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Walt Whitman Birthplace to get poet's historic family Bible

Natalie Swertfager Pearson, seated, flanked by Walt Whitman

Natalie Swertfager Pearson, seated, flanked by Walt Whitman Birthplace tour guide and biographer Margaret Guardi, left, and Birthplace executive director Cynthia Shor at Pearson's residence in Florida in May 2014, with the Walt Whitman Bible. Photo Credit: Handout

The historians at the Walt Whitman Birthplace knew about a Bible that the famed poet had inscribed with details of his family's births, marriages and deaths. But they didn't know who had it until a descendant called and offered to donate the massive volume.

Now the state-owned historic site in West Hills has its most important Whitman artifact, thanks to that call in May from Natalie Swertfager Pearson, a resident of a Florida assisted-living complex.

The Bible in which Whitman detailed genealogical information between the Old Testament and the New will be formally unveiled at an event Nov. 14 at the Walt Whitman Birthplace State Historic Site, to which Whitman descendants are being invited.

It's not known when Whitman bought the Bible or filled in the details about his immediate family, such as the death of his father, Walter, on July 11, 1855, the year his masterwork "Leaves of Grass" was published. But he included information up to 1878, when the poet, then living in Camden, New Jersey, presented it to his favorite sibling, Mary Elizabeth of Greenport, as a Christmas present.

The Bible was handed down through four generations of her family until it ended up with great-great-great grandson Walter Whitman Swertfager, Pearson's husband. After he died in 1979, she became its guardian and worried about its safekeeping.

"Five generations have protected this Bible and kept it in incredible condition," Pearson said by phone. "This is a piece of history and a one-of-a-kind, and it needs to be shared."

She discussed the donation with her daughters and "we all agreed on the decision that this is where it should be. It shouldn't be in a closet somewhere."

Birthplace executive director Cynthia Shor said Pearson, being 81 and in a wheelchair, could not travel to bring the Bible to Long Island. And she did not want to take a chance shipping it, so Shor and birthplace guide Margaret Guardi, who has written a biography of Mary Elizabeth Whitman, flew to Sarasota, Florida, in mid-May.

At a ceremony at her housing complex, Pearson turned over the Bible.

Whitman had filled in details about his immediate relatives, and then his sister and her descendants continued to add to the family tree right down to Pearson's generation. Inside the cover, Shor found an envelope containing a lock of hair from Whitman's mother, Louisa, with a note written by the poet that said "My mother's hair."

The birthplace arranged for Manhattan appraiser James Goldwasser to examine the Bible and he valued it at $25,000.

An intern at the birthplace, Adelphi University student Leah Nicolich, created an intricately made duplicate of the book that has inscribed on the front page "M.E. Van Nostrand," Whitman's sister's married name. The duplicate is on display in a case at the museum, and another case relates the history of the Bible down through the family.

The original, with some cracking of the leather cover but pristine pages, will be kept in archival storage but will emerge for the Nov. 14 ceremony and possibly future special occasions.

William T. Walter, board president of the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association, which operates the site for the state, said the Bible supplants a first edition of "Leaves of Grass" donated in 1958 as the museum's most important artifact.

He noted that while first editions of the poetry compilation sell for more than $100,000, "almost 800 copies of the first edition were printed. There's only one Whitman family Bible."


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