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Thomas Jefferson Whitman to Walt Whitman, 15 December 1863

Dear Walt,

I came up here to make some surveys and run some levels for a Mr Worthen1 who has been appointed to make an examination and report on supplying the city with water. I came up just a week ago to-day, went home on Sat. and returned again on Monday—yesterday. I shall probably get through this week  I found all home about as usual execpt Mat—she has not been very well since Andrew's death  The next day after Andrew's death—Friday the 6th2—an affair occured at home which has given me a great deal of anxiety—twas this  Hatty was down stairs—and Mat with the baby—Mother and Jess  in front of the stove was a chair upon which Mat had hung a diaper. Hattie commenced shoving the chair slowly toward the stove. Jess told her to stop—she kept on—he all at once jumped up and swore out at her, and said he would break her damn'd neck.—Mat, of course was bound to defend her child and—although trembling like a leaf with fright—she as bold as she could—told Jess to set down and let Hattie be—not to dare to lay his hand on her. Jess then turned from the child to Mat and swore that he would kill her.—said that she had been at him for a long time and now he would finish her  Mat thinking—a mistaken idea it proved—that by putting on a unfrightened and daring manner that she could ca[l]m him down she dared him to touch her or the child either. Jess essayed twice to get at her. Swore he would beat her brains out. Called her a damed old bitch—in the same breath added—"not you Mother, not you"  Mother managed to keep Jess away till Mat got out of the room. Mat was over one hour in getting from the basement up to her rooms. She had an awful attack of the old complaint in her back and had to set down every few step[s]. When I got home she was not able to set up—there she was with her two children frightened almost to death but very lucky I came home quite early and still luckier we had an Irish girl to work that day so that Mat did not have any work to do. You may imagine when I got home and understood the condition of things I felt pretty [w]rathey. I went down stairs and Mother met me at the door and begged and prayed that I would say nothing to Jess—Andrews body laid just above us.—for her sake and hers alone I said but little.—Jess said that he didnt care a damn—&c. I at first thought that I would at once go out and get rooms and remove Mat and the babies away—but Mother said that it would kill her to part with Mat3—that she couldnt stand it and begged me not. Since that we dont allow Jess to come in our rooms,—or rather we only allow him to come when he has some errand for Mother. He seems to have qu[i]eted down,—but I still fear to trust him.—he is a treacherous cuss any way. Probably had I been home he would not have done anything of the kind but if he had, so help me God I would have shot him dead on the spot—And I must confess I felt considerably like it as it was. I love Mat as I love my life—dearer by far—and to have this infernal pup—a perfect hell-drag to his Mother—treat her so—threaten to brain her—call her all the vile things that he could think of—is a little more than I will stand  He says he dont know any better  he lies—he does know better. I wish to God he was ready to put along side of Andrew  There would be but few tears shed on my part I can tell you. All this occurred some 10 or 12 days ago and you see how I feel about the matter now. I hav'nt written you before because I was afraid to think about it. To think that the wretch should go off and live with an irish whore, get in the condition he is by her act and then come and be source of shortening his mothers life by years  As long as we keep him out of our rooms, I dont suppose that one need fear—at least immediately—of his doing any one any harm, there  but I feel a constant fear for Mother—she says that he has these kind of things quite often with her  calls her everything—and even swears that he will keel her over &c. Just at the time of this affair with Mattie, he had been unduly—I think—burdened with the babies Mat having her time engaged with Andrew till his death and then in fixing for the funeral—and with Andrew because up to the time of his death Andrew could not have the child about him—and after[ward] Nancy had [to] be out getting things to appear at the funeral. But no excuse can be given to going to such extreme measures as to frighten poor Mat so that she has not got over it yet—Now Walt aint there some way in which we can take this immense load from the life of Mother  It certainly is telling on her every hour—she is I think failing rapidly—and I am quite sure unless something is done [will] not live but a few years.—There are three of us, You George and I—and it seems as if we ought to be able to relieve Mother in a measure of this thing—if Jess is sick why we ought to put him in some hospital or place where he would be doctored  There certainly must be plenty of such places and it could'nt cost much. Suppose Mother dies  a place then will have to be found for both Ed and Jess and it seems to me as if it—so far at least as Jess is concerned [could] be done a little sooner, and I think thereby prolong Mothers life some years. As to Mother herself I should be perfectly willing—if she were so situated that it could be done—to take her and provide and do for her as long as she lives4—I think she has had trouble and care enough—Mat and I both would dearly love to do it. And I know it would be relief and pleasure to Mother. But now she seems to think that she must deny herself everything and devote her live to those two poor wretches.—Ed I dont mind so much because he could'nt help being what he is.—but Jess did to himself and made himself what he is—and I think is answerable for it. If things are left the same as now I think I shall get other rooms and move Mat and the Children, for I honestly fear to leave them in the same house with Jess—no more than I fear for Mother and willingly would I take her too.—If such a thing were possible. It will be a sad thing to leave her with them but I can't think I am doing my duty to my wife if I leave her in a place of such constant fear as her home is now.

I suppose Mother wrote you an account of the affair.5 I hope she did. I wish you would write me as soon as you can and let me have your ideas about the matter



  • 1. William Ezra Worthen (1819–1897) graduated from Harvard in 1838 and soon became a leading civil and hydraulic engineer. He designed and built many dams and mills in New England, some of which still operate. Originally from Massachusetts, he settled in New York in 1849 and served as sanitary engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Health of New York City, 1866–1869. He became noted for designing and testing pumping engines, including some for James P. Kirkwood during the early stages of the new St. Louis Water Works, and developed a major reputation as a consultant (The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography [New York: James T. White & Company, 1904], 7:206). He published several books on engineering and served as president of the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1887. [back]
  • 2. Jeff is in error; Friday was the fourth. [back]
  • 3. Despite some complaints about Mattie, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's letters generally show a deep affection for Jeff's wife. See Randall H. Waldron, ed., Mattie: The Letters of Martha Mitchell Whitman (New York: New York University Press, 1977), 17–21. [back]
  • 4. Jeff's unsympathetic attitude toward Edward and Jesse made it impossible for Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to consider becoming dependent on Jeff and Mattie. [back]
  • 5. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's version of Jesse's outburst differs little from either that of Jeff or Mattie (see Waldron, Mattie: The Letters of Martha Mitchell Whitman [1977], 32–36); however, Mother Whitman attributed Jesse's behavior to "seeing his brothers corps" and thought Jeff overreacted: "of course Jeff had to hear it all in the strongest light" (Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to Walt Whitman, December 4, 1863 [Trent Collection, William R. Perkins Library, Duke University]). [back]
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