Walt’s house, 328 Mickle Street, has an interesting story all its own. In Volume One of With Walt Whitman in Camden there is a discussion of a need to get Walt’s affairs in order as there is fear of his imminent death. Whitman was asked if he yet owed anything on the house. Whitman responds:
Now, where the story of the house on Mickle gets most interesting – fast forward to 1893, a year after Walt’s death. Whitman’s longtime housekeeper, Mary Davis, brought a lawsuit against the Whitman estate, claiming she was owed yet for services she rendered to Whitman and was never paid. What follows is the sordid sort of thing right out of a modern day soap opera! From the Walt Whitman Archive:
“Davis occasioned a rift among Whitman followers when she
brought a lawsuit against the poet’s estate claiming that she was owed a
considerable sum for unpaid nursing duties performed in the last years
of Walt’s life.13 The suit was brought against George Whitman, the
principal beneficiary of the estate, who was represented in court by
Thomas Harned. In July of 1893 Traubel gave Wallace his side of the
story, beginning with the statement that Mrs. Davis’ claim was “fraudulent” and would never be won. He explains that according to U.S. law her acceptance of her part of the legacy (Whitman had left her $1000) bars her from making further claims. As to the merits of her bill for nursing from 1885 to 1892, he argues, “From ’85 to ’88 Walt had no nurse-needed none-(for he went about himself with perfect ease)and from 1888 on, when the need was evident, we furnished and hired the man.” Her housekeeping, he says, was so lacking that “Mrs. O’Connor, Mrs. Johnston, Mrs. Harned and others of the women friends of Walt were always protesting that it was our duty to get rid of Mrs. Davis & see that Walt had quarters conducive to comfort & health. But for the desperate objections that we knew Walt would make, we would never have submitted him in his sickness to her housekeeping, which was considered deleterious in the highest degree” (July 16, 1893).
There is a subplot to all of this, however, having to do with the
house on Mickle Street which Harned and Traubel were eager to acquire.
In Whitman’s will of 1891 the property at 328 Mickle Street was
left to Walt’s sister-in-Iaw, Mrs. George Whitman, with the proviso that
the property be used to support his retarded brother, Edward. Mrs.
Whitman died in August of 1892 (five months after Walt’s death) and
Edward died in November of the same year. This meant that George
Whitman became the principal beneficiary of Walt’s estate, and Traubel
and Harned were trying to get George to turn the house over to them for
preservation. In January of 1893 Traubel wrote to Wallace of his hopes
that now that Eddie was dead, the Whitman estate would give the house
up for preservation so that the money already raised, from Whitman
admirers, for its purchase could be used for repairs and as an endowment.
In August he had the key to the house in his pocket, but
complained that “George cannot be made to see that the house should
not be sold but preserved” (August 7, 1893). In November he fulminated
against George and other members of the Whitman family who
were holding out over “this paltry few hundred dollars yet were content
in W’s lifetime to leave him in the hands of his friends” (November 13,
Even if George had been willing to turn the house over to Traubel
and Harned, there was a hindrance in the form of Mrs. Davis and her
foster son, Warry. According to Elizabeth Keller, Mary Davis had
convinced George Whitman’s wife that she was entitled to a sum of
money to cover expenses she had incurred as Walt’s housekeeper, but
when Mrs. Whitman died her husband did not share this opinion
(Keller, 182-183). He refused to consider Mrs. Davis’ claim, and Mrs.
Davis refused to leave the premises. In July of 1893 Traubel, with
Harned, who was acting as George’s attorney, attempted to force Mrs.
Davis and Warry to vacate the premises. Obviously the two executors
thought that by supporting George’s position they would secure their
own designs on the property.
Traubel was infuriated by the Davis claim: “It is enough to stir up
his [Whitman’s] poor dead bones,” he cried to Wallace. His frustration
increased when others of the Whitman circle of admirers did not agree
with him on the matter. It was his contention that “Walt never contracted with Mrs. Davis except that he would waive rent for the house and she would waive charges for board. We always knew of this arrangement” (January 26, 1894).
On January 31 (1894) the jury awarded Mrs. Davis $500 and the case
was finished. The cost to the Whitman estate, Traubel informed Wallace,
would be about $1,000. While he does not say so, one can imagine
his distress at this since it appears to have been at least part of George
Whitman’s reason for not giving the Mickle Street house to the literary
executors as they had hoped. On March 3 Traubel wrote to Wallace that
he no longer believed George would either give them or sell them the
house. “He is absolutely an ass, and I know no man meaner in the face
of facts which would move any other human being I know to generosity
As dramatic and no doubt stress-inducing this was at the time, this story ends with a good conclusion. Sadly though, Traubel did not live long enough to see it finally come to a close. Upon George Whitman’s death, the house was transferred to Walt’s niece Jessie Whitman (Thomas Jefferson Whitman’s daughter). Geoffrey Sill writes:
Click to visit The Walt Whitman House. (Now operated by the New Jersey Division of Parks and Foresty).
Traubel, Horace. (1906). With Walt Whitman in Camden (March 28 – July 14, 1888). Boston: Small, Maynard & Company. pp. 291.
Krieg, Joann P. (1994). “Walt Whitman Quarterly Review.” The Walt Whitman Archive. http://www.whitmanarchive.org/criticism/wwqr/pdf/anc.00688.pdf
Sill, Geoffrey M. (1998). “Minkle Street House.” The Walt Whitman Archive. http://www.whitmanarchive.org/criticism/current/encyclopedia/entry_33.html