Chapter XIII
Still Working For Uncle Sam

From "John Burroughs - Boy And Man" (1920)
By Clara Barrus

To be keeper of a vault where fifty or sixty million dollars' worth of bank notes were stored was a pretty responsible position. John Burroughs as guardian of this vault kept not only a strict account of all the bank notes that went in and out of the vault, but also had certain men come every month and "prove the vault," to make sure that its contents tallied with what the books showed it to contain.

The new unsigned bank notes were done up in small packages containing many thousand in a package. These were arranged on shelves in a closet in the vault, in alphabetical order, and sent out from time to time to the various National Banks throughout the United States.

One day a fifty dollar note came in from a bank in New England, with a statement that this note, which bore the name of their bank, had never been issued to them. It had clearly been abstracted from the vault and put in circulation without having been signed by the president and cashier of the bank for which it had been prepared. The signatures upon it were forged.

This was a serious matter. The vault-keeper, on examining his books, found that there should be a package in the vault of twenty thousand dollars belonging to that particular bank. He opened the closet in which the package should be, and alas! it was not there!

Imagine his consternation! He alone was allowed to go in the vault unaccompanied. All others who went, went only with him, so he alone was responsible. It was a grave and terrible revelation to him. He searched the vault to see if by chance the package had got misplaced. His state was a pitiable one. "One of us in this room is guilty," he said to his fellow-clerks. "If I am, I want to know it," he added, almost beside himself with this shadow of suspicion resting so heavily upon him.

Refusing to go home that night, he stayed and searched over and over every nook and corner of the vault. Several other clerks, as well as the Comptroller, stayed with him to help in the quest, and assured him of their confidence in his integrity.

The matter was promptly reported and investigations set going, but they found no clue for a long time. The bank concerned cancelled that plate so that no more notes of that denomination could be issued, and called all others in as fast as it could. Circulars were sent to every National bank requesting all notes of that denomination to be returned to the Comptroller for cancellation and destruction.

In time, a second forged note came back from the same bank. Looking at it sharply, Mr. Burroughs said to himself, " That is S---'s handwriting." It was a sprawling, indefinite signature, a clumsy attempt at imitation of the usual signatures from that bank.

Now S--- was a trusted, wide-awake coloured messenger, long employed in the offices, who frequently carried packages into the vault, though always in company with its keeper.

When Mr. Burroughs confided his suspicion to some of his fellow-clerks, they were disinclined to suspect S---, but having so much at stake, the guardian of the vault was bound to follow up his surmises.

Pondering long and earnestly on all the exits and entrances of others to the vault, he finally concluded that the theft had taken place during a recent cleaning of the big office when the coloured messenger and clerks had carried the ledgers, ink wells, and other office paraphernalia into the vault to get them out of the way. He had, of course, stood in the vault while the men were going and coming.

Now, with his suspicions aroused, he scrutinized the situation to discover how it was possible for one to abstract a package with him standing there on guard. The inner door of the vault swung back against the closet where the bank notes were kept; he saw that, as a messenger would turn to go out, he would for a brief instant be partly hidden by that door; and, if very deft, might easily have seized one of those small packages and concealed it in his clothing, or, perhaps in the piles of ledgers being carried back to the office.

Convinced of S---'s guilt, he undertook a little private detective work. Deciding to find out more about the habits and mode of life of the suspected man, he called on him one evening, ostensibly to enlist his services in getting on the track of the thief. He found that S- had recently moved and was living in a quarter of the city and in a style far beyond what his wages would war-rant. He found other evidences of lavish expenditures on his part, all of recent occurrence. His convictions were strengthened.

Detectives being put on the man's track, enough circumstantial evidence was obtained to bring him to trial, but the trial was almost a farce. Although his guilt was pretty satisfactorily proven, he escaped conviction, for at that time the championship of the coloured people was so strong in Washington that Republicans were not willing to find a negro guilty when they knew he was. So although S--- lost his position, he escaped the full penalty of the law.

