Dolley Madison Sends a Telegram

Do you know Morse code?  It’s not a problem if you don’t—read on!—but if you do, I’d encourage you to listen to the following recording and see if you can make out the message before you dive further into this blog post, bearing in mind that it’s encoded using the old “American Morse” rather than the modern ITU standard:

what-hath-god-wrought1The strip of paper shown above is one of the most famous artifacts in the history of telecommunications.  Preserved at the Library of Congress (MSS33670: box 71, folder 009), it’s signed by telegraph inventor Samuel F. B. Morse, who also inscribed it: “This Sentence was written from Washington by me at the Baltimore Terminus at 8:45 min. A. M. on Friday May 24 1844, being the first ever transmitted from Washington to Baltimore by Telegraph and was indited by my much loved friend Annie G. Ellsworth.”  It wasn’t the world’s first telegram, and it wasn’t the first message sent experimentally using Morse’s own system, but if we take the inscription at face value, it was the first telegraphic message sent between two cities in America, which is kind of a big deal.

The story behind this artifact has often been told, and goes something like this: Congress was scheduled to consider a bill to fund Morse’s telegraph, but on March 3, 1843, the last day of the session, they hadn’t yet got around to it and had dozens of other bills to address beforehand.  Morse had gone to bed at his hotel convinced that the bill couldn’t possibly be acted upon during that session, which would have put his aspirations indefinitely on hold.  But the next morning at breakfast, he was told that a young lady wanted to see him.  It was Annie Ellsworth—the seventeen-year-old daughter of Henry Ellsworth, Commissioner of Patents—who had come to congratulate him on the passage of his bill, the first he’d heard of this unexpected good news.  In gratitude, he promised her that upon completion of the telegraph line from Washington to Baltimore (the first city-to-city line in America), the first message to pass over it would be hers.  When the line was completed on May 24, 1844, Morse kept his word, and the message Annie Ellsworth selected was a Biblical quotation (Numbers 23:23): “What hath God wrought?”

The dots and dashes indented into the paper strip are a bit hard to make out in places, but with some educated manual retouching I managed to play them back for Track 27 in my book/CD project, Pictures of Sound: One Thousand Years of Audio, with the speed set to thirty letters per minute—a typical transmission rate cited during that period (e.g., here). Of course, the marks originally corresponded to electrical impulses rather than sounds, and my choice of a random noise sample to convert them into audible rhythms for that project was purely arbitrary.  But it’s since occurred to me that people tend to associate Morse code with the sound of an oscillator, and that I could have made the eduction sound more “Morse-like” by using a sine wave as my sound sample.  Easily done!  Here’s Morse’s famous Washington-to-Baltimore transmission of “What hath God wrought” as it would have sounded if it had been picked up by a 1000 Hz oscillator.

But let’s take a step back to consider the nature of the specific communicative event documented here.  The transmission captured on the strip at the Library of Congress, and played back here from that record, was reportedly made on the morning of Friday, May 24, 1844, to the upper depot on the outskirts of Baltimore, which was as far as the line from Washington reached at the time.  According to a book based on the letters and journals of Alfred Vail—Morse’s associate on the Baltimore end—the two men “telegraphed all morning” between that outlying point and Washington, where Morse was ensconced in the room of the Supreme Court, and “Miss Ellsworth sent as the first message ‘What had [sic] God wrought.'”  However, the line was extended further during the day, and Vail moved his equipment to the lower depot in the heart of Baltimore that afternoon.  Now that the city centers were finally connected, things started to get interesting and to attract attention.  The events of the next day—Saturday, May 25, 1844—were famously recounted in that afternoon’s Baltimore Patriot and widely copied by other papers. Here’s the text as reprinted in the New-York Daily Tribune of May 27th:

The miracle of the annihilation of space is at length performed.  The Baltimore Patriot of Saturday afternoon contains the action of Congress up to the moment of its going to press—received from Washington by Magnetic Telegraph Despatch.  The Patriot says:

