Carleton Mabee, a history professor who won a Pulitzer Prize 70 years ago for his unsparing biography of Samuel F. B. Morse, one of the early developers of the electromagnetic telegraph, died on Dec. 18 in Gardiner, N.Y. He was 99.
The cause was complications of a fall at his home, said his daughter, Susan Mabee Newhouse.
Professor Mabee (pronounced like the word “maybe”), an emeritus professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz, was best known for “The American Leonardo,” his biography of Morse, whose name lives on in the Morse code, the system of taps representing each letter of the alphabet that was used to send the famous 1844 message “What hath God wrought?” on the new telegraph line from Washington to Baltimore.
Fred Carleton Mabee Jr. was born on Dec. 25, 1914, in the French concession of Shanghai, the son of Baptist missionary teachers. He spent his first nine years in China before the family moved briefly to Virginia, then to Maine, where his father was a chemistry professor at Bates College.
He attended Bates as an undergraduate. He then enrolled at Columbia University, where he wrote a dissertation that became his biography of Morse.
Besides being an inventor, Morse was a painter who studied art in London and, returning to New England, sold portraits for $15 each.
In fact, Professor Mabee wrote, one of Morse’s “purposes in telegraphy — perhaps his essential purpose — was to win an income that would permit him to paint as he chose.”
While Professor Mabee paid homage to Morse’s artwork and inventions, his biography painted a thoroughly unpleasant picture of its subject.
“Mr. Mabee whitewashes nothing,” the science writer Waldemar Kaempffert said in reviewing the book for The New York Times. Indeed, the book detailed Mr. Morse’s pro-slavery, anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic views.
Professor Mabee was 30 when he was awarded the Pulitzer. At the time, he was doing civilian public service as an attendant in a mental hospital, his assignment as a conscientious objector in World War II.
“Being a conscientious objector was not a popular stance at that time, in that war,” said Ms. Newhouse, his daughter. “Five years of menial labor, right on the wards, looking after mental patients, that was hard.
“He stayed in touch with the people he met there all his life. He was just starting to write about it when he died.”
After the war, he spent time in Vienna as a relief worker with the American Friends Service Committee before joining the faculty of Olivet College, a tiny institution in Michigan with several professors who were pacifists and socialists, including Tucker P. Smith, the Socialist Party’s vice-presidential candidate (on a ticket with Norman Thomas) in 1948.
When the college hired a new president who fired several professors he accused of “indoctrinating students with their peculiar ideas of democracy,” Professor Mabee joined a group of faculty members who resigned in protest.
His long academic career took him to Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y.; Delta College in Michigan; Keio University in Tokyo; and what is now the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind. He came to SUNY New Paltz in 1965 and retired in 1980.
Among the many books he wrote are “The Seaway Story” (1961), about the St. Lawrence Seaway; “Promised Land: Father Divine’s Interracial Communities in Ulster County, New York” (2008); and, with his daughter, “Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend” (1993), a biography of the abolitionist.
He also wrote books about the railroads of the Hudson Valley of New York State. A final book, on protecting open space in the Shawangunk Mountains, is scheduled to come out next year.
Professor Mabee was married to Norma Dierking from 1945 until her death in 2004. In addition to Ms. Newhouse, his survivors include a son, Timothy; two granddaughters; and two great-grandchildren.
Ms. Newhouse said her father served as the town historian in Gardiner, his hometown.
“He believed in history through primary research, not coming up with theories,” she said. “When he started a book, he didn’t know what point he was going to make. He just was compelled to gather information, talk to people, find the primary sources and write. He worked at it all the time.”