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Walt Whitman to Peter Doyle, 12 September [1873]

 loc.01750.001.jpg1873 1873 Dear boy Pete,

It is a very fine September day here—it must be delightful down in Virginia—the sun shines just warm enough & there is a slight haze, which makes it just right—I have been out just a little, but was glad to get back—I am feeling tolerable, but my leg still gives out, in a few minutes' walk—I have had two or three quite good spells this week,—sufficient to arouse my hopes,—but am in a pretty bad way yet—however I am not without some pretty steady small expectations, if not great ones. I am enough better to be perceptible, & to make me in hopes of getting better still—(but I have so many times got a little better, only to fall back again as bad as ever, or worse)—I have just had my dinner, nice beef steak, potatos​ , &c. My appetite still holds out—& my sister cooks very nice, gets me what I want—

Pete your letter of Sept.​ 8. came safe—also the Herald & Republican—I send you Phil.​ papers.


My brother Jeff has been on here this week from St. Louis—got in a car in St. Louis, 6 Saturday evening, week ago, took off his boots for easy shoes, and, (sleeping he says, very well & sound in his bed on the car,) had his meals regular—got in here at Philadelphia about 9 o'clock Monday morning, in the same car, (which went on to New York)—He is now out on a good yacht excursion from N.Y., out in the sound & sea, for a week—quite a voyage—He only stopt here 3 or 4 hours—but is to return last of the month—both my brothers are stout & hearty, & full of business, & interested in it thoroughly—& doing well.

—I hear quite often from John Burroughs—he has bought a spot of land, right on the Hudson river, about 80 miles from N.Y. & is building himself a house there, right on a steep bank, with the road on one side, & the river on the other—a 2½ story stone house—(but sufficient space between)—

I have heard from Charley Towner—I got a very nice letter from him Thursday—he said you met him Tuesday & told him—A long while ago, I wanted to get a house in conjunction with Charley & his family, where I could have a couple of rooms, & they could see to them—& that was one thing I wanted to write to him about, to see if we could do it now—but he tells me his wife is quite sick—  loc.01750.003.jpg I quite pricked up my ears to read the short interview between Mr. Dubarry & you, & what he said about the schedule &c—I see you are a little nervous, Pete—& I dont wonder, nor blame you—Still the true point to attain is (like a good soldier, or officer,) to keep on the alert, to do one's duty fully, without fail—& leave the rest to God almighty

I was reading the paper here this morning, & I see a list of some new inventions said to work first rate, among the rest this ☞1 for car-coupling—I wonder if there is any thing in it—It is awful, the way men are slaughtered of late years on the trains—there must be three or four hundred every year, take the country through—& the papers put 'em in in items of three or four lines, down somewhere out of the way—such a thing as the killing of that young man Harkinson,2 in the Baltimore tunnel, a grand magnificent young man, no doubt—(while half the papers in the land have had long obituaries & notices of the death of that rotten old apple, Beau Hickman3)


Well, son, I have made out quite a letter for you this time—My brother & I have been talking about the Balloon splurge4 in New York—my brother is quite a balloonist, in his belief—believes that something will yet come of it—I see they advertise to go yet, perhaps this afternoon—but it is a wild undertaking—(perhaps an advertising humbug) anyhow

—I shall still remain here for the present—every thing seems to be going on smooth in the office at my desk, from what I hear from my substitute5—He writes me now & then—does my work very well, & more work besides,—Dear Pete, I am much in hopes I shall be able to send some news before long about my improvement—for good—& something definite about my coming back to Washington—So long, dear son—you must try to keep up a gay heart & let the world wag on as it may.



Railroad officials have long felt the necessity of some arrangement that would obviate the dangerous manner in which they have been obliged to couple cars. Under the present system hundreds of deaths have resulted, and thousands of persons have been injured. Many inventions have been made in the way of a self-coupler, and for dispensing with the dangerous mode now in use, but upon trial nearly all have been found impracticable. The Harrisburg State Journal says that the object desired has at last been accomplished by a Mr. William A. Boyden, of that city. The invention consists of a coupler which is worked by a wheel on the side of the car, the pins being raised by an eccentric, which makes the coupling complete and sure without endangering the limbs or life of the brakeman. The State Journal says: Cars can be easily and surely coupled with Mr. Boyden's coupler, which ranges in height from six to eight inches, with perfect ease and safety. The brakeman or person making the coupling can do it by simply turning a wheel on the outside of the car. Mr. Boyden was formerly a foreman in one of the principal construction shops of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, at Altoona. He is now the superintendent of the American Railway Improvement Company, who have taken charge of this valuable invention and intend manufacturing the couplings.

Peter Doyle (1843–1907) was one of Walt Whitman's closest comrades and lovers, and their friendship spanned nearly thirty years. The two met in 1865 when the twenty-one-year-old Doyle was a conductor in the horsecar where the forty-five-year-old Whitman was a passenger. Despite his status as a veteran of the Confederate Army, Doyle's uneducated, youthful nature appealed to Whitman. Although Whitman's stroke in 1873 and subsequent move from Washington to Camden limited the time the two could spend together, their relationship rekindled in the mid-1880s after Doyle moved to Philadelphia and visited nearby Camden frequently. After Whitman's death, Doyle permitted Richard Maurice Bucke to publish the letters Whitman had sent him. For more on Doyle and his relationship with Whitman, see Martin G. Murray, "Doyle, Peter," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).


  • 1. The hand points to a pasted newspaper clipping which described a car-coupler invented by William A. Boyden of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. [back]
  • 2. Whitman had trouble with the spelling of Hawkinson's name; see the letter from Whitman to Doyle of May 9, 1953. [back]
  • 3. On September 1 the Washington Daily Morning Chronicle noted that Robert S. Hickman, about 49 years old, was close to death. Evidently Hickman had squandered a fortune of $40,000, had been disowned by his family, and was now impoverished. On the same day the New York Herald observed that Hickman "is known throughout the country by reputation and familiar to visitors to Washington for many years." He was interred in the potter's field on September 2. On the following day, after a subscription was raised among Washington businessmen to rebury the body in the Congressional Cemetery, it was discovered that the remains had been desecrated. On September 4 the headlines in the Chronicle read: "Ghouls. | Graveyard Hyenas. | Beau Hickman's Body Exhumed. | Horrible and Revolting Details." For Whitman's opinion of Hickman, see the letter from Whitman to Doyle of September 12, 1873. [back]
  • 4. A Professor Wise was attempting to launch a balloon named "Graphic" after its sponsor, the New York Daily Graphic. Wise expected to gather scientific information. [back]
  • 5. Walter Godey. [back]
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