Morse’s Electro Magnetic Telegraph now connects between the Capitol at Washington and the Railroad Depot in Pratt, between Charles and Light-streets, Baltimore.  The wires were brought in yesterday from the outer depot and attached to the telegraphic apparatus in a third story room in the depot warehouse building.  The batteries were charged this morning, and the telegraph put in full operation, conveying intelligence to and from the Capitol.  A large number of gentlemen were present to see the operations of this truly astonishing contrivance.  Many admitted to the room had their names sent down, and in less than a second the apparatus in Baltimore was put in operation by the attendant in Washington, and before the lapse of a half minute the same names were returned plainly written.  At half-past 11 o’clock A. M. the question being asked here, “what the news was at Washington?” the answer was almost instantaneously returned—“Van Buren stock is rising”—meaning of course that his chances were strengthening to receive the nomination on Monday next.  The time of day was also enquired for, when the response was given from the Capitol—“forty-nine minutes past eleven.”  At this period it was also asked how many persons were spectators to the telegraphic experiments in Washington?—the answer was “sixteen.”  After which a variety of names were sent up from Washington, some with their compliments to their friends here, whose names had just been transmitted to them.  Several items of private intelligence were also transmitted backward and forward, one of which was an order to the agent here not to pay a certain bill.  Here, however, the electric fluid proved too slow, for it had been paid a few minutes before.

At half past 12 o’clock, the following was sent to Washington, “Ask a reporter in Congress to send a despatch to the Baltimore Patriot at 2 p. m.”  In about a minute the answer came back thus: “It will be attended to.”

2 o’clock, p.m.—The despatch has arrived, and is as follows:

One o’clock.There has just been made a motion in the House to go into committee of the Whole on the Oregon question.  Rejected—ayes 79, nays 86.

Half past one.—The house is now engaged on private bills.

Quarter to two.—Mr. Atherton is now speaking in the Senate.

Mr. S. will not be in Baltimore to-night.

So that we are thus enabled to give to our readers information from Washington up to 2 o’clock.  This is indeed the annihilation of space.

It’s often claimed in secondary works that these events all took place on Friday, May 24th, but an examination of the Congressional Globe confirms beyond doubt that the “despatch” describes the activities of Congress on Saturday, May 25th.  A second telegraphic strip containing the message “What hath God wrought,” preserved today at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History (EM*001028), reads: “Sent from the lower depot at Baltimore to Washington Saturday May 25th 1844,” linking it clearly to the new location and the new day.

what-hath-god-wrought2So it seems to be debatable whether the “first” telegraphic messages passed between Baltimore and Washington on May 24th or May 25th, with the answer hinging on what counts as “Baltimore”: outskirts or city center?  Morse was perhaps unsure himself, which may account for his sending the message “What hath God wrought” on both occasions, just to be sure he was fulfilling his promise to Annie Ellsworth.

But that double transmission might also lead us to reconsider the nature of Annie Ellsworth’s relationship to the message in the first place.  Morse characterized it privately in a letter written on May 31, 1844, as “[t]hat sentence of Annie Ellsworth’s,” and Vail’s apparently contemporaneous account (quoted above) states that she had “sent” it.  However, those sources are rather vague, and I haven’t been able to find any published account from 1844 that either identifies “What hath God wrought?” as the first message sent from Washington to Baltimore or mentions Annie Ellsworth’s role in choosing it.  Either the popular press wasn’t aware of the story or didn’t yet care about it.  Instead, the earliest publication I’ve seen linking Morse and Annie Ellsworth in any way is this one, in the Newburyport Herald of April 18, 1845, which smacks of gossip-mongering:

It is said that Professor Morse, inventor of the electric telegraph, has been electro-magnetized by a beautiful daughter of Commissioner Ellsworth, and that a telegraphic communication has been established between the two parties, which is likely to result in a copartnership.

Annie-Ellsworth“This has been denied,” reported the Morning News of New London, Connecticut, on April 21st.  However, the Newburyport Herald item seems to have been the first published hint of any “telegraphic” connection between Morse and Annie Ellsworth, even if it seems not to have been meant literally; the implication was that the two were romantically entangled and likely to get married.  Perhaps word of her early-morning visit to Morse’s hotel had leaked out and led to untoward speculation about what she had been doing there.  I’ve inserted Annie’s portrait above, just to put things in perspective.  But on September 3, 1846, the Boston Recorder published an article (credited to the American Messenger) containing these lines:

It was a beautiful thought of a beautiful woman who was complimented by the inventor of the Telegraph with a request for the first telegraphic despatch, to dictate the passage ‘What hath God wrought!’  It was a kind of consecration of the work to God and religion.

