Title: About "Richard Parker's Widow"
Author: Stephanie Blalock
Publication information: Written for the Walt Whitman Archive. First published on the Archive in 2017.
Whitman Archive ID: anc.02100
Whitman based "Richard Parker's Widow" on a true account of the execution of the English sailor Richard Parker (1767–1797) for his involvement in a naval mutiny at Nore in 1797. Parker was a British sailor in the Royal Navy, assigned to the ship HMS Sandwich. Parker sympathized with the sailors on the ship, who worked in squalid and overcrowded conditions. In May 1797, the Nore mutiny broke out. Although Parker had no role in organizing the mutiny, the sailors in rebellion elected him President of the Council of Delegates, and he took on a symbolic role as the head of the mutiny. Following the end of the mutiny, Parker was arrested and, later, hanged for treason on June 30, 1797.1 Whitman turned to Camden Pelham's Chronicles of Crime; or, The New Newgate Calendar (1841) as a source for the story, the same account that Herman Melville used to write Billy Budd, Sailor (1924).2
At his death, Parker left behind a wife, Ann McHardy Parker (1770–1840s). She was the daughter of a Scottish farmer and had been married to Parker since 1791. Whitman's story details her determined but ultimately futile attempts both to plead for her husband's life to be spared and to reach him before his death. By the late 1830s, Ann Parker was living in London and was dependent upon charity for her survival, which may explain why Whitman's narrator and a friend see her in London at the beginning of his tale. She is believed to have died in the 1840s, when she was approximately seventy years of age or slightly older.3 If she died just a year or two prior to the publication of Whitman's story, it is tempting to speculate that her death may have occasioned the composition and publication of his only piece of short fiction tied so closely to historical accounts of Richard and his wife.
"Richard Parker's Widow" was published in The Aristidean in April 1845. The Aristidean was a general monthly magazine edited by Dr. Thomas Dunn English, author of a popular sentimental ballad entitled "Ben Bolt." Only one volume of the magazine was ever published. In addition to short tales like Whitman's, The Aristidean published poetry, book reviews, biographies, travel pieces, and articles on literature and politics.4 The Aristidean also published four additional pieces of Whitman's fiction: "Arrow-Tip" and "Shirval: A Tale of Jerusalem," in the March 1845 issue, and "Some Fact-Romances," in the December 1845 issue. That same year, Whitman also reprinted "The Death of Wind-Foot" and "The Boy-Lover" in the The American Review: A Whig Journal of Politics, Literature, Art, and Science.
Whitman's tale opens with the narrator and his friend's encounter with the title character, the widow of Richard Parker, in a London police station. The narrator's friend provides some of the details of what has happened to the widow, who is presented as a sympathetic character throughout the story. Her husband, Richard Parker, was executed for his role in the mutiny at Nore. Parker's widow tried unsuccessfully to obtain a stay of the execution. Unable to do so, she tries to get to her husband in time to see him before his death. These efforts also fail. At his death, Richard Parker still claims his innocence, but he states that he submits to the sentence in order to restore order among the British seamen. After Parker's execution, his widow intends to claim his remains, but she is once again denied. As a result, she scales the cemetery wall and disinters her husband's corpse. At the height of her grief, she kisses the corpse. The lord mayor then arranges for the burial of Parker's remains in a Whitechapel churchyard. The narrator and his friend encounter the widow approximately forty years following Parker's execution when she has lost her savings and become dependent upon the kindness of others to survive.5
"Richard Parker's Widow" may be considered anti-gallows or anti-capital-punishment fiction. Parker is sympathetic, even in the mutiny, because the seamen are rightfully angry over the fact that they have not been paid for their labor. Parker, then, dies, seemingly heroically, sacrificing himself to restore peace and order among the ship's men.6 In the tale, Whitman presents the widow as a long-suffering and loyal wife who is prevented at every turn from seeing her husband before he dies.7
This story does not seem to have been reprinted in periodicals following its original printing in The Aristidean. Whitman did not choose to include the story in the "Pieces in Early Youth" section of Specimen Days and Collect (1882), in which he reprinted a selection of his short stories.
1. For more on the Nore mutiny, see J. Neale, Narrative of the Mutiny at Nore (London: William Tegg, 1861). See also "Account of the Late Mutiny on Board of the Fleet at the Nore; and of the Trial of Richard Parker," The Monthly Magazine 8.3 (June 1797): 490–492. [back]
3. For a timeline of events in the life of Richard Parker and details about his widow's final years, see C. E. Manwaring and Bonamy Dobree, "Appendix IV: Notes for the Life of Richard Parker," in The Floating Republic: An Account of the Mutinies at Spithead and the Nore in 1797 (Yorkshire, UK: Pen & Sword Books, 2004). [back]
4. Frank Luther Mott, "The Aristidean," in A History of American Magazines: 1741–1850, vol. 1 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1930), 347. [back]
7. See Paul Christian Jones, Against the Gallows: Antebellum American Writers and the Movement to Abolish Capital Punishment (Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 2011), 116. [back]