What Really Killed Walt Whitman?


Arts & Culture

“Sit a while dear son,

Here are biscuits to eat and here is milk to drink,
But as soon as you sleep and renew yourself in sweet clothes, I kiss you with a good-by kiss and open the gate for your egress hence.” – “Section 46” of Song of Myself, Walt Whitman

At the start of every semester I ask my creative writings students what food they would choose to eat for their last meal. What they say reveals elements of their pasts, values, hopes, regrets. Students have answered crème brûlée, Papa John’s pizza, Ritz Crackers washed down with grape juice. My go-to is whole fried chicken, served cold, alongside champagne.

Beginning in a roundup of notable ailing figures titled “The Sick Among Us,” the New York Times chronicled the decline of Walt Whitman, whose two-hundredth birthday would have been today. In the article published December 18, 1891, he was said to have been “taken with a chill” and “quite feeble to-night, though not considered dangerously ill.” The poet was seventy-two years old, a celebrity the country over—his health warranted front-page news. Over the next few months, the Times continued with minute coverage of what turned out to be Whitman’s final days and diet. Among the liquids and solids mentioned, one in particular caught my eye—milk punch.

Milk punch dates back to the seventeenth century. The cocktail writer David Wondrich credits the drink to Aphra Behn, an English actress and writer noted for being one of the first women to make a living by publishing her work. Typically milk punch contains milk, sugar, a sprinkle of nutmeg, and bourbon, brandy, or rum—sometimes more than one. There are two main varieties: the creamy kind served in a glass right after mixing, and the clarified kind, bottled in advance. For the latter, milk gets curdled then strained, which creates a smoother flavor.

Whitman’s health problems had begun decades prior. In the summer of 1858, he experienced a small cerebral hemorrhage. While he continued to brag about his rosy complexion, his thick beard, and how he tipped the scales at more than two hundred pounds, the hemorrhage was the first of several strokes that would partially paralyze the poet on one side of his body. According to Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography by David S. Reynolds, Whitman received a number of confusing diagnoses throughout his life, which seeded a mistrust of doctors and medicine. In September 1869, one medical professional told Whitman the dizziness and sweating he was experiencing resulted from “hospital malaria, hospital poison absorbed in the system.” Vague diagnoses like this were common before germ theory.

After Whitman became sick that winter, he started a milk-punch diet. Many nineteenth-century medical textbooks included a variety of milk preparations for patients. The theory held that milk was mild, could be tolerated by a delicate stomach, and provided some nourishment. The alcohol was meant to work as a tonic, giving the immune system a temporary boost.

When the second Times update on Whitman’s health was published, he had been diagnosed with bronchial pneumonia and doctors visiting his Camden, New Jersey, home feared the poet would not “withstand the ravages of the disease, and … have about given up hope of his recovery.” Before Christmas Eve, Whitman stopped drinking milk punch, which, according to the Times, “strengthened him during the first few days of his illness.” Over a thirty-six-hour period, the poet ate just two oysters—one in the evening, another in the morning. Though his face was described as blue and pinched, Whitman rebounded for a moment and felt well enough to eat “a small mutton chop,” which was described by the Times as the most solid food he’d eaten since becoming sick.


Dr. David S. Barnes takes issue with the concept of cause of death.

“The idea that any individual person died of one thing and we can pinpoint one thing as the cause of death doesn’t correspond to the way the body works,” he told me. “Yet we need to agree upon causes of death for all sorts of reasons.”

Barnes, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, teaches a course on the history of medicine. I’d called him with questions about how Whitman treated his illness. By January 7, 1892, Whitman’s health was still fluctuating and the poet was back to drinking “a little milk punch.” Research on the topic led me to believe consuming milk might not have been the best idea for an elderly man with an already compromised immune system. In fact, I’d begun wondering whether drinking milk played a role in Whitman’s death.

Throughout the nineteenth century, dairy operations sprang up at distilleries. Spirit-makers needed to dispose of spent grains. Dairy cows were fed this swill (which was low in nutritional value) in stables where, according to Mark Kurlansky’s Milk!, the temperature sometimes reached 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Kurlansky writes of one report from New York issued in 1857 that described dairy cows who were tied in a single spot for their entire lives—usually about six months—while eating an average of thirty-two gallons of scalding swill from the distillery each day.

