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Richard Parker's Widow



WHEN I was in London some years since, I, with another person, went one morning to the police office, with several of the higher functionaries with whom my companion was acquainted. After seeing some of the peculiar sights and scenes that are to be met with at such a place only, we were invited to sit a while in a sort of half-private, half-public parlour, attached to the establishment. When we entered, one of the magistrates was talking to an aged, shabbily-dressed lady, (for lady she was, by a title superior to dress,) who seemed to be applying for parish assistance, or making enquiries of him about the necessary steps to be taken for procuring it. My companion, the moment he saw her, directed my attention to her by a peculiar movement of the head.

"Look closely at her," said he, in a whisper, "that woman's life has been indirectly involved with the welfare of nations. When we are alone, I will tell you more about her."

The female might at one time have been handsome; but now, years and sorrow had graven deeply on her features and form the evidences of decay. Her eyes had that piercing look which belongs to people whose sight is nearly gone. Her garments were clean, though old, and very faded.

I was interested in the appearance of this female—though I could hardly divine what or who she had been—and when we left the place, I reminded my friend of his promise.

"That woman," said he, "is the widow2 of a man whose name, forty years ago, rang for many weeks like a death-knell through ENGLAND, and shook with terror the foundation of the throne itself! Her husband was RICHARD PARKER, the Admiral Mutineer, who headed the sailor's rebellion at the NORE."

He then went on to give me the particulars of this celebrated mutiny, which I had read in my own country when a boy, but which had nearly escaped my memory. As the reader may also have forgotten—or may never have heard it—and as the history of the singular affair is full of interest—I will recapitulate it here. I am of course indebted to English authorities for most of the facts that follow.3

In the early part of MAY, 1797, the British seamen in the vessels about the NORE, (a point of land so called, dividing the mouths of the THAMES and MEDWAY,) indignant at many oppressive restrictions, and at non-payment of their wages, broke out into an organized meeting. They deprived the officers of all command of the ships, though they otherwise treated them with every respect. Each vessel was put under the government of a committee of twelve men; and a board of delegates was appointed to represent the whole body of sailors, each man-of-war sending two delegates, and each gun-boat one. Of these delegates RICHARD PARKER was chosen president. This man was of good family, and had been engaged in SCOTLAND in mercantile business, which proving unsuccessful, he one day in a fit of despondency left his family, took the bounty, and became a common sailor. He was gentlemanly in his manners, well educated, and the bravest of the brave.


The force of the mutineers, which, toward the latter part of MAY, consisted of twenty-four sail, soon proceeded to block up the THAMES—sternly refusing a passage to vessels up or down. In a day or two there was of course an immense number of ships, and water craft of all descriptions, under detention. The appearance of the whole fleet is described by contemporaneous accounts as appalling and grand. The red flag floated from the mast-head of every one of the mutineers.

It may well be imagined that the alarm of the citizens of LONDON was extreme. The government, however, though unable to quell PARKER and his fellow sailors by force, remained firm in their demand of unconditional surrender as a necessary preliminary to any intercourse. This, perhaps, was the wisest line of conduct they could have assumed. The seamen never seemed to think of taking an offensive attitude. Being thus left in quiet to meditate on their position of hostility to a whole country, they shortly began to grow timorous—and the more so, as the government had caused all the buoys to be removed from the mouth of the THAMES and the adjacent coasts, so that no vessel dare attempt to move away, for fear of running aground. The mutineers held together, nevertheless, till the 30th of MAY, when the Clyde frigate was carried off through a combination of its officers with some of the seamen; and this desertion was followed by the ST. FIORENZO. Both were fired upon by the mutineers, but no great damage was done.

From the 1st to the 10th of JUNE, all was disquiet on board the fleet. Several more desertions happened during that period. On the 10th, the whole body of the detained merchantmen were allowed, by common consent, to proceed up the river. Such a multitude of ships certainly never entered a port before at one tide. On the 12th, only seven ships held out—and by the 16th, the mutiny had terminated. A party of soldiers then went on board the SANDWICH, and to them were surrendered the delegates of that ship, RICHARD PARKER, and a man named DAVIES.

