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).
Derby writes that one of George W. Carleton's early publications as a publisher was "that celebrated society poem, by William Allen Butler, then and now a distinguished lawyer of New York, entitled, 'Nothing to Wear' (236). Carleton initially made sketches for the illustrations himself, but later gave them to his friend Augustus Hoppin, who made the drawings into woodcuts. The book was "immensely popular" and Derby notes that despite a financial panic in 1857, the book sold steadily. Derby prints an excerpt from the poem on p.237 which dicusses "Miss Flora McFlimsey, of Madison Square." Shortly after the poem's publication in book form, a Miss Peck of an Episcopal minister in Greenwich, Conn., claimed to be the author of the poem. She claimed to have lost the manuscript while shopping in New York and riding on the Madison Ave. stage, where she argued that Butler must have found it and claimed it as his own. The controversy helped book sales, and to keep things going, Carelton offered Mortimer M. Thomson one dollar a line for a humorous poem on the situation. Thomson wrote eight hundred lines (and was paid eight hundred dollars)- four times the length of Butler's poem - for "Nothing to Say," illustrated by John McLenan. This book also sold very well (237-238).[pages:236-238]
English dissociates himself from Butler, mentioned as one of English's "associates" at Pfaff's in "Our New York."[pages:202]
This text identifies the following pseudonym: Two Millions (96).[pages:96]
Hemstreet mentions Butler lived next door to Horace Greeley (no. 35 Nineteenth Street) and that Greeley's home is still standing at the time of his writing. Butler wrote Nothing to Wear (246).[pages:246]
A note on Harper's Magazine lists W. Allen Butler among the "principal contributors" (3).[pages:3]
This might be the William Butler who debuts on Nov. 5, 1866, as part of Kelly and Leon's minstrels (unconfirmed).[pages:220]
Mentioned in reference to the Bohemian Club, which may be a post-Pfaff's group of journalists, even though they are described here as frequenting "Pfaaf's" [sic]. See Thomas Dunn English's "That Club at Pfaaf's [sic]."[pages:64]
Butler's poetry is compared to O'Brien's: "'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" (471).[pages:471]
Betwen 1858 and 1862, Butler published three major poems: "Two Millions," "The Bible be Itself," and "Martin Van Buren."[pages:477(ill.)]
William Allen Butler.
SOURCE: Wilson, James Grant and John Fiske. Appletons' Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Volume I. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1888.
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