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. In 1857, he moved back to New York City, where he would a few years later begin a ten year stint as chief of the Times editorial staff, while he was studying medicine (Lause 51). He also worked as chief of the editorial staff at the Sun (1875-83).
The older brother of fellow Pfaffian, William Swinton, was remembered as a close friend of Walt Whitman during this period (Hollis 425-428, 434, Loving 236-37). When Confederate soldiers captured the poet's brother, George Whitman, Swinton used his influence to successfully petition General Grant to arrange for George's release (Reynolds 455). Whitman described Swinton as a leader of the crowd at Pfaff’s (Wolle 126; Donaldson 206) where he made a reputation for himself as "forceful with an edged tongue and trenchant habit of debate" (C. Rogers 199). In a letter that Swinton wrote to Whitman during the Civil War, Swinton referenced their time spent Pfaff's writing, "I am glad to see you are engaged in such good work at Washington. It must be even more refreshing than to sit by Pfaff's privy and eat sweet-breads and drink coffee, and listen to the intolerable wit of the crack-brains. I happened in there the other night, and the place smelt as atrociously as ever. Pfaff looked as of yore" (Traubel, vol. 1, 416).
Swinton’s interest in labor issues grew, and in 1874 he participated in the demonstration in Tompkins Square and became the Industrial party’s candidate for mayor. He married widow Orsena (Fowler) Smith in 1877 and set up house in Brooklyn. After retiring from the Sun in 1883, he started the four-page weekly paper which was to make his name well known in labor circles: John Swinton’s Paper. The paper ran until 1887, at which time he resumed his editorship of the Sun in addition to serving as correspondent for European newspapers, publishing pamphlets, and attending labor rallies. He addressed the Social Democratic Festival in Chicago in 1881, and the American Federation of Labor’s gathering in 1892; he was referred to by Allan Pinkerton as a "newspaper writer and general agitator" (349). Scholar Mark Lause notes that "none of this [work on the labor movement] would have suprised any of his old friends seated around the long table in Pfaff's cellar (119). In his last years, Swinton published his European travelogue, John Swinton’s Travels, which was followed in 1894 by Striking for Life, his treatise on the labor movement. A friend of Marx and a staunch Scotch Calvinist, Swinton died in his Brooklyn home in 1901 after a brief illness.
Swinton dined with Alcott, Thoreau, and Whitman in Brooklyn in 1856. Allen describes Swinton as "a colorful person, a Scotchman, educated in Canada and trained there as a printer, who had recently returned from Kansas, where he had managed a free-soil newspaper despite the violent opposition of the pro-slavery mobs" (204). Allen also lists Swinton as one of the "literary customers" at Pfaff's (229).
Swinton was managing editor of the Times in 1862, and helped Whitman with his articles about Brooklyn soldiers and their conditions by printing, paying for the articles, and contributing his own money (290). Swinton, with Dr. Ruggles, also assisted Jeff Whitman in helping to bring about George Whitman's release. Swinton was one of the first New York editors to "blow" for Grant, and Jeff thought he might have some influence (323). Jeff urged Walt Whitman to appeal to Gen. Grant through Swinton (324). A letter from Swinton, to Grant, forwarded by Whitman, led to a prisoner exchange on February 13, 1865 (326).[pages:204,229,290,323,324-325,326,336,400,427,482]
Belasco speculates that either William or his brother, John Swinton (the new editor of the New York Times), may have written a negative review of Whitman that was printed in the New York Times on May 19, 1860. The review "castigated Whitman for his style and substance. Describing Whitman's earlier editions of Leaves of Grass as 'neither poetry nor prose, but a curious medley, a mixture of quaint utterances and gross indecencies, a remarkable compound of fine thoughts and sentiment of the pot-house,' the reviewer called the 1860 edition even 'more reckless and vulgar.'" Belasco corrects the assumption that the review was written as solely a review of Leaves of Grass, but was actually part of an article titled "New Publications: The New Poets." Both Swinton brothers were old friends of Whitman (255).[pages:255]
Donaldson cites Swinton's April 1, 1876, letter about Whitman's nursing and the days of his "splendid prime" from the New York Herald.[pages:166-167,208]
This biographical entry gives an overview of Swinton's life and professional accomplishments.
This source identifies John as Whitman's friend.[pages:425-428,434]
John is identified as a Pfaff's regular (59).[pages:59]
Mentions letter to Whitman from John Swinton in which Swinton indicates that the Bohemian crowd at Pfaff's often treated Whitman poorly.
Lalor describes him as "the Bohemian apostate" with whom Whitman developed one of his few lasting friendships at Pfaff's (135).[pages:135]
John Swinton was the elder brother of fellow Pfaff's customer William Swinton. John learned the printer's trade in Illinois. He supported himself through a course of classical instruction at Williston seminary in Massachusetts. He traveled extensively and returned to New York in 1857 to write for the Times while studying medicine (51).
Swinton went to Washington to work on the war effort, and wrote to Whitman that it was "refreshing" (112).
Swinton served on several newspapers, even eventually opening his own in 1883 called John Swinton's Paper. In 1894 Swinton wrote a book-length defense of Eugene V. Dens and the Pullman Workers which was republished the following year as A Momentous Question: The Respective Attitudes of Labor and Capital (119).[pages:50, 51. 52. 112. 119]
John later became managing the editor of The New York Times. Swinton was one of Whitman's best friends from Pfaff's.[pages:236,237]
According to Parry, Swinton often remarked that Pfaff's "smelled atrociously," but he enjoyed Pfaff's coffee and sweet-breads (22). Parry also writes that when Whitman was in Washington, he often thought kindly of Pfaff and wrote to friends to ask after the restaurant owner and his establishment. Swinton responded to Whitman that "Pfaff looked as of yore" (42).[pages:22,42]
John is mentioned as editor of The New York Times. Swinton helped Whitman get his brother George returned from the Civil War (455).[pages:455]
Connected to the Times, Swinton is said to be "forceful with an edged tongue and trenchant habit of debate" (199). John is identified as a staunch defender of Whitman. A fictionalized conversation with Whitman is also given (203-04).[pages:199-200,203-04,296]
The biography of William Swinton briefly mentions that he was the brother of John Swinton.
Swinton was military editor of the Times in 1862. He interviewed Grant that year at the Astor House; "Swinton elicited a few monosyllables on the war and the weather, tried other questions without avail, cleared his throat, shifted from foot to foot, and finally turned and fled" (274).
Starr also notes that John Swinton was managing editor of the Times for much of the war and later became a prominent Socialist editor and leader (358).[pages:274,358]
"It is a striking fact that the number of young men prominently connected with the New York press as writers is greater now than at any former period...the chief editorial work in these journals is done by men between the years of twenty-five and forty" (4).
"But all the rest of The Times men, we believe, are young—Stillman S. Conant, the two Swintons, Edward Seymour, Henry J. Winser, and the rest—though we believe we ought to except Mr. Morrison" (4).[pages:4]
Whitman mentions him as a leader at Pfaff's.[pages:126]
The Vault at Pfaff's
27 Memorial Drive West, Bethlehem, PA 18015