That was a bit more wholesome, and this time Miss Ellsworth wasn’t even named, perhaps to protect the reputation of a young unmarried woman.  The stakes changed somewhat on July 5, 1852, when Annie Ellsworth married Roswell Smith in Lafayette, Indiana.  As far as I can tell, it wasn’t until May 1854—over ten years after the fact, and nearly two years after Annie Ellsworth’s marriage—that she was linked to the first telegraphic message in print for the first time:

In 1844, and on the 27th [sic] day of May, the line from Baltimore to Washington was put in operation successfully.  It fell to the lot of the amiable and interesting Miss Annie Ellsworth to send the first dispatch, viz.:WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT.

The whole familiar story finally appeared in print in 1855, describing Annie Ellsworth’s visit to Morse’s hotel with the good news about the telegraph bill, and continuing as follows:

“Annie,” said the Professor, his emotion almost choking his utterance, “Annie, the first message that is sent from Washington to Baltimore shall be sent from you.”

“Well,” she replied, “I will keep you to your word.”

While the line was in process of completion, Professor Morse was in New York, and upon receiving intelligence that it was in working order he wrote to those in charge, telling them not to transmit any messages over it till his arrival.  He then set out immediately for Washington, and on reaching that city sent a note to Miss Ellsworth, informing her that he was now ready to fulfil his promise, and asking her what message he should send.

To this he received the following reply, “What hath God wrought?”words that ought to be written in characters of living light.  The message was twice repeated, and each time with the greatest success.

That text was in circulation during late October 1855 (see e.g. the Charleston Courier of October 22), but about the same time a first-person version began to spread in reports of a speech Morse himself had given at St. John’s, Newfoundland—an important point along the projected Transatlantic cable—again citing Annie Ellsworth’s delivery of the good news and its aftermath (see e.g. the Salem Register, November 1, 1855):

This was the turning point of the telegraph invention in America.  As an appropriate acknowledgment for her sympathy and kindnessa sympathy which only a woman can feel and expressI promised that the first despatch by the first line of telegraph from Washington to Baltimore should be indicted by her.  To which she replied: “I will hold you to your word.”  In about a year from that time the line was completed, and everything being prepared, I apprised my young friend of the fact.  A note from her enclosed this dispatch:“What hath God wrought.”  These were the first words that passed over the electric wires, on the first completed line in America.  None could have been chosen more in accordance with my own feelings.  It baptized the American telegraph with the name of its author.  It placed the crown of success and honor where it belonged.

Specific details varied from telling to telling in the years that followed.  In one version of the story, Annie Ellsworth hadn’t visited Morse in his hotel alone and unescorted that fateful morning: the Connecticut Courant of August 21, 1858, explains that she “did a kind thing for Prof. Morse, in sending him word that his telegraph bill had passed,” adding that Morse himself had “verified…the story as we tell it.”  Alternatively, the Alexandria Gazette of February 19, 1873, related that Annie had gone to Morse in person, but mainly to extend an invitation to her house for breakfast on behalf of her mother, with the deliberations over the choice of message then becoming a family affair:

Grasping the hand of his young friend, the Prof. thanked her again and again for bearing him such pleasant tidings, and assured her that she should send over the wires the first message, as her reward.  The matter was talked over in the family, and Mrs. Ellsworth suggested a message which Prof. Morse referred to the daughter, for her approval; and this was the one which was subsequently sent.

A little more than a year after that time, the line between Washington and Baltimore was completed.  Prof. Morse was in the former city, and Mr. Alfred Vail, his assistant, in the latter; the first in the chamber of the Supreme Court, the last in the Mount Clare depot, when the circuit being perfect, Prof. Morse sent to Miss Ellsworth for her message, and it came.


