Ancient Egypt has long been of great fascination to the world, capturing the imaginations of everyone from the Greeks who conquered Egypt in 332 BC, all the way to people of our own time. Much of the ancient civilization’s culture is preserved in the monumental temples and pyramids, the cryptic hieroglyphics, and of course in the elaborate burials and mummifications that became the hallmark of Egypt. While the interest in Ancient Egypt continues on, it was perhaps at its most fervent in the Victorian era. Discoveries such as the Rosetta Stone by the French in 1799 made it possible for scholars to finally translate the hieroglyphics that had stumped them for centuries, and created an intense interest in this formerly mysterious culture.
It was with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and the discovery of the Rosetta Stone that the discipline of Egyptology was born. The publication of the essay Description de l’Égypte (1809-1829) officially made the study an academic discipline. Soon, historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists alike flocked to Egypt to excavate the tombs and study what was inscribed on the walls of its temples and other landmarks. Many of these excavations yielded crypts of pharaohs richly adorned with gold, jewels, and mummies, many of which were taken back to Europe to be put on display in museums. The people of the Victorian age came in droves to see these mummies, which both delighted and terrified them. There were even mummy unwrapping parties, which guests could attend and watch as the linen wrappings were peeled back to reveal the embalmed body inside. When Poe was fourteen, there was even a mummy on public display in the Senate Chamber of the Capitol in Richmond.
An Invitation to a Mummy Unwrapping Party
Poe wrote a satirical critique of this fascination with mummies entitled “Some Words With a Mummy” (published in 1845). The story is a commentary on the treatment of the artifacts of Ancient Egypt, particularly the mummies. Once back in Europe, many mummies were damaged or destroyed in the name of science by dissections and examinations, and others were stolen from their tombs by grave robbers to be ground into a powder which was thought to have medicinal properties. Poe’s mummy, Allamistakeo, admonishes his examiners on their treatment of him, showing the author’s view on the Egypt Mania and the disrespect of the tombs that had overtaken the Victorian era.
At the same time as the publication of “Some Words With a Mummy”, the Egyptian Building was being constructed to house the Medical College of Virginia here in Richmond. Designed by architect Thomas W. Stewart, the building is in the Egyptian Revival style and brings to mind the colossal temples that dot the Nile Valley. The choice to make the building very Egyptian in appearance may coincide with the Egypt Mania of the time, or perhaps ally the medical campus with Imhotep, the Egyptian priest who is thought to have been the first physician. The building became a national landmark in 1969, and is a treasured part of the MCV campus today. It has been in continual use since 1845, and houses an auditorium and classrooms.
The MCV Egyptian Building
This photograph of the Poe Museum’s Old Stone House dates to around 1881. The bearded man standing by the front door is R. L. Potter, the Wheelbarrow Man. Long before anyone ever thought to have a Poe Museum in the Old Stone House, Potter used the building to display his own collection of 1,600 curiosities, which included rattlesnakes, two wolves, rocks and minerals collected on his travels, and—according to one source—a live bear. Admission was probably about fifteen cents, which is the price he charged when his collection was on display on Marshall Street, according to an advertisement in the November 29, 1881 Daily Dispatch.
Potter was born in Marietta, Ohio but moved to Albany, New York, where he had a wife and three children. When Grant won the Presidency, Potter refused to shave his beard until a Democrat was in office. He earned the name Wheelbarrow Man by pushing a wheelbarrow carrying 100 pounds from Albany to San Francisco in 1878. He walked the 4,100 miles in just 160 days, becoming famous in the process. During the trip, he adopted and tamed two wolf cubs, which followed him for the rest of his life. He also filled his wheelbarrow with rocks, minerals, live specimens, and other “curiosities” he found along the way. Upon Potter’s arrival in San Francisco, the poet Samuel Booth wrote “The Song of the Wheelbarrow Man,” a stanza of which reads, “He started from Albany five months ago,/ And trundled his wheelbarrow steady and slow,/ In storm and in sunshine, through dust, wind, and rain,/ Four thousand odd miles trudged the Wheelbarrow Man.”
When asked why he took the trip, Potter told reporters he wanted to make his name doing something no one else had ever done. That distinction was short-lived. In a publicity stunt to sell papers, newspaper owner George Hearst offered a prize to whoever could win a wheelbarrow race from San Francisco to New York. Potter’s competition was L. P. Federmeyer of Paris, France. Federmeyer won the race, but Potter continued to tour the country, never returning to his home in Albany because, according to a May 19, 1881 interview in the National Republican, “I have three children there. The reason I don’t go home is that if I get there with my children I can’t get away.”
In the same interview, Potter mentions that he has exhibited his collection of curiosities in a number of cities and will take it to Virginia. By July 27, 1881, he was showing his “museum of natural curiosities” in Woodstock, Virginia, according to the Shenandoah Herald of that date. By November 27, 1881, when an advertisement for his museum appeared in the Daily Dispatch, he was in Richmond.
The exact dates of his time in the Old Stone House are unknown. An 1894 guide to the Old Stone House (which was then in service as the Washington’s Headquarters Antiquarium and Relic Museum) states that Potter rented the house for eight months beginning in 1879. Poe Museum trustee Rosemarie Mitchell, who is researching a history of the Old Stone House, theorizes Potter might have rented the house in late 1882 or early 1883. By 1883, he returned to New York to accept the challenge of pushing his wheelbarrow from New York City to New Orleans.
Potter died shortly afterwards. The April 30, 1883 issue of the New York Times reported that he was killed while crossing the railroad bridge over the Yadkin River in North Carolina. His last surviving pet wolf remained at his master’s side and was retrieved by Potter’s widow.
