Whitman @ 200: Brawn & Feminine Sensibility

Currier & Ives: 'The American Fireman, Always Ready,' and 'Life of a Fireman'


Walt Whitman’s association with New York City’s volunteer firemen prior to the Civil War has been often mentioned but never really explored. The possiblity that Whitman’s tenure at the New York Aurora overlapped that of b’hoy ringleader Mike Walsh has been previously noted. The “Mose” mania for firemen comedies which swept the nation as Whitman was mulling Leaves of Grass explains a number of quirks and colors in Whitman’s journalism and poetry. What has never been understood, however, are the reasons that we can identify the volunteer bunkhouses quite precisely as a locus for “the midnight orgies of young men” in his poem “Native Moments” (which first appeared in 1860 as number 8 in Enfans d’Adam). Furthermore, the most dramatic lifestory in “fire laddie” lore vividly illustrates the fatal potential of the homophobia that hung over the poet’s entire career: the rise and fall of the charismatic chieftan of Howard Engine Company #34 — David Colbreth Broderick.

Firemen's 'muss,' The Gangs of New York

When Walt Whitman first met Ralph Waldo Emerson, he dragged his hero to a “noisy fire-engine society,” and “was like a boy over it, as if there had never been such a thing before!” Edward Carpenter My Days and Dreams: Being Autobiographical Notes (New York: Scribner's, 1916), 88 With all due respect to Emerson, indeed there had never been such as thing as the new Fireman’s Hall on Mercer Street. It had only been open since 1854, and may have excited Whitman, in the first place, because of its grandiose architecture, which employed massive steel beams. The facade of Fireman’s Hall was festooned with fire-laddie paraphenalia: hooks and ladders, torches, axes, and trumpets, and above the doorway, a bas relief portraying fire-laddie heroism. “New Firemen’s Hall: Ceremony of Laying the Corner-stone, etc” New York Daily Times Aug 22, 1854, 1 It has been said that Whitman was never a b’hoy, but there he was in their Holy of Holies, causing Emerson a lifelong pang of embarassment. The Gangs of New York — both the old book of urban mythology and the melodramatic film which it later inspired — amply covered most of the frat-house aspects of the fire-laddies’ culture: their drinking, brawling, whoring, and shoulder-hitting, or physical intimidation of voters.

Licentiousness's Nightly Revel

The familiar tragicomedy of fire companies literally fighting each other for bragging rights to the extinction of an out-of-control fire cannot explain Whitman’s enthusiasm; rather, it was the firefighters’ hypermasculinity and their bacchanalian habits. The march of firemen in their own costumes — the play of the masculine muscle through cleansetting trowsers and waistbands... Suchlike I love. Among landsmen, fire laddies were the thrill-seeking and red-shirted dopplegangers of deep-sea sailors. Their hand-pumped masheen, like some land-going sloop, was unquestionably feminine: “‘she’ was beloved almost as much as were their sweethearts and wives.” Helen Campbell, and Thomas Wallace Knox Darkness and Daylight in New York (Hartford: Hartford Publishing Company, 1895), 528-9

Old Fire Laddies' Parade for the Prince of Wales

The analogy between sailors and firemen lends itself to further exploration. These jolly, reckless, red-shirts saw themselves critically endangered by the Age of Steam — the same historical force blowing away the Age of Sail. One Gilded Age firefighting historian surmised that the introduction of steam engines after 1846 caused “the best men” to retire from the service, leaving behind youths with an “ambition to wear a red shirt... although it was the ruin of many of them physically, and of not a few morally, because at all times the associations and the excitement led to excesses.” AE Costello Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments chapter 27, part I (New York: Augustine Costello, 1887) After “black sheep found their way into the fold,” the city’s chief engineer told New York’s common council in 1841, “the practice of boys frequenting the engine-houses is becoming an evil of great magnitude, which can only be remedied by some salutary law on the subject.” These teenagers were called “runners” because of their fondness for running along with the firemen to smoky scenes. They were “frequently entertained” by the members of their company, and “in return for these courtesies,” the boys would reciprocate by conferring upon their companies expensive gifts. Note that when the problems of teenage rowdies were debated, the actual volunteers were relabled as “members,” and the objectionable runners were referred to as “volunteers.” J Frank Kernan Reminiscences of the Old Fire Laddies and Volunteer Fire Departments of New York and Brooklyn (New York: M. Crane, 1885), 127-8

