Bring the whole family to the Poe Museum on Friday, December 5 to discover what Christmas was like in Poe’s time. Singer and historical interpreter Debbie Phillips will perform the traditional Christmas songs Poe would have enjoyed. When not listening to music, you can enjoy hot drinks, make traditional crafts, and see the illumination of the Poe Museum’s Enchanted Garden. Don’t forget to see the new Raven Room and the Mesmerized exhibit before it closes. Admission is free. For more information, call the Poe Museum at 804-648-5523.
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.”
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
On October 23, the Poe Museum celebrated its last Unhappy Hour of 2014 with live music by the Blue and the Grey in addition to a performance of “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.” Some of the attendees got into the spirit of things by having their pictures taken in our photo booth. Here are the results.
We hope to see you all in April for the next Unhappy Hour.
Visit 15 of the Richmond Region’s best museum stores under one roof at the Museum Stores of Richmond Holiday Shoppers’ Fair this Friday, November 7 through Saturday, November 8 at the Library of Virginia at 800 East Broad Street in Richmond, Virgina. Participating Sites include Agecroft Hall, Beth Ahabah Museum and Archives, Chesterfield Historical Society, Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, Library of Virginia, The Poe Museum, John Marshall House, Patrick Henry’s Scotchtown, Richmond Railroad Museum, Science Museum of Virginia, The Valentine, Virginia Historical Society, Virginia Holocaust Museum, Virginia State Capitol and the Virginia War Memorial. Click here for a schedule.
During the Industrial Revolution of the early nineteenth century, there was a need for a new class of writers who could write about emerging scientific information in a way that the new consumers of science information could understand. The emerging class of professional scientists in the United States was neither equipped nor interested in communicating about science with the public. Lightman refers to the nineteenth century literary writers who did attempt to communicate to the public as the “popularizers of science.” He also suggests that “Their success was partially due to their ability to present the huge mass of scientific fact in the form of compelling stories” (188). He contends, therefore, that it is essential for our current understanding of nineteenth-century culture to explore writers like Edgar Allan Poe, who skillfully and prolifically commented on many of the most significant scientific trends of his lifetime. Many other scholars (Gewirtz, Hoffman, Willis, and Tresch) acknowledge that Poe was one of the most important leaders in developing both the genres of science fiction and detective fiction. Similarly, John Limon writes that Poe engaged in literary “negotiation with science,” asserting that his works both foreshadowed and critiqued several emerging scientific developments and trends of the future (19). As such, Paul Faytor argues that “there was a two-way traffic between science and science-writers in the nineteenth century. He notes that many of the inventions and writings of professional scientists helped to shape science fiction and that many ideas imagined by science fiction writers found their way into actual scientific inventions. (256). His works in those areas provide abundant example that he anticipated forecasted future developments in technical areas such as exploration of the Poles, astronomy, physics, space travel, photography, electronic communications, and the forensic sciences. Limon argues that lay writers like Poe and Hawthorne, or those without “letters” who were interested in writing about science, struggled with professional scientists to establish their authority to speak about the newly emerging scientific issues (19). Poe had not received much formal training as a scientist but had considerable exposure to technical subjects in his early education, in his technical experiences in the military, and through his exposure to science news as a journalist. He believed that an observant and skilled writer did not need professional science training or to be sanctioned by an official science accreditation organizations before writing about science.
Poe,however, looked not only to the events of his era to inform his view of truth in his science writing, but he was also inspired and informed by several of the most renown philosophers and science writers of antiquity. In his 1848 culminating science narrative, Eureka: A Prose Poem, he outlined the development of scientific thinking from antiquity through his era. A list of the ancient writers of science and the philosophy of science he commented on in Eureka includes Archimedes, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Newton, Kepler, and Francis Bacon. Also in Eureka, he discussed the works of philosophers and scientists closer to Poe’s lifetime such as Auguste Comte, Sir John Herschel, John Stuart Mill, Pierre Simon La Place, and Friedrich Heinrich Humboldt – to whom Poe dedicated Eureka. This culminating work of Poe’s science narratives will be discussed in a blog that will be written in the future. However, there are several important contextual influences pertaining to science and literature that were in place by the early nineteenth century that likely influenced Poe’s choice to embark on a career that focused on science narrative writing. These influences will be discussed in the upcoming monthly Poe in Science Blogs.
