History Guide



THOREAU AT DEVIL'S PERCH takes place in the summer of 1846.  James Polk is
President, the U.S. is at war with Mexico, and over three million people in
America are in bondage as slaves.  There are fervent reform movements to
end slavery, give women voting and legal rights, and provide better conditions
for workers, prisoners and the mentally ill.  The economy of New England
is shifting.  Although it is still predominately agricultural,
manufacturing and trade are growing by leaps and bounds, thanks to the creation
of railroads, canals, and steamship lines.  Due to the potato famine in
Ireland, a million and a half Irish will immigrate to America over the next
several years and supply the labor for the expanding mills and factories.

Henry David Thoreau's beloved New England countryside is already changing.  A
railroad track has been laid less than half a mile from his cabin and he can
hear the whistle of the locomotive penetrate his woods.  When THOREAU AT
DEVIL'S PERCH opens twelve days have passed since he spent his famous night in
the Concord jail for refusing to pay his toll tax.  He is writing a book,
but it is not Walden.  The book Thoreau worked on during his time
at Walden Pond was A Week on the Concord and Merrimack River, a
philosophical account of his two week boat trip with his brother.


Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts and christened David
Henry.  (He later reversed the two names.)  He had an older sister
Helen, an older brother John, and a younger sister Sophia.  His father
John was a pencil manufacturer and his mother Cynthia was an active

Thoreau attended the Concord Academy and at age sixteen he entered Harvard, graduating
in 1837.  He became a public school teacher in Concord but not for
long.  When he was directed to use corporal punishment on his students, he
resigned.  In 1838 he and his brother John opened their own progressive
school.  Louisa May Alcott was one of their students.  The school
closed in 1841 because of John's poor health.  

In the years that followed, Thoreau worked on mastering the craft of writing and
supported himself by surveying land, making pencils, tutoring, and taking on
odd jobs.  On July 4th, 1845 he moved to a cabin he built on Walden Pond
because, in his words, “I went to the woods because I wished to live

While living at Walden Pond, Thoreau went to town to have a shoe repaired and was
jailed for one night by the constable for refusing to pay his poll tax.
Thoreau's refusal was to protest slavery and the Mexican War, as he eloquently
explained in an 1848 lecture at the Concord Lyceum called "The Rights and
Duties of the Individual in relation to Government," later published as Resistance
to Civil Government.  It was only after Thoreau's death that the work
was published under the title Civil Disobedience.  

Thoreau left Walden Pond in 1847 (after two years, two months and two days) to look
after Ralph Waldo Emerson's family while Emerson traveled in Europe for ten
months.  Between 1847 to 1854 Thoreau wrote and revised his masterpiece
Walden.  He studied nature and traveled to Cape Cod, Maine and

Thoreau took an active part in the abolitionist movement and the Underground
Railroad.  In 1859 he spoke out in praise of John Brown for his violent
resistance to slavery and advocated armed revolt to end such an immoral
system.  "I do not wish to kill or be killed, but I can foresee
circumstances in which both these things would be by me unavoidable."

Thoreau became ill in 1860 after camping out on Mt. Monadnock and contracting a severe
cold.  He developed consumption and becomes steadily weaker over the next
two years.  When a visitor to his bedside asked if he had made amends with
God, Thoreau answered, with typical dry humor, "I did not know that we
had ever quarreled."  He also stated, as more and more soldiers
died in the Civil War, that he could never recover while the war lasted because
he was "sick for his country."   
On May 6, 1862 Thoreau died in the parlor of his family home in Concord.
He was forty-four years old and far from being famous.  According to his
obituary "the name of Henry Thoreau is known to very few persons beyond
those who personally knew him."  His long-time friend Ralph Waldo Emerson
stated in his eulogy "the country knows not yet, or in the least part, how
great a son it has lost."