Bunkroom 'Big 6' 269 Henry Street (colorized)

Like any other civilian of this period, Emerson knew that in addition to fire-fighting thrills, there were wanton pleasures in the forecastles — ah, make that firehouses — under the “bunking system.” The first companies to establish bunks were engine companies who were notorious rivals. By sleeping near the apparatus, they could slash the time it took to respond to a fire alarm. Initially, the bunkers hired rooms near the firehouse, often paying the rent out of their own pockets, but as this practice caught on, bunkhouses became a standard part of fire stations. In one bunkhouse, hilarity ensued: one of its insomniacs would rob the signal lantern of its lampblack and daub mustaches on the lips of the clean-shaven sleepers. When the victims were roused by a fire-alarm and tried to wipe off the decoration, the sticky soot made an even worse mess across their faces.

Specimen Bowery Boys

“Bunking worked ruin to the firemen,” said one former volunteer, “It freed young men from the wholesome restraints of home, and led to drinking and carousing. There was, anyhow, a great deal of temptation in the Fire Department.” George William Sheldon The Story of the Volunteer Fire Department of the City of New York (New York: Harper & brothers, 1882) Another admitted, “Bunking took young men away from their homes — it would have been good for the city if the firemen had only stayed pure.” Sheldon 150 “Many prominent fire laddies have told me that the bunking system caused many a young man's downfall,” said one historian, “and I remember well when that venerable old fireman ex-Mayor [Daniel F] Tiemann fought bitterly against the introduction of bunks into the Department.” Kernan On the other hand, although “bunking was often demoralizing personally to the men,” admitted one former chief engineer, “I think that it added to the general efficiency of the Department; and were I Chief Engineer again, I should have bunks again.” Sheldon 151

In 1854, when the Cincinnati City Council abolished its volunteers and established a professional fire department, the chief engineer praised the reform: “the change for good is so manifest that even the opposition of the most clamorous advocates of the old systems is hushed into silence. Under the present control, the engine-houses are no longer nurseries where the youths of the city are trained up in vice, vulgarity and debauchery; where licentiousness holds her nightly revel. The Sabbath-day is no longer desecrated by the yells and fierce conflicts of rival companies, who sought the occasion for the purpose of making assaults upon one another. Our citizens pass our engine-houses without being insulted by the coarse vulgarities of the persons collected around them.” David D Dana The Fireman: The Fire Departments of the United States (Boston: J. French, 1858), 93-4

In Manhattan, vehement clamor for scrapping the volunteer system began at least as early as 1841 and stepped up throughout the ‘Forties and ‘Fifties. But the laddies had powerful incentives to perpetuate their precarious grip on the status quo, which we can detect beneath the veneer of genteel Victorian euphemisms: “Friendships were cemented by a common interest and a common danger, and men would sometimes come to regard the ‘machine’ with feelings almost of affection. Then there were pleasant meetings, social reunions, the fun and frolic of the ‘bunk’ room, and a constant mutual interchange of the amenities of life. It is no wonder that the system was yielded up with reluctance, or that the breaking up of associations of a life-time should meet with opposition.” Kernan

The Natural Impulse

A recent look at the antebellum phenomena of jolly fellows — “a distinctive male comportment that consisted of not just fighting but also heavy drinking, gambling and playing pranks” — found ardent manly love amongst the fire laddies described in a letter to a successful sporting weekly, the New York Clipper. During the era in which agitation to abolish the volunteer system was peaking — 1857, to be specific — a Philadelphia lawyer named George Fenner explained to the Clipper that — contrary to the common understanding that firemen engaged in outrageous “musses” — it was “anomalous” to find “the hand of a fireman raised against his brother fireman.” Indeed, claimed Fenner, should anyone spread gossip about a fire laddie, if his character is maligned, who would defend him as quickly as his brother fireman would?

