Adah Isaacs Menken

How serendipitous that on a day where I mulled over how Stainforth identified American women writers, by day’s end I should learn of someone new, thanks to Reverend Stainforth.  Adah Isaacs Menken, an American actress and poet (1835-1868), was known to this British book collector, evidence of which is in his catalog. She identified one way but according to the Wikipedia entry, different research efforts produced different takes on her origin story.  Stainforth identified forms of writing for his collection that interested his literary tastes and thanks to this DH project, I am learning of writers on both sides of the Atlantic. Again, coming across this writer helps me reflect on identity.  As a light-skinned person, she appears to have passed, or, did not claim a free black father (I say this based on cursory reading of Wikipedia and Poetry Foundation entries knowing that actual research is necessary versus skimming web pages).

For now, learning her name, that she was an American with a biracial background, who married several times and had an adventurous journey in life, is a delightful discovery alone. Coming across Adah also leads me to think about the social construct of race and passing.  Passing is an aspect of American history centered on a dominant culture’s definition of identity, be it race, ethnicity, religion or citizenship (I realize that passing is not solely an American phenomenon). This has nothing to do with Stainforth or his collecting habits, but instead is an example of how conducting name-authority research leads me down other rabbit holes.

The Library of Congress’ Chronicling America website has several newspaper articles that mention Menken but the following links to a full page article in the Evening Star.


  • Infelicia, by Adah Isaacs Menken is available at (Philadelphia, PA: J. B. Lippincott, 1873). 123pp.

The following is behind a pay wall and available if your library subscribes to this Alexander Street Press database.

Black Women Writers: African, African American and Diaspora (Alexander Street Press)

  • Ladies Pages: African American Women’s Magazines and the Culture That Made Them, by Noliwe M. Rooks. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004). 175pp.
  • M: MENKEN, ADAH ISAACS (1835-1868), by Kathleen Thompson and ed. by Darlene Clark Hine. In Black Women In America: A Historical Encyclopedia, Vol. 2 M-Z, ed. by Darlene Clark Hine. (Brooklyn, NY: Carlson Publishing, 1993). pp. 782.
  • Part VI: Epilogue: Four Women, Edited by Dorothy Sterling. In We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century, Edited by Dorothy Sterling. (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 1984). pp. [451]-495. If your library does not subscribe to the fee-based service you can access the e-version which circulates for a fourteen day check-out period at the Internet Archive.
  • The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells, by Ida Bell Wells-Barnett and ed. by Miriam DeCosta-Willis. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995). 206pp.

The Times Digital Archive, 1785 – 2012 has quite a few articles or mentions of Adah. A contemporary theater review: One example is “Astley’s Theatre.” Times [London, England] 7 Oct. 1864: 7. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 29 Oct. 2018.

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