
LAMB: Put it in context of -- anybody in the world communicate on a telegraph at that time?
CARO:Oh, at that time -- yes, but very, very different kinds of telegraphs, not -- not what you think of as the telegraph, very complicated devices sending impulses short distances -- impractical, really nothing that could be used.
LAMB: What -- the Morse code also plays in this. What is the Morse code?
CARO:Well, when Morse started off in his earliest telegraph, he used an alphabetical code, a numerical code. But as the -- strange looking, but his machine, his first telegraph, produced a set of "V`s" on a tape. And there would be, say, three V`s followed by two V`s. And that would -- then the number would be 32. And you would have to then look in a dictionary for number 32, and that would be the word being sent. Say it was "spoon." Then on the tape, you would say there would be six V`s followed by two V`s followed by five V`s. That would be word 625. And you looked up in this huge dictionary that Morse prepared, this huge -- size of a refrigerator -- and that -- 625, and that would be "windmill," or whatever it was.
He gradually refined all of that and then started developing his famous dot-dash code, sending not V`s but dots and dashes representing not numbers but letters of the alphabet. There`s been a lot of controversy about that because one of Morse`s associates, Alfred Vale (ph) -- Vale himself didn`t claim that he had invented the, quote, "Morse code," but later descendants of Vale and associates of Vale claimed that it really was his invention. I don`t think so. I mean, it seems to me pretty clear that Morse himself invented the Morse code.
LAMB: Here is Vale on the screen right now.
LAMB: A photograph of him. Where did he meet him?
CARO:Vale was a student at New York University. He had just graduated, and he had seen some of Morse`s demonstrations of his telegraph at New York University and was very interested in it. And Morse was drawn to him because Vale was an experienced -- I mean, Vale`s family had a machine shop in Morristown, New Jersey, and Vale was an experienced machinist. Morse knew nothing about anything like that, but he could see that somebody who might be able to tool parts of the telegraph would be very helpful for him.
LAMB: A Vale later on in the century went on to organize AT&T. Is that any relation?
CARO:No, Vale -- if we`re talking about the same Vale, there were a lot -- there were different Vales. Vale died fairly young. He died in his -- gee, I think in his late 40s or so. His wife, Amanda, sort of pursued Morse until his dying day, demanding that he give more credit to Alfred as -- as part of the inventor of the telegraph.
LAMB: What -- what`s the overall importance of all this? At one point you say in the book, this could be similar to a man landing on the moon, what he invented. Why would that have been? Were there telephones then, were there -- anyway, how would you communicate, because you ...
CARO:Yes, well, it was very, very startling to people at the time. People did not understand electricity, didn`t understand electromagnetism. If you read the newspaper accounts, it dazzled to think that -- that electricity, the most -- which they thought of as lightning, they had no concept really of batteries. And somehow Morse was taking lightning, and he was -- the most powerful force of nature, and he was sending it through a wire. It was staggering to people.
Once the telegraph really got going, and that took a long time, it transformed, you know, business lives, social lives, it had an enormous -- enormous effect. I mean, in journalism, the -- you know, the idea that you could get news from the front in the Mexican war or something and send it up to Washington -- various newspapers started setting up bureaus in different places, you got the really - the beginning of the Associated Press.
In business life, you could do all kinds of business transactions by the telegraph. You could send out an order, you could find out where the order was. Socially, you know, if you -- if dad was in Boston and he wasn`t feeling well and you were in New York, you could get a message from him saying, oh, I`m feeling OK, and that was a great relief. It transformed every part of really existence in America, and it worked synergistically. I mean, that the railroad was also developing, and big corporations were coming into being and the telegraph fit in with -- with that, you know, and was energized by those things, and those things were energized by the telegraph.
LAMB: Can it be said that because -- had he befriended the Congress by doing the painting, and then he eventually went to the Commerce Committee, and there is this fellow you`ve got here in the book turned out to be very controversial, F.O.J. Smith, congressman, chairman of the Commerce Committee. What`s the story there?
