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Eyre, Ellen


On March 25, 1862, Walt Whitman received a letter addressed to him at Pfaff's and signed by "Ellen Eyre." The signature "Ellen Eyre" has long been thought to be the assumed name of an unknown female writer. The note reads as a love letter to the poet from a woman who knows him quite well. During the twentieth century, a number of historians took the letter to be evidence of a romantic tryst between Whitman and one of several candidates from the Bohemian circle and New York theatrical communities. The most commonly suggested identities for the writer of this letter were Ada Clare, Mrs. Beach, Lola Montez, Mrs. Parton, Adah Isaacs Menken, the unidentified woman who inspired a Whitman poem published in October 1861 (Holloway), and Ellen Grey (Miller; Hollis).

In 2009, Ted Genoways discovered the identity of Ellen Eyre to be a con man named William Kinney. “Posing as a woman and calling himself Mrs. Ellen Eyre," Genoways writes, "he would send letters to the prominent men of New York--doctors, judges, attorneys. The men would agree to meet this mystery woman at the time and place appointed by her in the letter. What exactly transpired thereafter is veiled in the niceties of the period, but the letters from several suitors, published later in the Sunday Mercury, are highly suggestive” (156).

Given that the Pfaff's environment had already given Whitman the opportunity to test the boundaries of male-male sexuality with groups such as the Fred Gray Association, Genoways speculates that "the Ellen Eyre incident [might] have served as an unlocking of Whitman's repressed sexuality," or even that, as Whitman recounted the story of "Ellen Eyre" with other men, he used "the anecdote of the incident as a way to test the reactions of potential [sexual] partners" (159). Gay Wilson Allen notes that Whitman mentioned the affair to a stage driver named Frank Sweeney on July 8, 1862, promising to tell him the “whole story” (278-80).