Born in Massachusetts to a family of merchants and seamen, Clapp traveled to Paris to translate the socialist writings of Fourier. In Paris, Clapp abandoned his ardent sympathy for the temperance movement and embraced the leisurely café life of the city. Upon returning to New York in 1850, he sought to recreate this atmosphere, spending hours at Charlie Pfaff's beer cellar, drawing a crowd of journalists, painters, actors, and poets to cultivate an American Bohemia in which participants admired and discussed the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, and Washington Irving (Martin 15-7).
Ada Clare (whose given name was Jane McIlheny) was born in South Carolina. As Thomas Gunn, a contemporary of Clare, describes she "made an attempt – several attempts – to become a tragic actress, but despite any amount of puffery on the part of fellows who knew her (or wanted to know her in a scriptural sense) failed. She had money and aspired for 'fame' only" (Gunn vol. 11, 160). She received a small inheritance upon her parents' deaths, which she used to travel to Paris.
On March 25, 1862, Walt Whitman received a letter addressed to him at Pfaff's and signed by "Ellen Eyre." The signature "Ellen Eyre" has long been thought to be the assumed name of an unknown female writer. The note reads as a love letter to the poet from a woman who knows him quite well. During the twentieth century, a number of historians took the letter to be evidence of a romantic tryst between Whitman and one of several candidates from the Bohemian circle and New York theatrical communities. The most commonly suggested identities for the writer of this letter were Ada Clare, Mrs.
Charles Desmarais Gardette was born in Philadelphia in 1830 to an aristocratic family and received his M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1851 (Rawson). Soon moving from medicine to journalism, he published in the Evening Journal and Record of Philadelphia, as well as the Evening Post of New York. His work includes fiction, poetry, and essays. Like some of his compatriots at Pfaff’s, including Aldrich, Nast, Shanly, and Arnold, Gardette tried his hand at writing for children, publishing the didactic Johnnie Dodge, or, The Freaks and Fortunes of an Idle Boy in 1868.
Ellen Grey made her professional acting debut on May 29, 1854 when she played Bianca in Fazio (Odell VI: 308). Before this performance, Grey may have worked as an amateur actress with the Brooklyn Dramatic Association. She performed a leading role in a version of Byron’s Sardanopolis at the Bowery in 1854. After a three year absence, she returned to the Bowery in 1857 to appear in Australia, or, the Fate of a Bushranger.
Growing up in Poughkeepsie, New York, Fitz Hugh Ludlow began sampling various drugs at the age of sixteen. He went to Union College in Schenectady, New York, where he continued to experiment with drugs, especially hashish (Martin 51-2). His most well-known work, The Hasheesh Eater (1857), was written in the tradition of Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) and was based on his personal experiences under the influence of the drug.
Adah Menken, an actress "not known for her talent, but rather for her frenetic energy, her charismatic presence, and her willingness to expose herself," was born in a suburb of New Orleans (Richards 192). Adah’s given name was probably Adah Bertha Theodore, but conflicting accounts of her early years and parentage (many generated by herself for publicity purposes) make it difficult to say with certainty.
Born in County Cork and raised primarily in Limerick, Ireland, Fitz-James O'Brien moved to New York City in 1852. Descending from an Anglo-Irish landholding family, O'Brien received his inheritance (estimated at £8000) at about the age of 21. Between 1849 and 1851, it is believed that O'Brien edited a failed literary magazine called The Parlour Magazine of the Literature of All Nations and squandered his inheritance (Wolle 21). Leaving England almost penniless, O'Brien immigrated to America and made the U.S.
Charles Pfaff's obituary in the New York Times characterizes him as the proprietor of the famous Bohemian "chop house" at 647 Broadway that flourished between 1860 and 1875 ("In and About the City," 2). Born in Baden, Switzerland likely in 1819, Pfaff first arrived in New York in the early 1850s "part of a wave of German immigrants" (Blalock; Martin 18). According to scholar Justin Martin, "Herr Pfaff was a round little man with shaggy eyebrows and chubby fingers. His Old World manner and thickly accented English gave him a courtly and discreet air" (18).
Often credited with inspiring the Pfaff's Bohemians, Edgar Allan Poe was born January 19, 1809 in Boston, Massachusetts. He enlisted in the army on May 26, 1827 under the name Edgar A. Perry. He received an appointment to West Point and entered the Military Academy on July 1, 1830 but was later dismissed after neglecting his duties. Poe received his first recognition as a writer in 1833 when he won a prize of $50 in the Baltimore Saturday Visitor for his story, "A MS.
Nathaniel Graham Shepherd (also Shepard) was born in New York City and grew up to study poetry there. Little information remains about his early life, but Shepherd was an artistically inclined youth. In pursuit of artistic growth, he moved to Georgia for a number of years to teach drawing. Upon returning to New York, Shepherd made his livelihood in the insurance business while still pursuing poetry in his leisure time.
In "Whitman Pursued," Emory Holloway describes Frank Sweeney as someone with whom Walt Whitman discussed his relationship with the mysterious Ellen Eyre. Whitman mentions Sweeney in one of his many notebook listings of the men of the city he knew: "Frank Sweeney (July 8th ’62), 5th Ave. Brown face, large features, black moustache (is the one I told the whole story to about Ellen Eyre)--talks very little" (Holloway, “Whitman” 7). Holloway explains that "[w]ho Sweeney was can only be conjectured.
John Swinton’s family relocated from his native Scotland in 1843, settling in Montreal, Canada, where Swinton worked as an apprentice in the printing industry. Though he briefly entered Williston Seminary in 1853, Swinton’s commitment to journalism led him across the United States; he worked on the Lawrence Republican in Kansas in 1856 as well as the New York Times after he moved to that city.
Born in small-town New England, Charles Browne began his career as a young contributor to the Boston Carpet Bag, a humor magazine, and later at Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer he adopted the persona of circus showman Artemus Ward. As Ward, he began writing letters from this fictional character whose travels inspired social commentaries, satires, and burlesques.
Born on Long Island and raised in Brooklyn, Walt Whitman spent his childhood and early adulthood amid the sights and sounds of New York City and its environs. As a young man Whitman worked as a journeyman printer for several New York newspapers, before ultimately becoming a journalist and editor in his own right. Before committing himself to poetry, Whitman also worked intermittently as a schoolteacher, a carpenter, and a writer of sensational prose fiction.