by Don Swaim
About Whitman Days, Opium Nights is a historical novel and a mystery—a whodunit. Set in 1857 as the Civil War looms inevitably, poet Walt Whitman finds himself caught up in blackmail and murder involving the underground homosexual scene of the mid-nineteenth century, Walt’s future as America’s Poet in jeopardy. Aaron, the narrator, is a troubled young department-store window-dresser, erstwhile poet, and fledgling reporter for William Cullen Bryant’s New York Evening Post. In tracking down Walt’s blackmailer, Aaron—faced with a personal crisis involving his fiancée Lucretia Jewitt—becomes an eyewitness as rival city police departments clash violently while the Dead Rabbits and the Bowery Boys stage a deadly gang riot on the Lower East Side. Playing roles are the real-life Boss Tweed, Mayor Fernando Wood, the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Law Olmstead, abortionist Madame Restell, and the “Naked Lady of Broadway” Adah Isaacs Menken. The story begins and ends on the bloody Civil War battlefield of Antietam, and, except for the first and last chapters, the narrative is in the form of Aaron’s journal.
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 York Evening 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
Rynders, Captain Isaiah. Tough Sixth Ward political boss, benefactor of the Dead Rabbits
Sparks, Sebastian. New York Evening Post reporter, Aaron’s opium-addicted best friend
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 Bath: Freddie Vaughn, Georgie Applegate, Billie, Peter, Tom, Johnny, Ike, Jakey, Brownie, Daniel, David, Mark (only Freddie and Georgie have actual roles)
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
Synopsis One: Antietam: September 17, 1862. Inspecting the carnage on the Civil War battlefield at which he was wounded, General Tom Meagher of the Irish Brigade discovers a personal journal in the tunic of a fallen soldier, a man Meagher had enlisted from the gutters of New York’s (Lower) East Side, 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 outside. 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 for Aaron’s father to appear at City Hall. Outside, Walt invites Aaron to ride the ferry with him to Brooklyn.
Three: Crossing Brooklyn Ferry. At the East River 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 ferry 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 agree 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’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 track down the blackmailer.
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 has confided in Beecher that she’s pregnant, and Beecher, after a long-winded discussion on the evils of the slavery and morality, demands that Aaron do the right thing and wed Miss Jewitt. Instead, Aaron gives Lucretia a handbill advertising the services of a notorious abortionist, Madame Restell, and takes comfort in a hairy prostitute.
Six: What Place is Besieged? Journalist Sebastian Sparks, Aaron’s best friend, is dispatched to cover a major civic crisis 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, the officer’s thrown down the steps of city hall—and 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 retarded brother Eddy. Walt describes his origins on Long Island, his family, and his dysfunctional siblings. Aaron reveals that Sergeant Prudhoff has agreed to help track down the blackmailer—while Walt discloses that the extortionist demands that the blackmail money be delivered to Coenties Slip in Manhattan at midnight on Friday. Walt says he has an appointment the next morning with the famous Naked Lady of Broadway, Adah Mencken, and Aaron begs Walt to take him 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 (illegally) 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 are summoned to Tammany Hall by Mayor Wood. Aaron meets the thug-like Captain Rynders, de facto mentor of the Dead Rabbits. In Wood’s office, the mayor informs Aaron’s father that he’s been drummed out of Tammany for secretly associating with Wood’s political opponents. The mayor also reveals that Aaron’s father borrowed $150,000 in Tammany money. Wood threatens repercussions 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 immigrant landing depot. Aaron’s father says he’s dying, and admits he’s been conspiring against Wood. Aaron remembers 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. Prudhoff, who expresses his loathing for homosexuals, cuts strips of newspaper and puts them into a satchel for Walt to take to the blackmailer at Coenties Slip at midnight. 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: Aplomb in the Midst of Irrational Things. Aaron’s questioned by skeptical Police Captain Walling about the circumstances of Prudhoff’s mortal injuries. Aaron reveals the blackmail plot to Sebastian, who agrees to go undercover to find Walt’s blackmailer. They visit the dying Prudhoff at the madhouse that is Bellevue Hospital where Sparks reveals he’s an opium-addict and urges Aaron to also take up the habit. Aaron visits Lucretia after arranging a visit to the abortionist Madame Restell.
Thirteen: Stronger Lessons. Aaron walks the violent downtown streets 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 strenuous objections, Walt being more moralistic that Aaron would have thought. At Restell’s mansion, Lucretia undergoes a painful and frightening vaginal examination, and agrees to have her abortion the day after the July fourth holiday.
Fourteen: And Set a Tombstone Here. Aaron, in the absence of Sebastian, is dispatched by New YorkEveningPost publisher William Cullen Bryan to cover a riot by the Bowery Boys and the Dead Rabbits in which scores of people are killed. (By the way, some of you may recall that I was having trouble placing an excised scene involving Oakey Hall in Chapter Twelve. I put it here and I think it works.)
You are about to read the following (should you so choose—or if not this manuscript will self-destruct in five seconds. Five… four… three…): Fifteen: As if a Phantom Caress’d Me. After the riot Aaron tracks Sebastian down at an opium den run by Mock Ken. Aaron fantasizes about Chinese women and eats opium for the first time. Learns that Mock Ken murdered a member of Beecher’s congregation during a game of Fan-Tan.
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 Mayor Wood in his demand that Aaron’s father replay a usurious Tammany loan. (conclusion of this chapter in a later submission)