In the Patent Office Hospital: An Experiment in Biography

by Thomas Lisk


                                            I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person,

                                            My hurts turn livid upon me as lean on a cane and observe."[1]



                                          "The man who is his own master knocks in vain at the doors of poetry."[2]



                                           It's O for a manly life in the camp."[3]



     During the Secession War, the Patent Office in Washington was pressed into service as a hospital. Arrayed in the dark cases in the night no longer candle-lit or gas-lit, details stood sentry for the wounded: the steel apple-corer, the egg beater, the lignum vitae hammer, a combination plane and rasp, the conical minié ball (a French invention, patented in the U. S. too), the brass firescreen, a patented fragment of the true cross, vulcanized fishermen's trousers, lead tubes for artists' colors, a fully adjustable drum head, the phrenological skull modifier, the game of cities, the by-laws of a new religion, the double-pinned copper hinge, Franklin's bi-ocular spectacles and glass harmonica, everything that does and does not fit the mystery, dry now and covered with thin dust under the smudgy glass, the imaginary, the actual and the believed-in, loose detritus arrayed in something like order, though nothing really connects with the thing next to it, and the whole is larger but less than life.

            Among the cases, a victim lies in a cot, detached from himself but tethered in his own pain. Moans from a pneumoniac echo between the glass cases looming over his bed; the amputee on the other side is silent. Further, behind the cases are other cases: intermittent and remittent fevers, rheumatics and phthistics, poison victims, sunstroke victims, the contused, bruised and fractured--and of course, the wounded: incised and lacerated wounds, healing and suppurating wounds, gunshot and blade wounds, foot wounds and scalp wounds.[4]

            "Let us examine this case," a doctor had said to a student colleague that afternoon, and wheeled in the patient's direction a patented version of Mesmer's "baquet," half an oak cask honeycombed with bottles of magnetized water and covered with a sieve-like lid through which jointed steel rods could be made to touch the magnetized water and pass its currents to his ailing parts.

            A little while later, while the sun was still shining, a heavy, gray-haired man with a furled umbrella and an open fan came and asked if he could do any little thing for the patient. He looked old to the patient. A mist of sweat covered the man's forehead, but he smelled of jasmine. He called the patient "dear," offering him a stick of horehound candy and touching his motionless hand on the mattress. Under his cascading mustache the old man's mouth was twisted, ugly; the stick of bitter candy looked like the rod of Satan. Refusing to be mesmerized, the patient turned his head away and closed his eyes. The old visitor shuffled off between the cases. No alienist, no doctor for the psyche replaced him. The patient was on his own.

            Now the room is dark but for moonlight and starlight coming through the big curtainless windows. The night is beautiful, bare-bosomed, girdled in stars. There is no reason to die.

            Is the light this night the light of this world or some other?


            In three large rooms on the second floor, the wounded and sick were bedded between "high and ponderous glass cases, crowded with models in miniature of every kind of utensil, machine or invention, it ever enter'd into the mind of man to conceive, and with curiosities and foreign presents--"[5] Walt Whitman’s own words in Specimen Days. To patent something is to lay claim to it, to try to own and control it, and to regard such ownership as a right. The by-laws of a new religion would not be patented but copyrighted; authors too have a right to own their work. The patient would say he would give everything he owns to have the right to be free from pain. If there were such a right.

            Two rows of patients' beds were placed between the glass cases down the center of the room. "Between these cases are lateral openings, perhaps eight feet wide and quite deep, and in these were placed the sick."[6] Around the upper part of the hall ran a gallery where more beds were placed. "It was, indeed, a curious scene, especially at night when lit up. The glass cases, the beds, the forms lying there, the gallery above, and the marble pavement under foot--the suffering, and the fortitude to bear it in various degrees--occasionally, from some, the groan that could not be repress'd--sometimes a poor fellow dying, with emaciated face and glassy eye, the nurse by his side, the doctor also there, but no friend, no relative--such were the sights lately in the Patent office. (The wounded have since been removed from there, and it is now vacant again)."[7]


            The old man, proud of his loafing, jotted notes for the big picture but ignored details. What was in the glass cases? What did some of the patients look like, beyond their emaciated faces and glassy eyes? Do all the victims of Dachau and Belsen standing on the wrong side of the fence begin to look the same? But perhaps it is not fair to compare the wounded soldiers of the Secession War to the victims of concentration camps. In an army hospital, victims and victimizers are sometimes reversed. Nor is it fair to fault the old man for withholding detail. Elsewhere in Specimen Days he lists specifics about other things. And of course, he's famous for the lists in his poems. A little later in his notes about the war he says, "I go around with an umbrella and a fan,"[8] and that umbrella and fan create a character.


