John Mullanphy was born in Ireland in 1758 and came to America in 1792 with his wife and child to escape the penal laws against Roman Catholics that made advancement difficult for his Irish coreligionists. Mullanphy lived and did business as a merchant in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Frankfort, Kentucky before moving to St. Louis in 1804.
Mullanphy and his growing family thereafter moved from St. Louis to Natchez, Mississippi to Baltimore in search of the best education for the children, many of whom eventually attended schools in Europe. In 1819 they settled permanently in St. Louis, where Mullanphy, who had founded his fortune on the cotton trade with Britain after the War of 1812, became a real estate magnate. Mullanphy was renowned for his charitable activities, setting up homes for orphaned boys and poor widows, establishing a hospital under the Sisters of Charity, and settling an endowment on the Ladies of the Sacred Heart for the opening of a school for young ladies that would also offer instruction to twenty orphaned girls. John Mullanphy died in August of 1833.
Mullanphy's daughter Elizabeth Browne Mullanphy married James Clemens Jr. in January of 1833. Clemens was born in Danville, Kentucky in 1791, and after a common school education became a clerk. During the War of 1812 he and his partner James Clemens Sr. of Huntsville, Alabama made fortunes selling saltpetre for gunpowder to the United States Army. After moving to Ste. Genevieve, Missouri and establishing a business there, James Clemens arrived in St. Louis in 1816 to open a store. He retired in 1841 and devoted his time to the management of his estate, much of which had been brought to him by his Mullanphy wife. Clemens was elected a director of the Bank of the United States in St. Louis in 1832 and was one of the incorporators of the St. Louis Gas Light Company. He was also involved in the building of the first customs house in the city and in many important local enterprises. He died in 1878. His wife had predeceased him in 1853.
Helen Isabella Clemens, daughter of James Clemens Jr. and Elizabeth Mullanphy Clemens, married Doctor James Wolfe Clemens, a distant cousin, in 1866. James Wolfe Clemens was born in 1829 in Wheeling, West Virginia, son of a distinguished physician. Following in his father's footsteps, he studied medicine for a time before exhausting his funds. After saving money from a clerkship at the Post Office in Wheeling and selling some land in Missouri left to him by his father, he was able to graduate with a degree in medicine from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in 1858.
Coming to St. Louis in 1861, he was appointed Professor of Physiology at St. Louis Medical College in 1869 and became City Health Officer around the same time. James Wolfe Clemens died in 1873, his wife Helen in 1904. Mary C. Clemens, the donor of this collection, was their daughter.
Other members of the Clemens family represented in this collection include Helen I. Clemens' brothers James B. (Biddle) Clemens (d. 1878), Richard G. (Graham) Clemens (d. 1854), Bryan M. (Mullanphy) Clemens (d. 1916), and Jeremiah W. Clemens (d. 1894); the latter left letters and diaries detailing his travels in Texas, California, Europe, and the Middle East. Helen's sister Alice (d. 1912) married German army officer Maximilian von Versen and moved to Europe, while her sister Catherine Clemens Cates (d. 1900), with whom Helen often corresponded, became the third wife of General Daniel Marsh Frost in 1880.