Skip to main content

Some Fact-Romances



AS far as the essential parts of the following little incidents are concerned, the reader has the pledged personal veracity of the writer—must it be said, not only as a writer, but as a man?—that they literally came to pass, as now told. They may not be considered so romantic as if they had merely an imaginary existence—for though fact is indeed stronger than fable, it is hardly ever realized to be so. Even while we are thrilled most deeply by the sight or hearing of a real death under affecting circumstances, we do not look upon it as equally sentimental with a death described in a novel, or seen upon the stage.

Still, truth has a great charm—and I would try it against romance, even on romance's chosen ground of love and death. Therefore have I rummaged over the garners of my observation and memory for the following anecdotes—and therefore I present them, with a determination to go not a bit beyond the limits of fact. POPE's lady friend2 was charmed with PLUTARCH,3 until she found that he was an authentic biographer—so called—and then she threw his works away. I have more confidence in the judgment of intelligent American women, and men too, than to think they can act after such a fashion.

I.4 On the Huntington south shore of LONG ISLAND, there is a creek, near the road called "GUNNETANG,"5 and the mouth of this creek, emptying into the bay, is reported to be so deep that no lines have ever yet sounded its bottom. It sometimes goes by the name of "Drowning Creek," which was given to it by a circumstance which I will relate. It is a universal summer custom on LONG ISLAND to have what are called "beach-parties;" that is, collections of people, young and old, each bringing a lot of provisions and drink, and who sail over early in the morning to the beach, which breaks off the Atlantic waves from the island's "sea-girt shore," and spend the day there. Many years ago, such a party went over from GUNNETANG. The leader of the rest, and owner of the boat, was a young farmer of the neighborhood, a fellow full of life and fun, who, with many others, had his sweetheart and his sister on board. The day was fine, and they enjoyed the jaunt gloriously. They bathed in the surf, danced, told stories, ate and drank, amused themselves with music, plays, games, and so on, and ranged over the beach in search of the eggs of the sea-gull, who lays in no nest but the warm sand, exposed to the sun, which makes a first rate natural eccaliobeon6 . (I have sometimes gathered a hundred of these eggs on the sandbanks there in an hour; they are palatable, and half the size of hen's eggs.)7

Towards the latter part of the afternoon, the party set out on their return, and made the greater haste, as a thunder-shower seemed to be gathering overhead. They had crossed the bay, and were just entering the mouth of the creek I have mentioned, when the storm burst, and a sudden flaw of wind capsized the boat. Most Long Islanders are good swimmers, and as the stream was but a few yards wide, the men supported the women and children to the banks. The young man, the owner of the boat, grasped his sister with one arm,  per_nhg.00125_large.jpg and struck out for the shore with the other. When he was within a rod of it, he heard a slight exclamation from the upturned boat, and turning his head, he saw the girl he loved slip into the water. Yielding to a sudden impulse, he shook off his sister, swam back, dived, and clutching the sinking one by her hair and dress, brought her safely to the shore. He then again swam back for his sister, and for many long and dreadful minutes beat the dark waters, and dived—but beat and dived in vain. The girl drowned, and her body was never more seen.

From that time forth the young man's character was entirely changed. He laughed no more, and no more engaged in the country jollities. He married his sweetheart, but it was a cold and unfriendly union. About a year from this, he began to pine and droop strangely. He had no disease—at least none that is treated of in medical works—but his heart withered away, as it were. In dreams, the chill of his sister's dripping hair was against his cheek, and he would awake with a cry of pain. Moping and sinking thus, he gradually grew weaker and weaker, and at last died. The story is yet told among the people thereabouts; and often, when sailing out of the creek, have I looked on the spot where the poor girl sank, and the shore where the rescued one escaped.