            The Patent Office housed the office where the old man worked when he wasn’t visiting the hospitals. In January 1865 he was appointed to the position of “first-class clerk (lowest grade) in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Department of the Interior.”[9] The Bureau of Indian Affairs was “located in the northeast corner basement of the Patent Office.”[10]


            Maybe the old man too had grappled with rage. Had smiled more beatifically when the bad smells in the hospitals reminded him of his crazy older brother Jesse, who never wore perfume a day in his life. Or his sister-in-law Nancy who smelled so bad after Andrew’s funeral that Jeffy had to leave the room.[11] Maybe he saw the patient's name on the little card in the rack on the wall at the head of his bed: name, disease and prescribed diet. Maybe what he read stuck inside him and when the patient turned away he started thinking of his rage in the ugly monosyllable "Lisk, that helpless dying bastard," as if he were afraid of becoming the patient, becoming lost to posterity. Maybe the old man hated his family, his solitude, his body, but would never admit it. He had listened to the phrenologist Lorenzo Fowler, whose firm distributed his books. The Fowler and Wells slogan was "Self made or never made." Never made. Ex nihilo nihil fit.

            If the old man came close again and if the patient could only stand up for himself, he'd show the old man he is a good four inches taller than the old man (as if the patient were proud of his body, which he was given as a gift, as if the old man had anything contrary to be proud of.) The patient had wanted to be exactly as tall and weigh exactly as much as Lincoln, and he made it, but Lincoln was angular and rawboned and strong and he was soft and tubular and weak. Is it the patient's destiny to feel helpless, like his father? (His boozing ex-soldier father was helpless. Who knows how he felt?) Was it the patient's destiny? For he has only a past, the past, now.

            Pneumonia, pneumonia, pneumonia, the sweet low call of a Greek goddess beckoning the man in the cot. But his problems are all in his head. He can breathe freely, inhale the smells of wool and wood and dust and human sweat, with now and then a draft of empty air. "Pleuropneumonia," he heard one of the doctors say gravely at someone else's bedside, and imagined his own chest full of wet cells, lungs like hot red sponges. Every breath reminds him of images disappearing into the waiting dark. Can we conquer disease? Malaise?

            Never made. One has a duty to improve oneself. Who, having dreamt of naked slaves sleeping under blankets of the odor of magnolia and jasmine, the men tumid and smooth, the women moist and yawning; who, having hated his brother, can say his own heart is pure and that the thoughts or actions of another are not--not wrong, but not pure. As the old man's brother Jesse, a syphilitic sailor, was pure. Walt loved his brother as himself. Wrong as a man can be, full of evil as a pleasure palace teeming with spirochetes. But pure. The quintessence of himself. Having enslaved himself to identity, having chained himself to himself away from any consummation with the outside world (except it come into him through his senses) how could the old man fail to understand the slave's yearning for freedom. But freedom may be harsh, for as the slave gains freedom he loses identity as a slave. And one losing identity becomes afraid and sometimes indulges in bravado to display a reassuring false identity. Did Whitman think: As I remain integral with myself I keep identity while losing it, keep freedom too by losing it. All around me are slaves. How can I help them if I can't free myself?


            At about the same time Whitman headed South to look for his wounded brother George and to do good works and get out of himself, further north a forty-one year old Caucasian woman was chained in her suffering.

            In October 1862 in Portland, Maine, "Dr." Phineas Parkhurst Quimby emancipated Mary B. Patterson from a life of comprehensive female invalidism. 

            In December, 1843 Mary Baker, age 22, had married Washington "Wash" Glover and moved with him shortly thereafter from New Hampshire to Charleston, South Carolina, where he started a contracting firm. Six months later, on a business trip, Glover caught yellow fever and died, leaving his wife pregnant and destitute in South Carolina. With help from the members of Glover's masonic lodge, Mary made her way to New York, where her brother George picked her up and brought her back to the Baker farm in Concord, New Hampshire. In September, 1844, Mary Baker Glover gave birth to a son, George Washington Glover. (In 1829, when Walt Whitman was ten, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman gave birth to a son, George Washington Whitman, who was to become a success on the Union side in the Secession War, the brother Walt went into the war to find.)

            Several years later, having reluctantly farmed her son out to be cared for by others, on June 21, 1853, Mary Baker Glover married a handsome dentist, Daniel Patterson, who used the title "Dr." as an honorific he had bestowed on himself. His business did not thrive and they moved frequently, trapped in penury. Increasingly miserable, Mary Baker Glover Patterson became an almost complete invalid.

