The Poe Museum is proud to announce that M. Thomas Inge of Randolph-Macon College will deliver a presentation about Richard Corben’s Poe illustrations at 5p.m. at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia in conjunction with the opening of a new exhibit exploring four decades of the illustrator Richard Corben’s Poe-inspired artwork. The event will be part of the Poe Museum’s annual Poe Birthday Bash, which features twelve hours of Poe performances, historical interpreters, live music, walking tours, and more. Admission for the day is five dollars.
The subject of Dr. Inge’s presentation is “Masters of the Macabre: Edgar Allan Poe and Richard Corben.” According to Dr. Inge:
Without Edgar Allan Poe and some of his fellow popular writers, there might not have been a comic book or a graphic novel. That is to say, in the early days of the comic book industry, desperate to meet the insistent and inevitable monthly publication deadlines, writers and artists turned for inspiration, or outright piracy, to the popular short fiction of such authors as O. Henry, Stephen Crane, Ambrose Bierce, or Guy de Maupassant. Before them, the nature and structure of the short story had been fully defined by Poe in his reviews and critical essays in the nineteenth century. Poe did not invent the short story, but he so successfully outlined what an effective piece of short fiction should be that everyone used his standards by which to measure their own work. Reading Poe was like taking a master class in writing fiction.
Little wonder then that the early pioneers of a new art form more frequently turned to Poe than any other author for source material and inspiration. It has been estimated that over 300 adaptations of Poe’s stories and poems have appeared in comic books and graphic novels from 1943 to the present. While nearly every major and most of the minor comic book authors and artists have turned to Poe at one time or another in their careers, only one has dedicated a major part of his life’s work to adapting his poems and tales—Richard Corben. Emerging from the underground comix movement in the 1960s, he quickly became a major force on the larger comic book scene with his work for Heavy Metal magazine and the Warren publications. Those who picked up copies of his early work like Den, Rowlf, or Fantagor, were immediately absorbed by the maturity and beauty of his style. Readers knew that they were in the presence of an extraordinary talent. Corben’s imagination pushed the boundaries of the visual possibilities of aesthetics in comic art in amazing new directions.
Beginning with his adaptations of Poe for Creepy , Eerie, and other Warren titles, especially the brilliantly rendered version of “The Raven” in Creepy No. 67 (December 1974), Corben has proven to be the most acute and creative interpreter of Poe in comics history. All of his comic book work, in fact, has been imbued with the same gothic sensibility and keen eye for the grotesque that possessed Poe himself. Thus his alliance with Poe has been a fortuitous and productive one. It is a marriage made in …, well one hesitates to say heaven. Time and again Corben has turned, or returned, to his favorite poems and stories, each demonstrating an original vision, a new way to interpret or understand Poe’s themes. This paper will provide an appreciative overview of Corben’s fascination with Poe throughout his career and what his vision has added to our general understanding of Poe’s cultural importance. Quite likely Poe would have loved these graphic versions of his work and recognized in Richard Corben a soul-mate.
About Dr. Inge:
M. Thomas Inge is the Robert Emory Blackwell Professor of Humanities at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, where he teaches and writes about American humor and comic art, film and animation, Southern literature and culture, William Faulkner, and Asian literature.
Inge has been writing about the comics and animation for over thirty years. He has written essays for fan publications, popular periodicals, reference works, and scholarly journals. He contributed for over twenty five years a chronology of the history of the comic book to the annual editions of Robert M. Overstreet’s Comic Book Price Guide. His books on the subject include Comics as Culture (1990), Great American Comics (1990), Dark Laughter: The Satiric Art of Oliver W. Harrington (1993), Anything Can Happen in a Comic Strip (1995), Charles M. Schulz: Conversations (2000), The Incredible Mr. Poe: Comic Book Adaptations of the Works of Edgar Allan Poe (2008), and Mark Twain in the Comics (2009). Most recently he edited the collected essays of Charles M. Schulz which appeared as My Life with Charlie Brown (2010). Inge is serving as General Editor of the “Conversations with Comic Artists” and the “Great Comic Artists” series for the University Press of Mississippi.
His publications on animation include “Walt Disney’s Snow White: Art, Adaptation, and Ideology,” Journal of Popular Film and Television, 32 (Fall 2004); “Mickey Mouse” in American Icons (Greenwood 2006); “Bing Crosby, Walt Disney, and Ichabod Crane” in Going My Way: Bing Crosby in American Culture (Hofstra/Rochester 2007); and “Mark Twain, Chuck Jones, and the Art of Animation,” Studies in American Humor, N.S. No. 17 (2008). He wrote the biography of Walt Disney for the Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 22 (Gale 1983) and is working on a book-length study of Disney and adaptation.
