Wednesday, June 7, 2023

The Battle of Monmouth and the Wizard of Menlo Park

Scrutinize the details on a towering Revolutionary War monument in Freehold and you’ll find a young Thomas Edison with the heroine of the Battle of Monmouth. He’s portrayed as thumbing the vent of a cannon barrel as the famed Molly Pitcher rammed the charge.

How did Edison end up on a Revolutionary War monument? It's a bit of serendipity that started with an artist's visit to the inventor's Menlo Park laboratory, just a few weeks before the battle's 100th anniversary in 1878.

Illustrator James Edward Kelly had pitched Scribners Monthly on the story of the man who’d invented a machine where “You talk into it, turn a crank and it repeats what you have said.” Accompanied by a reporter, Kelly took the Pennsylvania Railroad from New York to Menlo Park, a trip he later noted in a memoir he’d hoped to publish of his encounters with famed men. The 22-year-old artist warmed to Edison, not only sketching the 31-year-old inventor at the phonograph for Scribners, but later creating a wax relief he cast in bronze. 

Kelly was later commissioned by Maurice J. Power of the National Art Foundry to draw artwork to be included in an entry in the competition for a monument to be placed at the site where the Battle of Monmouth began. Architects Emelin T. Littell and Douglas Smythe envisioned a 90-foot-tall granite column, encircled by five large brass plaques depicting key moments of the daylong battle. It was Kelly’s task to illustrate those moments, the most recognizable being Molly Pitcher manning a cannon in place of her injured husband.

According to Kelly’s memoir, the Littell/Smythe/Kelly monument design was chosen from a field of more than 60 entrants. Though he’d never worked with the casting process, he successfully lobbied Power for the work of transforming his sketches to the 30-foot long, 6-foot high clay molds from which the bronze panels would ultimately be made.

Edison's a little hard to see, just to the right
and above of the man holding the cannonball. The artwork 
is about 10 feet above the ground, a challenge for the viewer.
Kelly tackled the Molly Pitcher scene first. Aside from the challenges of learning a completely new process, he needed human models to help him capture a realistic portrayal of the battle scene. While his mother and actress Nell Starret provided the details and action of Molly Pitcher, it was a bit harder to find someone to represent the gunner thumbing the cannon’s vent. Men of the 1870s and ‘80s generally sported facial hair, and Continental Army soldiers had been required to be clean-shaven. “My only acquaintance at that time without beard or mustache was Thomas Edison,” Kelly wrote. “I went to him and asked him if he would serve as a model. Mr. Edison consented, and the figure in the panel is a portrait of the inventor when he was “lean and hungry” in his search for the secrets of nature’s powers.”

The monument was formally dedicated on November 13, 1884, when Edison’s public persona was in its formative stages. Electric lighting was far from commonplace, and it would be years before the inventor’s work would transform American life. It’s not surprising that I’ve found no indication that his participation was noted at the time.

Edison himself doesn’t seem to have talked much, if at all, about his brief career as an artist’s model, or his tenuous connection to the Battle of Monmouth. And while biographies written during his lifetime do attempt to forge a direct connection between him and a bank official named Thomas Edison who signed Continental currency, the inventor’s Revolutionary-era forebear was a Loyalist who moved to Canada after being imprisoned by the New Jersey government.

Many thanks to historian Joe Bilby, who alerted us to this hidden connection, and to William B. Styple, editor of Kelly’s memoir, Tell Me of Lincoln, for including the artist’s recollections of Edison.

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