PARKER, to whom the title of Admiral was given by the sailors and the public during the whole of this affair, occupied from the beginning the principal attention of the government. He was now brought summarily to trial before a naval court martial, on the 22d of JUNE—having been thrown, for the intermediate time, in the black hole of SHEERNESS garrison. In his defence, which he conducted himself, he read an elegantly written and powerful paper, setting forth that the situation he had held, had been in a measure forced upon him—that he had consented to occupy it chiefly for the purpose of preventing any bloody or cruel measures—that he had restrained the men from excesses—and that, had he been disloyal, he might have taken the ship to sea, or to an enemy's port.

But nothing could save PARKER. He was sentenced to death. When his doom was pronounced, he immediately stood up, and with a firm voice made the following short but most beautiful response: "I shall submit to your sentence with all due respect, being confident of the innocence of my intentions, and that GOD will receive me into favor: and I sincerely hope that my death will be the means of restoring tranquillity to the navy, and that those men who have been implicated in  per_nhg.00133_large.jpg the business may be reinstated in their former situations, and again be serviceable to their country."

On the morning of the 30th JUNE, the whole fleet was ranged a little below SHEERNESS, in full sight of the SANDWICH, on board of which RICHARD PARKER was that day to suffer an ignominious death. The yellow flag, the signal of death, was hoisted—and the crew of every ship was piped to the forecastle. PARKER was aroused from a sound sleep that morning, and attired himself with neatness, in a suit of deep mourning. He mentioned to his attendants that he had made a will, leaving his wife heir to some property belonging to him. On coming upon deck, he was hale, but perfectly composed, and drank a glass of water4 "to the salvation of his soul, and the forgiveness of all his enemies." He said nothing to his mates on the forecastle but "Good bye to you!" and expressed a hope that his death would be considered a sufficient atonement, and would save the lives of others. He was then strung up at the yard arm, and in a few moments dangled lifeless there.

Mrs. PARKER was in SCOTLAND, among her connexions, and when the rumour came to her ears that the NORE fleet had mutinied, and that the leader was one RICHARD PARKER, she immediately started for London—and on her arrival heard that her husband had been tried, but the result was unknown. Being able to think of nothing better than petitioning the king, she gave a person a guinea to draw up a paper, praying that PARKER'S life might be spared. She attempted to make her way with this to His Majesty's presence—but was finally obliged to hand it to a Lord in waiting, who gave her the cruel intelligence that applications for mercy in all cases would be attended to, except those for RICHARD PARKER. The distracted woman then took coach for ROCHESTER on the 29th, where she got on board a king's ship, and learned that her husband was to be executed on the following day. Who can imagine her unspeakable wretchedness, as she sat up the whole of that long night of agony! At four o'clock the next morning, she went to the river side to hire a boat to take her to the SANDWICH, that she might at least bid her poor husband farewell. Her feelings had been deeply tortured by hearing every person she met talking of that occurrence which was the subject of her distress; and now the first waterman to whom she spoke, answered, "No, I cannot take one passenger; the brave Admiral PARKER is to be hung to-day, and I will get any sum I choose to ask for a party!"

After a long trial, the wretched wife was glad to get on board a SHEERNESS market-boat—but no boat was allowed to come alongside the SANDWICH. In her desperation, she called on PARKER by name, and prevailed on the boat people, by the mere spectacle of her suffering, to attempt to go nearer, when they were stopped by a sentinel threatening to fire at them. As the hour drew nigh, she saw her husband appear on deck between two clergymen. She called on him again, and he heard her voice, for he exclaimed, "There is my dear wife, from SCOTLAND!"

The excitement of this was too great, and the miserable wife fell back in a state of insensibility—from which she was fortunate enough not to recover until the scene of death was finished, and she had been taken ashore. She seemed to think, however, that she was yet in time;  per_nhg.00134_large.jpg she hired another boat, and a second time reached the SANDWICH. Her delirious shriek, "Pass the word for RICHARD PARKER!" rang through the decks, and must have startled all on board. The truth was now made clear to her, and she was further informed that the body had just been taken on shore for burial. She immedittely caused herself to be rowed back again, and proceeded to the churchyard; but found the ceremony over and the gate locked!