CARO:Yes. Well, that was a part of Morse`s being accursed was having ever gotten involved with F.O.J. Smith, who was a congressman from Maine. Smith was so impressed by the telegraph that he gave up his seat in Congress to work with Morse, and ....
LAMB: Didn`t he first, though, he wanted -- he wanted a cut of the action before he was even willing to leave Congress?
CARO:Characteristically, he wanted some piece of the action before he left Congress. Morse, who was, you know, extremely, shall I say, a very honest guy with a lot of integrity, wouldn`t hear of anything like that, the idea of cheating the government in some way would be appalling to him. In any case, though, he saw that Smith was very well connected in Washington. Smith knew the business world too, as he -- he, Morse, certainly did not, so he and Smith a few other people formed a partnership to advance the telegraph. For Morse, it was a gigantic mistake, because Smith could do almost nothing honestly. And he got Morse involved in all kinds of very shady kind of schemes, and then he persecuted Morse endlessly until the end of his life. He was -- he was a mean -- everybody said of him, he was a mean guy.
LAMB: How much did Congress fund the first building of the telegraph between Washington and Baltimore?
CARO:My recollection is Morse went to them, I think, for $30,000 to -- to do the line. I think they gave him $40,000, actually. I think they gave him another $10,000 for other expenses he might have.
LAMB: And that was the first building of the telegraph?
CARO:Yes, that was the first public demonstration and building installation of the telegraph in America, that Baltimore to Washington line.
LAMB: Now, was this ex-Congressman Smith involved in that? I mean, did he have a percentage of the action from the beginning?
CARO:Smith was involved in that. He -- he did some of the contracting for it, and as I recall it, one of the contracts went out to his brother-in-law, I think this is correct -- not a good idea. And there later came a lot of legal complications out of that.
LAMB: We looked at the man Vail and the man Smith, they both had a cut of the action. How much did Morse owned of the company that was created?
CARO:Well, this was the Magnetic Telegraph Company. I think, Morse -- my recollection is -- I think Morse owned just about half, and I think -- I think the other partners owned the other half.
LAMB: I also have a photograph here of a man name Amos Kendall. Who is he?
CARO:Amos Kendall had been the secretary of the post office.
LAMB: Postmaster general?
CARO:Postmaster general under Andrew Jackson. He had a very large reputation in the Jackson administration. He wrote speeches for Jackson, Jackson trusted him and he was very, very close with Jackson, especially in Jackson`s war in, you know, the Bank of the United States.
Kendall also was very interested in the telegraph, and he offered to be Morse`s business manager. I mean, he understood very well that Morse had no business sense at all, and needed somebody to manage the business end of it, and offered to do that. That was the best luck that Morse ever had, because Kendall, like himself, like Morse, Kendall was somebody of real, you know, integrity and some feeling, and he was like Morse, a very religious guy, and took over this mountain of correspondence and bill paying, and you know, even getting cedar posts for the telegraph, that was involved in getting the telegraph started.
LAMB: When did Morse`s first wife die, Lucretia?
CARO:Yes, well, there is another -- that was sort of one of the worst examples of his accursed life. Morse had gotten a commission to paint a full length portrait of Marquis de Lafayette. I mean, to a lot of Americans Lafayette was George Washington second, I mean they -- they loved this man, and sort of embodied in him the whole meaning of 1776, and, you know, of American independence. Congress paid for a triumphal, I think, 50th anniversary of visit of Lafayette to the country where he was going to tour all of the states, and the New York City Council commissioned a -- voted to commission a full-length portrait of Lafayette. It was a great commission, a very important commission, and it went to Morse. And it was the biggest break by far he had had as a painter.
And he started painting the Lafayette in New York. Lafayette then went to Washington and he followed -- Morse followed him there and was painting in Washington, was delighted to be doing this commission. And for Morse, too, Lafayette was -- you know, was a great hero, and delighted to be meeting Lafayette. While he was painting, he got a letter from home, saying that his wife Lucretia had died, and she just apparently some heart ailment, but she was a young woman in her 20s, she had gone into bed and was dead. That seemed to Morse the pattern of his life. He would be at some apex of his career, painting Lafayette, a message would come that his wife was dead.