Inge wanted to be cartoonist but was diverted into academic work. He would rather draw and considers himself a failed comic artist who became a professor because he couldn’t do any better.
November is the time for Thanksgiving, football, and Black Friday shopping. With the Christmas shopping season now underway, visitors to the Poe Museum often ask what kinds of gifts Poe gave his own family and friends. The answer is November’s Object of the Month, Poe’s gift to Louisa Anna Lynch—a copy of The New Year’s Gift and Juvenile Souvenir for 1836.
In Poe’s day, Christmas was regaining popularity in the United States thanks to the influx of European immigrants bringing with them their winter holiday customs. Many of the customs Americans now associate with the holiday were introduced at this time. Among these are Christmas trees, poinsettias, mistletoe, Christmas cards, and the popular poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which begins “T’was the night before Christmas…” You can read more about Christmas in Poe’s time here.
Gift giving was also fashionable, but, unlike today’s elaborate displays, presents in Poe’s time often consisted of small items like gloves or candy. Another popular present was the gift book. In the 1830s, American publishers started issuing these deluxe gift books each year around Christmas. Poe contributed to several installments (1836, 1840, 1842, 1843, 1845) of the most popular of these, The Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present. None of these stories, which include “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “William Wilson,” and “The Purloined Letter,” had a Christmas theme. His stories also appeared in The Baltimore Book: A Christmas and New Year’s Present in 1838, The Opal in 1844 and 1845, The Missionary Memorial in 1846, and the May Flower in 1846. The Irving Offering and the American Keepsake published his works immediately after his death.
Poe did not contribute a story to The New Year’s Gift and Juvenile Souvenir for 1836, a collection of children’s stories. On the first page of the Poe Museum’s copy, he inscribed the present in his tiny handwriting, “To Miss Louisa Ann Lynch with the compliments of her sincere friend Edgar A. Poe.” The recipient of the present was a young girl named Louisa Ann Lynch (1825-1891). Her father, Peyton Lynch (1787-1832) died when she was just seven years old, and she grew up with her mother and three brothers in Petersburg, Virginia. She would have been about ten years old when this book was published.
Like most gift books of its kind, The New Year’s Gift and Juvenile Souvenir was likely published in the fall of 1835 for the 1836 New Year. Poe could have given it to Lynch if she and her family visited Richmond in late 1835 or as late as early 1837, when Poe left Richmond for New York. He could have also given the book to Miss Lynch in Petersburg, which is about thirty miles south of Richmond. The donor recalled Poe presenting it during a visit to Petersburg, which could have been during his honeymoon in May 1836 (a little late for a Christmas present). He must certainly have given her the piece before July 23, 1844, when she married the commission merchant James C. Deaton in Petersburg, because Poe would have written her married name instead of her maiden name.
In addition to the inscription on the first page, Poe also wrote in pencil on page 67, “To L.A. Lynch.” The reason for the second inscription is unknown, but it is tempting to speculate it might have something to do with the story on that page “Days at My Grandfather’s,” which references Ralph the Raven, but Poe did not publish his own poem “The Raven” until 1845.
By the early 1850s, Mr. and Mrs. Deaton had moved to Richmond, where they settled in a brick house at the northeast corner of 1st and Cary Streets (pictured below). On January 6, 1854, the funeral of the Deaton’s son Walter was held in this house. (Daily Dispatch, January 7, 1854) Another son, James C. Deaton, Jr., became a prominent Richmond physician. Louisa Ann Deaton died passed away on July 23, 1891 at the age of sixty-six.
Her descendant, Mary Elizabeth Morton, who inherited the book, gave both it and Deaton’s album, filled with poems written for her by her friends, to the Poe Museum in 1979. This month, the gift Poe gave his friend is on display in the Poe Museum’s Model Building as a reminder of Poe’s generosity and his fondness for inspiring young readers. Maybe this Christmas you will be inspired by Poe’s example to give someone special the gift of a good book.
Every year, the Poe Museum celebrates the holiday season with the Poe Illumination in which visitors can experience Victorian Christmas music and crafts that Edgar Allan Poe himself would have enjoyed. In fact, the people in Poe’s time were largely responsible for shaping the way Americans celebrate Christmas today. Without them, Christmas would lack poinsettias, mistletoe, and the names of Santa’s flying reindeer. You might be surprised to discover some of the ways the holidays evolved during Poe’s lifetime (1809-1849).
Christmas Comes to America
Christmas was one of the English holidays many Americans chose not to observe immediately after the Revolution because Americans wanted to break away from English traditions, but European immigrants brought their various traditions of the rowdy, licentious winter holiday with them. In Northern Europe, this was traditionally a twelve-night party at the end of harvest. In the early days, people ate well during this time because they had to slaughter some of their animals rather than try to feed them all winter. By the 1820s, the immigrants and lower classes in urban America still got rowdy at Christmas time and even rioted. In 1828, the New York City Council established its police force after an especially rowdy Christmas season, so the high Christmas crime rate is the reason we have the NYPD.
