With Walt Whitman in Camden, by Horace Traubel
Copyright 1996 by Fellowship of Friends. All Rights Reserved.

"Walt Whitman as a Lawyer"

Thursday, January 7, 1892

Also told him the story of "Walt Whitman as a lawyer" now going the rounds of the papers:


The Verdict He Obtained Before He Became Famous.

How the Good Grey Poet Administered a Drubbing to a Tormentor
and the Verdict by Which He Was Acquitted of Assault.

The serious illness of the "good grey poet," Walt Whitman, has made him more talked about lately than he has been for years, and has brought to mind through some of the older people many stories of his early life and experiences. There is one especially good told of an adventure he had when he lived with his father in Babylon, New York. The old gentleman occupied the Minturn Place, west of the village about a mile and a half. It was in 1840. The budding poet, then about eighteen years of age, had just returned home after his venture in journalism in Huntington. His success had been marked; in fact, it is questioned whether it should not be put down as a miserable failure....

He was a popular favorite among both sexes in the village, and many jolly yarns are told of those days which, no doubt, the now aged and suffering poet can recall with pleasure.

One of the stories called to mind is the arrest of the poet for an assault upon a young man named Benjamin Carman. The Carman farm joined the farm occupied by the Whitmans. A trout pond formed the boundary. In this pond Walt delighted to fish. On a certain day while Whitman was sitting in his boat angling Young Carman conceived the idea of annoying him. He first threw stones so as to disturb the water near the fisherman. Seeing no effect upon the stolid fisherman, he got in his own boat and commenced leisurely rowing around in the vicinity of the poet, to the total destruction of fishing. Even this annoyance failed to call forth any reproof or remonstrance, and Whitman fished on as though nothing was annoying him. At first the lad was careful to keep beyond the reach of the fishing pole, but finally, his suspicions being quieted by the manner of the fisherman, who in a casual sort of way plied him with various questions, asking if he were not a namesake of Benjamin Franklin, and engaging him in cheerful conversation, the boy edged nearer and nearer, until, coming within the swing of Whitman's fishpole, the poet caught him unawares and thrashed him unmercifully, breaking his pole and inflicting quite severe injuries upon the boy, dismissing him with the admonition that, next time he refrain from interfering with his fishing.

But this was not destined to be the last of the matter. The elder Carman, in rage at the castigation of his son, swore out a warrant for Whitman's arrest before Justice Joel Jarvis, of Huntington.... General Richard Udall, afterwards a member of Assembly from Suffolk, appeared as attorney for Carman, while Whitman pleaded his own case. The jury was made up of men who thought more of common sense than of law. The foreman was John Edwards, an Englishman, full of stubborn persistence, prepared to insist upon having his own way.... General Udall made a clear case. The evidence was not disputed. Whitman, when he summed up his defense, told the jury the facts in the case. He admitted he had trounced the boy, but pled in justification that Carman had interfered with his vested rights and had made himself a nuisance, and the nuisance had simply been abated. The jury filed out. They were out but a few moments and returned into court.

The justice resettled his steel-bowed spectacles so that he could more readily look over them and asked: "Gentlemen of the jury, have you agreed upon your verdict?"

"We 'ave," said Edwards.

"What is it?" asked His Honor.

"We find 'e did not 'it him 'ard enough," said the foreman. The uproarious laughter which greeted this verdict the justice was unable to quell, and in his righteous indignation broke his spectacles in his endeavor to sufficiently express his disapproval. When quiet was restored he explained to the jury that they must find a verdict of "guilty" or "not guilty," when the spectators were again convulsed by the answer of the sturdy Yorkshire gentleman, who stubbornly insisted that the only verdict of the jury was that "Whitman 'ad not 'it 'im 'ard enough," and after repeated attempts to get matters right, the prisoner was discharged and the verdict stands today that "the plaintiff was not hit hard enough."

"Give me the sharp lines of it." Then, "Yes, it is substantially true, substantially true. He had me arrested, but the sympathies of the community were all on my side." When I quoted the verdict of the jury, W. laughed—the first I had heard from him—and the effort choked and made him cough. When he had recovered he said, "It was rich—rich. The foreman was a William Cobbett sort of a fellow. But they make the story too long—a stick and a half or two sticks would be enough for it."