Born November 13th, 1833 in Maryland, Edwin Booth had an affinity for the acting world; he was named after the actors Edwin Forrest and Thomas Flynn, and his father, Junius, was a British actor who took Edwin with him on theatrical tours of the United States. Father and son developed a close relationship, although "to see to it that that erratic genius [Junius] did not break his engagements, murder someone, or commit suicide during his times of intoxication and half-insanity was a heavy responsibility for the fragile youth and made [Edwin] grave, serious, and melancholy beyond his years.
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.
Horace Greeley was born in 1811 near Amherst, New Hampshire, to a poor farming family. Though physically feeble, Greeley had an affinity for books and tried for a printing apprenticeship at the age of eleven. He became an apprentice three years later in Vermont, where he learned the business rapidly and sent most of his earnings to his father. Greeley went back to farm life at the age of twenty before going to seek his fortune (Appleton 734). Greeley fostered this rags-to-riches story, claiming to have arrived in New York City in 1831 with only twenty-five dollars in his pocket.
Born into an anti-slavery family of eight children, Howells aided his family by setting type in his journalist father's printing office. Though he never finished high school, Howells would later receive honorary degrees from six universities as well as the offer of Ivy League professorships. Howells published frequently in the Saturday Press (Belasco 252) and was one of the “foremost writers of fiction” in novel form. Percy Holmes Boynton puts him in the company of such writers as Mark Twain, Bret Harte, and Walt Whitman in being “scrupulously careful writers” (49).
Best know for his portrayal of Asa Trenchard in Our American Cousin and Rip Van Winkle in Rip Van Winkle, Joseph Jefferson was one of the most popular comedians of his time. Born February 20, 1829 in Philadelphia, Jefferson was the son of actors and was introduced to the stage as a child. Jefferson made his adult debut in New York in 1849 at the age of twenty. His early New York successes led to a tour of the South and theatrical engagements in Baltimore and Philadelphia.
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 and raised in New York City, Robert Henry Newell entered the world of journalism at age twenty-two. His submissions to various periodicals “achieved immediate recognition” and brought him a job offer from the New York Sunday Mercury. During the Civil War, Newell wrote the “Orpheus C. Kerr papers, originally initiated in the form of Washington correspondence to the Mercury . . .
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).
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.
While there is scant evidence that Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) ever visited Pfaff's bar (only one source suggests that he did [Rawson 99]), he was connected to the Pfaff's bohemians in a number of ways.
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.
The unofficial biographer of the Pfaff’s crowd, William Winter was born in coastal Massachusetts, and his mother died when he was young. Winter attended school in Boston; he also went to Harvard Law School but decided not to practice ("William Winter, 19). By 1854 he had already published a collection of verse and worked as a reviewer for the Boston Transcript; he befriended Pfaffian Thomas Bailey Aldrich after reviewing a volume of his poetry. He relocated to New York in 1856 "because he believed [the city] offered the best field for writers" (Levin 153).