Christmas in Popular Culture
While living in England in 1821, America’s most popular writer Washington Irving wrote the serialized novel Bracebridge Hall about life in an English manor house including descriptions of an English Christmas. This helped expose the average American to English Christmas traditions. In 1823, the New York theologian Clement Clarke Moore wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which we now call “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” and it became a hit. In 1843, Charles Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol,” which was popular on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Christmas Tree
The Germans had long decorated evergreens as part of winter celebrations. In 1840 Victoria and her German cousin Albert married, and he brought German Christmas traditions with him to England. In 1846, the London Illustrated News carried a picture of a Christmas tree in Victoria’s home, and that started the fad in both England and America. People decorated trees with lemon slices, pine cones, and other stuff they could find. They also put Christmas presents in the trees. When presents started getting too big, we had to put them under the tree.
In 1825, Joel R. Poinsett, America’s ambassador to Mexico, brought to the United States a green and red flower from Mexico, where it had already been a part of celebrations. Its association with Christmas began in the 16th century in Mexico where there is a legend about a girl too poor to get a present for Jesus’s birthday. An angel told her to pick some weeds, so she picked them and put them in front of the altar, where they sprouted red blossoms.
In 1843 in England J.C. Horsely printed the first Christmas card.
Mistletoe is carryover from earlier, rowdy Christmas. Its presence at Victorian celebrations allowed proper people to engage in behavior that would have been otherwise unacceptable.
Protestants started attending Christmas services in Catholic and Episcopal churches until other denominations came around.
The modern Santa Claus developed in America. The Dutch brought traditions of St. Nicolas to the New World. In 1823, the Professor of Oriental and Greek Literature, as well as Divinity and Biblical Learning, at the General Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Churchan Episcopal minister in New York, Clement Clarke Moore, wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (better known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”) to entertain his children. He came up with the names of the reindeer and the idea of Santa coming down the chimney. At first, he didn’t reveal his authorship because the church didn’t approve of secular Christmas celebrations—especially from someone teaching at their seminary—but he later confessed. Even after the poem, people still didn’t know what Santa looked like, so depictions of him gave him the appearance of anything from an elf to a skinny old man. In 1863, Thomas Nast, a cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly, was the first to draw the modern Santa, and he made modeled Santa after a robber baron.
Christmas Eve Services
When Christmas started getting popular in America, most American Protestant churches, which didn’t care much for saints or feast days, did not want to celebrate the winter carnival, so members of their congregations started attending Christmas Eve services at Catholic and Episcopal churches until the others broke down and decided to get in on the action. Of course, some Protestant denominations still don’t celebrate Christmas.
Poe and Christmas
Poe experienced Christmas in a variety of different ways throughout his life. Coming from England, Poe’s mother would have known the English Christmas traditions. Although he owned a pew in Richmond’s Monumental Episcopal Church, Poe’s Scottish-born foster father John Allan was likely either a Presbyterian or a free thinker, but he did observe the holiday by spending it with friends. Within a few weeks of moving in with the Allans, the two-year-old Poe joined them in taking a Christmas vacation to his foster parents’ friend’s plantation on Turkey Island. Incidentally, this is why the Allans weren’t in the Richmond Theater the night it burned—taking with it the lives of seventy-two prominent Richmonders. Learn more about the Richmond Theater Fire here.
Poe was with the Allans in England for five years (1815-1820), so he would have seen English Christmases first-hand during that time. On December 25, 1818 Allan received a bill for Poe’s tuition and expenses at the Manor House School. At the end of the bill, there is a note that the vacation will terminate on January 25, so it appears Poe was on Christmas vacation from this boarding school for about a month. Returning to Richmond in 1820, the Allans spent Christmas that year with the Ellis family at their home at Second and Franklin Streets. It is likely the Allans would have spent most Christmas
As an adult, Poe, like a lot of people, worked on Christmas Day, so there are some business letters written by him dated December 25. Christmas was also a good time for Poe to sell his stories to gift books. In the 1830s, American publishers started issuing deluxe gift books each year around Christmas. Poe contributed to several installments (1836, 1840, 1842, 1843, 1845) of the most popular of these, The Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present. He also contributed to The Baltimore Book: A Christmas and New Year’s Present in 1838, The Opal in 1844 and 1845, The Missionary Memorial in 1846, and the May Flower in 1846. The Irving Offering and the American Keepsake published his works immediately after his death.
