WALT WHITMAN and BILL DUCKETT:
MAN/BOY LOVERS

The proud couple

by Charley Shively

Bill Duckett's relationship to Walt Whitman can be glimpsed in the photograph of the two taken together around 1886. Whitman liked to sit for photographs, but in almost all of his poses he is on stage alone. (Another exceptional photograph shows him in 1865 perched on a love seat with Peter Doyle, whose hand touches the poet's thigh.) The sexual aura of the Whitman-Duckett photograph comes through despite the studio trappings of fake shore, flowers, and balcony. His elbow wavering near the crouch, Whitman leans one arm against Bill's thigh. Duckett, mean-time, has his arm somewhat self-consciously around the older man's neck. Duckett's crotch comes through in the photograph, and, despite scratches, there's just a distinct hint of cock under the formal pin stripes.

Bill Duckett looks awkward and ill at ease in the photograph. His short coat sleeves suggest he was still growing. In the nineteenth century, young men began wearing suit, tie, and hat at a very early age in order to bring themselves more rapidly and directly into the world of adulthood. The age of sexual consent was 10 in many states, and there were few child labor or compulsory school attendance laws. All accounts agree that Bill was young. In a letter of reference that Whitman wrote trying to get Bill employment, the poet vouched: "He is used to the city, & to life & people ~ is in his 18th year ~ has the Knack of Literature ~ & is reliable & honest ~" (22 June 86). Many young people add a few years in order to get a job; when I first went to work I lied and said I was 14, even though I was younger. As late as 1889, a press notice brought to Whitman's attention claimed "that a young man of 12, who drives him out, likes and will lecture on him after he is dead, having taken notes of all he has said." This press account distressed Whitman no end and the poet called it a "lie in big, big type. (With Walt Whitman in Camden, 6:167). The boy was probably not 12 in 1889, but neither was he 18 in 1886. My estimate is that Bill was 12 when the two began going together in 1884 and was 18 when they parted in 1889. He was unquestionably a teenager when Whitman knew him.

The two became acquainted in 1884 when Whitman was 65 years old. In Walt Whitman's handwriting, there is a two-page description of their life together, which purports to be written by Duckett, presumably written for Whitman's biographer and friend Richard Bucke. Duckett recalled: "I became acquainted with Mr Whitman in 1884 when he bought and moved in the little house at 328 Mickle Street, within three doors of which I lived. We boys had a quoit club, and W. made us a present of a handsome set of quoits for pitching. (Thomas Eakins has a painting of boys pitching quoits, a game resembling horse-shoes.) Soon Bill had moved in and set up house with Whitman. After they had broken up, Whitman said that his housekeeper, Mary Oakes Davis, had invited the boy in, but Bill claimed Whitman himself had taken the initiative. Whitman pretended to be outraged, "think of it! ~ that I invited him here, that he was my guest! ~ the young scamp that he is! Why, that is downright perjury, outrageous lying. (With Walt Whitman in Camden, 4:64).

Whether Whitman protested too much or not, the tie between them was much more than a casual acquaintance, and neither man nor boy disputes that Duckett lived with Whitman. For about five years Whitman keeps close track of the boy in his notebooks. They were nearly inseparable in 1885, particularly after September 15, when Whitman's friends bought him a horse and buggy. The poet wrote in his notebook in November 1885, "go out in wagon every afternoon ~ Wm Duckett drives." There is an 1885 picture of Duckett and Whitman in the buggy, all hitched up ready to go.

Duckett and Whitman on an outing
Duckett evidently moved into Whitman's house May 1, 1886, and, except for some short absences, the two lived together until December 1888, when the housekeeper expelled Bill because he wasn't paying her for his board. The short times Bill was away from Camden were carefully noted by Whitman in his notebooks. That the relationship was more than casual might be shown by Whitman's wanting to cover up such a simple matter as Billy's driving. In the summer of 1887 both the artist Herbert Gilchrist and the sculptor Sidney Morse moved into the house. Not only was Bill shunted aside, but Whitman wrote a sketch of himself for Morse's notebook, describing himself: "He wrote generally two or three hours a day, and often went out for a drive in a phaeton that his friends had presented him with. He drove himself." (In Re Walt Whitman, 382). The last sentence cannot be true ~ at least in 1887 ~ because Whitman was too weak for driving by himself.