Unidentified couple with chihuahuas

But Fenner’s main point was that a fireman’s love for his brother fireman was so “pure, uncontaminated” by “selfish sensuality” that “nothing can alter it, nothing can surpass it.” It sprang from “such a deep recess in the human bosom,” that “affection is blended with his existence.” Lest one assume that “personal charms” were in the “slightest degree necessary,” on the contrary, this powerful connection supposedly stemmed “from the natural impulse” — which, presumably, meant the spirit of peer solidarity. Richard Stott Jolly Fellows: Male Milleus in Nineteenth-Century America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2009), 1

These Roughs, These Beards

Ultimately, in New York, the only force strong enough to delay the kind of reform seen in Cincinatti was the cataclysmic war. But practically the moment the bloodshed ceased, the longstanding movement to implement a professional fire department catalyzed into action. In 1865, New York’s board of fire commissioners declared that “companies allowing boys and persons not members of the Fire Department to take their tenders to fires, has brought more disgrace on the Department than any other cause, it must be discontinued.” Kernan In November, all the volunteer companies south of 59th Street were disbanded. Then, thirty-four steam-powered fire-engine companies, and twelve hook and ladder companies replaced them, with twelve paid professionals in each company, establishing a force 552 strong.

Benjamin D Maxham: Henry David Thoreau

The boozing, brawling, and whoring habits which made firemen the landlubber answer to common sailors, and their ballot-stuffing and shoulder-hitting alliance with Tammany Hall, led to a deep chasm of philosophical difference between Walt Whitman and his critics — including both his overt opponents, such as Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Sidney Lanier on the one hand, and on the other hand, the dearest of his frenemies: Emerson and Thoreau. Thoreau articulated his skepticism over Whitman’s fire-laddie electioneering more pointedly than Emerson: “What is there in the people? Pshaw! what do you (a man who sees as well as anybody) see in all this cheating political corruption?” Whitman recalled how little he appreciated hearing his Brooklyn — or his Manhattan, for that matter — spoken of in that way. Herbert Harlakenden Gilchrist Anne Gilchrist: Her Life and Writings (New York: Scribner & Welford, 1887), 233–242 He understood the machineries of corruption far more intimately than did Thoreau, having personally greased many of its wheels over the years, but his pride in seeing sexual libertarians rise to power, even in such a cynical, opportunistic, and rotten context, gave him hope for the future, at a time when he felt the need for hope. Whitman clung to this perverse civic eschatology for a long time. In an 1881 essay known as “The Poetry of the Future,” he insisted that “the measureless viciousness of the great radical Republic, with its ruffianly nominations and elections... its fights, errors, eructations, repulsions, dishonesties, audacities,” furnished the raw material with which “Nature, history, and time” would “block out nationalities more powerful than the past.” Walt Whitman “The Poetry of the Future” North American Review vol 132 (1881), 198 Southern poet Sidney Lanier, unwittingly following Thoreau, acidly retorted: “But where are these roughs, these beards, and this combativeness? Were the Adamses and Benjamin Franklin roughs? was it these who taught us to make ruffianly nominations? But they had some hand in blocking out this republic.” Boston Transcript, July 3, 1888

Wellbeloved Stonecutter

Whitman, of course, had once been a Democratic ally of wicked Tammany Hall, and during the early ‘Forties, was a journalist colleague of the famous Irish-American populist politician Mike Walsh at the New York Aurora. Whitman praised Walsh’s “true blue American spirit” and in 1843, contributed a poem, “Lesson of the Two Symbols,” to the first issue of Walsh’s rabble-rousing newspaper, The Subterranean. Belasco, Susan “The Subterranean” The Walt Whitman Archive http://www.whitmanarchive.org/published/periodical/tei/per.00186.xml One can only imagine what Walt thought of the homoerotic terms Walsh conferred upon his b’hoy-ish constituency: “shirtless Democracy” and “the Spartan Band.”

John Penniman: Campaign poster, Michael Walsh, United States Representative from New York

Whitman’s pride in his fellow loafers, roughs, and rowdies must have found its peak in the pilgrim’s progress of that man he mysteriously referenced as the “wellbeloved stonecutter:” that muscular, scrappy, and wildly ambitious New York b’hoy named David Colbreth Broderick, who was destined to rise to the stature of State Senator from California. In the foreward to the First Edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman whispered his hope that Broderick’s efforts would carve out “solid and beautiful forms of the future” for the American Empire, from the newly-conquered wilderness of California: Let the age and wars of other nations be chanted... and that finish the verse. Not so the great psalm of the republic. Here the theme is creative and has vista. Here comes one among the wellbeloved stonecutters and plans with decision and science and sees the solid and beautiful forms of the future [cities of California] where there are now no solid forms.

