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Edgar Allan Poe Hoax Now on Display at Poe Museum

Mark Sherman - Wednesday, February 11, 2015
The Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia recently acquired a rare 1846 British pamphlet Mesmerism in Articulo Mortis, in which Edgar Allan Poe’s fictional story of mesmerizing the dead, “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,”(1845) is reprinted as a true account for a London audience. The Poe Museum’s new acquisition is a gift from Poe collector and Poe Museum trustee Susan Jaffe Tane. This important piece has appeared in exhibits at the Poe Museum in 1997 and the Grolier Club in New York in 2014. The book retains its original paper cover and is in fine condition. It is now on display in the Poe Museum’s Elizabeth Arnold Poe Memorial Building. About the “Valdemar” Hoax In Edgar Allan Poe’s time (1809-1849), many of his readers fell victim to his notorious hoax, now titled “The Balloon Hoax,” about a balloon trip across the ocean, but, more amazingly, the public was also willing to believe “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” which purports to recount a scientific experiment in which a dead man is mesmerized in order to facilitate communication with him after his death. The story concludes with the dead man awakening from his trance and immediately dissolving into “a nearly liquid mass of loathsome—of detestable putridity.” Although “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” seems outlandish by today’s standards, it was soon reprinted in London’s Popular Record of Modern Science, which stated that “credence is understood to be given it at New York…The angry excitement and various rumors which have at length rendered a public statement necessary, are sufficient to show that something extraordinary must have taken place.” The Poe Museum’s new acquisition, Mesmerism in Articulo Mortis, was printed in London in January 1846—just weeks after the story’s first printing in the United States in the December 1845 issue of the American Review in New York. It is the first separate printing Poe’s important story. In this edition, the story is prefaced with a statement that the account is “a plain recital of facts” and that “credence is given to it in America, where the occurrence took place.” Shortly after the story appeared, the Boston mesmerist Robert H. Collyer wrote Poe, “Your account of M. Valdemar’s Case has been universally copied in this city, and has created a very great sensation…I have not the least doubt of the possibility of such a phenomenon.” Collyer asks Poe to verify that the story is true “in order to put at rest the growing impression that your account is merely a splendid creation of your own brain, not having any truth in fact.” Unconvinced of “Valdemar’s” veracity, the editor of the New York Herald wrote, “whoever thought it a veracious recital must have the bump of Faith large, very large indeed.” Poe responded in the Broadway Journal, “For our parts we find it difficult to understand how any dispassionate transcendentalist can doubt the facts as we state them; they are by no means so incredible as the marvels which are hourly narrated, and believed, on the topic of Mesmerism. Why cannot a man’s death be postponed indefinitely by Mesmerism? Why cannot a man talk after he is dead? Why? — Why? — that is the question; and as soon as the Tribune has answered it to our satisfaction we will talk to it farther.” Despite his adamant defense of the story’s veracity, when he was asked by a London pharmacist if “Valdemar” were true, Poe responded, “‘Hoax’ is precisely the word suited to M. Valdemar’s case . . . Some few persons believe it — but I do not — and don’t you.” The Poe Museum’s new acquisition, a first printing of Mesmerism in Articulo Mortis, is a vivid reminder of how revolutionary Poe’s fiction was in its time. This semblance of realism based on the scientific knowledge of his day became a hallmark of the fledgling literary genre that would eventually become known as Science Fiction.
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