In his own recollections, Bill wrote that Whitman "was entirely free from indelicacy or any unchastity ["in any form." is marked out here] whatever." Again, there seems to be a note of apology and cover up in even mentioning the question of chastity. Why would there be a need to even argue the issue? Edward Carpenter said that he had had sex with Walt Whitman and that the poet "thought that people should 'know' each other on the physical and emotional planes as well as the mental." Carpenter in 1923 demonstrated to the young Gavin Arthur just how Walt Whitman gave a blow job. "He snuggled up to me and kissed my ear. His beard tickled my neck. He smelled like the leaves and ferns and soil of autumn woods... . I just lay there in the moonlight that poured in at the window and gave myself up to the loving man's marvelous petting... . At last his hand was moving between my legs and his tongue was in my belly-button. And then when he was tickling my fundament just behind the balls and I could not hold it any longer, his mouth closed just over the head of my penis and I could feel my young vitality flowing into his old age. (Gay Sunshine Interviews, l:l26-28). Carpenter ~ like Sidney Morse ~ had first met Whitman in 1876 and felt he was carrying on the older man's religion by communing in this way with the bodies of young boys.

Whatever might have been the sexual relations between Duckett and Whitman ~ even if they never had sexual intercourse ~ they were certainly lovers. After their unharmonious separation, Whitman still recalled that "we were quite thick then: thick: when I had money it was as freely Bill's as my own. I paid him well for all he did for me." Not only did Bill go everywhere with Whitman ~ perhaps of necessity because of the older man's weaknesses ~ but many of their expeditions were more dates or outings than anything else. Thus they went to Billy Thompson's in Gloucester, New Jersey, for what Whitman called "a rousing dinner of shad & champagne" (Correspondence, 4:27). Another time they went to Sea Isle City and "stayed there at the hotel two or three days." In the summer of 1887, Whitman told the sculptor Sidney H. Morse, "I detest lemonade... . If one is going to drink anything ~ champagne, abstemiously taken, goes to the spot and don't make a fool of a fellow. A copious draught, also, not from habit, but, for instance, as the boys say". (In Re Walt Whitman, 388). Mary Oakes Davis claimed that after the poet died in 1892, the boys broke into the basement and drank all the champagne. Might Bill have been among their number?

Their most public performance together was in New York City, where, April 14, 1887, Whitman delivered his lecture on Abraham Lincoln at the well-filled Madison Square Theater. "He was accompanied," recalls Elizabeth Leavitt Keller in Walt Whitman in Mickle Street, "by William Duckett, a young friend who acted as valet and nurse, and it was on his arm the old man leaned as he came forward on the stage and stood a few minutes to acknowledge the applause of the audience." The house was packed and the author received $250 from gate receipts; Andrew Carnegie threw in an extra $350 for his box seat. Whitman wrote a friend that afterwards he "had a stunning reception ~ I think 300 people, many ladies ~ that evn'g Westminister Hotel ~ newspaper friendly, everybody friendly, even the authors. Correspondence, 4:87). Bill not only shared hotel facilities with his mentor but he served as hostess at the reception. The New York Evening Sun reported: "A young man who bore the double burden of receiving the cards of the callers and having the toothache had come over from Camden with Mr. Whitman as his attendant. He is William Duckett. In an hour Mr. Duckett had a very full hand of cards of distinguished men and the crowd became so great that he gave up trying to announce each newcomer" (Daybooks, 417-18). For a Camden orphan this event at the elegant Westminister Hotel must have been astonishing in its elegance; the Evening Sun leader began: "Poets, Artists, Men with Horse Sense, and Lovely Women in Line" and went on for 38 column-inches.