David Broderick's Helmet, Howard Engine Company #34

Broderick was born in Kilkenny, Ireland in 1820, only a few months after Whitman. His father was hired to carve marble columns for the new US Capitol in Washington, and subsequently came to New York for work, but died early, leaving Broderick to fend for himself, his younger brother, and his mother. The boy was indentured to work as stonecutter himself for five years. Jeremiah Lynch The Life of David C Broderick (New York: The Baker and Taylor Company, 1911) 3 For several years, he was attached to the puglistic Howard Engine Company #34.

Flash journalist George Wilkes James Bogle: Townsend Harris, 1855

With his strikingly dark blue eyes, muscular build, and “feminine sensibility,” young Broderick readily attracted more than his fair share of Daddies: Mike Walsh, who recruited him for the shirtlessly-Democratic “Spartan Band;” the “sporting” publisher and would-be politician, George Wilkes; the bachelor ambassador to Japan, Townsend Harris; and eventually, the American Empire’s opportunistic force of nature, Colonel Jonathan Drake Stevenson. Somewhere along the way, Dave fell in with — and fell in love with — his “bosom friend,” fellow fire-laddie Fred Kohler. Kernan Townsend Harris offered his extensive library for Broderick’s restless mind, where the fatherless boy could escape to nurse his battle scars in romantic reveries of Shelly and the notoriously bisexual Lord Byron. Broderick, humorless, grim, and brooding, had a fatal attraction to picking fights with stronger and more ruthless fire laddies, and periodically got the daylights beaten out of him. This self-defeating habit represented a dark omen for his political career. “He was a Prometheus pinned to a rock,” decided historian Arthur Quinn, “with vultures feeding on his liver, but one day he would be unbound — or would die like Byron fighting for freedom.” Arthur Quinn The Rivals: William Gwin, David Broderick, and the Birth of California (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 42

Companion and Partner

David Colbreth Broderick, US Senator from California

When Colonel Stevenson arrived in the new American colony of California, after the War with Mexico, he embarked as a real estate developer in San Francisco, vainly attempting near the mouth of the Sacramento River to found a city named New York of the Pacific. When gold was discovered in 1848, it was clear to Stevenson that there was a fortune to be made in minting gold dust into coins. In April of 1849, Stevenson summoned Broderick and his lover Fred Kohler — a professional jeweler and another fire laddie — from New York, directing Kohler to set up his mint and expecting Broderick to resuscitate his own washed-up political career in the newly-created state. Broderick apparently supplied the brute muscle to support Kohler’s smelting operation, despite the fact that he arrived in California terribly ill. Under Stevenson’s nefarious aegis, Broderick kept his thumb on the scales, in effect, when the gold dust was being weighed, turning out currency that cheated on its gold logcontent.

Stevenson and Broderick, and certainly Kohler as well, swiftly became fairly rich. Broderick boldly invested his ill-gotten gains in the cheap waterfront lots of San Francisco — lots that were literally under seawater. He shrewdly speculated that these lots could be lucratively infilled for construction, and he thereby multiplied his holdings. Unlike David Broderick and Townsend Harris, Fred Kohler eventually married. His intimate role in Broderick’s life, accordingly, became more obscure during their later years together in California. However, the fireman history maintains:

Mr. Kohler was one of the most popular men in the city, of excellent and genial disposition, and of great social qualities, and of a kind and sympathizing nature. In New York and in this city he held various positions of honor, trust, and profit, and in every relation was universally respected. He was… the first chief engineer the San Francisco Fire Department ever had, being first appointed by Alcade J. W. Geary, afterward elected by the firemen, among whom he was always beloved and respected. He was the cherished friend, companion, and partner of Broderick, and that great man always alluded to him in terms of affection and esteem.” “Frederick D. Kohler, Chief Engineer 1849 - 1851” https://guardiansofthecity.org/sffd/ chiefs/kohler.html
Frederick D Kohler