Thoreau is now acknowledged as one of America's greatest writers and millions of copies
of Walden have been sold since his death.  The book, a celebration
of life, relates how he experienced the divine through nature.  Thoreau
had great optimism and faith that if we advance in the direction of our dreams,
and try to live the life we imagine, we will succeed.  He most certainly


In 1846 doctors knew little more about the true nature of disease than the Greeks
in the 5th century BC.  Hippocrates codified a system that stated the body
was controlled by four basic substances, called humors, and an imbalance
between these humors was the cause of all disease.  These humors were
called black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood and corresponded to the four
earth elements of earth, fire, water, and air.  

This system dominated medical thinking for more than 2,000 years, until the mid-19th
century, and had no basis whatsoever in reality.  Patients were bled, had
leeches applied to their bodies and were given murderous doses of mercury,
opium, and other poisons in the attempt to rebalance the body humors, all to no
effect.  In fact, the cure often killed the patient before the disease had
a chance to do the same!  George Washington had a severe cold and to cure
it his doctors bled him so severely he died from loss of blood, called

A public sewer system was not installed under Boston's streets until 1875 while
in the country flush toilets were not common until the 1920s.  Until then
human waste regularly polluted public water systems and the private wells in
small towns like Plumford and on the farm.  Chamber pots and outhouses,
the pits of which had to be constantly filled over and relocated, were what
most people used throughout the 19th century.

There were a few medical colleges in the United States but any individual could
declare himself a doctor and practice medicine without a degree.  There
were no legal requirements to become a physician.  The vast majority of
doctors were trained by simply following a more practiced physician on his

Doctor Walker in THOREAU AT DEVIL'S PERCH received his training at Harvard Medical
School.  He could competently set bones, amputate limbs, sew up cuts,
assist in childbirths and alleviate pain with opiates, but much beyond that
depended on luck and a doctor's common sense.  Medical science was in a
primitive state.  Instruments as simple as the medical thermometer did not
come into practical use unit the 1870s.  Before that, it was up to the
doctor, his hand and his experience, to determine if and how severe a fever
might be.  The ivory or brass stethoscope was just coming into general use
in the 1840s.  The hypodermic syringe was not invented until 1853.
Attempts at giving blood transfusions using the syringe often ended in death
because blood types were not discovered until the early years of the 20th

Medicines were often useless or outright harmful.  Dr. Walker was careful to
prescribe natural remedies that had some proven effect, such as powdered willow
bark for fever and pain.  Willow bark contains salicilin, the active
ingredient in aspirin.  Such truly efficacious medicines were far outnumbered
by potions and cure-alls brewed by quacks simply to take advantage of the

Doctor Walker subscribed to the ideas of Oliver Wendell Holmes and other doctors who
suspected foreign substances carried in water or the air were the root cause of
disease.  However, until Louis Pasteur proved the existence of bacteria in
the 1860s, there was only the suspicion that micro-organisms caused

The practice of surgery was in a similar primitive state.  Anesthesia did not
come into use until 1847 and was rarely available to surgeons as late as the
Civil War years of 1861-1864.  The awful pain of an operation necessitated
the surgeon work as fast as possible.  No matter how skillful the surgeon,
infection often killed the patient since wounds were rarely cleaned before and
after an operation and doctors seldom bothered to wash their hands and surgical
instruments.  Doctor Walker does clean his surgical kit and wash his hands
before performing an operation but more from a sense of personal cleanliness
and a respect for his patient than any specific knowledge concerning infection.

Why, then, were doctors consulted at all when there was scant evidence they helped a
patient?  In fact, oftentimes calling in a doctor was avoided until the situation was so
dire even modern medicines and techniques could not save the patient!  But
doctors did save lives with their limited knowledge and personal skill.
Patients and their families believed a doctor's medicines and skills were
better than nothing – especially his surgical skills.  A leg infected with
gangrene was certain death and although an amputation was risky, it was worth
the gamble.

Trepanation, the operation performed by Doctor Walker in THOREAU AT DEVIL'S PERCH, requires
the skull be bored into with an auger to relieve pressure on the brain and
permit a wound to be cleared of brain fragments from an injury.  His
success is an example of how, despite all odds, doctors saved lived and brought
relief to the suffering.  