In the fall of '65, E. M. Allen, the friend so influential in bringing Mr. Burroughs to Washington, married the poet, Elizabeth Akers. They were married in the Burroughs home, and moved to Richmond, Virginia, where the versatile Allen's energies were henceforth expended in the running of a foundry. With the wear and tear of body and soul on that sensitive nature, the distance, the struggle for existence, and family cares to engross him, Allen's letters came infrequently, and the former friends gradually drifted apart.

Other friendships were formed, chiefly with Walt Whitman and William D. O'Connor, with Parnell of the Internal Revenue, and with Dr. Frank Baker and Aaron Johns-veterans of the Civil War. Unforgettable were the Sunday night suppers of Whitman, Burroughs and O'Connor, and unforgettable were the tramps of Burroughs, Baker, Johns and Parnell.

William O'Connor rented a room in their attic for a time and there wrote madly day and night on his story, The Carpenter, stimulated by tobacco and coffee. His host used to throw up ripe plums against his window-pane to regale and divert him.

The book on Walt Whitman on which John Burroughs worked for two years was published in 1867. This was his first book. It preceded his first nature book, Wake Robin, by three years.

In the fall of 1867 the Burroughs couple moved into their own home out in the suburbs, on V Street. This "house that Jack built" was a substantial brick house of ten rooms and a basement. There they cozily settled down to enjoy their new quarters. The owner, writing to Myron Benton of their new and tidy home, said, "Ursula does her own work, and even the cat wipes her feet on the mat before she ventures inside." "We have a nice front yard," he continues, "and a large garden. The whole thing cost me five thousand dollars, or will when it is paid for, which will be a year and a half yet. The upper part rents for twenty-one dollars a month."

After the years of struggle and hardship through which we have followed our author, it is good to see him at last comfortably established in a home of his own, with a steady income, and enough leisure to poke about the fields and woods and play Paul Pry with Nature.

That V Street house was built near the site of an old Catholic cemetery. When digging his cellar Mr. Burroughs had uncovered two little coffins. He put them back again, so used to tell his friends, facetiously, that he "had buried two children."

His work in the Currency Bureau continued for nine years, also the Sunday walks and the magazine writing, with the all too short vacations in the Catskills during the "purgatory of mid-summer at the Capital." He used to say the heat was so great there as to melt his steel pens. " Birch Browsings, " " Speckled Trout, " and many another article resulted from his brief sojourns in his native haunts.

Other articles on literary topics were frequently appearing in the magazines during these years, articles on Emerson, on Victor Hugo, on "Nature and the Poets, " and so on.

And thus the years passed.

After Grant and Colfax were elected, Mr. Burroughs wrote Myron Benton to come on and help him inaugurate Grant. Grant once came into the Treasury vault during his presidency, and was shown around by Mr. Burroughs who, though somewhat abashed at being at close quarters with the silent man, explained things as best he could, Grant walking about the vault with hands behind him, asking a few questions, but saying little else.

One Saturday night Mr. Burroughs and his chum, Frank Baker, camped out on High Island above Georgetown, on Sunday walking up the Potomac to Dam One where they went in swimming. They thought to swim to the other shore but were utterly deceived by the distance. It was not far from the brink of a low dam and, before they realized it, they were being pulled rapidly to its edge. Seeing their danger, Burroughs called to Baker warningly, but it was too late. Baker went straight over, head first, and was carried down by the current into a pool below. Burroughs was pulled into' the current sidewise and over the brink, but was mercifully caught in an eddy and carried in behind a rock where, badly strangled, he managed to cling until he could recover himself. In the midst of his own peril he had seen Baker's white body being tossed in the foaming waters. The feeling of utter helplessness which he had while strangling there, weak as a baby, and scarcely able to cling to the rock, he will never forget. At length, managing to climb to the top of the rock, he perched like a cormorant there, watching Baker emerge from the roaring water and swim for the shore. By means of the sign language he asked Baker if he should swim down. Baker signalled emphatically No; he had been badly scraped and bruised against the rocks. Hustling into his clothes he rushed away for means of rescue. There on the rock in the pitiless sun sat his companion until his return with a man and boat, and a long strong rope. Anchoring the boat above the dam, they threw down one end of the rope to Burroughs to pull him up, but, the anchorage not proving heavy enough, he almost pulled them and the boat over the dam. By means of heavier stones they finally succeeded in anchoring the boat securely enough to pull him over the dam and into the boat, not, however, until his back was severely blistered from the long seance on his rocky perch.

