On the night of January 25, 1902, Paul Laurence Dunbar and his wife Alice separated permanently following a violent incident at their home in Washington, D. C. Years later, Alice described what happened.
He came home one night in a beastly condition. I went to help him to bed and he behaved disgracefully. He left that night, and I was ill for weeks with peritonitis brought on by his kicks. Afterwards, he went downtown to a saloon in Washington and said some things about me which I heard and decided not to countenance. Then he went to New York, and spread a vile story about me -- and that was the reason I broke up my home and went to live with my mother and sister. I could have overlooked the brutal treatment, but the slander I could not stand.
Alice Moore Dunbar to Lida Keck Wiggins, August 7, 1906. Alice Dunbar-Nelson papers, Special Collections, University of Delaware Library (Newark, Delaware). MSS 0113, Box 5, F134.
Peritonitis is an inflammation of the abdominal wall, often caused by traumatic injury. Alice revealed the incident to Lida Keck Wiggins, a writer from Springfield, Ohio, who was conducting research for a biography about Paul. Wiggins had written to Alice asking for her input on the book.
It is indeed a delicate matter upon which I address you, but I cannot escape the impression that I should write you upon the subject. I have been engaged for several months on a Life of Paul Laurence Dunbar for Dodd, Mead & Company. This life is to be 25,000 words long, and is to be as complete a story of Mr. Dunbar and his work as I can give. The question has arisen many times in my mind as to whether it would be agreeable to you to be mentioned prominently in this volume. If you do not approve of this, I wish to know it, and to have an expression from you about the matter. I feel that as a woman I owe this to you as another woman, and so am writing thus fully. What you write me will be treated in the deepest and most sacred of confidence. I am telling no one that this letter is going to you, and you need not fear to write me.
Lida Keck Wiggins to Alice Moore Dunbar, August 3, 1906. Alice Dunbar-Nelson papers, Special Collections, University of Delaware Library (Newark, Delaware). MSS 0113, Box 5, F134.
Despite Alice's straightforward response, Wiggins chose to conceal the truth about the Dunbars' separation. Her biography of Paul claimed that "neither has spoken to say why they parted."
His home was broken up, and he left Washington forever. In such very personal and heart-touching matters it has always seemed to his biographer that the world should have no interest. This brilliant pair, having walked for several years together, at last came to a parting of the ways. Neither has spoken to say why they parted there, each going ever after alone -- and, an attempt at explanation would be unkind to the living and unjust to the dead.
The Life and Works of Paul Laurence Dunbar, by Lida Keck Wiggins. J. L. Nichols & Company (Naperville, Illinois). 1907. Pages 95 - 96.
Alice's mother and sister were staying with her in Washington when the Dunbars separated. Paul's mother Matilda was visiting relatives in Chicago. He wrote to her with an anguished report of what had happened.
Fearing that you know nothing about my affairs, I thought I would write and let you know that I am in New York. All Alice folks are in Washington at our house. We have had trouble and of course I left home. We may go back together and we may not. She was in the wrong, but she won't write to me, she won't send me any mail, nor any of my clothes. I am nearly crazy. Write to me at once.
Paul Laurence Dunbar to Matilda Dunbar, February 2, 1902. Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio Historical Society (Microfilm edition, Roll 2).
The African American journalist T. T. Fortune in Red Bank, New Jersey, shared the news with Booker T. Washington in Tuskegee, Alabama.
Saturday night Dunbar went home and tried to kill his wife. He left Washington on the 12 o'clock train, and had not been heard from when I left Washington Thursday morning. His family has left home, on the advice of friends, but I do not know their address.
Timothy Thomas Fortune to Booker T. Washington, February 1, 1902. The Booker T. Washington Papers, Volume 6. Edited by Louis R. Harlan and Raymond Smock. University of Illinois Press (Champaign, Illinois). 1972. Pages 388 - 389.
Paul left home so quickly he didn't pack a suitcase. He wrote a terse letter to Alice telling her to send some of his clothes to New York and implying that she should move out of their home in Washington.
Mrs. Alice Moore Dunbar, kindly send to this address whatever clothing, underwear, socks, etc. you can pack easily. You may pay the rent for this month as it will take some time for you to adjust matters and leave the house. Take whatever of the things you want except ma's, turn them into cash and store the rest in my name. Store my books, of course. Separate yours, and take them with you. Send my things at once.
Paul Laurence Dunbar to Alice Moore Dunbar, January 30, 1902. Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 8).
A few days later, Alice shipped two trunks and one suitcase to New York, addressed to Paul. It was the fifth anniversary of the night she and Paul got engaged.
Adams Express Company, Washington, D. C.
Received of Mrs. Dunbar
Valued at $150.00
Marked P. L. Dunbar
Shipments forwarded by fastest passenger trains in charge of messengers.
Shipping receipt, February 5, 1902. Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 6).
The rest of Paul and Matilda's belongings remained in storage in Washington for months. In late June, the American Security and Trust Company packed Paul's items and put them on a train to Chicago, where he had moved to be with Matilda and other family members.
Storage Department, American Security and Trust Company
Storage, Packing, Hauling, Shipping, Vaults for Silverware, Cold Rooms for Fabrics
Your goods are not in such shippable condition as is required by the railroad companies entering this city, and it will cost something in the neighborhood of forty dollars to pack, haul to the depot and ship them. Please inform us whether you would like this work done or not and if so enclose with it your check for the amount stated above, plus $2.50 for a half-month's storage which will accrue by the time the goods are ready for shipment.
Albert M. Read to Paul Laurence Dunbar, June 17, 1902. Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 1).
Washington, D. C. June 26, 1902
Mr. or Mrs. Paul Laurence Dunbar
To the Storage Department, American Security and Trust Company
Storage from June 7, 1902 to June 25, 1902 3/5 Mos. @ $5
Hauling to B. & O. freight
Receipt from Storage Department, American Security & Trust Co., June 26, 1902. Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 2).