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Ellen Eyre to Walt Whitman, 25 March 1862

My dear Mr. Whitman

I1 fear you took me last night for a female privateer. It's true that I was sailing under false colors.—But the flag I assure you covered nothing piratical—although I would joyfully have made your heart a captive.

Women have an unequal chance in this world. Men are its monarchs, and "full many a rose is born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness in the desert air."2

Such I was resolved should not be the fate of this fancy I had long nourished for you.—A gold mine may be found by the Divining Rod but there is no such instrument for detecting in the crowded streets of a great city the [unknown?] mine of latent affection a man may have unconsciously inspired in a woman's heart. I make these explanations in extenuation not by way of apology. My social position enjoins precaution & mystery, and perhaps the enjoyment of my friend's society is heightened which in yielding to its fascination I preserve my incognito; yet mystery lends an ineffable charm to love and when a woman is bent upon the gratification of her inclinations—She is pardonable if she still spreads the veil of decorum over her actions. Hypocrisy is said to be "the homage which sin pays to virtue," and yet I can see no vice in that generous sympathy with which we share our caprices with those who have inspired us with tenderness,—

I trust you will think well enough of me soon to renew the pleasure you afforded me last P.M., and I therefore write to remind you that there is a sensible head as well as a sympathetic heart, both of which would gladly evolve wit & warmth for your direction & comfort.—You have already my whereabouts & my hours—It shall only depend upon you to make them yours and me the happiest of women.

I am always Yours sincerely, Ellen Eyre


  • 1. "Ellen Eyre" was one of conman William Kinney's various pseudonyms. In 1862 Kinney managed to establish a fraudulent medical practice on Broadway between 8th and 9th under the name "Dr. B. Coffin." Running his scam as Dr. Coffin during the day, Kinney's evenings were spent posing as "Mrs. Ellen Eyre." As Eyre, Kinney would send letters to prominent men in New York; the men would agree to meet Eyre at the time and place appointed by her in the letter. As Ted Genoways notes, "What exactly transpired thereafter is veiled in niceties of the period, but the letters from several suitors, published later in the Sunday Mercury, are highly suggestive. One invited Eyre for some 'twilight entertainment,' another thanked her for 'your "loving kindness" at our last meeting.' One man, offended at being asked for money, wrote that he never considered 'our tender relations in the light of a financial operation.'" Kinney was eventually arrested after a sting operation exposed Ellen Eyre's true identity: Kinney performing sexual favors dressed as a woman and later blackmailing men to keep the affair discrete. For further discussion of Ellen Eyre's identity and Kinney's interaction with Whitman consult Ted Genoways, Walt Whitman and the Civil War (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 154–159. [back]
  • 2. These lines originally appear in Thomas Gray's poem "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard": "Full many a gem of purest ray serene, / The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear: / Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, / And waste its sweetness on the desert air." [back]
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