His home-coming after the escapade was marked by results customarily meted out to truants the world over: when rehearsing his perilous adventure to his wife, her chastisement, though not corporeal, had almost that effect on the sun-burned victim with his spent strength and his lacerated feelings. Upbraidings for his irreligious act of camping in the woods and swimming on the Sabbath day alternated with copious tears, as his narrow escape was borne in upon her, from time to time, in the midst of the soundly administered chastisement.

The year of 1871 was marked by two important events in the life of our author-the publication of Wake Robin, and his first journey to Europe.

The United States Government sent him and two other clerks to England to convey fifty million bonds which were to take the place of other bonds being refunded.

It was a tempestuous voyage and the old ship-the Scotia, a side-wheeler of the Cunard Line-kicked up her heels a good deal. He was pretty sick and grew thin. He couldn't " go " the food, and wrote home that he longed for lots of things which his wife knew so well how to fix:

    I wanted some of your pickled peaches; I wanted a strawberry short-cake; I wanted a speckled trout.... Oh, the bitterness I have spit into the bitter sea!

On landing in Liverpool they drove out into the country, where he jumped from the carriage and eagerly plucked dandelions white clover, daisies, and yarrow -- overjoyed to be among growing things once more. He marvelled at the fields, green and smooth as lawns, and separated by hedges, and as they rushed through the heart of England, at sixty or seventy miles an hour, it all seemed like one vast garden to him.

It took the Treasury clerks many days to destroy the old bonds. Ten thousand were destroyed at a single blow from a heavy wooden mallet which punched out a hole in each of them. Later they were burned. After these were disposed of, he and his associates were free to go wherever they chose until the time for sailing. At first they kept together, but the gait of the other two was too rapid for him. As they disposed of St. Paul's Cathedral in fifteen minutes, and of the Tower of London in about twenty, he decided to go by himself and get acquainted with the Old World in his own way.

He was greatly excited by the roar of the great city, and the strangeness of it all. Buying a map of London, he would start out in whatever direction he felt drawn, keeping on as long as interested, then when wanting to find himself would look up where he was on the map, a course which led him to "do" London in a most unconventional way.

He almost collapsed in St. Paul's from the powerful emotions experienced there. The Miltonic effect of the architecture, with that London atmosphere like a veil enhancing its beauty and mystery, stirred him to the depths.

As he wandered in museums, parks, cathedrals, and picture galleries, he grew more and more astonished at the magnitude and vastness of London:

    I look and look till my head swims, and have to come away from every place without seeing near all. Before I get half through any of the museums, I begin to hope and pray, "Now this is surely the last -- I can see no more," when there open, right and left, vast halls and galleries crammed full of the most interesting objects, and I shut my eyes and rush out of the building with a feeling of great relief. I am beginning to long for the country and a little peace and quiet, and to-morrow shall go out to Oxford and Stratford-on-Avon, and toward the end of the week leave for Paris, again to be stunned with sights and sounds.

Before leaving London, however, he had some memorable experiences. He dined with the Rossettis, heard Spurgeon and James Martineau preach, and Moncure Conway lecture.

In talking with Conway he had mentioned that he had walked in Cheyne Row and gone past the house where Carlyle lived.

"Gone past it! We'll go in. I'll take you there," said Conway.

"Oh, no. I don't want to beard the lion in his den," he hastened to protest.

"He won't paw or claw you if you go with me; besides, it's only geese that get plucked there," declared Conway.

So they went.

Carlyle was walking alone in the gloaming when they reached there. In a genial mood, he delighted them for two hours with his rich and eloquent talk.

