Delphian Club

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Delphian Club
Simple ink sketch of seven men in a room gathered around a table with one more looking on
1817 sketch by John Neal of the first meeting in 1816
Named afterOracle of Delphi
FormationAugust 31, 1816; 205 years ago (1816-08-31)
FoundersJohn Neal, Tobias Watkins, John Pierpont, Horace H. Hayden, William Sinclair, John Didier Readel, James H. McCulloch
Founded atBaltimore, Maryland, US
Dissolved1825; 197 years ago (1825)
TypeLiterary club
William Sinclair (1816)
Tobias Watkins (1816–1823)
William H. Winder (1823–1824)
William Gwynn (1824–1825)
Main organ
The Portico

The Delphian Club was an early American literary club active between 1816 and 1825. The focal point of Baltimore's literary community, Delphians like John Neal were prodigious authors and editors. The group of mostly lawyers and doctors gathered weekly to share refreshments and facetious stories, with many of their works being published in The Portico magazine. The club's structure and terminology were inspired by classical antiquity and comical verbosity. Sixteen men claimed membership in the club over its nine years, but no more than nine served at a time. Edgar Allan Poe satirized the group in his unpublished Tales of the Folio Club in the 1830s.


The Delphian Club was founded in Baltimore in 1816.[1] The number of Baltimore printers, publishers, and booksellers had doubled in the preceding years.[2] Residents expected the city to become America's leading cultural and commercial center following the War of 1812 and the literary community dubbed Baltimore "the Rome of the United States".[3] Between 1816 and 1825, the city's literary focal point was the Delphian Club.[4] Works by Delphians are common in the era's literary magazines.[5]

Drawing from classical antiquity, Delphians facetiously claimed their group was founded in 1420 BC.[6] The name refers to the Oracle of Delphi and the president is supposed to be a representative of Apollo.[7] Members were each associated with one of the Muses.[7]

The idea for the club originated with physician Tobias Watkins and failed lawyer and businessman John Pierpont, who connected in their common association with Unitarianism.[8] They established the group at their first meeting on August 31, 1816,[9] with Pierpont's former business partner John Neal, dentist Horace H. Hayden, Baltimore College co-founder and vice president William Sinclair, physician John Didier Readel, and physician James H. McCulloch.[10] Sinclair was the founding president, but passed that role on to Watkins after the first few meetings.[11] The group met every Saturday at 6:30 pm, with members taking turns hosting at their homes or offices, most of which were within the area of St. Paul, Calvert, Lexington, and Baltimore Streets.[12] The location of each upcoming meeting was published in the Federal Gazette newspaper for the benefit of any members who were absent at the preceding meeting.[12] The group of genteel professionals shared refreshments and facetious stories, drawing inspiration from classical antiquity.[13] Neal wrote in 1823,

The members read essays, chase puns, wrangle vehemently and noisily about nothing, talk all together, and eat when they do eat, which I should judge could not be oftener than once a week, with inconceivable effect; and drink after the same manner.[14]

Watkins felt it was important that the club be not just a joyous social outlet, but also a source of creative production.[15] Delphians took turns presenting "hebdomadal essays" to each other, choosing a topic from a list of three, developed at the preceding meeting for that particular member.[16] For example, Neal was assigned these three choices on November 23, 1816:

"Whether Cicero or Dean Swift were the greatest poet?"
"Whether Adam had a Navel?"
"Which should be first on the sign of a Cabinet maker, a coffin, a cradle, or a bedstead?"[17]

Black and white photograph of a small Greek revival house in an alleyway
Gwynn's Tusculum

Twelve newspapers had editors in the club and the club's sixteen members published at least 48 books of fiction, history, travel, letters, and biography, as well as nine volumes of poetry, one play, and nineteen speeches.[18] Many Delphians wrote contributions to the daily Journal of the Times newspaper, of which Paul Allen was editor.[18] The club's organ was The Portico literary magazine, of which Watkins was editor. At their thirty-second meeting on April 5, 1817, the group decided to require regular contributions from members.[19]

