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Title: [On stepping into the ground]

Creator: Walt Whitman [unsigned in original]

Date: April 1, 1842

Whitman Archive ID: per.00578

Source: New York Aurora 1 April 1842: [2]. Our transcription is based on a digital image of an original issue. Original issue held at the Paterson Free Public Library, Paterson, NJ. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the journalism, see our statement of editorial policy.

Contributors to digital file: Emily Hensley, Jason Stacy, Noah Hayes, and Kevin McMullen




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"On stepping into the ground at the corner of Chrystie and Delancey streets, we found a woman armed with a pistol, guarding the grave of her husband and children."

The above paragraph we cut from a report of the proceedings at Chrystie street grave yard day before yesterday.1 It may possibly not be known to all our readers that in the eastern section of the city great excitement has been raging among the people, because a chartered company have taken steps to break up the ground of a large grave yard there, for purposes of building upon the locality it occupies. Among the numbers who "turned out" on the occasion, appears to have been the woman mentioned in the lines which head this article.2

A mysterious thing is woman's love! Here comes a widow, her husband dead, perhaps, for years and years—and at the most distant rumor of insult offered to his shapeless and decayed ashes, the old tenderness and the old sympathies are roused again! Pale with excitement, she arms herself with deadly weapons, and stands over his grave, and the graves of her children, angry, like a tigress at bay. Law, the customs of men, the limit that conventional forms have marked—all are disregarded. No thought enters her mind, but the engrossing fear that her dear ones are threatened with insult, and that it is her duty to protect them.

And who, viewing this, can say that there are not glorious and beautiful dispositions in the human heart? No prospect of making money—no gross ideas of winning or losing lucre—called this gathering together. Their bond of union was made sacred through the memory of past love—the love of friends and relatives, dead and laid away to their long sleep.

We can sympathise with these people. We were thrilled at reading the anecdote given above. For there is in every man's breast a sentiment which leads him to regard with horror any desecration of the dark and ghostly grave. Even the savages are not devoid of this feeling.3

Coarse indeed must be the character, and callous the soul, that would touch sorely upon these hallowed sympathies.


Notes:

1. The graveyard mentioned is Bethel Graveyard and Burial Vaults, which was in use between 1812 and 1842. The graveyard was controlled by the Bethel Baptist Church until the church's dissolution in 1840 resulting in the property being taken over by the Second Congregational Church. See Carolee Inskeep, The Graveyard Shift: A Family Historian's Guide to New York City Cemeteries (New York: Ancestry Publishing, 2000), 18. [back]

2. The numbers who "turned out" refers to a large group of women who showed up at a Baptist cemetery, likely Bethel Cemetery, to block workmen from beginning construction on the site. In an editorial in the Aurora four days later, Whitman notes that the workmen, "a set of miserable wretches," succeeded in "desecrating the very grave in order to add something to their ill won heaps of gold." See "[We proceed this morning to]," April 5, 1842. [back]

3. According to Karen Halttunen, for "the middle classes of mid-nineteenth-century America, mourning the dead was the most powerful sentiment of all and the most resistant to public expression through empty social forms." See Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830–1870 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), 151. [back]


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