March 26, 2010

Death of Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman died slowly. In 1873, he had suffered a paralytic stroke then suffered several more as the years went on. Knowing he was approaching death, Whitman commissioned a house-shaped tomb for his burial for a whopping $4,000 — twice what he paid for his house in Camden, New Jersey. He often visited his tomb while it was being built — for as long as he was mobile anyway.

Towards the end, Whitman could barely move and was in constant pain. His followers, nicknamed the Whitmaniacs, devotedly attended to him. One wrote: "Walt very frankly expresses his anxiety to die, to shake off this burden, which increases and is heavier every day." To alleviate the pain a little, his friends improvised a sort of water bed on the floor. "O I feel so good!" Whitman said, comparing the splashing water to being on a ship.

Sustained on milk punch, Whitman's body was wasted by tuberculosis. He was partly atrophied, suffered from tumors, abscesses, congestion, and other ailments. Yet, he still lived. Knowing how strange this was, Whitman granted permission for an autopsy, in the name of medical science. This whole time, Whitman was completing his final revisions on the last edition of his book Leaves of Grass, today referred to as the "Deathbed Edition."

Walt Whitman died at 6:43 p.m. on March 26, 1892 at the age of 72. Doctors discovered, in a 3-hour autopsy, that Whitman died of pulmonary emphysema or bronchial pneumonia, that the left lung had entirely collapsed, and the right was only barely functioning. The heart was surrounded by abscesses and "about two and a half quarts of water," according to the New York Times. Whitman's brain was removed and sent to the American Anthropometric Society, where it was accidentally destroyed, allegedly when it fell on the floor and was crushed. His funeral was held four days later.

3 comments:

  1. What a sad end for Whitman. I didn't know. It's amazing that he kept his mind though.

    ReplyDelete
  2. He wasn't really all that old, surprisingly. His photos make him look like he's pushing 100.

    He did seem to keep his mind, continuously writing and - at least from what his friends recorded - spouting out all kinds of profound one-liners. Then they lost his brain after the autopsy!!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Somehow, I think he would have been amused at the brain incident. So I hope. RIP Walt Whitman!

    ReplyDelete