At the end of the club's first year, members assigned each other "clubicular names"[20] and incurred fines for "misnomers" when they failed to use those names in meetings.[21] Neal's reflected his reputation for profuse production of passionate literature. Others' were often derived from their personalities or professions.[22] Members were also assigned facetious titles that came with absurd responsibilities.[23] After the September 27, 1817, meeting the president became known as the Tripod, because "the President should not be referred to as the chair, because the sons of Apollo should have nothing to do with a chair. He should be said to fill a tripod."[24] The Tripod was properly addressed as "My Lud".[23] The vice president was addressed as "His Sub-Ludship".[25]

Meetings were discontinued during a yellow fever epidemic from August 1821 to August 1823. When the club resumed meetings, membership elected William H. Winder as president to replace Watkins, who was then in federal prison for embezzlement from the US Treasury. William Gwynn replaced Winder after the latter's death in 1824 and served until the group's dissolution in 1825.[26] Gwynn hosted all the club's meetings after August 1824 at his home on Bank Lane near St. Paul Street, which he called the Tusculum.[12] This final year was when the club flourished most.[11] The official club records, kept by Secretary Readel, became public when the Maryland Historical Society assumed ownership in 1920.[26]


Sixteen men served as members between 1816 and 1825,[27] with no more than nine serving at a time.[7] Aside from the members, club records mention visitors Quizzifer Wuggs, Baron Brobdignag, Le Compere Mathieu, Peter Paragraph, Stoffle von Plump, Occasional Punnifer, and Don Gusto Comerostros.[28] Some of these clubicular names may apply to men who were associated with the group and may have attended meetings, but who never joined, including Robert Goodloe Harper, Samuel Woodworth, William Wirt, John Howard Payne, Peter H. Cruse, John P. Kennedy, William West, Fielding Lucas Jr., Francis Foster, William Frick, John Cole, James Sheridan Knowles, Philip Laurenson, Francis Scott Key, and Rembrandt Peale.[29] In addition, club records claim Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar as members to reinforce the organization's purported ancient origin.[30] Delphians invited many prominent men like Lord Byron to become honorary members.[31]

Members of the Delphian Club
Name Clubicular name Organizational title Term of membership
John Neal Jehu O'Cataract[27] Professor of Jocology (science of joking);[23] Historical Painter (sketch artist to record club events);[32] Magister Facetiarum of the Office of the Joke Master General (explainer of jokes to extinguish their humor);[33] "Sargeant — and at Arms, pro. tem. until a better can be found"[34] August 31, 1816[9] – January 8, 1820[35]
William Sinclair Muggius Sin-clear[27] August 31, 1816 — ?[11]
John Didier Readel Blearix von Crambograph[27] Poet Laureate;[36] Custo-Sig (secretary); Treasurer; Professor of Crambology and Oratology[37] August 31, 1816 — ?[11]
Tobias Watkins Pertinax Particular[27] Tripod (President), August 31, 1816 – August 1823[38] August 31, 1816 — ?[11]
James H. McCulloch Abraham Kenuckkofritz[27] Historical Painter (following Neal's resignation)[39] August 31, 1816 — ?[11]
John Pierpont Hiero Heptaglott[27] August 31, 1816[9] – April 25, 1818[27]
Horace H. Hayden Jasper Hornblende[27] August 31, 1816 — ?[11]
Joseph D. Learned Surrogate Sackvert[27] November 2, 1818 – August 22, 1818[40]
E. Denison Precipitate Pasquin[27] Flamen (Vice President)[41]
Henry Marie Brackenridge Peregrine Bochinjochelus[27]
Paul Allen Solomon Fitz Quizz[27] Professor of Loblology (endeavoring to do the impossible)[36] and Chrononhoronthology (meaningless verbosity)[23]
William Gwynn Odopoeus Oligostichus[27] Flamen (Vice President);[42] Professor of Impromptology (impromptu speeches);[36] Tripod (President), June 1824 – 1825[41]
William H. Winder Opechancanough Sulekouqui[27] Professor of Kolakology (effective flattery);[36] Tripod (President), August 1823 – June 1824[41]
Thomas Maund Damun ap Ramrod, Lothario Meliboeus[27]
Julius Timoleon Ducatel Basaltes Cranioscopus[27]
John H. B. Latrobe Orlando Garangula, Choleric Combustible, Sir John Mittimus of Mittimus Hall[27] July 10, 1824 – 1825[7]