On Christmas Eve 1847, Poe attended a church service with his nurse Marie Louise Shew and another lady to a midnight service conducted by Reverend William Augustus Muhlenberg. (She had been Virginia’s nurse before Virginia died in January of that year.) Mrs. Shew recalls:
He [Poe] went with us, followed the service like a “churchman”, looking directly towards the chancel, and holding one side of my prayer book, sang the psalms with us, and to my astonishment struck up a tenor to our sopranos and, got along nicely during the first part of the sermon, which was on the subject of the sympathies of our Lord, to our wants. The passage being often repeated, “He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” He begged me to stay quiet that he would wait for me outside, and he rushed out, too excited to stay. I knew he would not leave us to return home alone, (altho’ my friend thought it doubtful), and so after the sermon as I began to feel anxious (as we were in a strange church) I looked back and saw his pale face, and as the congregation rose to sing the Hymn, “Jesus Saviour of my soul,” he appeared at my side, and sang the Hymn, without looking at the book, in a fine clear tenor. . . . I did not dare to ask him why he left, but he mentioned after we got home, that the subject “was marvelously handled, and ought to have melted many hard hearts” and ever after this he never passed Doctor Muhlenbergs 20th St. Free Church without going in (letter to J. H. Ingram, ca. 15 April 1875, Miller , pp. 132-33).
A year later, in 1848, Poe intended to marry the Providence, Rhode Island poet Sarah Helen Whitman on Christmas Day, which was on a Monday, but she broke off the engagement on December 23. This would be Poe’s last Christmas. He died October 7, 1849.
As you celebrate the holidays this year, look out for some of the traditions Poe would have known that are still observed today. If you are going to be in Richmond, be sure to visit the Poe Museum’s Poe Illumination on December 5 from 6-9p.m.
The Facts behind “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”
Now showing until December 31 at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond is an intriguing exhibit devoted to Poe’s short story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” a tale of the power of mesmerism to suspend the process of death. Made possible by a loan of items from the collection of James Vacca, Mesmerized: The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar explores the popularity of mesmerism in Poe’s time and belief among his contemporaries that this gruesome story might be true.
Mesmerism in the Nineteenth Century
Mesmerism, originally called animal magnetism, was developed by German physician and astronomer Franz Anton Mesmer (1734 – 1815) who theorized that a natural energetic transference occurred between all living creatures. Though he failed to receive scientific recognition for his theories, Mesmer believed this force could have healing properties.
While experiments in mesmerism abounded from 1780 until 1850, many quack mesmerists staged performances and published sensationalized accounts of their powers. By Poe’s time, in the 1840s, some practitioners even believed that mesmerized people could demonstrate clairvoyant abilities. The November 18, 1843 issue of the New York Brother Johnathon carried the following notice:
ANIMAL MAGNETISM! — A series of experiments are now going forward in different parts of this Country, with different subjects, by different magnetisers — wholly ignorant of what others are doing — and by people who have not direct communication with one another; all of which go to prove that the Moon is inhabited — that the people have a written language — and make war. The most miraculous coincidences have happened. We are quite serious.
Poe and Mesmerism
“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” was Poe’s third tale on the subject of mesmerism. “A Tales of the Ragged Mountains” (1844) and “Mesmeric Revelation” (1844) also dealt with the theme. The latter would be the first of Poe’s tales translated into French by the poet and critic Charles Baudelaire. The French Romantic painter Eugene Delacroix declared the story “a bizarre and profound piece of writing which throws you into a state of contemplation.”
In addition to his fictionalized accounts of the controversial pseudoscience, Poe also wrote reviews of other authors’ books on the subject. In the April 5, 1845 issue of the Broadway Journal, Poe called Chauncey Hare Townshend’s book Facts in Mesmerism (London, 1840) “one of the most truly profound and philosophical works of the day — a work to be valued properly only in a day to come.” How seriously Poe actually regarded mesmerism is debatable. In some works, he poked fun at the mesmerist Andrew Jackson Davis, who gave a number of public demonstrations in New York while Poe was living there.
Poe’s writings about mesmerism caused some of his contemporaries to believe he had special knowledge of the subject. Mary Hill Hewitt wrote in an 1846 letter to Poe’s future fiancée Sarah Helen Whitman, “People seem to think there is something uncanny about him, and the strangest stories are told, what is more, believed, about his mesmeric experiences, at the mention of which he always smiles.”
“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” was not Poe’s first hoax. In 1838, he published The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, an account of a trip to Antarctica, thought to be true by English readers. Six years later, in 1844, he convinced New Yorkers that scientists had successfully crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a hot air steering balloon in a story now known as “The Balloon Hoax.”
The Balloon Hoax
Also dealing with the theme of mesmerism, Poe’s story “Mesmeric Revelation” was so realistic it was reprinted in the November 29, 1845 issue of the London Popular Record of Modern Science.
