User menu


Swinton, John (1829-1901)

Journalist, Reformer, Travel Writer

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.