In popular culture

Edgar Allan Poe's unpublished collection of eleven satirical stories, Tales of the Folio Club (circa 1832–1836), is based on the Delphian Club. Poe was familiar with the club through his association with Gwynn, who studied law alongside Poe's father, employed Poe's cousin, and helped him publish Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems (1829).[43] The character of Mr. Snap is a satire of John Neal and the story "Raising the Wind; or Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences" is a satire of Neal's writing for the club and later in The Yankee.[44]

In 1821, Tobias Watkins published a collection of three stories as Tales of the Tripod; Or, A Delphian Evening. The first is a translation from German of a story by Heinrich Zschokke. The second two are about fellow Paul Allen, but are cryptic to a reader who has not read the club records.[45]

John Neal used his clubicular name Jehu O'Cataract as a pen name when he published his epic poem Battle of Niagara in 1818.[46] His first novel, Keep Cool (1817) was published under the pen name "Somebody, M.D.C.", in which the acronym stands for "member of the Delphian Club".[47]

Members James H. McCulloch, John Didier Readel, Paul Allen, Tobias Watkins, William Gwynn, E. Denison, and William H. Winder collaboratively authored an unpublished novel by taking turns writing chapters. Historian John Earle Uhler described it as "entirely devoid of merit, being vague, verbose, and tiresome".[15]



  1. Lease 1972, p. 17.
  2. Appleby 2000, p. 92.
  3. Fishwick 1951, p. 239.
  4. Fishwick 1951, p. 240; Uhler 1925, p. 305.
  5. Tomlinson 1981, p. 65.
  6. Richards 1933, p. 307.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Uhler 1925, p. 306.
  8. Richards 1933, p. 69.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Sears 1978, p. 23.
  10. Mott 1966, p. 294; Uhler 1925, p. 312.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 11.5 11.6 Uhler 1925, p. 312.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Uhler 1925, p. 310.
  13. Chico 1976, p. 351; Pleadwell & Mabbott 1926, p. 25n2.
  14. Uhler 1925, pp. 331–332, quoting John Neal.
  15. 15.0 15.1 Uhler 1925, p. 341.
  16. Richards 1933, pp. 80–82.
  17. Richards 1933, p. 82.
  18. 18.0 18.1 Uhler 1925, p. 308.
  19. Uhler 1925, pp. 307–308.
  20. Richards 1933, p. 76.
  21. Richards 1933, p. 71n2.
  22. Sears 1978, pp. 23–25.
  23. 23.0 23.1 23.2 23.3 Uhler 1925, p. 334.
  24. Uhler 1925, p. 313, quoting John Didier Readel's minutes.
  25. Uhler 1925, pp. 327, 343.
  26. 26.0 26.1 Uhler 1925, pp. 305–306.
  27. 27.00 27.01 27.02 27.03 27.04 27.05 27.06 27.07 27.08 27.09 27.10 27.11 27.12 27.13 27.14 27.15 27.16 27.17 Uhler 1925, p. 330.
  28. Uhler 1925, pp. 330–331.
  29. Uhler 1925, pp. 306, 309, 330.
  30. Uhler 1925, pp. 306–307.
  31. Uhler 1925, p. 307.
  32. Richards 1933, pp. 76–77.
  33. Richards 1933, pp. 77–79.
  34. Richards 1933, p. 80.
  35. Richards 1933, pp. 87–90.
  36. 36.0 36.1 36.2 36.3 Uhler 1925, pp. 335–336.
  37. Richards 1933, p. 88.
  38. Uhler 1925, pp. 313, 345.
  39. Richards 1933, p. 77n5.
  40. Richards 1933, p. 54n1.
  41. 41.0 41.1 41.2 Uhler 1925, p. 345.
  42. Uhler 1925, pp. 327.
  43. Hammond 1972, p. 25; Uhler 1925, p. 327.
  44. Hammond 1972, pp. 26–27.
  45. Uhler 1925, p. 313.
  46. Richards 1933, p. 1882.
  47. Fleischmann 1983, p. 230.


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