The Public’s Response
“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” was rejected by at least one magazine before the American Review printed it in its December 1845 issue. Within months, the story was reprinted in The Broadway Journal (New York), Spirit of the Times (Philadelphia), Sunday Times (London), the Morning Post (London), the Popular Record of Modern Science (London), and the Boston Museum. The following year it was published as a pamphlet in London. Although many readers believed “Valdemar” to be a true story, the editor of the New York Herald wrote, “whoever thought it a veracious recital must have the bump of Faith large, very large indeed.”
To this, Poe answered 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.
Poe’s statement cannot, however, be taken entirely seriously since he frequently ridiculed the Transcendentalists. When asked by a London pharmacist if “Valdemar” was true, Poe responded, “‘Hoax’ is precisely the word suited to M. Valdemar’s case . . . The article . . . is now circulating in France. Some few persons believe it — but I do not — and don’t you.”
Poe was so amused by the receipt of a letter from a believer in the story’s veracity that he printed it in the Broadway Journal:
Collection of James Vacca
The story’s popularity was such that he reprinted it in the Broadway Journal, adding the following note:
In London, the story was reprinted as a true account of the powers of mesmerism, and the London publisher Short and Little issued it as a pamphlet, Mesmerism in Articulo Mortis in 1846.
Collection of James Vacca
Collection of James Vacca
At least one British poet was not a fan of “Valdemar,” Elizabeth Barrett (the future Elizabeth Barrett Browning) sent Robert Browning a copy of the story and wrote:
I send you besides a most frightful extract from an American magazine sent to me yesterday…no, the day before…on the subject of mesmerism—& you are to understand, if you please, that the Mr. Edgar Poe who stands committed in it, is my dedicator…whose dedication I forgot, by the way, with the rest—so, while I am sending, you shall have his poems with his mesmeric experience & decide whether the outrageous compliment to me EBB or the experiment on M. Vandeleur [sic] goes furthest to prove him mad.
Collection of James Vacca
Thanks in part to Poe’s story, the Spiritualist movement associated mesmerism with communication with the dead and used it for that purpose. One of Poe’s fiancées, Sarah Helen Whitman, was a devout Spiritualist who held séances while in a mesmeric trance.
Over time, popularity of both Spiritualism and mesmerism declined. The meaning of the word mesmerism has also evolved. In 1843, the Scottish physician James Braid proposed the term hypnosis, which is now the usual meaning of word mesmerism.
Poe’s use of realistic and scientifically based details made “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” an early and influential example of modern science fiction. The story’s gruesome conclusion in which the mesmerized patient suddenly “rots” into “a nearly liquid mass of loathsome — of detestable putridity” has been an inspiration to modern horror writers concerned with shock and gore. Since Poe’s time, the story has been reprinted countless times and translated into several languages. It has been adapted to comics and movies, most notably the 1963 Roger Corman film Tales of Terror starring Vincent Price and the 2002 black comedy The Mesmerist starring Neil Patrick Harris.
Vincent Price as Valdemar
Mesmerized: The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar will be on display on the first floor gallery of the Poe Museum’s Exhibits Building until December 31, 2014. On display on the second floor galleries of the Exhibits Building are The Halloween Gang Presents: The Black Cat (until December 31) and The Raven Room. The Poe Museum’s other three buildings contain permanent exhibits of the Museum’s renowned collection of Edgar Allan Poe personal belongings and memorabilia.
After more than a decade, the Poe Museum reopened its Raven Room last Halloween night in a new gallery space. The exhibit features the Raven illustrations of James Carling, who attempted to illustrate the entire poem line-by-line. Since the Poe Museum first acquired the original artwork in the 1930s, the drawings were on continuous display in a specially devoted gallery known as the Raven Room.
At first, the Raven Room was located in the Museum’s Elizabeth Arnold Poe Memorial Building (pictured above), but it was later moved to a blood-red room on the second floor of the Tea House (now known as the Exhibits Building). After the original artwork was replaced with reproductions in the 1970s, the Raven Room stayed on exhibit until about 2003 when it was replaced by a changing exhibit gallery.
This year, the Museum converted a storage area into a new Raven Room (pictured above) complete with it famously red walls. Much as they were in the earlier incarnations of the exhibit, the drawings are hung side-by-side around the room so that visitors may follow the illustrations chronologically. In this installation, however, only ten drawings at a time will be displayed. In this way, seventy-five percent of the precious artworks will be protected from the light at any given time. This measure will help ensure they survive for future generations to enjoy.
The complete set of illustrations will soon be available in a book (pictured below) to be released in the near future. Check our online store for the latest updates.
This exhibit and the accompanying book were made possible by the generous support of Dr. George W. Poe Jr., Avery Brooks, Mark Cummins, Cecelia Faigin, Rolf-Thomas Happe, Lynda Locke, Michael O’Farrell, John O’Sullivan, Kay Purcell , Ashley Woessner, and Kristopher Woofter.