The key, which she sought from the proper source, was refused her; and she was excited almost to madness at learning that the surgeon would probably disinter the body that night for anatomical purposes. She was now in a situation of mind wherein all the ordinary timidity and softness of her sex left her. She waited cautiously around the churchyard 'til dusk—then, clambering over the wall, she readily found her husband's new-made grave. The shell was not buried deep, and she worked in such a manner that the earth was soon scraped away, and the coffin lid removed. She clasped the cold neck, and kissed the clammy lips of the object of her search!

The necessity of prompt measures to possess the body, aroused this extraordinary woman from the enjoyment of her melancholy pleasure. She left the churchyard, and communicated her situation to two women, who in their turn got several men to undertake the task of lifting the body. This was accomplished successfully, and the coffin was carried to ROCHESTER, and thence to LONDON. The widow stopped with her sad burthen at a tavern on TOWER HILL. By express at the same hour, or before it, information had been brought to the capital of the exhumation of the body; and the secret of its locality could not now be kept. A great crowd assembled around the house, anxious to see the dead man's face, which Mrs. PARKER would not permit. She had the corpse in her own room, and was sitting disconsolately beside it, hardly knowing what course to pursue, and fearing it would be taken from her by the authorities, when the Lord Mayor arrived to see her. He came to ask what she intended doing with the remains of her husband: she answered, "to inter them decently at EXETER, or in SCOTLAND." The Lord Mayor said the body should not be taken from her; but he prevailed upon her to have it buried in LONDON. Arrangements were accordingly made for that purpose, and finally the corpse of the hapless sailor was inhumed in Whitechapel churchyard. After the closing ceremony, Mrs. PARKER gave a certificate that the burial had been conducted to her satisfaction. But, though strictly questioned as to who had aided her in the disinterment, she firmly refused to disclose their names.

For many years afterward, this faithful wife lived on the income she derived from the little property left her by her husband's will. But ultimately her rights were some how or other decided against by a judicial tribunal, and she was thrown into great poverty in LONDON, where she lived. She was in the habit of receiving assistance, however, from the highest quarters. WILLIAM IV. gave her at one time £20, and at another £10. On the occasion when I saw her in 1836, she was nearly blind, and, as I intimated in the beginning, was making application for some public aid. I was gratified to learn afterward that she received it. Whether she be yet living, I am not able to say.


1. This short story is unique among Whitman's fiction in that it is based almost entirely on actual historical events. Richard Parker (1767–1797) was a British sailor in the Royal Navy, assigned to the ship HMS Sandwich. Parker sympathized with the sailors on the ship, who worked in squalid and overcrowded conditions. In May 1797, the Nore mutiny broke out. Although Parker had no role in organizing the mutiny, the sailors in rebellion elected him President of the Council of Delegates, and he took on a symbolic role as the head of the mutiny. Following the end of the mutiny, Parker was arrested and was hanged for treason on June 30, 1797. For more on the Nore mutiny, see J. Neale, Narrative of the Mutiny at Nore (London: William Tegg, 1861). See also "Account of the Late Mutiny on Board of the Fleet at the Nore; and of the Trial of Richard Parker," The Monthly Magazine 8.3 (June 1797): 490–492. For more information on Whitman's use of these events in his story, see "About 'Richard Parker's Widow.'" [back]

2. Parker's widow was Anne McHardy Parker (1770–1840s). She was the daughter of a Scottish farmer, and she had married Richard in 1791. [back]

3. This is likely a reference to the source Whitman used in writing this story, namely Camden Pelham's Chronicles of Crime; or, The New Newgate Calendar (1841). For more on Parker and on Whitman's source, see Patrick McGuire, "Richard Parker's Widow (1845)," in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J. R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1998), 590. See also Thomas Ollive Mabbott, ed., The Half-Breed and Other Stories (New York: Columbia University Press, 1927). [back]

4. Thomas L. Brasher, in his edition of The Early Poems and the Fiction (New York: New York University Press, 1963), notes that Whitman follows Pelham in the story of Richard Parker even where Pelham varies from other accounts. Brasher goes on to say, however, that "in the matter of Parker drinking a watery toast, Mabbott (p. 122) remarks that Pelham (and sundry sources) state that Parker drank a glass of white wine as his final toast" (298 n4). Here, Whitman seems to be subtly sticking to a temperance theme, as he does more overtly elsewhere in his fiction. [back]

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