II.8 Not long since, an aged black widow-woman occupied a basement—perhaps she still lives there—in one of the streets leading down from BROADWAY to the North river.9 She had employment from a number of families, who hired her at intervals to cook, nurse, and wash for them; and in this way she gained a very decent living. If I remember right, the old creature had no child, or any near relative; but was quite alone in the world, and lived when at home in the most solitary manner. Always she had her room and humble furniture as clean as a new glove, and was remarkable every where for her agreeable ways, and good humor—and all this at an age closely bordering on seventy. Opposite to the residence of this ancient female, was a row of stables for horses and public vehicles, doctors' gigs, and such like.10 At any hour of the day and evening, groups of hostlers11 and stable-boys were working or lounging about there—and the ears of the passer-by could hardly fail often to hear coarse oaths and indecent ribaldry. The old black woman, smoking her pipe of an evening at her door over the way, suffered considerable annoyance from this swearing and obscenity. She was a pious woman, not merely in profession but practice.12 For several weeks, at intervals, she had noticed a barefooted young girl, of twelve or thirteen years, strolling about, and frequently stopping at the stables. This girl was a deaf mute, the daughter of a wretched intemperate couple in the neighborhood, who were letting her grow up as the weeds grow.—With no care and guidance for her young steps, she had before her the darkest and dreariest of prospects. What, under such circumstances, could be expected of her future years but degradation, misery and crime? The old woman13 had many anxious thoughts about the little girl, and shuddered at the fate which seemed prepared for her. She at last resolved to make an effort in behalf of the hapless one. She had heard of the noble institutions provided for the deaf  per_nhg.00126_large.jpg and dumb, and how the sealed avenues of the senses are almost opened to them again there.14 Upon making inquiry, she found that in the case of her young neighbor, the payment of a certain sum of money—two hundred dollars, I think it was—would be necessary, preparatory to her admission into a certain NEW-YORK institution. Whether any payment was required after this, I have forgotten, but the sum in advance was indispensable. The old woman had got quite well acquainted with the child, and discovered in her that quickness and acuteness for which her unfortunate kind are remarkable. She determined to save her—to turn her path aside from darkness to light. Day after day, then, and night after night, whenever her work would permit, went forth the old woman, with letters and papers, to beg subscriptions from the charitable, for that most holy object. Among the families where she was known, she always succeeded in getting something—sometimes half a dollar, sometimes two, and sometimes five and even ten dollars. But where she was a stranger, she rarely received any answer to her request, except a rude denial, or a contemptuous sneer. Most of them suspected her story to be a fabrication—although she had provided herself with incontestible proofs of its truth, which she always carried with her. For a long time,15 it seemed a hopeless effort, and yet she persevered—contributing from her own scanty means every cent that she could spare. Need I say that heaven blessed this poor creature's work—that she succeeded in getting the requisite sum, and that the girl was soon afterwards an inmate of the Asylum.16 Whether the aged widow still lives in her basement, and what has happened since in the life of the girl, I know not. But surely a purer or more elevated deed of disinterested love and kindness never was performed! In all that I have ever heard or read, I do not know a better refutation of those scowling dogmatists who resolve the cause of all the actions of mankind into a gross motive of pleasing the abstract self.