When Conway told Carlyle that the American visitor had intended to content himself with going past his house, until he took him under his wing and brought him in, it reminded Carlyle of his own experience in going to Scott's door: He had had with him a message from Goethe, but even with that, felt reluctant; and when, on ringing the bell, he learned that Scott was not at home he went down the steps greatly relieved, and could not persuade himself to try it a second time.

They talked of English birds and American birds. When Mr. Burroughs told Carlyle that the English sparrow had recently been introduced into America, Carlyle exclaimed ironically, " Introduced! introduced!" and laughed a strange sarcastic laugh.

Letters home tell of his experiences in the music halls; of seeing a play (The Woman in White); of what he eats and what it costs. By their means we can follow him pretty closely in his sight-seeing on foreign soil. One day he records his dinner: roast pig, potatoes, turnips and celery, with one pint of bitter ale, an apple tart, and jam pudding -all for two shillings and four pence!

One evening as our unsophisticated traveller was coming out of a London music hall he was jostled by a big, goodnatured German who apologized profusely, and with whom he was soon engaged in the friendliest conversation, comparing notes and experiences as travellers will. Expressing admiration for Americans in general and our traveller in particular, the German declared his intention of abandoning his unsatisfactory quarters the next day and taking lodgings under the roof with his new acquaintance. On parting, they agreed to walk together on the morrow.

Accordingly, on the morrow they set out for or King's Cross, the German beguiling the time with a lively account of a recent steeplechase. On arriving at a little ale-house, he proposed they stop for refreshment. The dingy little coffee-room to which the barmaid led them was most uninviting -- an unused room with dusty tables and benches and high windows permitting no view of the street. Our friend felt constrained, but the convivial German, seating himself with a lordly air, ordered the ale, and they were soon comfortably quaffing their bumpers, the constraint rapidly diminishing with the ale. I During a short absence of the German from the room, a country fellow, much ruffled ' entered, rushed around, violently rang the bell, then seated himself near the American and vociferously held forth:

    The worst part of the town I've been in yet --- cahn't even get Scotch whiskey 'ere.

    I went into a 'ouse just below 'ere and seeing a man with a hapron on, says I, "Waiter, bring me some Scotch whiskey and 'ot water," and 'e swelled hup and said, "I'll 'ave you to know I'm not the waiter; I'm the landlord."

    " ' Ow was I to know? " said I; " all the same, I want some whiskey."

    "But you cahn't 'ave no whiskey 'ere. I'll not be called a waiter in me own 'ouse." So I told 'im to go to the Devil, and left the place.

    I wonder if they know 'ow to treat strangers any better 'ere.

And, his order being given, he was soon happy with his hot Scotch.

He was a fresh-faced ingenuous-looking chap in grey cheviot and stove-pipe hat. A three-days' beard was on his face. It was evidently his first trip to London.

The German reappeared, and, diverted by the garrulous Englishman, the three sat long in friendly converse.

With the utmost naivete the countryman explained what had brought him up to town -- a lawsuit, resulting so favourably that he was intent on a little jollification. His lawyer had made him give up most of his money, but he had kept back a few banknotes unbeknown to him. He regaled them with his experiences of the previous night in a dance-hall where the girls had got the better of him, drinking wine at his expense, and inveigling him into other expenditures, telling it all with great candour and enjoying the mirth his recital evoked, his only concern being lest the report of the affair get back to his sister Mary. His new acquaintances grew apprehensive for the unsophisticated chap, and the German warned him against going about London with so much money in his pocket. "'Ow can I lose it with me coat buttoned so?" said the verdant one as he put the loose package back in his pocket.

But the German, assuring him it was unsafe, said he would better have left it with his lawyer; that he never carried but a few pounds about him, no prudent traveller did; and he appealed to the American to confirm his statement. The American declared he seldom left his hotel with as much as a five-pound note in his pocket. ,

"But I 'ave enough more if I lose this," argued the Englishman, as he said that he and Mary had just come into a property of seventeen thousand pounds. According to the strange terms of his uncle's will, five hundred pounds were to be divided among the poor, not English poor alone, but the needy of any nation; and his chief concern was to get that five hundred pounds off his hands.