            On October 14, 1861, just before Dr. Patterson left for Washington "with a commission from the governor of New Hampshire to smuggle certain funds to northern sympathizers in the South,"[12] he wrote from Rumney, New Hampshire to Dr. Quimby at the International House Hotel in Portland, Maine, beseeching the healer to travel to Concord to examine Mary: "My wife has been an invalid for a number of years is not able to sit up but a little and we wish to have the benefit of your wonderful powers in the case."[13]

            Quimby declined to make the trip, and it took Mary exactly a year to get to Portland under her own power. Meanwhile, having trooped off to war, Patterson was captured by rebels and ended up in a Confederate prison. By the time he escaped and made his way north to his wife, she no longer needed him. She had Dr. Quimby.

            Another self-styled "Dr." with no medical credentials, Phineas Quimby was a white-haired man with a modest pompadour, a white mustachless beard like Lincoln's and dark, serious eyes. He was past sixty when he wet his hands and stroked Mary Patterson's head and listened attentively to her story. Then he issued her Emancipation Proclamation. He told her that her problems were all the result of a too ardent belief in material sense. He helped her to see that she was first and foremost a creature of spirit, and that her pains were only errors of thinking. A dozen years later, during Reconstruction, this same woman wrote:

Filled with revenge and evil passions, the malpractitioner can only depend on manipulation, and rub the heads of patients years together, fairly incorporating their minds through this process, . . . . Through the control this gives the practitioner over patients, he readily reaches the mind of the community to injure another or promote himself, but none can track his foul course. . . . Controlled by his will, patients haste to do his bidding, and become involuntary agents of his schemes, while honestly attesting their faith in him and his moral character. . . . Try it, whoever will, manipulate the head of an individual until you have established a mesmeric connection between you both, then direct her action, or influence her to some conclusion, . . . you will find the more honest and confiding the individual, the more she is governed by the mind of the operator.[14]

The book in which that venomous passage appears, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, became the textbook of a new religious sect. The text was neither scientific nor healthy. Like Leaves of Grass, it went through several editions. This passage disappeared.


            In April 1855, the monthly Phrenological Journal explained that the firm of Fowler and Wells had "established a Patent Agency."[15] The magazine invited readers to send in descriptions, rough sketches and models. "Our agency for the sale of patent rights will not in the least interfere with our business of procuring patents for new inventions. Both will be conducted independently, and with care and fidelity."[16] Thus from early on, the phrenologists' confident belief in the human capacity for self-improvement was, not unnaturally, linked to inventiveness and money-making. As was Christian Science for Mary Baker Eddy.


            In a photo taken when she was forty-two, Mary Baker Glover Patterson had beautiful cheekbones, big even eyes, a little smile. She looks like a woman the patient could love in the future, after the war, maybe even a little like a woman he does love. But the patient also wanted to think that, like Phineas Quimby, he could have healed a woman like Mary Patterson of her valetudinarian life simply by not being a doltish husband but a kind and gentle partner who would find ways to delight her. But there Quimby and he would part company. The patient would awaken her senses, for, like Whitman, the patient thinks the way to the soul is through the senses.


            The patient lies in his cot, wishing he could write, but this pain in his head makes the light nauseating, makes him gag on himself when he tries to sit up straight. All around him the inventions of better minds and stronger wills oppress him with their solidity. If it weren't for his pain he would feel as ephemeral as smoke. If the old visitor could read the patient's mind . . . . So much of his skull under the bandages is bare now, it would be an easy read for Fowler or Wells, whose Broadway Emporium the patient would like to visit if he could go back in time (for him there is no certainty of future). But this room full of cases reminds him of what he has read about the Phrenological Cabinet, except that the Cabinet was only a Golgotha, a place of skulls, as a joke, and this is a real place of suffering, this cabinet of horrors.

            It gives him a little escape to think of the displays at Clinton Hall, a place he will never actually see. There Fowler and Wells displayed dozens of skulls, as well as busts, heads, life masks and death masks, and not one of them exhibited the slightest feeling, all of them looking like Wordsworth's "marble index of the mind." Obsessed with heads, this actual family--Fowlers intermarried with Wellses--collected symbolic representations of saints and thieves, cannibals and Christians, giants and pygmies, but only from the neck up. In their cases the patient could have examined casts of the heads of Chang and Eng, the celebrated Siamese Twins, a living meditation on identity, a walking manifestation of the paradox of the one and the many. He could have compared his head's circumference with Washington's, learned whether his "vitativeness" was greater or lesser than Clara Barton's, measured his cerebral capacity for veneration against that of an African-American woman who prayed from sunup to sundown with a diseased brain.