LAMB: Will you step back a little bit? As I remember, she was 25 and he was 33 or so at the time.
LAMB: There`s another painting before we go on, and I want to show it, because it`s -- I have to say it`s my favorite in this whole thing. It`s this one, which is hard to see, we`ll get a close up on it, but what is this called?
CARO:Yes, that`s "The Gallery of the Louvre," or "The Grand Gallery of the Louvre." I would agree, I think it`s my favorite Morse painting.
LAMB: Well, one of the things I can`t -- this is his daughter, you say over here?
CARO:No. That`s James Fenimore Cooper and his daughter.
LAMB: Oh, I see.
CARO:James Fenimore Cooper.
LAMB: But he`s in the center? Morse is ...
CARO:Morse is in the center there, giving some instruction in drawing to ...
LAMB: Over there, and then that`s "The Mona Lisa" right over his shoulder.
LAMB: When did he do this and what impact did it have?
CARO:Well, instead of having the heads of 68 members of Congress, we have most of the great best known paintings in the world reproduced on the walls of the Louvre. He -- he imagines them all being on the walls of the Louvre this way, and they`re wonderful miniature reproductions of some of the best known paintings, "The Mona Lisa" and others. Not only that, but they`re done in perspective, so that -- you know, again, a very ambitious and very, very complex painting.
Morse worked on it also for about a year in Paris when he was studying. He did it in the Louvre and attracting a lot of attention. People would stop by to see what he was painting. Then there was also -- I think there was an outbreak of -- was it cholera -- or some -- an outbreak of some serious illness, I think it was cholera, passed through France, and people started -- they started carting corpses out of Paris, and people started leaving the city. Morse stayed in the Louvre painting this really huge canvas. Same story. He took it home and it went nowhere. Nobody came to see it at exhibition. He finally sold it to some collector for relatively little money.
LAMB: You say it`s in the Tara (ph) museum in Chicago now.
LAMB: Have you seen it in person?
CARO:No, I have never seen it, I`m sorry.
LAMB: Did you ever get any value of this art today?
CARO:That`s an interesting question, you know. Because his portraits turn up here and there, people buy -- they buy them at very reasonable prices. I am to be speaking with the poet John Ashbery, a while ago, and he mentioned it to me, he`d been in some gallery in -- I think in upstate New York and there was this painting, he liked it very much, and the owner told him it was by Morse, so he bought it. But there`s no -- there is no vigorous market for Morse`s paintings that I know of.
LAMB: So, again, he did this painting for years and then he got into the telegraph. Did he ever paint again after he started the telegraph?
CARO:No, that was it. He -- he even said he wished -- he wanted to just destroy all of his paintings. Not only that, the telegraph had taken over his interest, but he was just terribly disappointed by his career.
LAMB: What about his children by his first wife? I know Susan, he did a -- he did a painting called "The Muse."
CARO:Yes, it`s a large painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
LAMB: What was his relationship with his children? His wife died, they had only been married, I guess, eight years.
LAMB: And they had the three kids. What happened to the kids as he was moving around?
CARO:It`s a very sad part of Morse`s life. They were really left on their own, they were farmed out to relatives, they were given to his brothers or to just other families willing to look after them. They complained to him too. Susan seems to have been a lovely sort of young girl. She would write to him very, very touching letters, you know. She would put in a little heart and something, and say, "When this you see, remember me. Father, please come home. Please visit me. I haven`t seen you in such a long time." Very, very touching letters, but he -- he went on. And not -- not a good dad. I mean, and even worse with his sons, he felt he had utterly lost contact with his sons.
LAMB: His son Finley had - I assume -- a mental problem?
CARO:Some brain, yeah, some organic brain problem.
LAMB: Was that by his first wife?