And oftentimes a confident hand, a calming presence, a sympathetic ear, and an
understanding heart, worked to alleviate fear and bring real comfort to the
afflicted and their loved ones.


The forced removal of the Cherokees from their ancestral lands in 1838 by the
United States Government, state authorities and white settlers in the Southeast
was one of the most infamous betrayals of trust perpetrated on American

In the preceding decades the Cherokees had successfully learned to farm, develop a
written language, publish their own newspaper, create a system of
representational government and establish schools to teach their children how
to survive in a white man's world.  They even successfully challenged
their ordered removal before the Supreme Court.

All their efforts to become a part of American society were to no avail.
White settlers wanted their farmland and the gold in their hills.  President
Andrew Jackson, a famous Indian fighter, ignored the Supreme Court decision
that the Cherokees could not be forced from their lands.  He sent troops
to drive the Cherokees from their homes and farms and into detention
camps.  They were then marched westward to what is now eastern Oklahoma
and nearly 4,000 of 17,000 Cherokees perished.  Trump, a character in
THOREAU AT DEVIL'S PERCH, was a child when this happened.  His family
perished even before that infamous journey westward, which is known as The Trail
of Tears.


In the 1840s many American's believed fervently in Manifest Destiny - that it was
our rightful and divine mission to spread freedom and democracy by occupying
the continent from coast to coast.  America went to war with Mexico to
seize land for settlers, expand slave-owning territory, and extend the nation's
boundaries from Texas to California.  President Polk had hoped to purchase
the land from Mexico but when the Mexican Government refused, he ordered troops
to the Rio Grande and then claimed Mexico had started a conflict.  He then
persuaded Congress to declare war on Mexico.

The war was strongly supported by southern states with the goal of adding more
slave states in order to achieve majorities in Congress and prevent slavery
from being abolished.  Northern industrialists, while they might have
individually opposed anti-slavery on moral grounds, wanted to protect the
supply of cotton from southern plantations that was feeding their mills.  

Moralists on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line were appalled at the blatant illegality
of invading another sovereign nation and taking its territory by force of
arms.  Henry David Thoreau was famously jailed the night of July 23, 1846
for refusing to pay his poll tax in protest of this war and the expansion of
slavery.  His experience in jail inspired him to write the essay
"Civil Disobedience."  He declared it was the moral obligation
of every citizen to oppose any government policy, even when it had been approved
by the majority, whenever it broke moral law.  He believed if every
individual acted on his own conscience and protested wrongful government, then
that government would be persuaded to amend its policies.

At the end of the war Mexico ceded California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and parts
of Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, and Wyoming to the United States.  

The ongoing dispute over whether slavery could expand into these new territories as
they became states was a primary cause of the Civil War of 1861-1865.


Louis Agassiz – revolutionized the study of natural history
Catharine Beecher – encouraged the education of women
Cassius Clay – southern anti-slavery crusader
Dorothea Dix – advocate for the mentally ill
Frederick Douglass – abolitionist leader born into slavery
Ralph Waldo Emerson – Transcendentalist philosopher
John Charles Fremont – explorer and politician
Margaret Fuller – women's rights advocate
William Lloyd Garrison –antislavery activist and newspaper editor
Horace Greely – radical politician and newspaper editor
Susan Josepha Hale – poet and editor who made Thanksgiving a national holiday
Nathaniel Hawthorne – author of The Scarlet Letter
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. – medical reformer
Elias Howe – inventor of the sewing machine
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – beloved American poet
James Russell Lowell – influential literary critic
Horace Mann – reformed public school education
Herman Melville – author of Moby Dick
Samuel F. B. Morse – invented the telegraph and Morse code
William Sidney Mount – painter of American life
Brigham Young – leader of the Church of Latter-Day Saints
Lucretia Mott – Quaker reformer and women's rights advocate
Edgar Allan Poe – wrote tales of mystery and horror
Wendell Phillips – activist against all injustices of the era
Henry David Thoreau – naturalist and philosopher
Cornelius Vanderbilt – shipping and railroad industrialist