At a time when a first-class blast-furnace laborer in Carnegie's mills received only one dollar for a 12-hour day, the steelmaster's contribution of $350 represented an enormous amount of money. Possessions seem to have been at the heart of the falling out between Whitman and Duckett. In April 1889, Whitman was looking for some printed photos of himself; there had only been 250 to begin with; Whitman thought there had been 305. A rival suggested Bill might have taken them, and Whitman went off in a tirade: "I must not say who ~ only that they are probably stolen. I have had many things purloined, stolen, from the rooms here ~ books, pamphlets, papers, clothing, pictures. I had fully six or seven pairs of gloves ~ choice gloves given to me ~ gloves of some value; attractive, too, evidently to others. I had also half a dozen handkerchiefs, presents, some of them silk; choice, fine, beautiful; they are gone, too. Some of these things were souvenirs, some not." But he had to admit, "I am a great forgetter, mislayer: I hesitate to explain the missing things this way till all other explanations are exhausted" (With Walt Whitman in Camden, 5:82). Bill was living with Walt Whitman until forced to leave. When he gathered his belongings, they would have necessarily fallen together with his mentor's in their times together. Whose handkerchief was whose? Whitman himself had said that they shared everything.
 
 

Even if Bill had confused his own and his lover's belongings, this was presumably not a new development in 1888-89. Why did the falling out come then? Among lovers there seems to be a cooling off of physical ardor after three or four years; whether it's fatigue, boredom, restlessness or whatever, a crisis inevitably arises after a few years together. People are always changing ~ something of a shock both to the self and to others. Sometimes these changes weld the couple further together; other times, pull them apart. If one of the lovers is a teenager, the difficulties are compounded because of the rapidity of growth and change in these years. Likewise with an elder partner ~ particularly in their 60s and 70s ~ physical changes can be rapid. When Whitman ended his stay with Peter Doyle in Washington, he had a stroke. So now as his ardor cooled with Duckett, his body collapsed. In June 1888 the poet suffered a stroke, which essentially left him bed-ridden the rest of his life.

Whitman's hopes for Duckett do not seem to have been realized. He wanted the young man not only as a companion but also as a Boswell. Duckett's letters and notes to Bucke, which attempted to record details of life with the poet, were carefully cultivated and supervised by Whitman. Some have suggested that Duckett was only interested in wheedling money out of Dr. Bucke, but I think a more likely explanation was that Duckett failed to become the amanuensis Whitman was looking for. Between man and boy lovers, tension sometimes develops if the more experienced man tries too hard to shape the boy into an inappropriate mold. Whether Duckett tried and failed to please Whitman or whether Duckett simply resented the pressure being laid upon him is unclear now.

But the reason Whitman gave up the relationship as readily ~ if he did not in fact precipitate the break ~ was amply because he found a young man more suitable to his needs. He had first tried to get the sculptor Sidney Morse to keep a journal of the home life of the poet, had given him a blank book and dedicated it in May 1887. Whitman even wrote a sample for Morse as he had for Duckett, but the artist was no more cut out for such work than the quoit player. The great amanuensis was found a year later in Horace Traubel. Unlike Duckett, Traubel was not working class; he was a newspaper man, highly literate. Born in Camden in 1858, when he meshed with Whitman in 1888, he was nearly twice as old as Duckett. Whether Traubel ever had sex with Whitman or whether they were lovers is less important than the way in which Traubel immediately supplanted Bill. On March 28, 1888, Traubel began his daily journal With Walt Whitman in Camden, a journal he kept until the poet's death in 1892. The book has been published in six volumes to date and has only reached July 1890. (Volume 1 appeared in 1906; volume 6, in 1982.) Traubel hardly disguises his loathing for Bill Duckett. And in getting rid of Bill, the housekeeper was a ready ally. Some have suggested that Mary Oakes Davis, Whitman's housekeeper, was in love with the sage, "gladly sacrificing her life for one whom she doggedly though secretly loved." She also seems to have specialized in older, dying men. Before coming to keep house for Whitman, she had got half the estate of a sea captain whom she cared for; she married another seaman, who died at sea. And after Whitman died, she sued his estate, claiming that the thousand dollars left her was insufficient for all the expenses she had been out in caring for the famous bard. She succeeded in her suit and essentially got all the money left the estate in 1894.