Partial List of Sources:
Faytor, Paul. “Strange New Worlds of Space and Time: Late Victorian Science and Science Fiction.” Victorian Science in Context. Ed. Barnard A. Lightman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.
Gewirtz, Isaac. Edgar Allan Poe: Terror of the Soul. New York: New York Public Library, 2013.
Lightman, Bernard. Victorian Science in Context. Ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997.19C Printing Press
Limon, John. The Place of Fiction in the Time of Science. Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 1990
Tresch, John. The Romantic Machine. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012.
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.
“For my little son Edgar, who should ever love Boston, the place of his birth, and where his mother found her best and most sympathetic friends.”
This line was written on a watercolor painting of Boston, painted by Eliza Poe in 1808, which was gifted to Edgar on her deathbed (Poe Boston). Although Edgar was not able to know his mother extensively, and despite his mother dying when he was just the age of two, he gathered information from relatives and friends who knew Eliza, and felt she was very much a part of him. To Edgar, his mother was an esteemed actress, who he was proud of and stated in his Broadway Journal, “The writer of this article is himself the son of an actress – has invariably made it his boast – and no earl was ever prouder of his earldom than he of his descent from a woman who, although well-born, hesitated not to consecrate to the drama her brief career of genius and of beauty” (EAPoe).
But who was Edgar’s mother? Who was this woman who most likely inspired her son with his writing and instilled a kind, gentle and empathetic character in him?
Elizabeth Arnold, born in England, sailed to America with her mother in 1796 at the age of nine. Her mother, also Elizabeth Arnold, an actress, had been given an opportunity to perform in Boston under Charles Powell at the Federal Street Theater. Powell, suddenly out of a job, abandoned the elder Elizabeth and her young daughter, along with their pianist, Charles Tubbs, and left them in the new and unknown city of Boston. They, fortunately, were able to find work at the Federal Street Theater, hired almost immediately into a prestigious group. It is here that young “Eliza” made her first appearance in theater, singing “The Market Lass.” Thus began young Eliza’s apprenticeship, according to Geddeth Smith (15-20).
After the season closed, Eliza and her mother performed a week later in the theater’s ballroom, with Eliza singing “The Market Lass” and adding “Henry’s Cottage Maid.” Young Eliza was a success among the theater goers, and she was proclaimed an actress. In order to advance her daughter’s career, Elizabeth took her and Mr. Tubbs, now their manager, to Portsmouth. Upon arriving, they performed in a concert on August 3, and that September, Mrs. Arnold arranged to put on a production. By November, young Eliza impressively played twelve different roles. In the meantime, her mother had begun planning to build her own theater, and the three set off for Portland, Maine. After a successful period there, and Mrs. Arnold now married to Mr. Tubbs, the trio set back for Portsmouth, where they reunited with Joseph Harper and opened in the “Assembly Room” on February 1, 1797. Eliza played every night that their Assembly Room was opened. Her notable roles included Little Pickle from The Spoiled Child and Prince Edward in Margaret of Anjou (20-31).
A year after her debut, now ten years old, Eliza had performed successfully in a plethora of roles and was working under the direction of Louisa Fontenelle Williamson, who had taken Eliza’s role as Little Pickle, while Eliza performed as Little Pickle’s sister. Williamson had been praised by Robert Merry and Robert Burns, who wrote several poems for her, so Eliza was under someone with great influence. Despite her previous success as Little Pickle, Eliza considered it an honor working under Williamson, and she received a good amount of her training this way (33).
Leaving Hartford, where Eliza had worked with Williamson, Eliza and her parents moved to Charleston, South Carolina. She was met with disappointment; however, because Sollee, the gentleman who had been leading the group of actors from city to city during this time, chose another actress over Eliza to play the role of Little Pickle. Eliza did not debut in Charleston until a week later singing “The Market Lass.” Her last appearance with Sollee’s group was as Julia in Henry Siddon’s The Sicilian Romance.
A bitter dispute had occurred between Eliza’s step-father who claimed he, his wife, and Eliza were not being paid enough for their performances, among other dissatisfactions. Sollee eventually gave under pressure. That and other circumstances forced him to resign; and he handed the company over to three of his trusted actors.
