About Whitman Days, Opium Nights is a historical novel and a whodunit. Set in 1857 as the Civil War looms, Aaron Renfrew is a debauched young department store window-dresser, erstwhile poet, and fledgling reporter for William Cullen Bryant’s New York Evening Post. After meeting Walt Whitman, Aaron learns that not only is someone murdering gay men in Brooklyn, but Walt’s being blackmailed, his future as “America’s Poet” in jeopardy. In tracking down Walt’s blackmailer, Aaron—faced with a personal crisis involving his pregnant fiancée who mysteriously vanishes—is an eyewitness as rival city police departments clash, while the Dead Rabbits and the Bowery Boys stage a bloody riot. In the story are the real-life Boss Tweed, Mayor Fernando Wood, the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Law Olmstead, abortionist Madame Restell, and Adah Isaacs Menken (“Naked Lady of Broadway”). Subplots involve the duplicity of Aaron’s best friend Sebastian and a usurious loan scheme by Tammany Hall against Aaron’s department-store owner father. The teeming, violent New York metropolis of the day is a major player.
The novel begins and ends on the Civil War battlefield of Antietam, and, except for the first and final chapters, the narrative is in the form of Aaron’s journal. The concluding chapter takes the story full circle.
Dramatis Personae Adams, Detective Aubrey. Chief investigator for the Metropolitan Police
Beecher, The Reverend Henry Ward. Self-styled moral authority
Bryant, William Cullen. Poet-publisher, New YorkEvening Post
Draper, Commissioner Simeon. President of the Metropolitan Police Commission
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Transcendentalist essayist and poet.
Hall, A. Oakey. Gadfly District Attorney of New York City
Heenan, John C. Punch-drunk professional boxer, Adah Menken’s husband
Howe, William F. Partner in Howe and Hummel, Renfrew family lawyer
Maycock, Gordon. Proprietor of a gay bar on Dey Street.
Matsell, George. Fernando Wood’s Municipal Police Superintendent
Mauriceau, Dr. A.M. (Charles Lohman). Madam Restell’s husband
McCleester, Jack. Municipal police court judge.
McCormack, Aidan. Ferry hand and friend of Walt’s
Meagher, General Tom. Commander of the Irish Brigade
Menken, Adah Isaacs (Naked Lady of Broadway). Actress, former prostitute
Mock Ken. Deadly opium den owner and member of the Chinese tong
O’Malley, Holden. Dead Rabbits gang leader
Olmstead, Frederick Law. Designer of Central Park
Pfaff, Charles Ignatius. Owner of Pfaff’s Cellar, Bohemian hangout
Prudhoff, Nelson. Metropolitan Police Sergeant, Aaron’s straight-laced cop pal
Radinka, Rancida. Russian prostitute visited by Aaron regularly
Renfrew, Aaron. Narrator whose battlefield journal describes his story
Renfrew, Phineas. Aaron’s father and besieged department store owner
Restell, Madam (Ann Trow). Notorious abortionist
Rynders, Captain Isaiah. Tough Sixth Ward political boss, benefactor of the Dead Rabbits
Sparks, Sebastian. New YorkEvening Postreporter, Aaron’s opium-addicted best friend
Tiemann, Daniel. “New York Paint King” and reform candidate who defeated Mayor Wood.
(Tiemann’s not really in the story, but there are several references to him.)
Traintor, Jackie. Bowery Boys gang leader
Tweed, William Marcy. Powerful Tammany Hall leader and Seventh Ward political boss
Walling, George. Metropolitan Police Captain
Walt’s boys at Gray’s Baths: Freddie Vaughn, Georgie Applegate, Billie, Peter, Tom, Johnny, Ike, Jakey, Brownie, Daniel, David, Mark (only Freddie and Georgie have actual roles) (And Bobby, Matthew, and Jimmy are murder victims)
Walt’s siblings: Eddy, Jesse, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, Mary Elizabeth, Hannah Louisa (only Eddy is in the story)
Whitman, Louisa Van Velsor. Walt’s mother
Whitman, Walt. Poet of Mannahatta and Paumanok
Wood, Fernando. Corrupt Mayor of New York City
One: Antietam: September 17, 1862. Inspecting the carnage on the Civil War battlefield, General Tom Meagher of the Irish Brigade discovers a private journal in the tunic of a fallen soldier, Aaron Renfrew, and begins to read.
