WARWICK — Located in an obscure section of the Warwick Cemetery on Route 94 is a burial plot known as the Wilder Family burial plot. Included among those laid to rest in that plot is a simple granite stone that identifies the person buried there as John Whitman Wilder.


To Warwick old-timers there is absolutely no question that the individual buried there is none other than the famed poet Walt Whitman’s son, John Whitman Wilder.


To famed Whitman critics’ such as Emory Holloway who seems to have devoted the bulk of his life in a quest to discover Whitman, his personal life and the meaning of his writings, the answer doesn’t appear to be so clear.


Quoting from Holloway’s Quest for Whitman’s ‘Manhood’ (incidentally provided by Warwick librarian/historian Sue Gardner), appears the following: “Holloway, as we shall see, did not accept Bryan Binns’ exact thesis-based in part on Whitman’s old-age “confession” to John Addington Symonds that he had sired six illegitimate children, two of whom were dead, as well as one Southern grandchild. But the future biographer did become committed to the idea that Whitman was heterosexual—mainly because Holloway refused to attribute what he considered a deviateemotionality to the genius he found in ’Leaves of Grass’.”


Later, however, perhaps after visiting the gravesite of John Whitman Wilder, in “Free and Lonesome Heart —The Secret of Walt Whitman”, a photo of John Whitman Wilder (Son of Walt Whitman) appears in the book. Then, Holloway conceded that, “the preponderance of evidence-testimonial, documentary and circumstantial-points, I feel sure, to Whitman as the father of John Whitman Wilder...”


Continuing, Gerry Chrisman, in “Reports of My Death: Beyond the Grave Confessions of North American Writers”, (also provided by Gardner) Whitman is recorded as writing, ”..Then there’s my past. With six offspring-two dead but the other four alive I can’t afford to take chances. One son, in particular-John Whitman Wilder — admires me greatly, I know that. I don’t for see him landing on my doorstep but he’s for sure to show up for my funeral or at least send flowers.


Incidentally, Whitman was evidently absolutely correct about John Whitman Wilder. For, in Whitman’s obituary and funeral account that appeared in “The Critic” on April 9, 1892, Wilder was not listed among the funeral attendees but he was listed among those who had sent flowers.


Whitman’s connection to Warwick appears closely connected to the Wilder family. Col. Victor A. Wilder and his wife, Mary Stevens Wilder, had purchased a 200-acre farm in Warwick, now known as the Hathorn Inn. Col. Wilder also owned, however briefly, Waywayanda in Vernon Township. Col. Wilder also had two maiden sisters, Agnes and Alice who lived with them.


Unfortunately, John Whitman Wilder’s obituary, that appeared in the Warwick Advertiser on February 17, 1911, discretely fails to shed any light or provide his parents’ identity. The obituary begins with “Sergeant Wilder was very popular in the circle of acquaintances he made when off duty in this town, where he came to visit his kindred. He had seen much of the world and was very companionable. All were pained to learn of his death. The military order issued was as follows: General Orders No. 6. Headquarters, Fort Hamilton, N.Y., February 19 th , 1911. It becomes the painful duty of the commanding officer to announce the death of Sergeant John W. Wilder, 84 th Co., C.A.C. which occurred at the post hospital at 3:15p.m., the 17 th instant.


“At the time of his death Sergeant Wilder was serving in his 10 th year of service. His entire service has been characterized by zeal and faithfulness, the dependence that could be and was placed in him at all times being a source of comfort and satisfaction to his officers. His conduct and deportment may well be emulated by all who desire to be good soldiers.


“The funeral will take place from the post hospital at 10 a.m., February 20 th , 1911: Interment at Warwick, Orange County, New York...”


Reportedly, John Whitman Wilder was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and he was 42 years of age when he passed away from heart failure and pleurisy at Hamilton, N.Y.


When the immediately retired Warwick historian Jean Beattie May, the author of Halycon Days, was asked about Walt Whitman and his son she responded by advising that her father’s best friend growing up, and in fact for his whole life was Donald Wilder, son of Victor, (Donald would have been John Whitman Wilder’s first cousin) who lived in Goshen with his wife, Janet. My father and Don spent many hours together as children and their fathers were good friends as well. I can’t remember when I first heard about Walt Whitman’s son, but oh my, how I wished I had asked my father or Uncle Don, as we called him about this.”


Old-timers asserted that following the birth of John Whitman Wilder the two maiden ladies purchased a home on Hoyt Road in Warwick where they resided for about 30 years. Census records suggest they also resided with Col. Wilder in Brooklyn, NY., where the two maiden ladies raised Col. Wilder’s “nephew,” John Whitman Wilder.


It was back in 1985 when local historian Mary Bahrman Mac Pherson, (1886-1987) co-author and local authority on famed Hudson River artist Jasper F.Cropsey, was asked about Walt Whitman and his son, John Whitman Wilder that she responded verbatim with the following:


“Walt Whitman? Walt Whitman, did you say?


You’ll have to talk a little louder.


I’m 98 you know, and I don’t hear as well as I did.


Yes, that’s much better.


Walt Whitman? Strange that you should ask.


Of course I knew Walt Whitman.


His son’s buried right here in Warwick.


Walt Whitman? Walt Whitman, did you say?


What? You never heard that before?


Well, I’m not surprised.


People in Warwick were loyal back then.


And they were tight-lipped about such things.


Do you know the Hathorn Inn?


It’s just off Route 94 and County Highway One


Well Col. Victor Wilder bought the old Burt place.


He was from Virginia you know.


He built around the house until it


resembled a Virginian mansion.


He even had a prestigious dining room with a


built up platform for a baby grand piano.


Well, Col. Wilder had two maiden sisters


that had come to live with him.


One was the mother of Walt Whitman’s son.


What would you call him? Illegitimate?


Later those two maiden sisters


bought property on Hoyt Road


just below the Warwick Conference Center


and they built a little house there.


Why didn’t Warwick claim Whitman’s son


as their native son?


Why he didn’t mingle with the people


and that makes all the difference, you know.


Walt Whitman? Walt Whitman, did you say?


Strange that you should ask.


Of course I knew Walt Whitman.


His son’s buried right here in Warwick.


I leave it to the readers. What do you think? Was, John Whitman Wilder actually Walt Whitman’s son?


Jennie Sweetman is the history columnist for the New Jersey Herald. She may be contacted at jenniee@warwick.net.