There has been a widespread narrative impulse to place Annie Ellsworth physically on the spot during the transmission of the first message from Washington to Baltimore.  Artists sometimes show a young woman alongside Morse in their retrospective portrayals the event (see here and here).  One fanciful account states that she had actually tapped the message out herself (quoted here), while another claims she was in Baltimore at the receiving end (here).  But the earliest sources clearly state that she had sent the message to Morse, presumably in writing from elsewhere in Washington.  Confusion about this point may later have arisen in part from Morse’s use of the obscure verb “indite” (really a variant of “indict”), which can mean either “to compose in writing” or “to dictate.”  He could perhaps have clarified things by stating that Annie Ellsworth wrote the message, except that he himself took credit for the act of writing it over the wire: it “was written…by me,” he claims.  And composed would have been misleading, since she was actually quoting Scripture.  In fact, what Morse wrote in his letter of May 31st was actually: “That sentence of Annie Ellsworth’s was divinely indited.”  So had Annie indited it, or had God indited it?

And more importantly, can we say that she really “sent a telegram” in any meaningful sense?  It seems more accurate to say that she had chosen a test phrase—one that Morse used on at least two different occasions, neither of which was more “her” message than the other.  She wasn’t present either time when the test phrase was transmitted, as far as we know.  And it wasn’t sent to any particular person on her behalf: Morse transmitted it to Vail, and then Vail repeated it back to Morse, but neither man seems to have been Miss Ellsworth’s designated recipient (except insofar as she had herself “sent” the message to Morse in writing by more traditional means).  Overall, the message doesn’t conform to our usual understanding of what a telegram is and how it functions: that is, someone hands or dictates a message for someone in particular to a telegraph operator, who transmits it over the wire to another telegraph operator, who in turn delivers the message to the addressee.  Moreover, there’s no indication that the “What hath God wrought” message was read upon its receipt to assembled throngs or any such thing.  If it served a ceremonial function, it did so privately among insiders to the project; the general public didn’t know about it until years later.  Morse and others may certainly have read some deeper significance into the choice of words, but in terms of their practical communicative function, they were comparable to “testing, testing, one two three.”

All of which serves here as an introduction to the following document:

Dolly-Madison-Telegram-presentationI bought this print on eBay from a dealer selling off the contents of the photographic archives of the Baltimore Sun.  The back is rubber-stamped “DEC 29 1947,” but the visual display reproduced in the print is clearly far older than that—perhaps from the 1870s, from the look of it.  Also typewritten on the back is this note (with original capitalization and spacing preserved):

6/25/56 – According to Francis Beirne there is some doubt as to the authenticity of this photo or at least as to the facts pertaining to it.  Mr. Beirne’s source for this information is the Maryland Historical society where the original is kept.  Further checking would be necessary to ascertain the full details—CGVitek, Chief Librarian.

As of 1956, then, the Maryland Historical Society apparently held the original object from which this duplicate was made, but they also had some qualms about taking it at face value as “the first telegram sent from Washington to Baltimore.”  Presuming it’s still there, they don’t seem to have gone out of their way to draw attention to it in the past half century.  But it wasn’t always shrouded in such obscurity.  According to a piece in The Electrician, the state of Maryland displayed it at the World’s Cotton and Industrial Centennial Exhibition of 1884-85 in New Orleans:

Among the Maryland contributions to the Exhibition is the first telegram sent from Washington to Baltimore.  It was also at the Centennial [i.e., in Philadelphia in 1876], and for the benefit of those who have seen or will see it the following anecdote is related: In the spring of 1844, Morse, the inventor of the telegraph, proposed to make the first trial of his invention in a room in the Capitol at Washington.  Several gentlemen were present, and when the question arose as to who should send the first message over the wires, one of them proposed that President Tyler should have that honor.  No! no! no! was the rejoinder from every quarter.  Mrs. Madison, the widow of our illustrious President, was then named.  The yeas were then unanimous.  She was sent for, and came down to the Capitol shortly afterwards.  “Gentlemen,” she said, on entering, “I understand you wished for my presence.  What is it you expect of me?”  Hon. John Wethered (now of Catonsville, Baltimore County), then a Member of Congress, who was present, informed her that she could send a message to Baltimore and receive an answer in 15 minutes.  The expression on her face would have made a study for a painter as she rolled up her large blue eyes and said: “Can that be?”  The message she sent was to Mrs. John Wethered, wife of ex-Congressman Wethered, and daughter of Philip E. Thomas, the first president and proprietor of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and was as follows: “I send my love to Mrs. John Wethered.”