III. I became acquainted some seasons since with a gentleman who had emigrated from FRANCE, and then lived in a pleasant country town, about twenty miles from this metropolis. He was a mild, but somewhat eccentric person; and on the farm which he owned—for he possessed considerable wealth—everything was permitted to go to rack. Cattle strayed away, fences fell, hay was unmowed; and if the owner had not drawn a handsome income from funds in the city, everybody in his house might have starved to death. The people round about thought him deranged, which perhaps was sometimes not far from the truth. But he never offended or harmed anybody, and was therefore permitted to go his own way, without any one's interference. He had three children, all of them grown and away from home. The sons were employed in some mercantile establishment in NEW-YORK, in which city the daughter, who was married, also lived. The wife of the emigrant was a gentle-mannered and most lady-like woman, of a delicate appearance, and always looked to me like one in a hopeless consumption. The neighbors said she was never seen to smile. One day the gentleman set out for NEW-YORK, with the intention of procuring medical advice for his wife, who accompanied him. After arriving there, and consulting several physicians, he took  per_nhg.00127_large.jpg a sudden notion, the second day afterwards, to return to his farm, and carry his wife with him. The physicians pronounced the lady's removal highly improper; but he made his preparations in half an hour, and without the knowledge of his children, started away. The wife, so weak that she could not sit upright, was carried in a kind of covered wagon, on a bed. They crossed the BROOKLYN ferry, and when out near BEDFORD, the gentleman gave the reins of the horses to a hired man who accompanied him, and declared his intention of going forward on foot. He did so. The hired man drove on a couple of miles, and then stopped a while, jumped on the ground, and lifted the covering of the wagon to see how the sick woman was getting on. She was a lifeless corpse! The man stood for a minute motionless with horror. He then drove the wagon aside from the middle of the road, unhitched both the horses, tied one to a tree, jumped on the back of the other, and rode rapidly forward to overtake the husband. Three hot weary miles ahead he came up to him. He told his story, and the other listened, but made no answer. The hired man impressed upon him the necessity of returning immediately, but he declined, and rushed wildly forward on the turnpike toward the town where he lived. Arrived there, he passed directly by his own door, without stopping, and went down to a swampy wood of considerable extent, that lies a couple of miles beyond the village. In that wood, he wandered about for three days and nights, and when found at the end of that time, all pale, ragged, weak and bloody, was a confirmed maniac. They sent him off to one of the Insane Retreats, where, if alive, he no doubt remains at this moment.

The hired man, when he came back to the corpse, carried it to the nearest house, and then returned to NEW-YORK, and gave information to the sons, who, of course, took measures to have the due ceremonies of burial immediately performed.

IV.17 SAUNDERS, that unhappy boy, now in the State's Prison for his forgeries on his employers, AUSTIN & WILMERDING, once boarded in the same house with me. Soon after his arrest, I visited the Centre-street "Tombs," and went into his cell to see him. He gave me a long account of the commission of the crime, and of his doings down to the time of his capture at BOSTON. It was all a disgusting story of villany and conceit. He was a flippant boy, whose head, I think, was turned by melo-dramas and the JACK SHEPPARD18 order of novels—all but one little item. When he had received the money, and every moment was worth diamonds to him—he intended to sail in the Great Western, it will be remembered—he spent an hour in going up to a pawnbroker's shop in the BOWERY, to get a little piece of jewellery he had in pledge there—a keepsake from his dead mother. He told me in his cell that he would have given a thousand dollars for another half hour, yet he could not go away without that locket. That half hour cost him the doom he afterwards had meted out to him.

V.19 When my mother was a girl, the house where she and her parents lived was in a gloomy wood, out of the way from any village or thick settlement. One morning in AUGUST, my grandfather had some business a number of miles from home, and putting a saddle on his favorite horse DANDY—a creature he loved next to his wife and children  per_nhg.00128_large.jpg—he rode away to attend to it. When nightfall came, and my grandfather did not return, my grandmother began to feel a little uneasy. As the night advanced, she and her daughter sitting up impatient for the return of the absent husband and father, a terrible storm gathered, in the middle of which their ears joyed to hear the well-known clatter of DANDY's hoofs. My grandmother sprung to the door, but upon opening it, she almost fainted in my mother's arms. For there stood DANDY, saddled and bridled, but no signs of my grandfather. My mother stepped out, and found that the bridle was broken, and the saddle soaked with rain and covered with mud. Sick at heart, they returned into the house. It was now after midnight, and the storm had quite passed over. Then in the stillness of their dreary watching, they heard something in the next room—the "spare-room"—which redoubled their terror. They heard the slow heavy footfall of a man walking. Tramp! tramp! tramp! it went—three times solemnly and deliberately, and then all was hushed again. By any, who, in the middle of the night, have had the chill of a vague unknown horror creep into their very souls, it can well be imagined how they passed the time now. My mother sprang to the door and turned the key, and spoke what words of cheer she could force through her lips to the ears of her terrified parent.