Another of Broderick’s most intimate associates was New York hack driver Tom Maguire, one of the shoulder hitters for the Empire Club. Although twice married, and claimed to be “straight as an arrow,” “If he had no sons,” observed Lois Foster Rodecape, “still Tom was happily surrounded by young men on whom he lavished affection.” Lois Foster Rodecape “Tom Maguire, Napoleon of the New York Stage (Conclusion)" California Historical Society Quarterly, vol 21, no 3 (Sep., 1942), 239-275 In his New York days, Maguire took over management of the Star House on Reade Street at some point after the departure of “Captain Collins, the King of the Sodomites.” One historian has shown that the Star House acted as a “gay brothel,” since it was the site of the murder “of a young man, who was employed by the monster as barkeeper; who was forced to nightly lie with beasts in the shape of men...” Mark Caldwell New York Night: the Mystique and Its History (New York: Scribner, 2001), 133 Then, during his Gold Rush years, Maguire lived with Broderick “for almost five years, during which time Maguire aided in the forging of Broderick’s political organization, and Broderick helped Maguire, who eventually would reign over a western theatrical empire, success as a theater owner.” Stott 152

Tom Maguire, Napoleon of the Stage

With great wealth comes great power, and Broderick began to use it to make good on his threat to visit New York as United States Senator from California. Stevenson, Kohler, and Broderick were all determined for San Francisco to function like a Little New York, and immediately set about recreating the political clout of the fire-laddie system, with Kohler and Broderick playing prominent roles. This was just in the nick of time, because the infant city was repeatedly immolated by fast-moving fires — too many of which were being deliberately ignited by arsonists.

Body and Breeches

Prior to the Civil War, Whitman dreamed of following New York's roughs to California, as recorded in his poems. Perhaps he was receiving warm invitations from some particularly virile, wealthy, and politically powerful former New Yorkers. Tom Maguire, for example, maintained his "finger on the pulse of America's interests," and invited humorists Artemus Ward (Charles Farrar Browne) and Mark Twain to lecture in San Francisco. Lois Foster Rodecape “Tom Maguire, Napoleon of the New York Stage (Conclusion)" California Historical Society Quarterly, vol 21, no 2 (June, 1942), 141-182 By 1857, however, the nation entered a lingering great depression, and by 1860, both Walsh and Broderick were dead. Mike Walsh, who had risen in power to become Tammany’s own (largely co-opted) choice for New York Assembly, mysteriously died on the streets in March of 1859, intoxicated and robbed of his valuables. He had been drinking that night with fellow Californians such as thuggish prizefighters Billy Mulligan and Tom Hyer, as well as George Wilkes. Whitman’s Brooklyn Daily Times said, “What a career! A New York b’hoy — up to all the smartness and deviltry of the east side of town — fond of his friends, and they idolising him.” The Daily Times eulogist concluded that Walsh had been “a man of original talent, rough, full of passionate impulses... but he lacked balance, caution, — the ship often seemed devoid of both ballast and rudder.” David S Reynolds Walt Whitman’s America (New York: Knopf, 1995), 103 If the author was indeed Walt Whitman (and the style is extremely suggestive), this was not the last time he referred to a leader of men in nautical terms: consider his literary representations of Emerson, Whitman himself, and Lincoln as sea captains.

In 1859, David Broderick returned both triumphantly and pessimistically to New York, with forebodings of assassination, and it is very hard indeed to imagine Whitman not making time to visit Broderick before he returned to California. A scant few months later — in September of 1859 — Broderick was killed in one of history’s most famous duels. In fact, the story has been so oft repeated that we shall not recount it in detail here, instead focusing on its relevance to Walt Whitman. The proximate cause of the Broderick-Terry duel was Broderick’s public swearing fit at San Francisco’s International Hotel. Over his breakfast, he was reading an outrageous attack upon his honor in a speech delivered by California Justice David Terry. Terry’s friend, DW Perley, was sitting within earshot of the curse Broderick flung generally at Terry’s reputation, and took offense, challenging Broderick to a duel. Broderick rebuffed Perley’s challenge as coming from a social inferior, but he was soon blindsided by Judge Terry’s insistence on a duel, and was forced to agree to participate in one.

