Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to Walt Whitman, [May? 1868]

Date: May? 1868

Whitman Archive ID: duk.00544

Source: The Trent Collection of Whitmaniana, Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library. Transcribed from digital images or a microfilm reproduction of the original item. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.

Editorial note: The annotation, "14 May '68," is in the hand of Richard Maurice Bucke.

Contributors to digital file: Elizabeth Lorang, Zachary King, Felicia Wetzig, and Wesley Raabe

page image
image 1
page image
image 2


My dear Walt

i2 write to tell you that janey maquire3 that is nanc brothers wife has been here and tells me awfull things of the wreched creature she has had twins one is dead the other is living4 and the children is sent out to beg by the day and her brother the one to the court house wants to get the 3 children away from her and have them put in some institution) what i want you to doo Walter dear is this to write a letter to James Cornell5 for him to intercede in getting them from her she drinks and every thing else thats bad) tell justice cornell for Andrew s sake6 for heavens s sake to doo what he can) i wish you would say to him that the home of the friendless in new york7 is a good institution half orphan children can be got in there without pay) janey says if they are put in the brooklyn institution they have to pay something that eddwar[d?] maquire8 that is the wretches brother will pay for two if we will pay for one but they i think if the proper way it taken can be got in new york9 she said she couldent tell me how bad things were that if the children can be got away from her they never will countenance her she said her brother Jim that is another brother of nancee would have shot her he was so inbitter Edwar10 is the one with one arm keeps the new court house11 and his wife Janey said to day it affected him so that it made him sick the money you left for the children and her we could never find her Edd12 went to look for her and she had mooved) i told Janey to day about the money and for her to take it and get something for them she said she would come here again soon that it was no use to get any thing now nance pawn[s?] every thing i hope you will write to cornell walter

i am midling well only lame13

the maquires is very respectable men14


1. This letter dates to a Thursday in May 1868. Neither Walt Whitman's reply to this letter, nor any letter to his mother between his April 28–May 4, 1868 and his June 6–8, 1868 letters survive. Richard Maurice Bucke dated the letter to May 14, 1868, but this date cannot be directly confirmed. Nonetheless, Clarence Gohdes and Rollo G. Silver accepted Bucke's date (Faint Clews & Indirections: Manuscripts of Walt Whitman and His Family [Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1949], 195–196), and Edwin Haviland Miller cited their date (Walt Whitman, The Correspondence [New York: New York University Press, 1961–77], 1:374). The date, nonetheless, remains uncertain.

May 14 fell on Thursday in 1868, but the letter may date to a Thursday that preceded or followed in the same month. May seems to be consistent with the efforts of Jane McClure (Louisa's "maquire") to remove Andrew Jackson Whitman's children from the care of his widow Nancy McClure and place them in an orphan asylum, a topic to which Louisa Van Velsor Whitman returned in her June 25, 1868 letter to Walt Whitman. Jane McClure was the sister-in-law of Nancy. Louisa wrote in late June that Jane McClure inquired whether "cornell had been to see me about the children." This "cornell" is the same James Cornwell who had been a close friend of Louisa's son Andrew before his death in 1863.

This letter could date even earlier because a brief mention of removing James "Jimmy" Whitman and a request to "write that man" appeared in Louisa's December 15, 1867 letter to Walt Whitman. Louisa in this letter asked (almost begged) Walt to write Cornwell. The impetus for James Cornwell's visit to Louisa about Andrew and Nancy's children was presumably the letter from Walt that Louisa requested. Walt, however, did not mention Nancy McClure's children or the letter to Cornwell when he acknowledged receipt of letters from his mother in his April 28–May 4, 1868 or his June 6–8, 1868 letters. The intensified efforts appear to date to May and June. Louisa's request for a letter to Cornwell by the end of the month presumably makes May 28, the last Thursday of the month, the last possible date for this letter. [back]

2. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman (1795–1873) married Walter Whitman, Sr., in 1816; together they had nine children, of whom Walt Whitman was the second. For more information on Louisa and her letters, see Wesley Raabe, "'walter dear': The Letters from Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to Her Son Walt" and Sherry Ceniza, "Whitman, Louisa Van Velsor (1795–1873)." [back]

3. Jane McClure, whose last name Louisa Van Velsor Whitman here wrote as "maquire," was the sister-in-law of Nancy McClure, the widow of Louisa's son Andrew Jackson Whitman. Jane was married to Nancy's brother Edward McClure, a janitor in the Brooklyn courthouse. For the identification of McClure as Nancy's maiden name, see Jerome M. Loving, ed., "Introduction," Civil War Letters of George Washington Whitman (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1975), 12, n. 32. [back]