As the Poe Museum celebrates its 90th anniversary this year, it is easy to forget that the Old Stone House was already a Richmond landmark—and even a museum—decades before the Poe Foundation took over the property. Although the bear, wolves, and rattlesnakes are long gone, we still like to think we have an interesting, if slightly less dangerous, collection of Poeana.
Did you enjoy Treasure Island, The Da Vinci Code, or National Treasure? These and similar tales had their origins in Edgar Allan Poe’s 1843 tale of hidden treasure, invisible messages, cryptograms, riddles, and mysterious clues “The Gold-Bug.” It was Poe’s most popular story during his lifetime and has spawned countless imitations. Find out how it all began with an evening at the Poe Museum’s “Gold-Bug” Unhappy Hour.
On Thursday, July 26 from 6-9 P.M., the Poe Museum will host an Unhappy Hour and Carnival inspired by Poe’s classic treasure-hunt mystery “The Gold-Bug.” Guests can look forward to live music, Poe-themed carnival games, a performance of “The Gold-Bug,” a cash bar, and more. You can join the fun for a suggested donation of only five dollars. This is the perfect opportunity to rediscover “The Gold-Bug,” a forgotten treasure of world literature.
Click here to see photos and video from last summer’s carnival at the Poe Museum. This month’s event promises to be bigger and better.
Below are photos of the original illustrations for the first printing of the story as it appeared in the Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper in June 1843. Poe won a prize of $100 for the tale, and it was so popular it was reprinted in magazines around the world and even adapted into a play during the author’s lifetime.
Dear Friends of Poe,
A couple weeks ago we convened the Poe Museum’s fifth Edgar Allan Poe Young Writers’ Conference. This year we hosted ten students from seven different states from Massachusetts to Arizona. Why did these talented high school students (pictured above) give up a week of their summer to come to the Poe Museum? They came for the same reason that hundreds of students on field trips leave the Poe Museum with books purchased from our gift shop. Teachers often tell us that Edgar Allan Poe is the first author who excites students about reading and writing. Among the students of yesterday who credited Poe with inspiring their careers are Jules Verne, Alfred Hitchcock, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Perhaps one of the students at this summers’ conference, one of the students who visited the museum on a school field trip, or even one of the hundreds of thousands of students who visit our website each month will write the next great novel or screenplay. These students are one reason I support the Poe Museum.
We have seen our numbers grow significantly in the years I have served on the board of the Poe Museum. In 2001, our annual attendance was 11,000. For the past year our attendance had grown to 18,000. In 2001 we had 46 school groups visit the museum, but this past year we had 81 groups. Since 2009 when the National Endowment for the Arts made Poe the center of a national program to stimulate reading, the Poe Museum has brought visiting exhibits and programs to schools and libraries all over the southeast.
The Poe Museum is more successful than it has ever been, yet our need for individual financial support has never been greater. Five years ago we relied on a large group of donors who gave $50, $100, $200, and $500 each year. Since the beginning of the recession, our support has fallen significantly. We do not have a large endowment, nor do we rely on government support for our operations. We depend upon a balanced mix of support from admissions fees, shops sales, corporate support, individual support, grants, and modest local government support. We depend upon all of these, and when the money is not present, we can only cut our service and cut our staff.
As we begin a new fiscal year, please join me in making a gift to the Poe Museum that will help stimulate the educational motivation of the next generation at a time when our educational institutions are in crisis and need the auxiliary help of organizations like the Poe Museum. Your donation will also help us pay other expenses associated with preserving, exhibiting, and insuring the world’s finest collection of Poe artifacts and memorabilia (not to mention the upkeep of a 260-year-old building). As the Poe Museum celebrates its ninetieth anniversary this year, we look forward to laying the foundation for the next ninety years of inspiring young minds.
Thank you in advance for your generous support. If you have not visited the Poe Museum recently, we invite you to come this summer to see our incredible new temporary exhibit featuring dozens of rarely seen Poe letters and manuscripts from seven different private and public collections.
Harry Lee Poe
From June 17 until June 23, the 2012 Edgar Allan Poe Young Writers’ Conference brought students from across the country to the Poe Museum for a week focused on the craft of writing. When not taking seminars from professional writers—including award-winning poet J. Ron Smith, editor Mary Flinn, and novelist David Lawrence—the group, which included only one Virginian, toured area Poe sites around the Commonwealth.
In the above photo, the students are visiting Fort Monroe, at which Poe was stationed from December 1828 until April 1829. It was there that Poe attained the rank of Regimental Sergeant Major.
Here the students are visiting the University of Virginia, where they will see Poe’s dorm room and some of the Poe artifacts housed in the school’s library.
In this photo, the conferees are standing atop the mountain featured in Poe’s short story “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains.”
The conference director was Edgar Award-winning author and Poe Foundation President Dr. Harry Lee Poe, who is pictured here in the Ragged Mountains.
In the foreground is the grave of Elmira Royster Shelton, Poe’s first and last fiancée. It is just one of the important graves to be found in Shockoe HIll Cemetery. Following in Poe’s footsteps, the students also visited Elmira Shelton’s house, Poe’s mother’s grave, the birthplace of Jane Stanard (inspiration for “To Helen”) and more Richmond places familiar to Poe.
The students also visited a number of other Poe sites in Richmond as well as the Library of Virginia, where they saw some rare documents with the Director of Special Collections Tom Camden.
At the end of the week, each student read the works he or she wrote during the conference. Afterwards, they enjoyed refreshments at a reception held in their honor.
We would like to thank all those who made this year’s conference a success.
If you are interested in attending the 2013 conference, please let us know by emailing us at [email protected] or by calling us at 888-21-EAPOE. Information about next year’s conference will be posted on this website in the fall.