Two: The Vault at Pfaff’s. Narrator Aaron Renfrew works as a window dresser for his father, a wealthy department store owner. Aaron writes poetry and drinks at night. It’s a turbulent year in the New York of 1857. His best friends are Police Sergeant Nelson Prudhoff and New York Post reporter Sebastian Sparks. At Pfaff’s, a well known rathskeller on Broadway, Aaron sees a bearded stranger staring at him from across the room. The man turns out to be Walt Whitman, and Aaron knows Walt will be waiting for him. Aaron encounters the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, Mayor Fernando Wood, Sixth Ward political boss Captain Rynders, District Attorney Oakey Hall, and William Marcy Tweed, a member of the Board of Supervisors. Wood tells Aaron to relay an ominous summons to Aaron’s father. Outside, Walt invites Aaron to ride the ferry with him to Brooklyn.
Three: Crossing Brooklyn Ferry. At the terminal Walt greets a friend, ferry hand Aidan McCormack, who tells Walt he’s just completed a poem he wants Walt to read. On the ride to Brooklyn, Walt muses about his recently published second edition of Leaves of Grass, as well as ferries, Paumanok, and Mannahatta. From the deck they see a fire in the Five Points slum. Walt conducts a seductive phrenological examination of Aaron’s head. The two decide to meet the next day at Gray’s Salt Walter Baths on Fulton Street in Brooklyn.
Four: Boys Together Clinging. Aaron feigns illness as his father tries to wake him. They argue and Aaron’s father suffers a temporary seizure. At Gray’s, Walt introduces Aaron to his friends, young working class men. Aaron learns that three of Walt’s circle have been murdered in what the police claim was random violence. Aaron’s shocked as one of the young men performs a sex act on another while Walt ruminates on health, diet, and hygiene. Later, Walt confides in Aaron that he’s being blackmailed by an extortionist who demands $10,000 in exchange for a number of compromising letters Walt’s written. Aaron takes Walt’s dilemma to Sergeant Prudhoff, and the officer, despite his abhorrence of those who commit “crimes against nature,” agrees to investigate the blackmailing.
Five: A Woman Waits For Me. Aaron’s summoned to the Gramercy Park residence of his girlfriend, Lucretia Jewitt, where he’s formally introduced to a Jewitt family friend, the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher. Lucretia’s confided in Beecher that she’s pregnant, and Beecher, after a long-winded discussion on the evils of the slavery, demands that Aaron to the right thing and wed Miss Jewitt. Instead, Aaron gives Lucretia a handbill advertising the services of a notorious abortionist, Madame Restell.
Six: What Place is Besieged?Journalist Sebastian Sparks, Aaron’s best friend, is dispatched to cover a major civic fray at city hall, as the state-appointed Metropolitan Police move in to arrest the mayor, who has refused to disband his own Municipal Police. Aaron tags along as Sebastian’s assistant. As Metropolitan Police Captain George Walling attempts to arrest Mayor Wood, a battle between the two competing police departments ensues, broken up by the timely but unexpected arrival of the National Guard.
Seven: There Was a Child Went Forth. Aaron goes to Walt Whitman’s home on Classon Street in Brooklyn, where he meets Walt’s mother and Walt’s mentally-challenged brother Eddy. Walt describes his origins. Aaron reveals that Sergeant Prudhoff has agreed to help apprehend the blackmailer—while Walt discloses that the extortionist demands the blackmail money be delivered to Coenties Slip. Walt has an appointment with the famous “Naked Lady of Broadway,” actress Adah Mencken, and agrees to take Aaron along.
Eight: To a Common Prostitute. On the way to Menken’s home, Walt explains that Menken was once a prostitute in Cuba, had married and divorced a Jewish retailer from Cincinnati, and is now wed to a famous boxer, John C. Heenan. Walt, Aaron, Heenan, and Menken drink tea, and as he leaves Aaron pleads with Menken to arrange an introduction for Lucretia to the abortionist Madame Restell.
Nine: Yet, Yet, Ye Downcast Hours. Aaron and his father, summoned to Tammany Hall, encounter the thug-like Captain Rynders, de facto mentor of the Dead Rabbits. Mayor Wood informs Aaron’s father he’s been expelled from Tammany for secretly associating with Wood’s political opponents. Wood also reveals that Aaron’s father borrowed $150,000 in Tammany money. Repercussions are threatened unless the usurious debt is paid immediately.
Ten: The Singing Thrush. Aaron and his defeated father walk through lower Manhattan by Castle Garden, now an emigrant landing depot. Aaron’s father claims he’s dying, admits he’s been conspiring against Wood. Aaron recalls the night seven years earlier when his mother and father took him to see Jenny Lind at Castle Garden. Aaron and his father see a gang of Dead Rabbits savagely beating a black man as two Municipal cops watch idly.
Eleven: Outlines for a Tomb. Aaron and Walt walk through the graveyard at Trinity Church, where Walt seems to know the dead buried under their feet. Sergeant Prudhoff arrives to explain the strategy for capturing Walt’s blackmailer. Aaron and Prudhoff drink at Pfaff’s where Nelson becomes maudlin over a sentimental song. At the appointed hour, Walt encounters the blackmailer, unknown in the dark. As Prudhoff intercedes his gun explodes and he’s seriously injured. The blackmailer escapes.
