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Butler, William Allen (1825-1902)

Lawyer, Novelist, Poet

Son of Benjamin Franklin Butler and Harriet Allen (an alleged descendant of Oliver Cromwell), William Allen Butler was born in Albany, New York, on February 20th, 1825 (“William Allen Butler”). Butler received most of his education in New York City. Practicing law was, it seems, in the Butler bloodline; his obituary claimed that Butler’s “family was one of lawyers” stating that most of his siblings were connected to the profession (“William Allen Butler”). Bowing to his bloodline’s calling, Butler followed his father to Washington, helping him as he finished his commitment as Attorney General (“William Allen Butler”). The family moved back to New York shortly after Butler’s father’s term finished. William Butler then attended and graduated from the University of the City of New York in 1843 and was admitted to the bar in 1846 (477). On March 21, 1850, he married Mary Russell Marshall, the daughter of a wealthy businessman. Before entering his first practice, Butler traveled Europe extensively ("William Allen Butler”). After returning from his travels, Butler maintained a lucrative career as a lawyer, even trying several cases involving shipping laws before the Supreme Court. Butler served on the board of trustees for the New York Public Library, and also acted as President of the American Bar Association (1885) and the Bar Association of New York (1886-1887).

The extent of Butler’s connection to Pfaff’s is currently unknown; however, he was named by Stylus as a member of the Bohemian Club. Even though those that are described here as frequenting "Pfaaf's" [sic], we do not know for certain if this is a direct reference to Pfaff’s in its heyday, or if it is a nod to a post-Pfaff's group of journalists (64). Hemstreet also connects Butler to the Horace Greeley, mentioning that Butler lived next door to Greeley before moving to Yonkers (no. 35 Nineteenth Street) (246).

Succombing to sudden gastritis, William Allen Butler died in his home, Round Oak, on Palisade Avenue in Yonkers on September 9th, 1902 (“William Allen Butler”) Butler left many children after his death scattered in New York and Philadelphia, however, William Allen Butler, Jr., was a member of his father’s law firm and his other son,Howard Russel Butler, was acting President of the AMerican Fine Arts Society (“William Allen Butler”).

Butler's contributions to society also include various writings and poems: "Gifted with a nimble wit and a faculty for rhyming which reminds one often of Lowell's, he wrote a number of satirical poems [...] one of which, “Nothing to Wear; an Episode of City Life” (1857), has become an American classic. William Dean Howells said of him, in a notice of the 1899 edition of his poems, 'But for the professional devotion of this able lawyer, we might have counted him the cleverest of our society poets'" (Muzzey). Butler's poetry may have influenced poets like Fitz-James O'Brien: "'The Sewing Bird' and 'The Finishing School' are, perhaps, echoes of William Allen Butler's now almost forgotten success, 'Nothing to Wear' or some earlier prototype" ("Three New York Poets" 471). Domesticus; a Tale of the Imperial City (1886) and Mrs. Limber's Raffle; or, A Church Fair and Its Victims (1876), were Butler's less successful attempts at writing fiction. "It has been said of him that, while there were greater lawyers and greater literary men than Butler, perhaps 'no man of his time, either in England of America, held an equally high rank, both as lawyer and a literary man'" (Muzzey).