Of course those poor cows became sick and some diseases transferred to humans via what was dubbed swill milk. In 1858, the Times described the product as “a bluish, white compound of true milk, pus and dirty water.” Sometimes swill milk was whitened with plaster of paris. An article published in Undark claims, “In the 1880s, an analysis of milk in New Jersey found the ‘liquifying colonies [of bacteria]’ to be so numerous that the researchers simply abandoned the count.”

In 1892, according to Kurlansky, the federal government began testing all U.S. dairy herds for bovine tuberculosis and discovered that a concerning number of American cows were infected. A good amount of American milk was tainted with mycobacterium bovis. When supermagnified, M. bovis resembles fuzzy Cheetos. It can be transmitted and cause tuberculosis in humans, though only a small number of these cases were documented in the U.S.

I called Dr. Shelley Rankin, a microbiologist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, who researches bacterial pathogens of pets and livestock, to learn more about M. bovis.

Rankin is from Glasgow—Scotland’s most populous city. She was not raised on a farm, though she did once get chased by a dairy cow while visiting cousins who lived in the countryside. After university, she trained at the Scottish Salmonella Reference Laboratory as a molecular epidemiologist, focusing on the transmission of foodborne diseases.

One of the most important modern innovations in food production was introduced only after Whitman died—commercial pasteurization. During the poet’s life, all milk was raw milk. Drinking the stuff was like playing Russian roulette with a number of potentially fatal bacteria. M. bovis, for example, which is especially difficult to kill because its cell wall is lined with fatty acids that must be dissolved. Rankin doubted even a high ratio of alcohol-to-milk would do the trick.

“If Whitman was consuming raw milk from cows that were tuberculosed themselves,” she said, “there’s a reasonable chance there were very high numbers of mycobacterium bovis in the milk.”

The duration and progression of Whitman’s illness also led Rankin to believe the poet might have contracted tuberculosis from raw milk.

According to the Times, Whitman’s health continued fluctuating. On January 2, he ate “two small pieces of squab” and drank a glass of champagne. The next day he ate “a small quantity of calves’-foot jelly.” Days later, he could not move his limbs. He ate “a piece of toasted bran bread” and washed it down with milk. He tried milk punch again then, later in January, developed a coughing fit that lasted until his death. This pattern, Rankin told me, meant the pneumonia was likely not an acute case, nor the sole cause of death.

Barnes, in his objection to this theory, had wondered if swill and other bacteria-ridden milk was mostly consumed by the lower class. But according to Kurlansky, poor Americans wouldn’t have been able to buy milk of any kind. Purchasing milk was a luxury—one Whitman could’ve afforded. Merchants appealed to this idea by advertising PURE COUNTRY MILK or GRASS FED MILK, language echoed in upmarket packaging today.


I wanted my first taste of milk punch to be as close as possible to what Walt Whitman drank, which meant I needed raw milk. Friends involved with the local farm-to-table movement said they could get me raw goat’s milk, but I feared the milk would taste, well, goaty.

I was told the surest way to get raw cow’s milk in North Carolina, where I live, was to tell someone you wanted it for your pet. One day, I noticed a business advertising cream-top milk, which is pasteurized but nonhomogenized, meaning the cream floats on top, and went to inquire if they might connect me to a dairy farmer.

The proprietor was a heavyset, older man who spoke loudly. I told him a veterinarian had suggested I mix raw milk into my dog’s food whenever his stomach was upset. “I know you can’t sell raw milk here but—” The proprietor interrupted me. “Oh, we got raw milk,” he said. “It’s one of our biggest sellers.”

I opened a cooler and took the last two half-gallon jugs of raw. The label read: NOT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION. IT IS NOT LEGAL TO SELL RAW MILK FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION IN NORTH CAROLINA. While I paid in cash, the proprietor showed me a photo of the family who owns the local dairy. They looked happy—and the cows did, too. “Now I can’t tell you whether to share this with your four-legged friends or your two-legged ones,” the proprietor said.

Later that week, I took the milk to a friend’s house. Not only is this friend a poet, he has Whitman verse tattooed on the inside of his arm. I’d spent significant time browsing old milk punch recipes. One from 1763 belonged to Benjamin Franklin, who lived just across the river from the two-story house on Mickle Street purchased by Whitman in 1884. Franklin’s recipe would produce more servings than I needed and it called for curdling the milk to produce a clarified punch. I figured it more likely Whitman used a simpler recipe and found one in David Wondrich’s Imbibe!. It came from an 1862 edition of the Jerry Thomas Bartenders Guide: How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon Vivant’s Companion:

(Use large bar glass.)