LAMB: Because you go into some detail about -- which shows -- again, I want to ask you. He was so religious, how could he treat his son this way? I give you an example. You say, "Approaching 40, Finley remained child-like. He now permanently lived in the Adirondack Mountains, where he passed the time gardening and fishing, looked after by Morse`s cousins, the Davises. Morse paid for his upkeep, but found one excuse after another not to write him, and asked the Davises to explain: "Please say to Finley that I received his letter, and would have replied .... But the truth is, I`m so overwhelmed with cares just now." How could he -- I mean -- how do you rectify this?
CARO:Oh, a good question. I think -- well, partly, it`s -- you know, he told himself and says some places, that, you know, he`s doing it for them, he`s on the road, he is painting portraits, he`s earning money. It`s for them, so he can support them. He needs to be away from them. Secondly, though, you know, he had this very strong sort of Calvinist belief or at least he used this -- this sort of explanation that you should not hold your children up as idols. You can`t really get too attached to the things of this world. If you make your wife or your children idols, I mean, your real love belongs to God, and that`s where all your emotion, all your affection must really be invested. This is the kind of, you know, explanation he gave himself. It seems pretty transparently, you know, some attempt to justify.
LAMB: You have found a letter that he wrote to his son. Do you remember where you found it?
CARO:I don`t, no.
LAMB: I will read it. "Perhaps you think it is strange" -- this is writing to Finley, his son -- "that I have not written you, but the truth is that unless I have something very important to say, I am obliged to employ my pen from morning until night on matters which require my whole attention."
LAMB: Did you find things for your book that hadn`t been printed yet?
CARO:Oh, yes. There is -- Morse liked to write, you know. He wrote a tremendous amount, not only thousands of letters, but he wrote and published a lot of various tracts, he -- he edited lots of books, he edited a volume of poetry, he wrote a lot of newspaper articles. You know, he was a writer too, really, very much so. So there was an immense amount of material. I was very happy about that.
LAMB: By the way, did you have to find all the photographs of these paintings in the book, or did the publisher do it for you?
CARO:No, I did that, yes.
LAMB: Did it cost you money?
LAMB: Did you have to pay for each one of them, or ...
CARO:Yes. In some cases, you know, it`s gotten outrageous. I think the people I dealt with for these pictures were very good, in fact, and they didn`t give me a hard time. I can name, but will not, people who were very, very tough to deal with.
LAMB: Can you tell us some -- give us some sense of the -- you don`t have to name the portrait, what kind of money you have to pay to put them in a book like this?
CARO:Well, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, the Corcoran, you know, the galleries -- galleries around here are wonderful. They have minimal charges, $75 maybe, or $100 or something. It can, though, be $200, $300 for a picture.
LAMB: Did that have to come out of your advance?
LAMB: Or did it come out of ...
CARO:No, no, it came out of my advance.
LAMB: And you published this book through Knopf.
LAMB: Do you know how many copies they printed on your book, the first round?
CARO:You know, I don`t. I don`t.
LAMB: Who is this man, Henry O`Reilly, in the book?
CARO:Yes, this was another of Morse`s partners. Very interesting guy, tremendously exuberant, a brash guy. He had come as a young boy from Ireland and settled in Rochester, New York, and - he was a real sort of go-get-them, you know, 19th century, mid 19th century capitalist. He was tremendously enthusiastic about the telegraph, and he -- once he got to be a partner of Morse`s, he had these kind of huge schemes for extending it all over the country. Morse certainly saw it extending all over the country, but O`Reilly wanted to do it all at once. I mean, here`s a guy of endless energy and imagination, and, you know, lots of pep, and lots of vigor, so he was already getting a line up to Canada and to Nova Scotia and out west to St. Louis.
Morse and Amos Kendall tried to slow him down. I mean, thinking that - it - it just can`t work that quickly. Antagonism developed, and soon Henry O`Reilly became one the Morse`s worst competitors and antagonists. This is -- I mean, the telegraph was a very contentious business, and they, at one point, Henry O`Reilly was building a line down to - just down toward New Orleans, and Morse`s company was building a line down towards -- I think it was New Orleans, at the same time, and they were working side by side, and Morse, you know, thought these guys, these work gangs, who were going to have guns were going to get at each other and start -- have a huge riot. It didn`t happen that way, but O`Reilly didn`t finally have a success with the telegraph. In fact, his plans were too brash and too big.
