Sunday, September 22, 2013

In war and peace, Byron De Wolfe churned out verse. Given the speed of his pen, it could have been worse

This broadside was one of The Steam Engine Poet's best-sellers.

The Wandering Poet of New Hampshire sold his verse by the syllable – four for a penny. He churned it out with such vigor that he sometimes signed himself not as “The W.P. of N.H.” but as “The Steam-Machine Poet.” He had the name for the job, too: George Gordon Byron De Wolfe. Sometimes he shortened it to Byron De Wolfe.

His times provided all the pomp, pathos and mayhem a popular versifier could desire. Murder and sudden death, clambakes and funerals, politics and the Civil War all fed De Wolfe’s vocation. It is hard to know how much money he made, but speed was an asset. A self-promoting note on a broadside for the 1860 election, “Breckenridge’s Lament,” guaranteed he could write 40 lines in 10 minutes.

The quality of those lines was in the eye of the beholder. Here’s a sample from “Abe Lincoln the Rail Splitter!”

There is a name to ev’ry tongue
    Of ev’ry despot bitter –
Since freedom’s songs to day are sung
     For Lincoln, the rail-splitter –
For him enthusiastic cheers
     From east and west arising,
Bring to our foemen’s bosoms fears
     For those they’re idolising.

Born in Digby, Nova Scotia, in 1835, De Wolfe came to New England with his family at the age of 20. Soon he was touring the region peddling his poems. He married in 1860 and lived in Nashua with his wife Eliza, a native of England, although he sometimes gave other addresses for his mail-order work.

De Wolfe’s business model was simple. He offered quick service at a set rate. He often had his poems published on newsprint broadsides, which he sold singly or in bulk.

Many broadsides included a notice like the one under his poem for Memorial Day in 1869. “I am ready to compose poetical verses for you on any subject,” it began. He also offered lyrics to be sung to any tune. A poem of 448 syllables – 64 lines averaging seven syllables each – could be had for $1. Depending on how many lines his customers wanted, he asked them to send a quarter, half-dollar or dollar with their mail orders.

“No notice will be taken by me of any business letter in which money has not been sent,” he wrote, “but all business letters containing money will be attended to as soon as received.”

The 1860 election poems opened a golden era for De Wolfe. He spun out verse about Civil War battles, generals, the fall of Richmond, the capture of Jefferson Davis and the assassination and funeral of Abraham Lincoln.

In 1862 he wrote a paean to the new captain of Company I of the 16th New Hampshire Volunteers, 41-year-old David Buffam II of Swanzey. A nine-month regiment, the 16th trained in Concord that fall before heading for Louisiana on Nov. 23. De Wolfe portrayed Buffam as a kind, selfless leader:

Come men, our Captain Buffam says,
     We are all brothers and true,
Men of the good old Granite State,
     And men can dare and do,
And who is Captain Buffam? who?
     A man in heart and soul,
A man who by his own true deeds,
     His comrades would control.

He is not pompous, self-esteem,
     But one we love with truth,
One, many of our fathers knew
     When he was but a youth!
One, who has been a friend to us,
     Mid prospects bright and dim,
Now all of Captain Buffam’s men
     Can be a friend of him!

Unfortunately, the 16th’s experience in the Louisiana bayous failed to live up to the poem’s romantic flavor. Of the regiment’s nearly 1,000 men, 300 died of disease, Capt. Buffam among them.

True to his word, De Wolfe could write verses for any occasion, but death was his specialty. Here are two stanzas from his poem about Lincoln’s funeral:

As weepeth a fond mother, her lifeless babe to see,
So, faithful Abram Lincoln, a Nation weeps for thee!
I’ve see the tear-drops dewing the cheeks of passers bye!
But thou hast rose triumphant, thy spirit is on high!
. . .
Hear you the slave lamenting, he’s thinking of the hand
That wrote the words of Freedom and sent them thro’ the land!
The hand is cold and lifeless, the treasur’d words remain,
So, though the storm is over, the earth hath drank the rain.

In the aftermath of the war, as old soldiers remembered the comrades who did not make it home, De Wolfe mastered this memorial tone. But the Wandering Poet found that, as any journalist knows, bad news sells. His top sellers recounted fatal workplace accidents and heinous crimes.

James Bradford Eaton of Nashua was road-master of the Boston, Lowell and Nashua Railroad, meaning he oversaw the condition of the rails. He died on the job on Oct. 7, 1867, at a watering depot in Woburn, Mass. De Wolfe’s poem told how Easton’s wife learned of the accident from a witness:

But he told her – told the story how her husband slipp’d and fell,
How a railroad car went o’er him, aye, but he had more to tell,
How her husband, Bradford Eaton, on the fearful brink of death,
Spoke about his wife and children with his life’s expiring breath!

