Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Thomas Jefferson Whitman to Walt Whitman, 27 October 1878

Date: October 27, 1878

Whitman Archive ID: loc.00476

Source: The Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 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.

Notes for this letter were created by Whitman Archive staff and/or were derived from Dear Brother Walt: The Letters of Thomas Jefferson Whitman, ed. Dennis Berthold and Kenneth M. Price (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1984), and supplemented or updated by Whitman Archive staff.

Contributors to digital file: Elizabeth Lorang, Kathryn Kruger, April Lambert, Nima Najafi Kianfar, and Nicole Gray

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OFFICE OF Water Commissioner,
CITY HALL, (Market Street Entrance.)
St. Louis,
Oct 27th 1878

My dear Walt

Tis a long time since I have heard from any of you—but I suppose all goes about the same as ever. I suppose you have had all sorts of newspaper rumors in regard to the yellow fever in St Louis1—but the truth is that the stories are nearly entirely fabrications Altogether there has been, probably, some 35 to 40 deaths by yellow fever during the season—out of this number some 6 or 8 were St Louis people who had been in some capacity about those that had come from the South—or had been connected with the hospital boat that carries the sick people from the city to the fever hospital. I have no doubt but that had the weather continued warm for a couple or three weeks longer we should have had quite a touch of the trouble. From what I can observe I judge the spread of this disease is simply a question of time That it always commences in the south (so far as the West is concerned at any rate) is a fact—that it will progress with quite a certain rate of travel—now if the time between its first breaking out and where it meets a heavy frost is long enough I do not see why it should not spread to the lakes. This season it broke out in New Orleans abt 6 weeks earlier than usual—we have had rather a backward season as regards frost and cool weather—the disease was quite bad within abt 150 miles of us—I think more favorable conditions would undoubtedly have produced it here—Steamboats seem to be the home of the disease—let one of them be in the locality when the sickness is bad and it is pretty sure death to have anything to do with it—this does not seem to be the case with R. R. cars—Another thing seems sure and that is that with proper sanitary laws—with good energetic health officers—no city that is kept decently clean but what can stamp out the disease by taking prompt action

I do not know that you are interested in all this, but I have been pretty well exercised about the matter, knowing that if it did come here I should have to stop and face the music no matter how bad it became—We have had several cool nights—and to-day the weather is what might be called cold—I think we will have a decided show of ice to-night—and so the question of fever for this season is certainly disposed of.

I am getting on reasonably well have pretty good health—indeed just now it is extremely good—at one time—near the latter part of July I got poisened by the bad air of the numerous sewers, bone boiling and fat rendering establishments that I had to visit2 and was badly off for a couple of weeks—and indeed did not feel well until we had a "cold wave" about two weeks ago—since that time I have felt the very best—and too my work has let up very much

How are you all getting on How is George and Lou and Ed and yourself—I hope you continue to gain—I judge from what Hattie writes that you made quite headway this last summer I hope so and am very glad. What is new with you are you doing anything in the way of books—I dont see anything in the papers3—but then the papers I see would not be apt to say much anyhow—except in a mean way. Has George got through his foundry work—and if so I suppose is mostly on his farm4—Will you make a winter trip to your New York friends if so you must call and see Worthen5 I have just had a letter from Hattie in which I learn that she is a little sick—has been laid off from study—I hope she is not sick to any extent—indeed I sincerely hope she is all right now—I have just written her to-night to let the study go and get well as quick as she can—I hope to hear in a day or two that she is all well again

Give my love to all—write me when you feel like it and give me all the news.—



1. Only ten "local cases" of yellow fever were reported in St. Louis this season; the other individuals came up from New Orleans. [back]

2. Because of the rapid growth of the city, the Bissell's Point Water Works was increasingly vulnerable to pollution from slaughterhouse waste and sewage. [back]

3. Whitman was not working on a book at this time, but he frequently published poems and essays in periodicals. Around October 26, 1878, he sent Jeff "Gathering the Corn"; on November 25, 1878, "Thou who has Slept all Night upon the Storm" (later titled "To the Man-of-War Bird"); at the end of January 1879, "Winter Sunshine: A Trip from Camden to the Coast"; on August 9, 1879, an account of the lecture on the death of Abraham Lincoln (Walt Whitman: Daybooks and Notebooks, ed. William White [New York: New York University Press, 1978], 118, 122, 35, 152). Whitman sent Jeff similar items in the following years. It seems unlikely that the poet would have sent materials to Jeff this often if he really believed that no family member sympathized with his work (see Dennis Berthold and Kenneth M. Price's introduction to Dear Brother Walt: The Letters of Thomas Jefferson Whitman [Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1984]). [back]

4. Probably the farm in Burlington, New Jersey, where George Washington Whitman would eventually build a permanent home in 1884. [back]

5. See the letter from Thomas Jefferson Whitman to Walt Whitman on 15 December 1863[back]


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