Although contemporary censors frequently suppressed the offending phrase, the true cause of the duel was a homophobic insult in Justice Terry’s speech. It came within a hair of violating that paramount Victorian taboo: alluding to the horrible sin not to be named amongst Christians. Terry had sneered that Broderick’s supporters were “the personal chattels of a single individual, whom they are ashamed of. They belong, heart and soul, body and breeches, to David Broderick.” Lynch 206 In other words, Broderick viewed his followers as chattels — wives or slaves. Since he owned their britches, he had a right to remove same. Since he owned their naked bodies, he had a right to use them. Under the code of the West, a refusal to seek revenge would be seen as a politically- and socially-fatal degree of cowardice. Terry had crafted the ultimate, irresistible bait for his bid to destroy Broderick, or die trying. In that, he succeeded.


It behooves us to look at the cautious language used in 1888 by the prolific historian Hubert Howe Bancroft to defend Broderick’s “true character.” Bancroft was anxious to dispell a reputation which had been “distorted by both enemies and friends into something abnormal.” The following remarks on Broderick’s androgyny and passionate friendships are slightly condensed from Bancroft’s account of California history. I quote at such length because of the importance of preserving the euphemisms with which Victorians defended the reputation of a gay hero:

...young Broderick was left without parental guidance in the metropolis, where his condition in life brought him in contact with the rude and muscular element. He became a chief among firemen, an athlete, a gladiator, the champion of weaker men who were his friends… although his origin was lowly, and his associations more or less debased, he seemed… to rise year by year on the shoulders of the electors of the ninth ward of New York City to higher and yet higher places… During these early years he attracted the attention and secured the friendship of George Wilkes, editor of the National Police Gazette, who for the remainder of his life was the Jonathan to this David, loving him with a devotion passing the love of woman... [Broderick followed the Gold Rush] to California in the spring of 1849, penniless and sick; for among the characteristics of this man of brawn and stature was a feminine sensibility, which had received many a jar in his political strife and failures, and pecuniary losses… Concerning Broderick, and the circumstances of his life, the evidence is now abundant, and it is time to present him in his true character, which has been distorted by both enemies and friends into something abnormal. I find nothing in it not easily accounted for by his circumstances and evident traits of constitution… Knowing that he had associated with New York roughs, and that he had used a similar class in San Francisco to elevate himself to power, it is natural to look for in him some habits of profligacy or wildness of deportment. On the contrary, he was known among his friends as one who smiled but seldom; who mourned because he had no kindred left on earth; a man of few confidences, often gloomy, and never gay. His loves and hates were intense, as was his power to inspire others with similarly strong sentiments. His personal adherents were lovers more than friends. Proud with the consciousness of his abilities, with womanly sensibilities held in control only by a powerful will, to those who knew him best he was a mystery. Hubert Howe Bancroft The Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft: History of California, vol. xxiii, (San Francisco: History Company, 1888), 659-70
Alexander Gardner or Mathew Brady: Walt Whitman, circa 1862

Shortly after the death of both b’hoys Mike Walsh and Dave Broderick, Whitman published the great Third edition of Leaves of Grass, containing his most underappreciated poem, “To My Soul” (also known as “As Nearing Departure”).

AS nearing departure,
As the time draws nigh, glooming from you,
A cloud—a dread beyond, of I know not what,
    darkens me.

I shall go forth,
I shall traverse The States—but I cannot tell whither
    or how long;
Perhaps soon, some day or night while I am singing,
   my voice will suddenly cease.

O Soul!
Then all may arrive to but this;
The glances of my eyes, that swept the daylight,
The unspeakable love I interchanged with women,
My joys in the open air—my walks through the Man-
The continual good will I have met—the curious
    attachment of young men to me,
My reflections alone—the absorption into me from
    the landscape, stars, animals, thunder, rain,
    and snow, in my wanderings alone,
The words of my mouth, rude, ignorant, arrogant—
    my many faults and derelictions,
The light touches, on my lips, of the lips of my com-
    rades, at parting,
The tracks which I leave, upon the side-walks and
May but arrive at this beginning of me,
This beginning of me—and yet it is enough, O Soul,
O Soul, we have positively appeared—that is enough.