Said he, “Oh, my wife and children!” and a man did o’er him bend,
“Tell me, tell me, Bradford Eaton, have you any news to send?”
But there did come back no answer, many weeping turn’d away,
While his lips were moving slightly, as if he had more to say!

Crush’d and bleeding up they took him, in four minutes he was dead,
And at noon they homeward brought him, bitter tears were for him shed,
Wife and daughter, sons and brothers, friends, and many strangers too,
Wept to hear how he was mangled, and say what else could they do?

Georgianna Lovering
One of De Wolfe’s most popular poems, judging from the number of copies still around, is titled “The Northwood Tragedy, or the murder of the beautiful Georgianna Lovering.”

He had the “The Northwood Tragedy” printed in bulk and charged a dime for 10 broadsides bearing the sad tale.

The poem’s 26 stanzas follow the story of a girl of 13 or 14 who was lured into the woods and killed near her Northwood home in 1872. A search party found her hairbrush and apron but not her body.

Late one night, the county sheriff, Henry Drew, persuaded Franklin B. Evans, Lovering’s 61-year-old great uncle and the prime suspect in the case, to lead him to a pile of leaves and debris under which most of the girl’s body was found. These stanzas detail what happened next:

Strangers arrived and her body they lifted
     Each person turned pale at that horrible sight;
They mourned for the one that was so lovely and gifted;
     The murderer’s shriek woke the forest that night;
All left the swamp but the Sheriff and villain,
     For a part of the body was missing e’en then,
“Lead to it!” said Drew. The fiend first was unwilling
     But soon had to yield to the firmest of men.

He led near a mile to a rock which he lifted;
     Beneath it a part of the lifeless girl lay;
The Sheriff himself might almost have been tempted
     The gray-haired destroyer to quiet that day;
But law e’en a fiend will sometimes help and nourish;
     Will shield e’en a wolf from the wrath of a crowd;
But, O, after all, it may let justice flourish;
     Its head cannot always to pity be bowed.

Evans's body awaiting dissection at Dartmouth
Evans was convicted and hanged in 1874. His body was sent to the medical school at Dartmouth College for research. A stereographer photographed it and published the picture.

By then, De Wolfe had died of tuberculosis at the age of 37, but death was hardly the end of him.

More than two years later, there appeared “Verses Composed on the Confession and Execution of Thomas W. Piper, the Convicted Belfry Murderer.” A note on the broadside observed that its author, Byron De Wolfe, “still seems to feel his presence needed here in regard to composing Poetry on various subjects.”

De Wolfe had selected Miss Lillie to convey his verse. He not only endorsed her powers as a medium but also gave her address so his readers could find her.

“I wish it to be distinctly understood,” De Wolfe wrote in the broadside, “that these verses were composed by me, Byron De Wolfe, through the mediumship of Miss Lillie, in about two hours and a half. Parties wishing to consult with the medium will find her one of the best mediums the world can produce.”

Two and a half hours? Although death had not silenced the Steam-Machine Poet, it appears to have slowed him down.

[You will find an ample digital archive of De Wolfe's broadsides here at the Brown Digital Repository. The James Bradford Eaton poem is here.]


  1. I have been searching the piece of work De Wolfe on the workplace accident but haven't succeeded yet. Could you please share the link of the same? It would be very grateful of you.

    Arnold Brame
    Health And Safety Consultant Peterborough

    1. Hi Arnold -- Thanks for reading and for your good question. I have added a note at the end of the blog with links to both the Brown (University) Digital Repository, which has the best collection of De Wolfe broadsides that I found, and to the James Bradford Eaton poem.

  2. My friend Al Hutchison reminds me of this rival of the great Byron De Wolfe:

    Mike: The Steam Engine Poet wrote some very interesting verses (and I love the fact he charged by the syllable) but, blame it on my birth, I still lean toward the great poet and tragedian, William McGonagall. Consider this verse:

    Success to the Newport Railway,
    Along the braes of the Silvery Tay,
    And to Dundee straightaway,
    Across the Railway Bridge o' the Silvery Tay,
    Which was opened on the 12th of May,
    In the year of our Lord 1879,
    Which will clear all expenses in a very short time
    Because the thrifty housewives of Newport
    To Dundee will often resort,
    Which will be to them profit and sport,
    By bringing them cheap tea, bread and jam,
    And also some of Lipton's ham,
    Which will make their hearts light and gay ....

    It goes on like that for quite a while, but I'll spare you the agony of reading it.