1 tablespoon (2 tsp) of fine white sugar
2 tablespoons (2 TSP) of water
1 wine glass (2 oz) of cognac brandy
1/2 wine glass (1 oz) of Santa Cruz rum
1/3 tumbler of shaved ice

Fill with milk, shake the ingredients well together, and grate a little nutmeg on top.

Earlier in the day, my friend had sought assurance from a scientist he knows that we would not suffer Whitman’s fate. I’d called my sister, a medical student, and pressured her to calculate the odds of my survival. She wasn’t interested in my sad, writing-nerd’s attempt at living dangerously.

My friend and I worked up courage with red wine and other cocktails, then I mixed a serving of milk punch. He brought out small fluted glasses, which, in hindsight, may have been his way of increasing our chances of survival. Before we drank, he recited from Leaves of Grass: “All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, and to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.” Poets, I have learned, never miss a chance to recite a line or two.

The milk punch tasted medicinal, though the nutmeg and milk recalled a boozy horchata. Mostly I tasted brandy. I understood why the drink would be soothing for a sick person, though. It was strong enough to knock out a cow. In his book, Wondrich cites a newspaper article from 1873 that claimed milk punch is “the surest thing in the world to get drunk on, and so fearfully drunk, that you won’t know whether you are a cow, yourself, or some other foolish thing.”

The next morning I woke with a dull headache and waited to see if I’d develop symptoms from whatever bacteria had been floating in that raw milk. My stomach rumbled but no symptoms came. I was, it turned out, a foolish thing for worrying.


On January 19, 1892, the Times reported Whitman sat up in bed. It seemed that maybe he was on the mend. No more articles about the ailing poet were published until his death on March 26, 1892. Whitman’s last words were, “Warry, shift,” which the Times reports meant he wanted his attendant, Frederick Warren Fritzinger, to turn him over in bed.

Rankin admitted there was a lot of guesswork involved in determining whether drinking raw milk played a role in killing Walt Whitman. “I’ll go out on a limb,” she said when I pressed her for an answer, “and say based on what we’ve discussed and the information I have that it’s likely.”

Barnes was less certain. “I end up in an inconclusive place,” he told me. “There’s no way to know, there’s no way to do a C.S.I. investigation retrospectively.”

After Whitman died, a three-hour autopsy was performed on his body. Doctors concluded the cause of death was “… pleurisy of the left side, consumption of the right lung, general military tuberculosis and parenchymatous nephritis.” Not an uncommon fate for someone in this time and place. According to Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography, Whitman’s body “was riddled with tubercles and abscesses. An egg-sized abscess beneath his right nipple had completely eroded his fifth rib …”

Reading that, I remembered something Barnes said when I asked why late nineteenth-century doctors weren’t suspicious of giving raw milk to sick patients. “I think that impulse to say look at those barbaric doctors before we were enlightened,” he said, “that kind of condescending and ridicule of the medicine of the past, serves a function in the present, which is to reassure and comfort us now.”

I recognized a similar impulse in my pursuit and—and in Whitman’s, too.

In 1858, the same year he had his first stroke, Whitman wrote a series of columns under the pseudonym Mose Velsor that appeared in The New York Atlas. Titled “Manly Health and Training, with Off-Hand Hints Towards Their Conditions,” the columns weren’t attributed to the poet until more than a hundred years later, when a graduate student in English at the University of Houston put together the pieces while browsing microfilm.

In about 47,000 words, which were combined into a book published in 2017, Whitman addresses topics such as how a man should walk, the dangers of spending excess time with women, work, baseball, evening refreshments, grooming, mental fortitude. Milk is never mentioned. But Whitman does dispense thoughts on doctors: “The land is too full of poisonous medicines and incompetent doctors—the less you have to do with them the better.”

Abstaining from raw milk would not necessarily have allowed Whitman to live for years—or even days—longer. But there is something particularly American and a little ironic about his late-in-life decision to trust doctors, his willingness to try milk punch as a cure-all tonic when, in fact, it may have contributed to his demise.

“Never underestimate the bacteria,” Rankin said. “They’ve been around a lot longer than us and they’ll be here when we’re gone.”


Caleb Johnson is the author of the novel Treeborne. He grew up in Alabama and now teaches writing at Appalachian State University.