This article uses the same phrase found at the top of my print, “the first telegram sent from Washington to Baltimore,” suggesting that the artifact was likely already mounted underneath this title in 1884-85.  Another version of the anecdote appears in a book about the genealogy of the family of the message’s addressee, Mrs. Mary (Thomas) Wethered:

In 1844 Professor Samuel F. B. Morse perfected his invention of the Electric Telegraph, and a line of wire was laid between Washington and Baltimore.  Mr. Wethered was then in Congress, and present when Morse, announcing that the circuit was completed, and the line ready for messages, asked “Who shall have the honour of sending the first message?”  Some one suggested the President (Tyler).  Cries of “No! no!” showed his unpopularity; and the Professor, smiling, repeated, “Well, then, gentlemen, who shall it be?”  A gentleman said, “Mrs. Dolly Madison, President Madison’s widow.”  This met the approval of all present, and Mrs. Madison was sent for.  When she came she asked, “What is it you wish me to do, gentlemen?”  Some one replied, “To send a message to Baltimore, and get a reply in a few minutes.”  After expressing her disbelief and wonder at this statement, Mrs. Madison selected Mrs. Wethered as her friend in Baltimore, and sent as the message, the following words: “Message from Mrs. Madison.  She sends her love to Mrs. Wethered.”  This was preserved by the latter as the first ever sent by telegraph.

A footnote clarifies that this was “the first private message” and adds: “This narrative was taken down from the lips of the Hon. John Wethered, in 1877, his wife concurring in it, and the actual telegraphic slips being shown to the author.”  It’s possible that this second version of the story was elicited in connection with the display of the telegram at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876.  In the first version, the person who invited Dolley Madison to “send a message” was this same John Wethered; in the second, supposedly as told by Wethered himself, it was merely “some one.”  But otherwise the stories are pretty consistent.

The President’s unpopularity at the time is underscored by another test message reportedly sent by telegraph from one part of the Capitol to another on February 23, 1843: “Tyler deserves to be hanged” (see here).  John Tyler had been Vice President when William Henry Harrison had died in 1841, and it had been unclear from the Constitution whether this made him the rightful President or merely a sort of “Acting President.”  He had proceeded on the assumption that he was now the actual President, and Congress had acquiesced after a couple months, but there was some feeling that this had been in illegitimate move, and he had soon alienated his own (Whig) party so thoroughly that they had expelled him from the party and tried to impeach him.

By contrast, Dolley Madison was widely respected; giving her the privilege of the first telegram once the line was officially open wouldn’t have caused any controversy.  And her choice in turn of Mary (Thomas) Wethered as the recipient of the message could easily have suggested itself because John Wethered was one of the men there in the same room with her, and might even have been the person who explained the situation to her.

Later, as a canonical story about the “first telegram sent from Washington to Baltimore” began to coalesce around May 24th and the message “What hath God wrought,” there was an impulse to associate the story of Dolley Madison’s telegram with that same date and event, as we see in Ella Kent Barnard’s 1909 biography of her:

It was on the 24th day of May, 1844, that Prof. Morse was ready to make the final test of his electric magnetic recording telegraph, and the wires between Washington and Baltimore were finally completed.  The Baltimore end was set up at the Mt. Clare shops of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and the Washington end in the Supreme Court room of the Capitol, where the many friends of the inventor had assembled to see the first message sent.  He had promised his young friend, Miss Annie Ellsworth, that she should indite the first message over the wires.  Her choice was the words of Scripture (Numbers 23:23): “What hath God wrought.”

