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Title: Scenes of Last Night

Creator: Walt Whitman

Date: April 1, 1842

Publication information: New York Aurora 1 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.00421

Contributors to digital file: Alex Ashland, Jake Byers, Lucas Reincke, Jason Stacy, and Kevin McMullen




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Scenes of Last Night.

Between seven and eight o'clock last evening we visited the scene of the fire in Broome and Delancy streets.1 For several blocks before arriving there, our passage was impeded by squads of people hurrying to and fro with rapid and eager pacee. Women carrying small bundles—men with heated and sweaty faces—little children, many of them weeping and sobbing—met us every rod or two. Then there were stacks of furniture upon the sidewalks and even in the street; puddles of water, and frequent lengths of hose, pipe endangered the pedestrian's safety; and the hubbub, the trumpets of the engine foremen, the crackling of the flames, and the lamentations of those who were made homeless by the conflagration—all sounded louder and louder as we approached, and at last grew to one continued and deafening din.

It was a horrible yet magnificent sight! When our eyes caught a full view of it, we beheld a space of several acres, all covered with smouldering ruins, mortar, red hot embers, piles of smoking half burnt walls—a sight to make a man's heart sick, and keep him awake at night, when lying in his bed.

We stood on the south side of Broome street. In every direction around, except the opposite front, there was one compact mass of human flesh—upon the stoops, and along the side walks, and blocking up the street, even to the edge of where the flames were raging. The houses at our right were as yet unharmed, with the exception of blistered paint and window glass cracked by the strong heat over the way. We looked through those windows into the rooms within. The walls were bare and naked; no furniture, no inhabitant, no signs of occupancy or life, but every thing bearing the stamp of desolation and flight!

Every now and then would come a suffocating whirlwind of smoke and burning sparks. Yet we stood our ground—we and the mass—silent, and gazing with awful admiration upon the wreck and the brightness before us. The red flames rolled up the sides of the houses, newly caught, like the forked tongues of serpents licking their prey. It was terribly grand! And then all the noise would cease, and for many minutes nothing would break in upon silence, except the hoarse voices of the engines and their subordinates, and the hissing of the fire. A few moments more, and the clatter and clang sounded out again with redoubled loudness.

The most pitiful thing in the whole affair, was the sight of shivering women, their eyes red with tears, and many of them dashing wildly through the crowd, in search, no doubt, of some member of their family, who, for what they knew, might be buried neath the smoking ruins near by. Of all the sorrowful spectacles in God's world, perhaps no one is more sorrowful than such as this!

And those crumbled ashes! What comforts were entombed there—what memories of affection and companionship, and brotherhood—what preparation never to be consummated—what hopes never to see their own fruition—fell down as the walls and the floors fell down, and were crushed as they were crushed! But twelve hours before, the sun rose pleasantly—all promised fair, and no danger clouded the clearness of hope's horizon. The most distant idea of all this misery, it entered into the brain of no man to conceive. Now, what a change! People who commenced the day moderately rich, closed it penniless. Those that had a house to shelter them at sunrise, at sunset owned no pillow whereon to lay their heads. Wives and husbands who parted in the morning with jocund words, met at night to mingle their groans together, and to grieve over blighted prospects.

On the minds of hundreds there, no doubt, these and similar reflections forced themselves. We saw it in the sombre countenances of the spectators—their fixed look; and heard it in their conversation one to another. And so, elbowing and pushing our way for many rods through the crowd, we at last made out to get once more where the air was less hot and stifling, and the press of people less intense.

On our way down, we stopped in for a while at the Temperance Hall in Grand street, where there appeared to be a large meeting.The apartment was filled with an assemblage of both sexes. A speaker, whose name we understood as Capt. Wisdom, was speaking from the platform 2. His language seemed totally deficient in polish and in grammatical correctness; but he evidently felt what he was saying, and desired to do as much good as possible. No doubt, the method of Mr. Wisdom is far more effective for the sphere it moves in, than a more refined style.

An address by a person whose tongue had a broad foreign accent, followed Mr. W. This man gave his "experience," and descanted in enthusiastic terms on the great blessing the temperance cause had been to him. He was a very uncouth speaker. Yet, how all the boundaries of taste, all the laws of conventional usage, are leaped over, in oratory, by deep feellng and ardent sincerity. Every hearer in the room, assuredly, was thrilled to the heart by portions of this uneducated man's remarks. For our own part, we were never more interested in our life.

Then there was music. A choir, composed mainly of ladies, sang an ode—and a company of fine looking young firemen variefied the exercises with a temperance glee.

As we left the house, we could not help wondering at the mighty enthusiasm which all there, men, women and children, seemed to be imbued with Success to the cause! May the blessings that have followed in its path, thus far, be but a harbinger—a shadow of the hundred fold glory that is coming!


Notes:

1. Another contemporary source described the fire in this way: "A fire caught in a wheelwright's shop, No. 21 Delancy-street. There being a very high wind from the south-east, the fire, in less than an hour, had swept away the whole block bounded by Delancy, Christie, Broome, and Forsyth streets. When the fire had reach Forsyth-street, it was hoped that its progress might be stayed, but it swept across the street, burnt the dwellings and other buildings . . . and destroyed everything down Broome-street. With great exertions the fire was here stopped. Three persons were burnt to death. No less than one hundred houses were destroyed, depriving one thousand persons of a home" (The Fireman: The Fire Departments of the United States, with a Full Account of all Large Fires... [Boston: James French and Co., 1858], 49). [back]

2. The Capt. Wisdom mentioned by Whitman is Captain William A. Wisdom, a reformed alcoholic, who helped form the Washington Temperance Society in New York City. In 1841 he was chosen as the society's first president (Stephanie Blalock, "Introduction to Franklin Evans and 'Fortunes of a Country-Boy,'" The Walt Whitman Archive). [back]


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