The dark hours crept slowly on, and at last a little tinge of daylight was seen through the eastern windows. Almost simultaneously with it, a bluff voice was heard some distance off, and the plash of a horse galloping along the soft wet road. That bluff halloo came to the pallid and exhausted females, like a cheer from a passing ship to starving mariners on a wreck at sea. My grandmother opened the door this time to behold the red laughing face of her husband, and to hear him tell how, after the storm was over, and he went to look for DANDY, whom he had fastened under a shed, he discovered that the skittish creature had broken his bridle, and run away home—and how he could not get another horse for love or money at that hour of the night—and how he was fain forced to stop until nearly daylight. Then told my grandmother her story—her terror and her fears, and how she had heard heavy footfalls in the parlor—whereat my grandfather laughed, and walked to the door between the rooms, and unlocked it, and saw nothing but darkness, for the shutters were closed. My mother and grandmother followed timidly, though they now began to fear the discovery of some comical reason for their alarm. My grandfather threw open the shutters; and then they all swept their sight round the room—after which such a guffaw of laughter came from the husband's capacious mouth, that DANDY, away up in the barn-yard, sent back an answering neigh, in recognition.

Three or four days previously, my mother had broken off from a peach tree in the garden, a branch uncommonly full of fruit, of a remarkable size and beauty. She brought it in, and placed it amid the flowers and other simple ornaments, on the high shelf over the parlor fire-place. The night before, while the mother and daughter were watching, three of the peaches, over-ripe, had dropped, one after another, on the floor, and my mother's and grandmother's terrified imaginations had converted the harmless fruit into human heels! There,  per_nhg.00129_large.jpg then, was the mystery, and there lay the beautiful peaches—which my grandfather laughed at so convulsively, that my provoked grandame, after laughing a while too, picked them up, and half jokingly, half seriously, thrust them so far into the open jaws of her husband, that he was nigh to have been choked in good earnest.


1. This is the only one of Whitman's works of short fiction that includes five short tales under a single title. This is also the first and only known time that all five pieces of "Some Fact-Romances" are printed together. Whitman reprinted three of the five parts of "Some-Fact Romances" as stand-alone tales with new titles in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, while he was the editor of that paper. Some of the revisions to the language of the stories for publication in the Eagle are listed in our footnotes below. For a complete list of revisions to the language of the stories made or authorized by Whitman for publication in the Eagle, see Thomas L. Brasher, ed., The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman: The Early Poems and the Fiction (New York: New York University Press, 1963), 319–326. Hereafter, EPF. For the publication history of each of the five Fact-Romances, see "About 'Some Fact-Romances.'" [back]

2. Alexander Pope (1688–1744) was an eighteenth-century English poet; he published The Rape of the Lock, his most famous poem, in 1712. He did not marry, but he corresponded with a number of female friends, including Martha Blount, who may have been his lover. [back]

3. Plutarch (c. AD 46–c. AD 127) was a Greek historian and biographer. He wrote Parallel Lives and Moralia. [back]

4. Whitman reprinted this story in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on December 16, 1846, while he was editor of that paper, under the title "A Fact-Romance of Long Island." For a complete list of revisions, see Brasher, EPF, 319–321. [back]

5. In the Eagle, Whitman corrected this to "Gunnetaug." [back]

6. Whitman may be referring to an "ecaliobeon" or an incubator, an artificial means of keeping eggs warm so that they will hatch. He is suggesting that the sun-warmed sand serves as a natural incubator for the eggs, keeping them warm even when the mother gull is absent from the nest. [back]

7. In the Eagle, the last several sentences read: "Many years ago such a party went over from Gunnetaug. They formed a cheerful and healthy set, full of animal spirits. They bathed in the surf—danced—told stories—ate and drank—amused themselves with music, plays, games, and so on—and ranged upon the beach in search of the eggs of the sea-gull, who lays them in no nest except the warm sand, exposed to the sun, which makes a first rate natural Eccallobeon. (I have sometimes gathered a hundred of these eggs, on similar excursions, in an hour: they are palatable and about half the size of hen's eggs.)" [back]