Coffin placed in the Poe Shrine, Richmond on the anniversary of Poe's funeral
Edgar Allan Poe is so famous he shows up almost everywhere. Whether it’s a Beatles album cover, an episode of South Park, or on the side of Raven Beer bottle; his face is so familiar, many people likely think they know him. Especially around this time of year, students across the country are learning about Poe’s life and work. So how is it that we still know so little about someone this famous? Maybe it began with his death.
This October 7 marked the 165th anniversary of the death of Edgar Allan Poe. After all these years scholars are still debating what caused his untimely demise at the age of forty. In fact, there are dozens of published theories, and the number continues to grow. Why the mystery? In today’s age of modern medicine, it is difficult to understand how little doctors in Poe’s time knew about internal medicine. Many diseases that medicine has since controlled were still unidentified or misunderstood. Poe died in Washington College Hospital where his attending physician John Moran paid close attention to the author’s condition, but Poe still died after four days in his care. According to the below record of 1849 Baltimore deaths, Poe’s cause of death is listed as “Phrenitis.” On this list, the date, name, and age are correct, but Poe’s occupation is incorrectly listed as “Physician” by whoever transcribed the information. (We are grateful to Sabrina Ricketts for finding and providing the Poe Museum a scan of this document.)
Phrenitis is an archaic medical term that means inflammation of the brain. The term was later replaced with the word delirium, and the symptoms are now most commonly associated with meningitis or encephalitis. The cause of these conditions may be attributable to a variety of different viral and bacterial sources. This means scholars are still not much closer to unraveling the mystery of Poe’s death.
Knowing what happened to Poe in the days immediately preceding his admission to the hospital might help determine the cause of his condition, but that information is also missing. We know that Poe had survived a bout of cholera in the summer of 1849 and that he was ill during his time in Richmond between July and September. On September 26, he visited his fiancée Elmira Shelton who later recalled, “He was very sad, and complained of being quite sick; I felt his pulse, and found he had considerable fever, and did not think it probable that he would be able to start the next morning, (Thursday) as he anticipated.”
Poe left Richmond on the morning of September 27 on a trip to Philadelphia, but his whereabouts are unknown until he was found in a Baltimore polling place on October 3. He was already very ill and was asked if he knew anyone who could help him, so he called for magazine editor Joseph Snodgrass.
Poe was delirious and unable to tell what had happened to him or why he seemed to be dressed in someone else’s clothes. That’s right–he appeared to be dressed in ill-fitting clothes that looked nothing like his usual mode of dress, so some people speculated he may have been beaten and robbed of his clothing. When he entered the bar-room of the tavern in which the voting was taking place, Snodgrass recounted he “instantly recognized the face of one whom I had often seen and knew well, although it wore an aspect of vacant stupidity which made me shudder…But perhaps I would not have so readily recognized him had I not been notified of his apparel. His hat — or rather the hat of somebody else, for he had evidently been robbed of his clothing, or cheated in exchange — was a cheap palm leaf one, without a band, and soiled; his coat, of commonest alpaca, and evidently “second hand”; and his pants of gray-mixed cassimere, dingy and badly fitting. He wore neither vest nor neckcloth, if I remember aright, while his shirt was badly crumpled and soiled. He was so utterly stupefied with liquor that I thought it best not to seek recognition or conversation…So insensible was he, that we had to carry him to the carriage as if a corpse. The muscles of articulation seemed paralyzed to speechlessness, and mere incoherent mutterings were all that were heard.”
After Poe’s death, Snodgrass clipped the small lock of Poe’s hair now in the collection of the Poe Museum. Snodgrass also wrote lectures and articles about Poe’s death to promote his agenda to ban alcohol in America.
At the same time, Poe’s attending physician wrote articles and a book contradicting Snodgrass’s account. If Snodgrass’s retellings were distorted in order to portray Poe as a hopeless drunk, Moran’s were skewed in order to show the poet as a perfect saint.
Both versions grew more colorful with each retelling. As just one example, we can cite Moran’s recollection of Poe’s last words. In a November 1849 letter, Moran said they were “Lord, help my poor soul.” In an 1875 article, Moran said they were “Self-murderer, there is a gulf beyond the stream Where is the buoy, lifeboat, ship of fire, sea of brass. Test, shore no more!” In his 1885 book, A Defense of Edgar Allan Poe, Moran recorded them as, “He who arched the heavens and upholds the universe, has His decrees legibly written upon the frontlet of every human being, and upon demons incarnate.”
If these accounts did not do enough to spread confusion about Poe’s death, Poe’s rival Rufus Griswold attempted to defame Poe’s character in a scathing obituary and memoir of the author. Griswold’s obituary begins, “…This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.” His memoir of Poe became the first widely distributed biography of Poe but was so riddled with distortions and fabrications that some of those who had known Poe felt the need to come to the poet’s defense. Among these were John Moran and Poe’s fiancée Sarah Helen Whitman.
