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Shaw, Dora (1828-1891)

Actor, Essayist, Poet

Described as a "golden woman of poetical tendencies," Shaw was born to an Ohio clergyman (Kendall 305). Shaw married young but divorced and was shunned by her family as a result (Lawson 104). Though her first marriage to Dr. LeBaum failed, Shaw did remarry in 1863 to Captain Henry Bogardus. Shaw who was "brillant, beautiful, but eccentric" worked as an actress throughout the country, including cities such as New Orleans and St. Louis (Kendall 305).

A frequenter to Pfaff's, Thomas Gunn places Shaw directly at Pfaff's in one of his diary entries noting that she was "an elderly actress drinking in the cellar with such members of the clique as were present" (Gunn, vol. 12, 144). He elaborated further about her connection to the establishment, on a separate occasion, nothing that he believed Shaw was "one of the Bohemians at Pfaffs [sic]" (Gunn, vol. 20, 152). Scholar Renee Sentilles wrote that Shaw was one of the women associated with the bohemian circle who often frequented Pfaff's, a fact confirmed in Henry Clapp's New York Times obituary, which described Shaw as as one of the women who gathered with other Bohemians (Sentilles 142; New York Times, April 11, 1875, 7). Scholar Mark Lause also places Dora Shaw at Pfaff's among the crowd of actors and actresses who were often be found there (Lause 60). Shaw became part of the Bohemian group of women that gathered at Pfaff's who included Jenny Danforth, Marie Stevens Case, among several others (Martin 67). In fact, Marie Stevens Case wrote an article in the Saturday Press recounting the experience she and Shaw shared when they decided to try to eat hashish (July 16, 1859, 1-2). Among the group of Bohemian women, Shaw shared a particular connection with fellow Pfaffian Adah Menken. According to scholar, Gregory Eiselein, who edited edited a collection of Menken's work, the two women knew each other "for some time by the time that Menken wrote the poem, "Reply to Dora Shaw." Furthermore, Eiselein argues that the two women shared many similar experiences, which may have served as the foundation for their connection, including both having been divorced and remarried, as well as the fact that they were both actresses in New Orleans around the years of 1856 to 1857 (Eiselein 164 n.2). While the exact context in which Menken's poem was written is unclear, as there is no record of Shaw publishing anything for Menken to reply to, it nevertheless suggests the type of connection fostered between these two bohemian women. Moreover, according to scholars Joanna Levin and Edward Whitley the poem "articulates a strong and public connection to a community of bohemian women," a community in which Shaw played a significant role ("Poetry and Bohemianism" 6).

While it is unclear what happened to Shaw in the latter part of her life, her death notice provides some indication of how she spent the later years of her life. The death notice published in the New York Times stated that Shaw "at one time a well-known actress and leading lady" died at the Forrest Home, which was located in Philadelphia. The brief notice mentioned that "she had been an inmate [there] since Dec. 21, 1885" (New York Times, July 9, 1891). Shaw was 70 years old (The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 9, 1891, 5). The Forrest Home was "a refuge for those members of the dramatic profession who suffered absolutely from need" (Harrison 197). The inmates, such as Shaw, were "men and women who are left almost alone in the world, and, by their age and sickness, are left without the capacity to earn that self-support which they would most gladly do, were it in their power" (Harrison 198). This information, taken together, suggests that Shaw became destitute, if not also sick, in the later years of her life before she entered this home for actors and actresses of desperate need. Remembered as "one of the galaxy of bright young women who, like stars about the moon, made a beautiful group around Ada Clare," Shaw was an actress of merit and a writer of humorous sketches like "Fashions Follies" and "The One Night Stand," which appeared in Spirit of the Times. A.L. Rawson, a contemporary of Shaw, noted that she wrote several other works but that the copies of those no longer existed (104). She did though claim authorship of the poem, "Beautiful Snow," a piece that was published in The Saturday Press (Lause 57). Junius Browne declared that Shaw should be remembered as "the best Camille on the American Stage" (157), though others disagreed such as the author of Henry Clapp's obituary who noted that Shaw had an "unsuccessful dramatic career" ("Obituary" 7).