Skip to main content

Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to Walt Whitman, 24 [March 1870]

 duk.00589.001.jpg 24 March 1870 O walt

aint it sad to think the poor soul2 hadent a friend near him in his last moments and to think he had a paupers grave i know it makes no difference but if he could have been buried decently but hes done poor fellow i was thinking of him more lately than common i wish walter you would write to Jeff3 and hann4 that he is dead i will write to george5 i feel very sad of course walter if he has done ever so wrong he was my first born but gods will be done

good bie walter dear  duk.00589.002.jpg

walter send me6 one envelope next time you write


  • 1. This letter dates to March 24, 1870. The date 24 is in Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's hand, and Richard Maurice Bucke assigned the date March 24, 1870. Edwin Haviland Miller accepted Bucke's date (Walt Whitman, The Correspondence [New York: New York University Press, 1961–77], 2:367). The letter was written just after the death of Jesse Whitman, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's son. Though Louisa does not refer to Jesse by name, she identifies him as her "first born" and says that he is to be buried in a "paupers grave." Jesse died in the Kings County Lunatic Asylum on March 21, 1870. [back]
  • 2. Jesse Whitman (1818–1870) died at Kings County Lunatic Asylum on March 21, 1870. Walt Whitman was notified of his brother's death (see E. Warner's March 22, 1870 letter), and Louisa Van Velsor Whitman was either notified at the same time or received notice from Walt. Jesse had suffered from mental illness that included threats of violence for several years before he was committed to an asylum, where he was placed in December 1864. Shortly after an outburst that followed his brother Andrew Jackson Whitman's death in December 1863—he threatened Martha Mitchell and Thomas Jefferson Whitman's daughter Manahatta—Jeff sought to "put him in some hospital or place where he would be doctored" (see Jeff's December 15, 1863 to Walt Whitman). Louisa resisted institutionalizing Jesse because, according to her December 25, 1863 letter, she "could not find it in my heart to put him there." On December 5, 1864, Walt committed Jesse to Kings County Lunatic Asylum on Flatbush Avenue. For a short biography of Jesse, see Robert Roper, "Jesse Whitman, Seafarer," Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 26:1 (Summer 2008), 35–41. [back]
  • 3. Thomas Jefferson Whitman (1833–1890), known as "Jeff," was the son of Louisa Van Velsor Whitman and Walter Whitman, Sr., and Walt Whitman's favorite brother. In early adulthood he worked as a surveyor and topographical engineer. In the 1850s he began working for the Brooklyn Water Works, at which he remained employed through the Civil War. In 1867 Jeff became Superintendent of Water Works in St. Louis and became a nationally recognized name in civil engineering. For more on Jeff, see "Whitman, Thomas Jefferson (1833–1890)." [back]
  • 4. Hannah Louisa (Whitman) Heyde (1823–1908) was the youngest daughter of Louisa Van Velsor Whitman and Walter Whitman, Sr. She lived in Burlington, Vermont with her husband Charles L. Heyde (1822–1892), a landscape painter. Charles Heyde was infamous among the Whitmans for his often offensive letters and poor treatment of Hannah. [back]
  • 5. George Washington Whitman (1829–1901) was the sixth child of Louisa Van Velsor Whitman and Walter Whitman, Sr., and ten years Walt Whitman's junior. George enlisted in the Union Army in 1861 and remained on active duty until the end of the Civil War. He was wounded in the First Battle of Fredericksburg (December 1862) and was taken prisoner during the Battle of Poplar Grove (September 1864). After the war, George returned to Brooklyn and began building houses on speculation, with a partner named Smith and later a mason named French. George eventually took up a position as inspector of pipes in Brooklyn and Camden. For more information on George, see "Whitman, George Washington." [back]
  • 6. 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]
Back to top