In 1889, the litigious Mary Oakes Davis took William Duckett into court, claiming he owed her for board. First she retained a Camden lawyer, who discouraged her; Traubel claimed the lawyer was associated with Duckett. Then she retained a Philadelphia lawyer, who charged her a hefty $40 fee. Bill had some funds held by the Philadelphia Fidelity Trust from his dead father. Since he was a minor, the lawyer brought a claim against the estate ~ a case which could be handled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where the money was being held ~ rather than in Camden, New Jersey, where the alleged debt had been incurred. On February 1, 1889, Bill Duckett took the stand and said he had been invited by Walt Whitman and had always been a guest. Accepting Mary Davis's word against the boy's, the judge rendered a decision against the Duckett estate, granting Davis $190.

Whitman's role in this eviction is somewhat curious. He was now quite bed-ridden and dependent on Mary Davis. In fact, she even threatened to quit after Whitman had his stroke. "Mary has lived with me now for some years:" the poet told Traubel, "three or four years: we have never even had any misunderstanding: no words: yet the nearest we ever came to quarrel was just about Bill: this young rascal who's now trying to evade his obligations" (With Walt Whitman in Camden, 4:64). While calling the boy a liar, Whitman indicated that he still had a soft spot for the lad: "poor boy! poor boy! I pity him: I would receive him today if he needed me: would help him: I am sure I would be the first to help him. I liked Bill: he had good points: is bright ~ very bright." Whitman claimed that he himself had asked the boy to leave many times: "told him he must not stay. Bill would swear by all that was holy that he would by and by make all that right: would almost literally get down on his knees then I would weaken."

Both Traubel and Davis kept Duckett from seeing Whitman. When the boy came to call on Mickle Street, he was not allowed to get to the poet's bedroom on the second floor. But in June of 1889, when Whitman was out by the front stoop, Bill was able to melt the older man's heart again with a story of his recently deceased sister. Whitman gave him $10 from some recently collected birthday money. However, when Bill wrote in December requesting a loan of $10 or $15, his letter seems not to have been answered. That letter of December 20, 1889 ~ just at Christmas time ~ is the last surviving connection between the two men.

For Whitman, Billy was first and foremost his wild-driving horse man; Whitman tried to get him a job on the railroad ~ twice he got jobs with the railroad, but both times lasted only a short time. Recording the Duckett details, Traubel was mistaken when he thought Whitman had "got on a new track." "Do you know much about the transportation men? ~ the railroad men, the boatmen?" Whitman mused. "It seems to me that of all modern men the transportation men most nearly parallel the ancients in ease, poise, simplicity, average nature, robust instinct, first handedness: are the next the very a b c of real life... . I am au fait always with wharfmen, deckhands, trainworkers." Bill doesn't seem to have been cut out for the transport any more than for the writing business ~ perhaps like Whitman, he enjoyed watching more than being a deckhand ~ perhaps he was more suited to be a counter jumper (i.e., a sales clerk) at a notion store on Market Street in Philadelphia, where he worked for a while.

Whitman's word on Duckett is confused and inconsistent. Duckett's on the older man may be equally disingenuous, but it's a happy note to conclude on. Bill said of Walt: "He always gave me good advice and help, and was the best friend I ever had."
 
 

Works Consulted

Keller, Elizabeth Leavitt. Walt. Whitman in Mickle Street. New York, 1921.

Leyland, Winston, ed. Gay Sunshine Interviews, vol.1. San Francisco, 1978.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden, vol 4, January 2l -April 7, 1888, ed. Sculley Bradley. Philadelphia, 1953. Vol 5, April 8 - September 15, 1888, ed. Gertrude Traubel. Carbondale IL, 1964; Vol 6, 15 September 1889 - 6 July 1890, ed. Gertrude Traubel and William White. Carbondale IL, 1982.

Traubel, Horace, Richard Maurice Bucke, and Thomas B. Harned, eds.,In Re Walt Whitman. Philadelphia, 1893.

White, William. "Billy Duckett: Whitman Rogue". American Book Collector 21 (Feb. 1971): 20-23.

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence, 6 vols, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. New York, 1961-1977.

--. Daybooks and Notebooks, 3 vols, ed. William White. New York, 1978.

--. Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts, 6 vols, ed. Edward F. Grier. New York, 1984.

from The NAMBLA Bulletin, Vol. 7, No. 4 (May, 1986), Pgs. 8 - 10.

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