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Title: [We proceed this morning to]

Creator: Walt Whitman

Date: April 5, 1842

Publication information: New York Aurora 5 April 1842: [2].

Source: Original issue held at the Paterson Free Public Library, Paterson, NJ. Our transcription is based on a digital image of an original issue.

Whitman Archive ID: per.00388

Contributors to digital file: Joe Harla, Jostyn Elizabeth Cox, Nicole Lindsey, Jason Stacy, and Kevin McMullen




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☞ We proceed this morning to make some remarks upon the disgraceful proceedings in relation to the Baptist grave yard in Chrystie street—that have caused so much excitement of late in the eastern section of the city.1

If we were asked the particular trait of national character from which might be apprehended the greatest evil to the land, we should unhesitatingly point to the strife for gain which of late years has marked, and now marks, the American people. This unholy spirit seems to have no bound or check. It leads yearly to the commission, among us, of the most abominable actions. It has built up those paper money bubbles,2 which daily practice, in the face of day, frauds and violations of their engagements, that ought to make the cheek of every upright man blush with indignation. It forms insolent and selfish cliques, that stand out against the government itself, and laugh at punishment. It imbues the popular mind with a disposition to connive at villainy, if joined with wealth—to palliate crime, if its consequences are estate—to smile gently at a swindler, if he has only been a swindler of millions.

Even the battle spots where our old soldiers fought and died, are not beyond the reach of this pollution. The very hill made sacred by the blood of freedom’s earliest martyrs, is sold and trafficked for.3

But it has been reserved for our city to put the damning climax to these deeds that disgrace humanity. A set of miserable wretches—through courtesy, we suppose, passing in the world as gentlemen—have, within the past fortnight, rendered themselves infamous by desecrating the very grave, in order to add something to their ill won heaps of gold. We are almost at a loss for terms of opprobrium severe enough to characterise the conduct of these mean and brutal money worshippers. Do they pretend to possess the souls of men? After thus becoming a scandal and a disgrace to nature—after thus doing what the very wickedest criminal at Sing Sing4 would scorn—they might as well go and buy ropes and hang themselves; for they surely cannot expect hereafter that which decent men deserve, as honor, love, obedience, troops of friends.

These creatures actually set people to work with spades and pickaxes to dig down and pitch out the decayed relics of bodies buried there! Fleshless bones, and ghastly skeletons, and skulls with the hair still attached to them, and the brittle relics of young infants, and the shrouded ashes of age, and forms of once beautiful maidens, now putrid in corruption—all these, fearful and sickening, and making the very heart of the looker on to thrill with horror—were struck in by the cold steel, and pitched to and fro, as loafers5 pitch pennies upon the dock.

Let the finger of scorn and indignation be pointed at these men. Let popular opinion show them what reward is meted out to soulless brutes, who outrage every pure and gentle feeling of the soul—every sentiment of love, every remnant of the perfection that was Adam’s in Eden!


Notes:

1. Throughout this editorial, Whitman indirectly refers to the violation of graves, possibly in search of cadavers for medical education, a phenomenon not unusual in New York City in the 18th and 19th century. See: Robert Swan, "Prelude and Aftermath of the Doctors' Riot of 1788: A Religious Interpretation of White and Black Reaction to Grave Robbing," New York History 81, no. 4 (October 2000): 417–456. [back]

2. In a financial bubble or "paper money bubble," the price of an asset falsely rises above its true value. As the price continues to rise it will be sold for more and more to the next buyer until eventually the "bubble" bursts and the price falls dramatically. Someone will stand to lose while someone stands to gain. For more on financial bubbles, see: Peter M. DeMarzo, Ron Kaniel, and Ilan Kremer, "Relative Wealth Concerns and Financial Bubbles," Review of Financial Studies 21, no. 1 (2008): 19–50. [back]

3. Whitman is likely referring to the Bunker Hill Monument in Boston, begun in 1825, but only completed in 1842. See: "Commemoration, Public Art, and the Changing Meaning of the Bunker Hill Monument," The Public Historian 25, no. 2 (2003): 55–71, especially 66–67. [back]

4. Sing Sing was a prison located 32 miles north of New York City in the town of Ossining. Opened in 1825, it would quickly reach its capacity, and by the second half of the 19th century would become America’s most infamous prison. Carved out of stone, it had little to offer its occupants other than tiny cells and an extreme lack of sanitation. However, Sing Sing was not just a prison; it was also a factory run by a massive convict labor force. The work force of over 1,500 labored daily producing goods from stoves to shoes, making Sing Sing prison one of America’s largest manufacturing complexes (Timothy Gilfoyle, A Pickpockets Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth-Century New York [New York: W.W. Norton, 2006], 42-58). For more on Sing Sing prison, see: Lee Bernstein, "The Hudson River School of Incarceration: Sing Sing in Antebellum New York," American Nineteenth Century History 14, no. 3 (2013): 261-282. [back]

5. The term "loaf" or "loafer" comes from the German noun "landläufer," which in the original context meant a tramp or vagabond. Whitman first used the term "loafer" in 1840 when celebrating those people that he defined as such; he made this reference in "Sun-Down Papers—[No. 9]" which was published in the Long Island Democrat on November 24, 1840. In the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman famously wrote, "I loafe and invite my soul, I lean and loafe at my ease . . . . observing a spear of summer grass" (Leaves of Grass [Brooklyn: n.p., 1855], 13). [back]


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