We will probably never know the exact cause of Poe’s death, but scholars will continue to try to solve Poe’s last mystery. If you would like to propose your own theory, you can read more about Poe’s death and submit your ideas here.
Join author Clay McLeod Chapman on Wednesday, October 15 at 6P.M. at the Poe Museum for an evening of reading and performance from a variety of his works. After the reading, he will be signing copies of his books. This event is part of the Virginia Literary Festival. Click here to learn more about the festival and its schedule of events.
More about the Author:
“Like a demonic angel on a skateboard, like a resurrected Artaud on methadrine, like a tattletale psychiatrist turned rodeo clown, Clay McLeod Chapman races back and forth along the serrated edges of everyday American madness, objectively recording each whimper of anguish, each whisper of skewed desire. This is strong stuff, intense stuff, sometimes disturbing stuff, but I think the many who admire Chuck Palahniuk will admire Chapman as well.” —Tom Robbins, author, Still Life with Woodpecker
Clay McLeod Chapman is the author of rest area, a collection of short stories, and miss corpus, a novel. Miss corpus was recognized in part of The New Yorker’s “Reading Glasses” series. Currently, he is writing the middlegrade adventure series The Tribe (Disney/Hyperion)—book one, Homeroom Headhunters, is out now and book two, Camp Cannibal, hits the shelves in April 2014. He also writes for his geek-gods Marvel Comics (Amazing Spider-Man, Ultimate Spider-Man Adventures, Spider-Man 2099 and The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes) and Fangoria Magazine.
Chapman’s story the battle of belle isle was featured in Akashic Books’ regional-noir anthology Richmond Noir. He was a contributing author on “The Rolling Darkness Revue,” a roaming reading-series of horror writers created by Glen Hirshberg and Pete Atkins, culminating in the anthology At The Sign of the Snowman’s Skull. He was a contributing author to One Ring Zero’s As Smart As We Are album, featuring such writers as Paul Auster and Jonathan Lethem.
Chapman’s story late bloomer was adapted into film by director Craig Macneill. An official selection at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, the short won the audience award for Best Short at the Lake Placid Film Festival and the Brown Jenkins Award at the 12th Annual H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival. Their most recent collaboration, Henley, a short film based on the chapter “The Henley Road Motel” from his novel miss corpus, was an official selection at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. It was awarded Best Short Film at the 2011 Gen Art Film Festival and the 2011 Carmel Arts and Film Festival.
Upcoming feature films include The Boy, a full length version of Henley, produced by The Woodshed (Elijah Wood, Daniel Noah, and Josh C. Waller) and the sci-fried feature White Space.
Chapman is the creator of the rigorous storytelling session The Pumpkin Pie Show. In its ten-plus years of existence, it has performed internationally at the Romanian Theatre Festival of Sibiu, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the New York International Fringe Festival, the Winnipeg Fringe Festival, the Edmonton Fringe Festival, the Minnesota Fringe Festival, the Dublin-based thisisnotashop art space, IGNITE Festival, the Women Center Stage Festival and the Impact Theatre Festival. The Pumpkin Pie Show continues to perform in New York City annually with long-time scene-stealer Hanna Cheek.
Chapman has written the book for the musical Hostage Song with music and lyrics by Obie-winning Kyle Jarrow. He also wrote the book for SCKBSTD, a new musical with Grammy-winner Bruce Hornsby. He is the author of such plays as commencement, teaser cow, Julian, bar flies, lee’s miserables, No Exitway, duct-tape to family-time, redbird, jewish mothers, junta high, nested doll, the interstate and on, the cardiac shadow and volume of smoke. Stage versions of his short stories birdfeeder and undertow were selected for publication in The Best American Short Plays: 2007-2008 and 2009-2010 anthologies.
Chapman was educated at the North Carolina School of the Arts for Drama, the Burren College of Art, and Sarah Lawrence College. He currently teaches writing at The Actors Studio MFA Program at Pace University. Visit him at www.claymcleodchapman.com
Do you love a good book? Do you want to help a new generation of readers share your love of literature? Here’s something you can do about it:
For the next day and a half the Poe Museum will be competing in the Amazing Raise, a 36-hour challenge in which Central Virginia non-profits try to see how many donations they can collect between 6 A.M. on September 17 and 6 P.M. on September 18. And you can help. Your donation of $50 or more helps the Poe Museum compete for thousands of dollars in bonus prizes, so even a small gift can make a big difference.
Why support the Poe Museum? Your donation will help the Poe Museum foster a love or reading and writing in future generations. For over ninety years the Poe Museum has been an invaluable resource to teachers and students around the globe. Through our educational programs, website, and educator information packets, we support teachers in their efforts to both educate and inspire their students.