Eliza and her parents, after a brief string of performances in Wilmington, North Carolina, returned to join the “Charleston Comedians”, which had been formed by the former actors and actresses who had rebelled and left Sollee’s company. The leader of this group was an Edgar, who cast Eliza in significant roles and most likely later inspired the name of her second son. Now eleven years old, Eliza ended the season just before May, by performing alongside her mother in Rosina. According to Geddeth Smith, Eliza’s biographer, “She had stepped squarely into the professional world” (38-42).
In 1798, eleven-year old Eliza and her parents set out for Richmond to find acting roles. By mid-July, however, in Halifax, North Carolina, Eliza’s mother had fallen ill. Elizabeth’s last recorded performance was Maria in The Citizen. That summer, Eliza lost her mother to what is believed to be a yellow-fever and came under the supervision of her step-father, Charles Tubbs, who was described as being temperamental (43-44).
In 1798, Eliza made her debut in Richmond, and it is said, “Eliza was able to find a place for herself very quickly in the Virginia Company’s repertory,” based on the guidance her mother had given her. Eliza soon landed what is said to be the most important opportunity yet to have come her way (45-46).
By 1799, the yellow-fever epidemic had subsided and Thomas Wignell, manager of the Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, had noticed Eliza’s expertise as a young actress. Geddeth explains she had a repertoire of twenty-five parts and would prove to be an asset to Wignell, who hired her immediately. She now was playing with one of the most prestigious companies in the country, marking her independence from Tubbs.
In January 1799, Eliza arrived in Philadelphia, what was often called the “Athens of America” (47-49). She did not debut in Wignell’s company until March 18, however, when she played as Biddy Belair in Miss in Her Teens. This required Eliza to perform as a comedienne rather than a singing actress, however she took on the role of a sixteen-year old character swimmingly (49-50). At this time, Eliza was now completely on her own, having left Tubbs behind and with her mother deceased. Wignell took care of her, however, and guided her as an actress, offering for her to return for the following season in his company, which she accepted (51).
According to Geddeth,
When Eliza began her second season at the Chestnut Street Theatre, she was barely thirteen, and she was beginning to blossom into a very beautiful young woman with delicate features, abundant curling hair, and large, brown, glowing eyes. Her figure was small and graceful, as it was to remain for the rest of her life, and this was to prove an advantage for her, because it meant that she could continue to play children’s parts while she was growing into an ingénue and young leading lady (51-52).
During the middle of Eliza’s second season with the company, a young man, named Charles Hopkins, joined the company and would soon debut onstage. Hopkins played one of the most famous comedic roles, Tony Lumpkin in She Stoops to Conquer, and was very successful. He and Eliza soon began performing in productions together and the troop traveled to Washington in the summer of 1800. Their opening night was August 22, where they performed Thomas Otway’s tragedy Venice Preserved, in an historic event, the opening of Washington’s first theatre. Following the performance in the tragedy, Eliza again played the lead role of Little Pickle. The season ended in mid-September and the company returned to Philadelphia (52-54).
Eliza and Charles grew extremely fond of one another, frequently working beside each other in complimentary roles. Their company moved to Baltimore from late April to early June (55). Growing tired of feeling restricted with his current company, Charles accepted an offer with the Virginia Company for the 1801-2 season, which meant that he and Eliza would be separated. Charles left for Virginia and Eliza left for Philadelphia, in low spirits. The couple were separated for over a year until Eliza decided to leave her current group; and after four seasons of performing for Wignell, she joined Charles that summer in Virginia (57-58).
Before joining Charles, Eliza performed briefly for Southwark Theatre in Philadelphia, which comprised of a majority of her fellow actors from the Chestnut Street Theatre (59). Due to a reported break out of yellow fever, Eliza immediately left immediately after two weeks of performing and joined Charles in Alexandria, Virginia. Eliza almost immediately married Charles; fifteen-year-old Eliza had become Mrs. Hopkins (59).
Follow Eliza’s adventure with her first husband, discover her second, and well known husband, and, finally, read about her three children, particularly Edgar, in the next installment! Meanwhile, you can visit the following links to learn more about Eliza Poe from the Poe Museum:
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.