            Perhaps in one of the Clinton Hall display cases is an engraving of the hold of a slave ship, stiff black figurines lined up in airless rows like Islamic calligraphy, head to aching head, with no cots to soften their sleep or cabinets to separate them from their kerosene-smelling sweat of terror and despair. Here was the real Golgotha, a nightmare to exceed the worst delirium tremens. Did hope enable them to survive? Did they think life would better when they arrived? What an exhibit such a ship would make today. But what never survives (and always survives) is the minds of the victims. If they were like us, we already know what they thought and felt.

            The sick and the well were packed together. No one recognized emotional indispositions or subtle derangements. Imagine being chained in a dark space so small you couldn't stand up, smelling shit and urine and listening to the pissing and moaning of others. What a luxury to get attention merely for being blue. But thrashing in your chains earned you no favors, no relief. And if you went mad in your manacles, so much the worse. Why didn't slave traders protect their investments better? A healthy slave could be worth a thousand dollars. Try Dr. Lisk's patented slave cabinet and capital protector. Think, man. Physician, heal thyself. "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so," one of the epigraphs to Science and Health is not the voice of Shakespeare but of one of his characters, Hamlet. The voice of Shakespeare himself is hard to hear. Some, including the old man’s friend William O’Connor, doubt he even existed.

            Would the patient have plotted and planned and been ready twenty years later when Brigadier General Edward Wild, a white medical doctor with a degree from Harvard, commanded two regiments of black troops who marched into the northeastern counties of North Carolina "to clear the country of slaves and procure recruits for his brigade?"[17] Would he have become a member of that "wild African brigade”[18]and calmly shot and bayonetted the Secessionist blackguards who had, at least symbolically, raped his mother and hamstrung his (unknown) father? "Blackguards" is a curious term; its use in the English language antedates wide familiarity with Africans.

            But the ignominious fact is that the patient didn't fight. He fell ill before he got the chance. Now he lies, at death's door--a black, arched portal leading nowhere, not even to blackness, but to annihilation.  Maybe was there some comfort in knowing he was not alone, that dozens of others were in the same drunken boat. An African woman leans over him to comfort him, dangling her wet nipples in his face, gently offering him sustenance, calling him her son. (He has seen engravings of bare-bosomed African women.)

            As he lies suffering and thinking about women's bosoms, there are no breasts in the display cases. All the figures stop just above the place where he would like to lay his weary head. What a peculiar form of touch to palpate only the head, to ignore the soft mammalian hair and seek the gentle ups and downs of the bony substructure. With his peculiar head wound he prefers not to be touched there, at the seat of the feelings. But back home he longed to touch and be touched, derived a voluptuous pleasure from thinking about the soft curves of women in loose, flowing dresses, not laced up in muslin, steel and whalebone. Contemplating the contents of the Phrenological Journal, he found much to agree with and daydream about in Orson Fowler's advocacy of the natural, his temperance and anti-lacing stances, his frankness about sex. The gentleness of vegetarianism appealed to the patient too, and his experience with a drunk father inclined him to be cautious about intoxicants. 

            But here whisky is easy to come by, and other drugs and painkillers dispensed freely. Behind one of the display cases, a man suffering from delirium tremens reminds the patient of his father fighting air filled with hissing snakes and alligators with bared fangs. Nothing seems to help the patient. It helps the patient to contemplate Nothing.


            "Rub a pickaninny's wool for luck," they used to say, a selfish touch from which the child might well recoil, a touch offering nothing, no love, and hoping to take away only luck, not pain.


            Phineas P. Quimby--what a perfect name for a mountebank. But Quimby was apparently wise and sincere according to his gifts. He never claimed the ability to heal by touch; he knew the therapeutic power of talk, and the need for a little mumbo-jumbo, hocus pocus to put the subject at her ease. He wet his hands and stroked her hair to control the electricity that can constrict follicles and make women swoon. When Quimby stroked her hair, Mary Baker Glover Patterson closed her eyes and opened her lips. She felt the pain begin to drain away. Quimby's pink tongue began to flicker, probing the secret places of her pain and slowly turning them into pleasures, then into serenities beyond pleasure.