In Baltimore a little company were likewise assembled to receive the message.  It was received there and repeated back to Washington with entire success.  Prof. Morse then turned to Dolly Madison, and asked if she wished to send a message, and a few moments later the first real message was flashed over the wires.  Its wording was: “Message from Mrs. Madison.  She sends her love to Mrs. Wethered.”  John Wethered was at this time representative in Congress, from Baltimore city.

I suppose it’s conceivable that Dolley Madison was invited to send a message on May 24th, but such scant evidence as we have suggests that the messages sent between Washington and the upper depot that day were still strictly test messages, and that it wasn’t until May 25th that people began sending “real” messages over the line to specific addressees, with small crowds assembled at each terminus.  On the other hand, we know that Mary Wethered didn’t actually receive Dolley’s message until May 31st, when she wrote the following reply to it:

I can hardly express to thee how much I feel indebted for thy kind remembrance which reached me by telegraph this afternoon, I immediately went to the depot to return a response but found the apartment closed and was informed that the instrument was about to undergo some alteration and would not be in operation until next week I therefore avail of the mail to assure thee that I feel very grateful for this additional evidence of thy friendship

I can see two possible ways of interpreting this evidence.  One is that Dolley Madison had sent a relatively early telegram from Washington to Baltimore—on May 31, 1844—which was immediately delivered and later misremembered as having been the first telegram sent over the line.  The other is that the telegram was indeed transmitted on the first day the line was open but then sat around undelivered for several days.  After all, there was presumably no mechanism in place yet for delivering telegraphic messages physically around Baltimore after transmission, and the message in this case wasn’t particularly time-sensitive. Later reports that this strip was preserved in the family together with the strip of “What hath God wrought” as received in Baltimore point towards the second interpretation; the simplest explanation for how the two messages ended up together would be that they had been recorded contiguously on the tape.  Either way, Dolley Madison’s message was evidently not the first real Baltimore-to-Washington telegram to reach its intended recipient, and she certainly wouldn’t have received a reply to her message “in a few minutes,” as she had reportedly been promised.

Still, nobody in the 1870s or 1880s seems to have challenged the claim that Dolley Madison’s telegram had been the first real telegram in some meaningful sense.  And if it was transmitted on May 25th, it could well have been the first American telegram sent by someone to a specific addressee, as opposed to a mere test of the equipment, regardless of when it was subsequently delivered to that addressee.  Moreover, it did ultimately serve a real function of sociability: Mary Wethered accepted it as a legitimate “kind remembrance” demanding a response in kind, even if she had to resort to the regular mail to send it.  If this was not the first telegram of its kind, there appear to be no other claimants.

Even so, Dolley Madison’s relationship to the message wouldn’t have been quite what people later came to expect of interpersonal telegrams.  Paul F. Boller, Jr. writes in his book Presidential Wives (1989) that she had “dictated the first personal message sent by the Morse telegraph,” and one of the anecdotes reports the message itself as “I send my love to Mrs. John Wethered.”  That’s the form a later telegram might well have taken, and it may be what Dolley Madison said to set things in motion.  But the message actually transmitted in this case was transposed into the third person: “Message from Mrs. Madison: She sends her love to Mrs. Wethered.”  It thus conveyed a message on her behalf, but not in her words, shedding rare light on how people first imagined telegraphic messages should be formulated: less like a personal letter, it seems, than like a message being passed along by intermediaries.  That approach may have been dictated in turn by the lack of established conventions for metadata.  After all, if we think of the telegraph as the Victorian Internet, “Message from Mrs. Madison” may have been Morse’s first fumbling attempt at an Internet header.

Here’s Dolley Madison’s telegram of May 1844, played back as it would have sounded if it had been received by a 1000 Hz oscillator—the same recording I placed at the beginning of this blog post:

A few technical notes are in order.  Longer spaces occasionally appear in the record between words, but not in any consistent way, so the actual form of the message would seem to have been MESSAGEFROMMRSMADISONSHESENDSHERLOVETOMRSWETHERED.  Judging from the letters written in underneath the code, however, the original letter-by-letter decipherment was actually MESSNGFROMMRSMADISONSHESENDSHERLOVETOMRSWETHERED, with the first word garbled in transmission.  The second E in MESSAGE was left out, and the A (· ─) was initially read as N (─ ·), but then corrected from context when it came time to parse the letters into words.  On the other hand, the inked-over (or penciled-over) Morse code mark we actually see in the record where the A should be doesn’t actually show a dot before or after the dash, and instead appears as a T (─), which is how it is presented in the audio playback.  If this was really the first real city-to-city telegram sent in America, it’s worth noting that its very first word was garbled in transmission!

