Skip to main content

Dumb Kate.—an Early Death


Dumb Kate.—An Early Death1

NOT many years since—and yet long enough to have been before the abundance of railroads, and similar speedy modes of conveyance—the travellers from Amboy village to the metropolis of our republic were permitted to refresh themselves, and the horses of the stage had a breathing spell, at a certain old-fashioned tavern, about half way between the two places.2 It was a quaint, comfortable, ancient house, that tavern. Huge buttonwood trees embowered it round about, and there was a long porch in front, the trellised work whereof, though old and mouldered, had been, and promised still to be for years, held together by the tangled folds of a grape vine wreathed about it like a tremendous serpent.

How clean and fragrant everything was there! How bright the pewter tankards wherefrom cider or ale rolled through the lips into the parched throat of the thirsty man! How pleasing to look into the expressive eyes of Kate, the landlord's lovely daughter, who kept everything so clean and bright!

Now the reason why Kate's eyes had become so expressive was, that, besides their proper and natural office, they stood to the poor girl in the place of tongue and ears also. Kate had been dumb from her birth.3

Everybody loved the helpless creature when she was a child. Gentle, timid, and affectionate was she, and delicately beautiful as the lilies of which she loved to cultivate so many every summer in her garden. Her brown hair,4 and the like-colored lashes, so long and silky, that drooped over her blue eyes of such uncommon size and softness—her rounded shape, well set off by a little modest art of dress—her smile—the graceful ease of her motions, always attracted the admiration of the strangers who stopped there, and were quite a pride to her parents and friends.

Dumb Kate had an education which rarely falls to the lot of a country girl. She had been early taught to read, and notwithstanding her infirmity, had most of those accomplishments which usually fall to the lot of the daughters of wealth and prosperity.5

How could it happen that so innocent and beautiful and inoffensive a being was made to taste, even to its dregs, the bitter cup of unhappiness? Oh, there must indeed be a mysterious, unfathomable meaning in the decrees of Providence, which is beyond the comprehension of man; for no one on earth less deserved or needed "the uses of adversity" than Dumb Kate.

Love, the mighty and lawless passion, came into the sanctuary of the maid's pure breast, and the dove of peace fled away forever. What heart, what situation in life is superior to love? Even this young country girl, retired from the busier and more exciting scenes of existence, was made to know the sweet intoxication, as well as the madness, that comes with the attacks of that boy-conqueror.6

One of the persons who had occasion to stop most frequently at the tavern kept by Dumb Kate's parents was a young man, the son of a gentleman farmer,7 who owned a handsome estate in the neighborhood. He saw Kate, and was struck with her beauty and natural elegance. Though not of thoroughly wicked propensities, the merit of so fine a prize made this man determine, without intending marriage, to gain her love, and if possible, to win her to himself.8 At first he hardly dared, even to his own soul, to entertain thoughts of vileness or harm against one so confiding and childlike. But in a short time such feelings wore away, and he made up his mind to become the betrayer of poor Kate.

As the girl's evil genius would have it, the youth was handsome and of most pleasing address. He laid his plans with the greatest art. The efforts of wickedness triumphed. It is needless to transcribe the progress of this devil in angel's guise. He had made but too sure of his victim. Kate was lost!

Look not with a frown, rigid moralist! Give not words and thoughts of contempt, you whose life has been pure because it has never been tempted, or because you had the wisdom of the serpent to resist temptation! There is an Eye which looks far beneath the surface of conduct, and forgives and pities the infirmities of mortal weakness. To that Eye, it not seldom appears that they upon whom the world has placed its ban, are the fittest for entering the abodes of heaven itself—while others, to whom men look up with reverence and admiration, might make their appropriate home amid spirits of darkness.9

The successful villain came to New York soon after, and engaged in a respectable business which prospered well, and which has no doubt  per_kc.00054_large.jpg by this time made him what is called a man of fortune.10

Not long did sickness of the heart wear into the life and happiness of Dumb Kate. One pleasant spring day, the neighbors having been called by a notice the previous morning, the old church-yard was thrown open, and a coffin was borne over the early grass that seemd so delicate with its light green hue. There was a new-made grave, and by its side the bier was rested—while they paused a moment until holy words had been said.11 An idle boy, called there by curiousity, saw something lying on the fresh earth thrown out from the grave, which attracted his attention. A little blossom, the only one to be seen around, had grown exactly on the spot where the sexton chose to dig poor Kate's last resting place.12 It was a weak but lovely flower, and now lay where it had been carelessly thrown amid the coarse gravel. The boy twirled it a moment in his fingers—the bruised fragments gave out a momentary perfume, and then fell to the edge of the pit, over which the child at that moment leaned and gazed in his inquisitiveness. As they dropped they were wafted to the bottom of the grave. The last look was bestowed on the dead girl's face by those who loved her so well in life, and then she was softly laid away to that repose which, after life's fitful fever, comes so sweetly.13

Yet in the churchyard on the hill is Dumb Kate's grave. There stands a little white stone at the head, and the grass14 grows richly there; and gossips, sometimes of a Sabbath afternoon, rambling over that gathering place of the gone from earth, stop awhile and con over the poor girl's hapless story.15


1. Whitman published a revised version of this story with the same title in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on July 13, 1846, while he was editing that paper. He shortened the title to simply "Dumb Kate" when he republished it later as part of the "Pieces in Early Youth" section of Specimen Days & Collect (Philadelphia: Rees Welsh & Co., 1882), 370–371. "Pieces in Early Youth" was also reprinted in Whitman's Complete Prose Works (1892): see "Dumb Kate." For a complete list of revisions to the language of the story made or authorized by Whitman for publication in Specimen Days & Collect, see Thomas L. Brasher, ed., The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman: The Early Poems and the Fiction (New York: New York University Press, 1963), 251–253. For the publication history of the story, see "About 'Dumb Kate.—An Early Death.'" [back]

2. A tavern is a place of business where customers can purchase alcoholic beverages, as well as food. It was sometimes possible for travelers to obtain lodging at these establishments. Taverns, barrooms, and similar drinking establishments feature prominently in Whitman's temperance novel Franklin Evans; or, the Inebriate. A Tale of the Times and in his short stories, including "The Child's Champion," "The Reformed," "Wild Frank's Return," "The Madman," and "The Love of the Four Students." [back]

3. Although considered outdated and offensive today, at the time of Whitman's writing, the term "dumb" was used to describe a person who could not speak. Kate can neither hear nor speak. [back]

4. Whitman revised this to read "Her light hair" in Collect. [back]

5. Whitman omitted this paragraph in Collect. [back]

6. These two sentences were omitted in both the Eagle and Collect. [back]

7. In the Eagle, this reads "the son of a large farmer;" in Collect, it becomes "the son of a wealthy farmer." [back]

8. In Collect, this sentence reads: "Though not of thoroughly wicked propensities, the fascination of so fine a prize made this youth determine to gain her love, and, if possible, to win her to himself." [back]

9. The previous two paragraphs were omitted in Collect. [back]

10. In Collect, this sentence reads: "The villain came to New York soon after, and engaged in a business which prosper'd well, and which has no doubt by this time made him what is call'd a man of fortune." [back]

11. A bier is a frame that is used to carry a coffin to the grave. [back]

12. A sexton is the officer responsible for digging graves and maintaining burial grounds. [back]

13. In Collect, this clause reads: "and then she was softly laid away to her sleep beneath that green grass covering." [back]

14. In Collect, "the grass" is replaced by "verdure." [back]

15. In the Eagle, this final phrase is "the poor girl's hapless fate"; in Collect, it is changed to "the dumb girl's hapless story." [back]

Back to top