            "Many years later the Phrenological Journal would carry an article entitled, 'Will the Man of the Future Be Able to Control His Dreams?'"[19] Because of all the booze, delirium tremens was one of the commonest "diseases" in the hospitals wards during the war. What goes on in your head in dreams? What did Whitman dream of after a day of visiting sick and wounded young men? How would I feel in a hospital full of sick young women? Would I be drawn to them because of, or in spite of, their wounds and ailments? Blood and bloody muslin may have reminded Whitman of what he preferred to forget about women, what--for all its frankness about sex--is absent from Leaves of Grass. Women in muslin summer dresses. Women used to seeing blood. Did he know the suckling mother doesn't menstruate? Courtesy of Fowler and Wells,

            Obstetricians and prospective mothers could be supplied with obstetric plates, improved breast pumps, and nipple shields; students could obtain Prince's Protean fountain pens and symbolical self-sealing envelopes.[20]


                        From his vantage point in the cot he can't see everything at once, but he can imagine all around him beautiful skeletons the color of cream vellum and articulated with fine wires, head after head of plaster or stone or wood lined up like elliptical periods on plank after plank of shelving, "manikins imported from Paris and priced at a thousand dollars,"[21] and items such as "Dr. Briggs' Patent Suspenders and Woodruff's Patent Self-Acting Gate,"[22] which helpfully clicks shut behind him. Here is the black skeleton of a patented sewing machine, the skeletal arms of the patented Vermont windmill, a bony wheel with digital cogs (patented) for poking holes in the earth to plant corn, and a new, improved (and patented) handmill especially "for Farmers and Emigrants,"[23] and The Patent Hat: Designed to promote the growth of certain undeveloped bumps, and thereby to increase the thinking, reasoning and acting powers of the wearer (the title of a book by a firm competing with Fowler and Wells).[24]


                        “I am the man, I suffered, I was there” is a curiously detached statement of identity. If it were true as a statement of imagination, the patient would be embarrassed to say it, for fear that someone who had actually been there and suffered might hear and be offended, or contradict. Imagining suffering is not the same experiencing it, though much suffering is the result of imagination rather than "objective experience." A depressed person may suffer constantly, imagining the accumulated but temporary suffering of others, but to say one empathizes with another’s suffering does nothing to relieve that other’s suffering. For the old man’s experience of the patient’s suffering wouldn’t be the same experience as the patient’s. Though he can imagine experience other than his, he has no way of gauging the intensity of the feelings of others, or the relative intensity of his own.

                        Would the old man have absorbed the patient somehow, taken away his identity and made him a cipher that stood for Walt Whitman: the patient’s longing to be with his girl on a warm summer's night, his skill with tools, his deep conviction of his mother's love, his cowlick, his memory of the afternoon the dog bit the letter carrier? Would the old man have taken away the patient's identity and made him into an everyman, imagined him as if he were a pleasant multi-colored blur, or already dead? Hoping to slip free of nightmares and suffering, to heal your wounds inside, the patient imagines waking on a Saturday morning free of obligations, happy and fully alive. He may not be old Walt, but what he is is neither more nor less. Everything is the same as it was before the gray-haired visitor touched his hand, but the patient has left and returned whole again.


[1] Walt Whitman: Complete Poetry and Collected Prose (New York; Library of America, 1982), p. 225. Hereafter cited as LOA.

[2] Quoted in F. O. Matthiesen, “A Few Herbs and Apples,” Emerson (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice Hall, 1962), p. 104.

[3] LOA 418.

[4] For a list of diseases in Brooklyn Hospital, which Whitman, writing as Velsor Brush, described in the New York Leader in 1862, see Charles I. Glicksberg, Walt Whitman and the Civil War (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1933), p. 45.

[5] LOA 717.

[6] LOA 717.

[7] LOA 717-718

[8] LOA 734.

[9] Jerome Loving, Walt Whitman, The Song of Himself (Berkeley: University of California, 1999), p. 283. Hereafter cited as Song.

[10] Loving, Song 283.

[11] Gay Wilson Allen, The Solitary Singer (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1985), p. 306.

[12] Julius Silberger, Mary Baker Eddy (Boston: Little, Brown, 1980), p. 58; other facts about Mary Baker Eddy are from Gillian Gill, Mary Baker Eddy (Reading, Massachusetts: Perseus Books, 1999).

[13] Silberger 60.

[14] Mary Baker Eddy, 1st Edition of Science and Health, quoted in Silberger 121-122.

[15] Madeline Stern, Heads and Headlines (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971), p. 135.

[16] Quoted in Stern 135.

[17] Quoted in John G. Barrett, The Civil War in North Carolina (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1963), p. 177.

[18] Glicksberg 187.

[19] Stern 73.

[20] Stern 137.

[21] Stern 136.

[22] Stern 136.

[23] Stern 136, quoting the Phrenological Journal.

[24] Stern 136.