Twelve: Whispers of Heavenly Death. Aaron’s questioned by skeptical Police Captain Walling about the circumstances of Prudhoff’s near-fatal injuries. Aaron confides in Sebastian, who agrees to help find Walt’s blackmailer. They visit Prudhoff at Bellevue Hospital where Sparks reveals he’s addicted to opium.
Thirteen: Stronger Lessons. Aaron walks to Maycock’s saloon where he tells Walt that Lucretia’s pregnant and that they plan to go to Madame Restell for an abortion, despite Walt’s objections. At Restell’s, Lucretia undergoes a painful and frightening pelvic examination.
Fourteen: And Set a Tombstone Here. Aaron, in the absence of Sebastian, is dispatched by New York Post publisher William Cullen Bryan to cover a riot by the Bowery Boys and the Dead Rabbits in which scores of people are killed.
Fifteen: As if a Phantom Caress’d Me. After the riot Aaron tracks Sebastian down at an opium den run by Mock Ken. Aaron uses opium for the first time and is hooked.
Sixteen: A Voice from Death. Aaron takes Lucretia to Restell’s for the abortion. While Lucretia rests after the procedure he goes to the Seventh Ward fire house to ask Boss Tweed, once the fire company’s foreman, to intercede with Tammany’s demand that Aaron’s father replay a usurious loan. Tweed agrees—for a price. When Aaron returns to Restell’s he discovers Lucretia has vanished—and that Restell and her husband claim to know nothing of her whereabouts.
Seventeen: Out From Behind the Mask. The police question Aaron about Lucretia’s disappearance. Aaron conceals knowledge of the abortion in a hopeless gesture to save her reputation and his. Aaron visits the dying Prudhoff who advises him to search the morgue.
Eighteen: The City Dead House. Aaron calls on Walt at Pfaff’s where he encounters Ralph Waldo Emerson. Later, Walt tells Aaron the blackmailer wants the ransom money delivered to Maycock’s and hidden under a certain table. Aaron and Walt go to the morgue where they discover Lucretia’s body, recently pulled from the East River.
Nineteen: Memorials of the Dead. Again Aaron is questioned by Detective Adams who know that Lucretia died, not by drowning but by a botched abortion, and that Aaron was certainly involved. At Pfaff’s Adah Menken comes on to Aaron who claims impotency. At home, Aaron’s visited by pompous Henry Ward Beecher who demands that Aaron repent. In a fury Aaron attacks Beecher. Walt Whitman to take Aaron to Maycock’s in a final effort to deliver the blackmail money.
Twenty: City of Orgies. Aaron, armed with his father’s gun, and Walt go to Maycock’s to deliver the “ransom” to the blackmailer, but discover the gay bar’s been raided by the police and all those inside, including Sebastian, have been arrested and taken to police court. Aaron bails Sebastian out of jail. Aaron’s certain Sebastian has been lying to him.
Twenty-one: The Sobbing of the Bells. Boss Tweed reveals he’s fixed things with Fernando Wood on behalf of Aaron’s father, but the gesture comes too late. Renfrew’s Department Store burns to the ground, and when Aaron returns home he discovers his father dead, a suicide, along with a note explaining that his father burned the store to keep it out of Wood’s hands.
Twenty-two: To One Shortly to Die. Aaron has a long conversation with the dead Nelson at Bellevue Hospital. At Mock Ken’s, Aaron confronts Sebastian, who reveals that Aidan, the ferry hand, masterminded the blackmail plot, and it was Aidan who fired on Nelson. Mock Ken murders Sebastian. Aaron goes to an odious tannery to confront Aidan, who brags he was the killer of three of Walt’s boys. The two men fight, Aidan is killed and dumped into a manure pit. Aaron retrieves the blackmail letters.
Twenty-three: Goodbye, My Fancy.Aaron returns to Pfaff’s to bring the letters to Walt, who is appalled by the carnage and vows never to see Aaron again. The sheriff forecloses on Aaron’s home, and depressed and penniless, Aaron go to work for Mock Ken. Drunken, drug-addicted, and derelict, Aaron is rescued by General Tom Meagher who sobers Aaron up and enlists him in the Irish Brigade.
Twenty-four: Closure. After reading Aaron’s journal, Meagher confronts Whitman who is serving as a nurse at an army hospital. Walt denies he knew Aaron. The rest of the chapter summarizes the fates of those involved with Aaron and Whitman during this tumultuous period: Meagher a drowning victim, Restell a suicide, Emerson awash in senility, Beecher tried for adultery, Menken a premature death in London, Wood elected to Congress, Tweed a victim of pneumonia while in prison.