Dinner with Walt

all things Walt Whitman

Dinner with Walt - all things Walt Whitman

A National Treasure Destroyed: The Story of Whitman’s Gold Watch

After suffering yet another paralytic stroke in June of 1888, in a severely weakened and fragile state of health, Whitman wrote a will at the urging of Dr. Bucke. In this lengthy Last Will and Testament, written in his own hand, he mentions his desire for who should have, among many other personal items, his gold pocket watch.  Whitman writesI give to Harry Stafford of Marlton New Jersey my gold watch. I give my friend Peter Doyle the silver watch.

Although many of those closest to Whitman in 1888 feared the worse for him and believed that he may pass at any time, Whitman lived for another four years. In January 1892 Whitman said to Traubel, “…it appears to me, Horace, my will is not yet right: it does too much in some directions, too little or nothing in some others.” Traubel agreed to summon (attorney and literary executor) Thomas B. Harned to oversee the requested changes. Traubel says to Whitman, “I shall go up to see him at once.” Whitman replies, “Yes, tell him there are some changes to make—that I am determined upon them.”

Later that same day, following lunch, Traubel and Harned returned together to Whitman’s home on Mickle Street. Harned asked Whitman if he wished to make changes to the will.  W. said:

“Yes, that was right. I want to make some changes in the will. It fails to satisfy me as it is. How can the changes be made? Will you have to rewrite the whole document?” “No, only add a codicil, which you will have to sign. Do you think you can sign it?” “Oh yes, I can—I must.” I passed into the next room and got H. a writing pad. He sat on edge of bed, pencil in hand. W. dictated several items, starting always, “I wish to leave”—$200 to Mrs. Van Nostrand instead of $1000, $200 to Walt Whitman Fritzinger, “to be invested for him,” he added, even stopping to spell this name, “a new baby—a dear little one—born a week ago, and named after me—yes, Harry’s boy.” Further changed the gold watch from Harry Stafford to H.L.T. and the silver watch from Pete Doyle to Harry Stafford and reduced Mrs. Stafford to $200, from $250 (though he contended it was $450), and then he asked, “And Mrs. George Whitman my executrix—eh? That is all fastened?” And after Harned’s “Yes,” “And Dr. Bucke, you Tom, and Horace, to have my papers—literary belongings of whatever character.” “That, too, is all down already, Walt.” “Well then you have the substance of my changes.”

 

Just two months later, on March 26th, 1892, Whitman died.  Upon his death as Whitman wished, Traubel received the gold watch.  (I seem to recall reading that Traubel wore that watch and showed it off at the annual Whitman Fellowship Dinners held on Whitman’s birthday. I’ll try to locate and share this missing piece of the story).

 

David Karsner’s bio on Horace Traubel, 1919

 

Many years later, in 1919, David Karsner, a longtime personal friend to Horace Traubel, completed a biography on Traubel; just months prior to Traubel’s own death. Karsner writes,

 “Traubel left no will. He had often said that he wanted his Whitman collection to go to the Library of Congress. The large gold watch which Walt Whitman had given to him in his will, he in turn requested that that be given to Malcolm Aalholm, his infant grand-son.  All other personal matters and effects come into the possession of Anne Montgomerie Traubel.”

 

The Destruction of the Watch

     In the article “Recollections of Charles Feinberg[1] by C. Carroll Hollis, we learn of the awful destruction of Whitman’s watch. Hollis writes:

 “Sometimes [Feinberg’s] generous enthusiasm for the Whitman cause had funny-sad consequences, as in the strange episode of Whitman’s watch. Some months after I met Charles, he asked me to come home with him for there was something he wanted to show me. On the way there he explained that in the mass of items he had received from Annie Traubel there was Whitman’s watch that he had willed to Horace. Horace’s son had died as a child, but there was a grandson (Gertrude’s son Malcolm) who had run away years before and had never kept in touch with the family. Even so, Charles reasoned, the watch really belonged to this boy (by then, of course, a grown man), so he hired a detective to track down the address (somewhere in Iowa, I believe).When the address was found, Charles carefully packaged the watch in a neat square box with plenty of padding, enclosed a little note explaining the background of the gift, congratulated the new owner on his unusual inheritance, and invited a reply about his Whitman interests and memories.

By that time we had reached Charles’s home, and as we entered he pointed to the hall table and said, “It just came back.” There was the unwrapped square package, opened to reveal the remains of the watch – the crystal shattered, the face crushed, with the hands awry, the spring unsprung and twisted around to make a little nest. No one looking at the now-shattered watch could miss what had happened: the grandson’s anger at his mailing address being discovered, the growing frustrated rage as he read Charles’s innocent letter, the renewed rejection of all that Whitman worship, and finally going to his work-table, seizing the hammer, and giving Walt Whitman’s Waltham Watch one well-aimed blow. One can even imagine the grim satisfaction in wrapping it up again and sending back this emphatic rejection. I may not remember everything about the incident, but I’ll never forget Charles’s honest distress, “What did I do wrong?” And to such an upright, decent man, it was a deep shock, I’m sure. I think I repeated the well-known truism that children of literary parents often reject their parents’ enthusiasms. Perhaps young Malcolm had had an overdose of the Whitman reverence that dominated the Traubel household.

So Charles’s well-meant gift may not have been seen that way at all but as a ploy to get him back into a family situation he could not stand. I doubt my attempts to explain away the occasion of Charles’s deep hurt were very helpful, but as we talked he seemed to get back his usual cheerful composure. Finally, I asked what he was going to do with it – try to get in touch with Malcolm again? repair the watch? throw it away? He replied, in a return to his normal bright manner, “Oh, I can’t throw it out! It’s still Walt’s watch, you know, so I’ll just keep it.”

I often wonder if Charles ever told Gertrude about the watch … and, indeed, to this day I don’t know what finally did happen to it. But certainly none of his other many benefactions was ever rejected.”

 

What may be the last interesting footnote in this story, Malcolm Wallace Aalholm, (born April 8, 1918 to Horace’s daughter Gertrude Traubel and NY architect Albert Clement Aalholm) died just this year, May 23, 2013 at age 95 in Parsippany, NJ.

As far as I have been able to tell, no one has ever been able to ascertain why Aalholm smashed Whitman’s watch. Obviously he possessed some deeply-rooted negative feelings of Whitman because he impulsively smashed the watch before considering the possibility that it could have some monetary value from which he possibly might gain by selling it. Whatever the motivation may have been for this unfortunate turn of events may never be known.

 

Ah yes!  You might wonder, what’s the story on the silver watch given to Harry Stafford after Whitman’s death!?!  That’s another story for another day…

 


[1] Feinberg, owner of Marathon Oil Co., amassed a massive collection of Whitman materials in his lifetime and donated all (well most of it, he sent many Whitman books, papers and materials to libraries across the US who otherwise had no Whitman materials to encourage and further the study of Whitman) the majority of the collection was sent to the Library of Congress. Feinberg died in 1988.

 

Credits:

Traubel, Horace. (1906). With Walt Whitman in Camden (March 28 – July 14, 1888). Boston: Small, Maynard & Company. pp.306-312.

Traubel, Horace. (1996). With Walt Whitman in Camden (October 1, 1891 – April 3, 1892). California:  Oregon House. p. 289.

Karsner, David. Horace Traubel, His Life and Work. New York:  Egmont Arens. 1919.

Recollections of Charles Feinberg

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