LAMB: How much was Morse worth at the end of his life?
CARO:Good question. He was -- he was making more than the president of the United States. His yearly income was more than Lincoln`s, let`s say, income was. And he was making - his income was something like $27,000 a year, a lot of money for the time. He had a lot of money. And he was a millionaire at the end.
LAMB: At the Smithsonian, we took a camera also, where a lot of things that he had built and invented are on the walls down there, you can see it there on the screen. Can you give us some sense of what we`re looking at here?
CARO:Let`s see. Yes, those, well - that`s - that`s a later version of the telegraph key. I mean -- and a later version of the so-called register. It -- you know, the telegraph went from one version to another. Here is an early. This is the first version of the telegraph. And you see that Morse has built it inside this picture frame. This is some clockwork mechanism that spun out the paper that got imprinted. Very, very crude apparatus, as you can see. This made the V`s on the paper tape. It`s just a little stub of a pencil.
LAMB: Did he make money out of this - these -- the instruments also?
CARO:Eventually, yeah. He`d licensed, you know, the production of Morse instruments. The telegraph spun off all kinds of other professions. I mean, of telegraph businesses, and there were people who just, as their own employment, made telegraphs.
LAMB: At what -- what year, if you remember, did the most of the country have the telegraph?
CARO:I think it was - I think, during the Civil War, I think they finally connected up with California.
LAMB: I know, you pointed out how did it look at like 1863, or something
CARO:I think so, during the Civil War.
LAMB: There is another picture in here of a man named Cyrus W. Field. Who is he?
CARO:Certainly one of the most important people in Morse`s life. Morse had very early the idea that you could span the Atlantic, and that you`d be able to send telegraph messages across the Atlantic. A lot of people thought he was crazy, I mean, to think such a thing. Cyrus Field didn`t think he was crazy. Cyrus Field was a very successful entrepreneur in New York. He made a lot of money in the paper business, and he joined with Morse to build the first transatlantic telegraph. It was enormous - I mean, for people, again, at the time, that was really the moon voyage of the 19th century, the building of the transatlantic telegraph.
LAMB: How often -- how long in his life was he active in the business?
CARO:Well, active -- he was never really active in the business business. You know, he stayed out the money end of it, but all of his life he was tinkering and trying to make improvements on the apparatus.
LAMB: He got very active politically during the Civil War.
CARO:Well, Morse had lots of links to the South. I mean, as his mother`s family, the Finleys, actually, had come -- were in South Carolina, Morse had spent two years, I think, in Charleston painting. His second wife was from New Orleans and her brother still lived there. He was a sword manufacturer in New Orleans. Morse was very sympathetic to what he called the Christian slave-holding South, and given also his - his profound cultural nationalism, I mean he really worshipped the United States and the idea of the United States. When the country started to fracture that way, it - it was really a nightmare for him. The worst was happening.
LAMB: But he went - you know, you have a lot of language in here where he suggested that the black man and woman were inferior, some strong -- again, some strong language. And I ask you again, how could you feel that way and be so religious?
CARO:Well, Morse, in fact, makes, you know, as some other people did, very elaborate scriptural defenses of slavery. I mean, for one thing, he tries to show that slavery is justified in the - in the Bible. I - I -- he wrote several tracts defending slavery, and in one of them, I remember, he tries to show that slavery is a form of governance, like marriage or child rearing, or, you know, political life, and really no different from them.
The religious part of it is that, you know, as an old sort of old-line Calvinist, Morse has this firm conviction about the fall and the degeneracy of man, and the only way to keep people in line is through - through government. You can`t - can`t give people freedom. In fact, one of the things that -- startling things that happens during the Civil War is that he turns his back on the revolutionary generation, which is quite extraordinary, because he - he really -- he revered those people. But he starts writing that Declaration of Independence guaranteed a false liberty, you know. The only real liberty is liberty under the scripture, is really liberty under God`s law, is liberty under governance. Oddly, Morse`s father had been an early abolitionist, but had been for abolition early on, and Morse turns back on his father, too, and was aware of that and said - he said he believed that his father, if his father were living at the time of the Civil War, his father would share his pro-slavery views.