" I shall spend one 'undred pounds among the poor of me own town, and 'ope to meet trustworthy gentlemen now and then who will 'elp me to distribute the rest. I gave fifty pounds yesterday to a man at me inn, to spend among his poor in Glasgow."

"You gave it to a stranger? " incredulously asked the American.

"Oh, yes, but 'e showed me as 'ow 'e 'ad money of his own -- 'e didn't need mine-that's all I wanted to know."

The German and the American exchanged glances, and the German volunteered:

"You will have little trouble in finding people to take your money on such terms. I myself would gladly be charitable at your expense-the late war has made many poor in Germany."

"Good!" said the confiding greenhorn, "show me that you've a 'undred pounds of your own, and I will give you another 'undred to spend among your poor, and take your receipt for it. You can put a notice in the Times with the names and dates-all I want is to show that me uncle's will is complied with."

Seeing that this fool and his money would soon be parted, his hearers decided to undertake the distribution of some of it. Yet it was with a feeling of shame that the American seconded the Teuton, saying to the simpleton, "And I, too, will bear your alms to some worthy poor in my country, and see that it is judiciously expended."

"What poor 'ave you?" the Englishman shrewdly asked.

"Plenty of them-the freedmen are much in need of help."

Satisfied, he said, "Very well, just show me that you 'ave money of your own and don't need mine, and you shall 'ave a 'undred pounds for the freedmen."

" I have very little with me-you will have to come round to my hotel."

"I have some," said the German, "I hardly know how much," and he counted out some Bank of England notes.

"Show him what you have," the German said significantly to the American-" don't let him think you are penniless."

"Oh, I have only a little change-not more than two guineas in all," and with embarrassment Mr. Burroughs produced his open palm.

"Put up your money, gentlemen; I've no doubt you are both responsible gentlemen. I can trust you to act as me agents in this matter."

"Come to my hotel," said the German, "or to my banker's -- I can show you five times that amount." "Yes," joined in the American, "meet us this evening at my hotel, the Inns of Court, and we will show you that we are all right."

"No, I start 'ome to-night -- Mary is expecting me."

"Then let us arrange it now," suggested the German. "Where do you need to go," he inquired of Mr. Burroughs, "to get your money?"

"To my hotel and to my banker's, both."

"Where is your banker?"

"On Lombard Street."

"That suits me. I know a banker there and can get all I want," said the German.

The Englishman wanted to pledge his agents in another bumper of ale, but as that he had already drunk had given the American a queer feeling, he abstained.

'Ere's a sovereign to pay for the cab-this is to accommodate me," said the simpleton, agreeing to await them there.

Taking the gold, the German called a cab and they left him, marvelling that anyone could be so green, and could have been in London twentyfour hours without being robbed. Deciding to keep an eye on him till he was started for home, they wondered if they ought not to warn Mary to accompany him the next time he ventured up to town.

When Mr. Burroughs explained the project to his banker, an American friend of long-standing, that friend, moved by his enthusiasm, offered to lend him the money if he did not have enough by him; but his friend's partner, a Londoner, raised his eyebrows, saying nothing, a silence evidently having its effect upon the American member of the firm.

"You don't suppose this is an attempt to rob you?" he tentatively asked as Mr. Burroughs was leaving with the fifty pounds.

"Oh, no!" he confidently rejoined, "that is out of the question."

On regaining the cab, as the German was not there, he supposed him to be still at his banker's, but presently, on seeing him emerge from behind a nearby cab, suddenly grew suspicious of him. What if it were all a put-up game, and he were in collusion with that greenhorn? -- an ugly thought, which he pushed aside; but as they drove to the lodgings, he found his enthusiasm for the scheme rapidly oozing away, while the suspicion that he was being victimized kept returning. The effect of the ale was wearing away, and the scales now dropped from his eyes. It was raining, which added to the uncomfortable feeling now possessing him. Glancing at the German, he detected a furtive look unnoted before. He recalled all the little touches of the apparently verdant Englishman and at last decided that, instead of being a greenhorn, he was a consummate actor. Humiliating as was this conclusion, it forced itself upon him. Then he set his wits to work to circumvent his companions, and give his own part as artistic a finish as they had given theirs.