Some tape must have been trimmed away at the gap between MADISON and SHE, since otherwise the N and S would have been run together as ─ · · · ·, and it’s unclear how that sequence would have been read correctly without a space as NS (as opposed to DI or BE).  I’ve inserted a pause roughly the same length as the ones that come before and after it, on the assumption that there must have been one in order for the record to have been deciphered as it was; in all other cases, I’ve simply joined the two cut halves of the tape at each break.  The indented dot at the beginning of the W (· ─ ─) in WETHERED wasn’t darkened but is still visible, and the dots of D (─ · ·) at the end of the name are just barely evident; the final dot in particular is more inferred than observed amidst the visual noise at the end of the strip.  However, the playback as a whole is based on the marks exactly as they appear in my print, so any “warbliness” in the audio is due to variations in the darkness of my source translating into variations in amplitude.

The bottom line: Dolley Madison’s telegram might not have the dramatic appeal of “What hath God wrought,” but it may well have been the first interpersonal message of sociability sent “online” in America.


9 thoughts on “Dolley Madison Sends a Telegram

  1. Dear Dr. Feaster,
    I congratulate you on another great discovery and a facinating article ! For some reason, however, I cannot play any of the sounds of this website on my computer ; every gap that has been designated as a featured playback is only an empty space on my end of the line. Is this due to technical difficulties ?
    I have long been facinated by the telegraph and have often wondered if another legendary telegram may still exsist : The 1869 telegram sent from Promotory Point at the driving of the golden spike joining the transcontinental railroad. This has been described as the world’s first media event as millions around the United States listened “live” as the telegraph correspondent announced play by play the spike being struck. In my research, however, I have never read that a paper recording of that historic moment was made or saved.
    Just sharing some thoughts and I again congratulate you on your amazing work !
    Joe Orbin

  2. Thanks for your kind words, and also for your suggestion about the 1869 telegraphic message linked to the driving of the last spike at Promontory—that would be a marvelous moment to recreate, but our ability to do so would hinge on someone having recorded the transmission on paper, and there seems to be enough uncertainty about the specifics of the transmission itself (see that I doubt such a recording is known, since it would probably have been cited as evidence in the debate if it were available. I’m sorry you haven’t been able to listen to the sound files—you might check whether your browser can display HTML5 embedded audio, although you should theoretically see a text link if it can’t. In any case, here are two URLs that link directly to the files: and

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  5. I had heard of this family story for years, and was reminded of it when recently running across an old (1898) family genealogy I had heard of this Congressional forebearer, and my wife and I have visited Madison’s home, Montpelier, as we live not far away in Virginia. I’ll have to find out if the Maryland Historical Society still has the original. Ah, a link to small fame, connected by nothing more than surname!

  6. Greetings. My great great grandfather, John Hill Hewitt in his long ago published (very obscure) book, Shadows on the Wall, reminisces about this very event. He claims he was in the room at the Capitol when the first telegram was sent, and he agrees that it was a message from Dolly Madison to her friend Mrs. Wethered.

    • Hello. I just double-checked my genealogy website to see my relation to Mrs. Mary Thomas Wethered, wife of Congressman John Wethered. I see that he was my 1st cousin, 4 times removed (my great-great-great gradfather’s nephew, his brother’s son), a relative, but not technically an ancestor (though collateral).
      Ancestry/genealogy is so much more fun and rewarding as you learn about these people from years past.

      • I agree. I’m a genealogy buff as well. I’ve enjoyed reading about the career of my above mentioned ancestor, JHH. I discovered that he was quite illustrious in his time, and a nemesis/contemporary of EA Poe. But, I digress from the original content of this blog. 😉

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