LAMB: Where is this photograph?
CARO:This is a wonderful study in the townhouse that Morse bought in New York City. I mean, once he started making a lot of money, he bought this beautiful house in New York, it`s still there, and this is a picture of his study in the townhouse.
LAMB: You say his second wife was 30 years younger and was deaf.
CARO:She was deaf.
LAMB: Completely, couldn`t hear a thing.
LAMB: How did he meet her?
CARO:They met at a party upstate somewhere. That`s - that`s very fascinating, really. As you mentioned, his wife - his son Finley had some kind of organic brain damage and was also partly deaf. He was very moved to see how at some social gathering -- how his second wife treated the boy and his deafness, and, oh, I don`t know, you could think really that his marrying her was some kind of a making up for his mistreatment of his son, his partly deaf son.
LAMB: This photograph, age 72.
LAMB: Where is he living the last eight years of his life?
CARO:Well, he`s mostly living now in New York City. He had a farm in Poughkeepsie, and used to commute to really spend the summers in -- there and then the winters in New York, but now he moved entirely to New York, partly because he was getting too old to make the trip back and forth.
LAMB: So as we get down to the end, I want to show some highlights from the House of Representatives painting again, which people can see at the Corcoran, and as we mentioned, you`ll see it on the screen here off to the left. Those two are reporters. Would a reporter then be a press person or would it be a recorder of the events in the House, do you know?
CARO:I think these are recorders of events in the House. I don`t think they`re press people, I could be wrong. Although the Washington newspapers at least -- there were reports of certainly doings in Congress and all.
LAMB: Some of the Supreme Court members -- there are six in the painting -- and off here to the right, you can see there at the very end, John Marshal and Joseph Story, the man on the far right, who was the youngest Supreme Court justice at age 32. And then there`s the Declaration of Independence in this. Any reason for that?
CARO:Well, I think here, and this is, you know, a heavily symbolic picture - Morse is trying to show the seriousness and the idealism of America by depicting its institutions, its documents, its seriousness.
LAMB: All right, the Indian chief on the right and his father there, the third person over on the left, why did he put those in?
CARO:Yes, well, it`s a Pawnee chief. There`s his father there on the left, Jedediah Morse. Oh, that`s a bit of a story. Morse`s congregation, Jedediah`s congregation in Charleston resented all the work he was doing on geography, they thought he wasn`t paying enough time to his pulpit. So they got rid of him, I mean, they fired him, and he did not want to be present at the formal ceremony for his dismissal, so what he did was he got a commission from the government to visit various Indian communities in the Midwest. In any case, the Pawnee chief, who Morse paints here is one of the members of the community that Jedediah dealt with in his new mission.
LAMB: This is the last kind of -- in that room, John Quincy Adams collapsed and died right off that room later on, but you say in your book that John Quincy Adams ended his painting career.
CARO:Yes, he felt that -- the painting Morse wanted to do above any other was one of the large murals for the dome of the Capitol. I mean, John Trumble (ph) had painted one, he wanted to do another one. He was not given the commission, though he tried for a year at least to get it. And he felt that John Quincy Adams was responsible for his not getting it, because of some obscure hatred he had for his father.
LAMB: Last question. Do you think you would have liked this man if you had a chance to know him?
CARO:Oh, a tough one. Certainly despise his politics. Probably not. People generally didn`t like Morse personally.
CARO:He was hard to get along with. He was autocratic, he was moody, sort of - you know, had a very large sense of himself. He was extremely imaginative, very intelligent, you know, very hard-working man.
LAMB: We haven`t even gotten started, but that`s what the book is all about. And here is the cover of it called, "Lightning Man: Samuel F.B. Finley Breese Morse." Our guest has been Kenneth Silverman, and we thank you very much.
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