The German, though loquacious, was observant, evidently detecting a change in his companion's mood. On arriving at the inn, he invited himself up to the room to see his quarters. A cold wave passed over the now apprehensive American as they entered the room. While moving about, under one pretext and another, he caught the German observing him narrowly through the mirror. Going to his trunk and busying himself there, he ostensibly took out more bank notes, soon announcing himself ready to return. With alacrity, preceding him, the German hurried out to hail the cab. He, lingering in the hallway, told the burly porter to follow them immediately in a cab, alight whenever he did, and enter the coffee-room a few minutes later.

As they drove along his thoughts were busy devising a way to end the matter. To cause their arrest would be to detain himself as a witness. He must hit upon some other scheme.

Turning to the German he said, " Do you know, the more I think of this, the more I believe it is a scheme to rob us."

"It can't be," said the German, alarmed.

"Yes, it is; that fellow has accomplices. He means to get our money. Do you go armed?" he queried.

"No, do you?" anxiously asked the German.

"Always; an American carries a pistol as much as he carries a jack-knife; and he isn't afraid to use it, either."

"So I have heard," said the German, looking wistfully out of the cab window; then tremulously, "But you wouldn't shoot a man, would you?"

" Let him try to rob me, and see whether I will or not," and the doughty American assumed his sternest manner.

Just then the cab stopped at the lonely ale-house. As they got out, another cab stopped half a square behind. His companion, excusing himself a moment, lingered without. Burroughs passed inside where the verdant one was waiting, apparently mellower than ever from the "'ot Scotch," though he asked rather anxiously where the German was. Just then the burly porter forced his way into the room in spite of the barmaid's attempts to stop him, and the Englishman, getting up precipitately, and saying that he better go and hurry up their friend, left.

As Mr. Burroughs sat there informing the porter of the affair, a forbidding-looking stranger opened the door, glanced expectantly about, and hastily withdrew. He was doubtless an accomplice who saw that something had balked the game. The others did not reappear, and Mr. Burroughs and the porter lost little time in shaking the dust of the ale-house off their feet.

After this our traveller speedily left the smoke and uproar of London behind, and sought the South Down hills. There he listened to the skylarks, two or three hundred feet above him, as they poured down their ecstasy of song; he visited Oxford, and Shakespeare's home, had a glimpse of France, of Dublin, Cork and Queenstown, and sailed for home via the White Star Line late in November.

It was hard to settle down to work in the Treasury Department after that October abroad, and the restive clerk began to think more strongly than ever of a project of raising trout which he had been considering for some time before going to Europe -- a wonderful cold spring near Washington appealing to him, he and a friend thought they could profitably carry on fish culture there i if they could get control of the spring. But even after abandoning the project his unrest continued, and in 1872 he wrote Benton inquiring the price of land in his locality. He wanted to quit working for Uncle Sam and go to farming. His summer vacation amid the Catskills, and a recurrence of malarial symptoms on his return to Washington, increased this inclination. Accordingly, resigning his position in the Treasury Department the last day of the year, he quit Washington almost as suddenly as he had quit schoolteaching to go there, ten years before. He was not yet, however, entirely freed from the coat tails of Uncle Sam, for he was appointed as Receiver of a broken bank in Middletown, New York, and went there on January 1, 1873, to begin the work of disentangling the snarl in that bank's affairs. The snow was deep on reaching that little northern city, and it was a rugged winter he spent there, but it proved a tonic to body and mind after the long sojourn in the enervating climate of Washington.


  1. Perhaps best known for her poem, "Rock me to sleep, Mother." Notes on Wall Whitman, Poet and Person. - (Return)
  2. Notes On Walt Whitman, Poet And Person - (Return)


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