4. Nancy McClure Whitman was the wife of Walt Whitman's brother, Andrew Jackson Whitman. James "Jimmy" and George "Georgy" were Nancy and Andrew's sons, and Nancy was pregnant with Andrew, Jr., when her husband died in December 1863. This letter has the only known information about the twins born to Nancy in 1868. George Washington Whitman and his wife Louisa Orr Haslam briefly cared for Jimmy and Georgy in late 1871 and early 1872, but traces of them are lost aside from Georgy's death in late 1872. For Andrew's wife and children, see Jerome M. Loving, ed., "Introduction," Civil War Letters of George Washington Whitman [Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1975], 13–14. [back]

5. James H. Cornwell, a friend of Andrew Jackson Whitman, secured Andrew a job in North Carolina in 1863 building fortifications, and he assisted the Whitman family during Andrew's funeral. After being discharged from the Union Army in December 1864, Cornwell returned to his position as a judge in the Brooklyn City Hall. He is mentioned in Whitman's "Scenes in a Police Justices' Court Room" (Brooklyn Daily Times, September 9, 1857). For the relationship between Andrew and Cornwell, see Martin G. Murray, "Bunkum Did Go Sogering," Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 10 (Winter 1993), 142–148. [back]

6. On behalf of which Andrew Louisa Van Velsor Whitman made this request to Walt Whitman is unclear. She most likely asked Walt to write Cornwell on behalf of the memory of Walt's brother Andrew Jackson Whitman, who died in 1863, for the sake of his three children. Presumably this is what she intended because also referred to "the 3 children" and indicated a plan to share the financial burden of caring for them with the McClures. But she may have asked on behalf of Walt's nephew, Andrew, Jr., who was born to Nancy McClure after Andrew's death.

The Home of the Friendless only accepted children up to the age of eleven, so Andrew, Jr., was the only child eligible for long-term assistance through that institution. This effort to remove Nancy's children was unsuccessful. Andrew, Jr., aged 5 years, was run over in the street and killed the following autumn (see Walt's September 7, 1868 letter to Louisa). [back]

7. The Home of the Friendless was constructed in 1847 by the American Female Guardian Society "to protect, befriend, and to train to virtue and usefulness to those whom no one seemed to have thought or pity." The asylum took in orphaned or homeless children under the age of 11. It was located on 30th Street between Park Avenue South and Madison (see Moses King, King's Handbook of New York City [Boston: Moses King, 1892], 396). [back]

8. Edward McClure was the brother of Nancy McClure, Andrew Jackson Whitman's widow. See Jerome M. Loving, ed., "Introduction," Civil War Letters of George Washington Whitman [Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1975], 12, n. 32. [back]

9. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's report of Janey McClure's recommendation deploys somewhat cryptic syntax, but her intent can be summarized as follows: If Nancy McClure's children were removed from her care by a legal process, taken "the proper way," then the children could be placed into ("can be got in") the Home of the Friendless. The concern that Nancy would be able to remove her children from an orphanage is consistent with Louisa's June 25, 1868 letter to Walt Whitman, in which she stated her own and the McClures' preference that Nancy's children be placed in the Brooklyn Home for Destitute Children, the "only place that [Nancy] couldent get them out." The word "it" in the phrase "proper way it taken" may be an error for the intended word "is," the transcription offered by Clarence Gohdes and Rollo G. Silver (Faint Clews & Indirections: Manuscripts of Walt Whitman and His Family [Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1949], 196).

Louisa's son George Washington Whitman and his wife Louisa Orr Haslam briefly cared for Andrew and Nancy's sons James "Jimmy" and George "Georgy" in late 1871, though it is unclear why Nancy released her two sons into their custody (see Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's October 10, 1871 and October 23, 1871 letters to Walt). The son born to Nancy after the death of her husband Andrew in 1863, Andrew, Jr., died after he was run over by a brewery wagon in 1868, and Georgy died in 1872. [back]

10. The spelling "Edwar" is an incomplete correction. Louisa began to write "Edd," as she spelled her son Edward's name, and then she wrote the letter "w" for "Edward" (Janey McClure's husband) over the second "d" in her original assay. The name "Edwar" has the "w" over the original and now stricken letter "d." Gohdes and Silver transcribed the name "Eddwar" (Faint Clews & Indirections: Manuscripts of Walt Whitman and His Family [Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1949], 196). [back]

11. Edward McClure worked as a janitor in the courthouse. See Jerome M. Loving, ed., "Introduction," Civil War Letters of George Washington Whitman [Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1975], 12, n. 32. [back]

12. Edward Whitman (1835–1892), called "Eddy" or "Edd," was the youngest son of Louisa Van Velsor Whitman and Walter Whitman, Sr. He required lifelong assistance for significant physical and mental disabilities, and he remained in the care of his mother until her death. During Louisa's final illness, Eddy was taken under the care of George Washington Whitman and his wife, Louisa Orr Haslam Whitman, with financial support from Walt Whitman. [back]

13. See the left margin of the second page. [back]

14. See the left margin of the first page. [back]


Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Matt Cohen, Ed Folsom, & Kenneth M. Price, editors.