Rosalie Mackenzie Poe, née Rosalie Poe, was the estranged sister of Edgar Allan Poe. Rosalie, born approximately December 1810 in Norfolk, Virginia, was the last of Elizabeth Arnold Poe’s children (Mabbott 520). There is debate who her father is, because David Poe, Eliza’s husband, had abandoned the family around the time Rosalie would have been conceived. There is speculation that John Howard Payne, a prominent fellow actor of the time, was Rosalie’s father; however these rumors remain as such—merely rumors. There is evidence that Eliza and Payne were both acting on the same stage around this time (Bloomfield). There is even compromising evidence which fell into the hands of John Allan, Edgar Poe’s “foster” father, who then wrote to Henry Poe, Edgar and Rosalie’s older brother, in a November 1824 letter explaining Rosalie only being a half sister to the Poe brothers:
God may yet bless him [i.e. young Edgar] & you & that Success may crown all your endeavors & between you your poor Sister Rosalie may not suffer. At least She is half your Sister & God forbid my dear Henry that We should visit upon the living the Errors & frailties of the dead (Velella).
It is also speculated Joseph Gallego of Richmond was Rosalie’s father, or at least had a deep connection with her, as he bequeathed her $2000 in his will, the remaining $8000 going to the Mackenzie family (World of Poe).
After Eliza Poe’s death in 1811, the Poe children were separated and Rosalie was taken into the care of William Mackenzie and his wife of Richmond. She was not formally adopted, and it is speculated whether the family accepted her warmly or treated her poorly. Growing up, Rosalie was described as being degenerative, dull, backwards, and never progressing beyond the developmental age of twelve:
Edgar developed into a brilliant youth, as much noted for physical beauty, strength and activity, as for intellect and genius. Rosalie, as though some mysterious blight had fallen upon her, gradually drooped and faded into a languid, dull and uninteresting girlhood — apathetic in disposition and weak in body and mind…Her figure, naturally delicate and well-formed, drooped as lacking strength for its own support, her hands generally hanging listlessly at her side. Her eyes, dark gray, like those wonderful spiritual ones of her brother, were weak, dull and expressive only of utter vacuity. She was accustomed to sit for long intervals gazing upon vacancy, and when aroused, would answer to an inquiry: ‘ I wasn’t thinking at all; I was asleep with my eyes open.’…She looked indeed as she often said that she felt, “but half alive…” (Weiss).
She, despite these reported developmental hindrances, earned a living by teaching writing for nine years (Sova). It should be noted that the Poe children’s nurse, at the time of Eliza’s failing health, explained she would dip bread soaked in gin and give it to the children, as well as occasionally give them other liquors. Although this was not uncommon at the time, because alcohol was used as a method for quieting upset children, it may explain Rosalie’s stunted developmental process and intellectual growth. It is rumored that Laudanum also was given to the young children (Weiss).
As the youngest sibling of the three Poe children, Rosalie looked up to her older brother Edgar, greatly admiring him and often boasting about his works and his talent, despite the two not being close. she attended her brother’s readings and lectures, and it is said she was disruptive and even sat upon his lap while he gave a reading of “The Raven”:
Once, when he was reciting ‘The Raven’ by popular demand at a gathering, Rosalie came up and sat on his lap at a point in the poem that pretty much equated her presence there with the birds above the ‘chamber door.’ The guests loved it. Poe was tolerant and quipped that he’d take her along next time to act out the part of the raven (Bloomfield).
According to Thomas Ollive Mabbott in Complete Poems, allegedly she dressed in an unfashionable manner and embarrassed the older Poe (521). If there were any similarities between the two, it was their shared fondness of flowers (Weiss).
After the Civil War and her brother Edgar’s death, the effects were devastating on the Mackenzie family and caused them to split, leaving Rosalie to fend for herself. Rosalie’s “foster” mother had passed in 1865, and John Hamilton Mackenzie, Rosalie’s “foster” brother, had lost Rosalie’s $2000 inheritance (Semtner 112). In the last years of her life, Rosalie wandered the streets and often forged her brother’s signature for autographs which she attempted to sell. She also attempted to sell furniture, claiming the pieces were “Poe artifacts” (World of Poe). Rosalie thrived solely on the charity of others, having been rejected by her cousin Neilson in Baltimore (Weiss). She had been unable to provide the money required to take out letters of administration to receive her brother Edgar’s inheritance, so she did not received what was supposed to be left to her (Mabbott 571). She was admitted to Epiphany Church Home in Washington D.C. and died there July 21st, 1874; she was 68. It is said she died due to inflammation of the stomach (World of Poe). It is also speculated she passed from “debility,” or physical weakness (Mabbott 520). Something notable about her death is that her tombstone marks her year of birth as 1812, one year after her mother’s death (World of Poe). This date was allegedly taken from the date of her christening, which would imply she was christened in 1812 (Mabbott 520).
The tragic story of Rosalie Poe is one to note when embarking on Poe studies. It must be mentioned she once stated the following in regard to writing, “I often feel as if I could write poetry. I have it all in my head, but somehow can’t get it clear enough to write down” (Weiss). There is certainly a possibility Rosalie might have been a successful writer, much like her brother Edgar, and certainly like their older brother Henry who, too, possessed the creative talent. Had she been given greater fortune in life, Rosalie’s strange, sad, and upsetting story may have turned out differently. It seems, however, each Poe child was touched with the curse of poverty and despair.
You can view historical objects and artifacts pertaining to Rosalie Poe and the Mackenzie family at the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, as well as in the Manuscripts Collection: Edgar Allan Poe collection at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.