8. Whitman reprinted this story in the Eagle on November 12, 1846, under the title "The Old Black Widow." After the title, he added the following: "(A narrative the truth of whose essentials is vouched for by the Editor of this print.)" For a complete list of revisions, see Brasher, EPF, 321–323. [back]

9. In the Eagle, this sentence reads as follows: "Some years ago, (and not many, either) an aged black woman, a widow, occupied a basement in one of the streets leading down to the North river, in New York city." [back]

10. In the Eagle, these two sentences read: "She always had her room and humble furniture as clean as a new glove, and was remarkable every where for her neatness, agreeable ways, and good humor—and all this at an age closely bordering on seventy. Opposite to where this ancient female lived, was a row of stables for horses, cabs, private vehicles on livery, and such like." [back]

11. Hostlers take care of horses for people staying at an inn. [back]

12. In the Eagle, Whitman continues this sentence: "She was a pious woman, not merely in profession but practice, and faithfully tried to worship God, and walk in the paths of duty." [back]

13. In the Eagle, this reads "The old black widow." [back]

14. A number of institutions devoted to the education of deaf and dumb children developed in the nineteenth century. Skills taught at these residential schools included oral speech, sign language, and trades like bookbinding and needlework. [back]

15. This clause is deleted in the Eagle version. [back]

16. In the Eagle, Whitman revised this to "this poor creature's sacred work." "Asylum" was a word used in the nineteenth-century to refer to a range of institutions devoted to the treatment of people with mental illnesses or physical disabilities. In this case, the word describes one of several nineteenth-century schools for the deaf and dumb. A notable early example was the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb persons, founded in 1817, and later named The American School for the Deaf. [back]

17. Brasher notes that Thomas Ollive Mabbott wrote the following in his edition of Whitman's fiction titled The Half-Breed and Other Stories (New York: Columbia University Press, 1927): "The New York Directory for 1842 lists a Frederick Sanders or Saunders, as a clerk living at 145 Barrow Street, who is perhaps the man. Austen, Wilmerding and Co., auctioneers, were located at 30 Exchange Street, corner of William." Brasher also cites Joseph Jay Rubin, "Whitman and the Boy-Forger," American Literature 10 (May 1938), 214–216, which discusses "Henry Saunders as having passed, in 1843, forged checks to ten New York banks for a total of $30,000" (324 n33). [back]

18. Jack Sheppard was a popular nineteenth-century novel by William Ainsworth. The novel told the story of the real eighteenth-century criminal Jack Sheppard, and was published in serial installments in Bentley's Miscellany from 1839 to 1840. Brasher notes that "a few months after the publication of the 'Fact-Romances' in The Aristidean, Whitman favorably reviewed Ainsworth's The Tower of London in the Eagle (May 19, 1846), finding it full of incident and interest" (324 n34). [back]

19. Whitman reprinted this story in the Eagle on December 24, 1846, under the title "An Incident On Long Island Forty Years Ago." There are a number of revisions throughout: for a complete list, see Brasher, EPF, 325–326. Brasher notes that "The sketch, so charming and so personal in contrast with the conventional morbidity of the rest of the 'Romances,' is very probably an actual reminiscence of Whitman's mother, and the house 'in a gloomy wood' is very probably the Van Velsor homestead at Cold Spring, Long Island" (324 n35). Whitman describes the homestead in "The Maternal Homestead" in Specimen Days & Collect (Philadelphia: Rees Welsh & Co., 1882), which was also reprinted in Whitman's Complete Prose Works (1892): see "The Maternal Homestead." For further discussion of the intersections between the characters in this story and Whitman's maternal grandparents, see Vivian R. Pollak, The Erotic Whitman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 4–6. [back]

Back to top