What will we do with your gift? Fifty dollars pays for enough tour guides to give a guided tour for one hundred students. One hundred dollars buys the latest books for our ever expanding reference library. Five hundred dollars pays for plaster repair for one of our exhibit galleries. One thousand dollars helps conserve a small painting. Five thousand dollars buys a new heat pump for one of our buildings. Eight thousand dollars pays the expenses associated with our annual Edgar Allan Poe Young Writers’ Conference.
If you believe in the work the Poe Museum is doing, please consider making a donation today using this form. If you are reaching this page after the competition has ended, you can still contribute to the Poe Museum here.
On the anniversary of Poe’s final departure from Richmond (just ten days before his death), September 27, 2014 at 7P.M., the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia will honor this grim anniversary with unique dramatization of Poe’s works by historic interpreter Anne Louise Williams. An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe features dramatic recitations from memory of several writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Selections will include “The Black Cat,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Oval Portrait,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” “Morella,” “The Raven,” “Annabel Lee,” “The Bells,” “For Annie,” “A Dream within a Dream,” “Eldorado,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The recitations are framed in the context of the author’s life, interspersed with readings of excerpts from newspapers, letters, and observations of contemporaries. Admission is $5. Poe Museum members will be admitted free.
About the Presenter:
Anne Louise Williams is a historic interpreter certified with the National Association of Interpreters. Anne is a volunteer with the National Park Service at Whitehaven (Grant Home) and the Old Court House for special events (since 2009) and a volunteer with the historic Daniel Boone Home (since 1996) in St. Louis, Missouri. Anne integrates her passion for history, literature, and drama to perform literature in the context of the author’s life. She is experienced in first person interpretation as well. She has portrayed Virginia Minor, recreating her testimony on Suffrage before the US Senate Committee. In 2011, Anne researched and reconstructed the testimonies in the infamous Lemp Divorce which were re-enacted at the Old Court House where the trial occurred in 1909, with a Lemp descendant portraying William Lemp and the audiences taking the roles of witnesses. Anne performed at the Poe Visitor Center in Fordham (Bronx) in January 2014. Anne will be performing at several venues in September and October, including the Poe Museum in Richmond, the Free Library of Philadelphia, the Poe Visitor Center in Fordham, and the Lyndhurst Castle in Tarrytown, the Daniel Boone Home in Defiance MO, and the Lemp Mansion in St. Louis MO.
Mathew Brady was perhaps the leading American photographer of the nineteenth century. Among the prominent figures who sat for his studio are eighteen United States Presidents including Abraham Lincoln. It has long been known that the Mathew Brady Studio sold copies of a “Brady Photo” of Poe in the early 1860s, but now a previously unpublished Brady photo of Poe’s mother-in-law Maria Clemm has been found and will soon be on public display for the first time.
From September 25 until November 30, 2014, the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia will exhibit a newly discovered photograph of Edgar Allan Poe’s mother-in-law from the studio of famed nineteenth century photographer Mathew Brady (1822-1896), best known for his iconic photographs of Abraham Lincoln and his documentation of Civil War battlefields. This is only the third image of Poe’s aunt/mother-in-law Maria Poe Clemm to come to light. Although Edgar Allan Poe’s face is well-known through photographs and paintings made during his lifetime, there are very few surviving images of the two people closest to him—his wife and mother-in-law. Maria Clemm helped support Poe by helping sell his poems and by taking on sewing work for extra money. Poe paid tribute to her in his poem “To My Mother.” After Poe’s death, Clemm depended upon the charity of Poe’s many admirers. Charles Dickens is among those who contributed to her care.
Newly Discovered Image
Stephen Montgomery, the owner of the photograph, an albumen print carte de visite, found the previously unpublished image in an album of nineteenth century photographs and contacted the Poe Museum to help him verify the discovery. The logo of the Mathew Brady studio is printed on the back of the photo with the words “Maria Clemm/ Edgar Allen [sic] Poe Aunt” written in pencil above it. Although the image was previously unknown to scholars, it bears a remarkable resemblance to the two other known photographs of Maria Clemm, one of which is in the collection of the Poe Museum. The newly identified image will be displayed alongside the Poe Museum’s fully authenticated photograph for comparison.
Authentic Images of Maria Clemm and the Newly Discovered Image
Face of 1868 Photo Superimposed Over Face of Montgomery Photo
For this exhibition, Montgomery has also loaned the Poe Museum two other photographs—Matthew Brady’s photograph of Poe (a retouched version of an 1848 photograph taken by another photographer sold from Brady’s studio in the early 1860s) and an albumen print photograph of the daguerreotype taken of Poe in Richmond a few weeks before his death.
Brady Photo of Poe