December Object of the Month: The John-Donkey
Most of what we know about Poe is wrong. It has long been well known that his literary executor Rufus W. Griswold fabricated stories about him in a successful effort to damage Poe’s reputation. When considering Poe’s literary enemies, one must not forget Thomas Dunn English, a rival editor Poe referred to in a January 4, 1848 letter to George Evelyth as “the Autocrat of all the Asses.” Poe and English even came to blows in 1846. According to Poe (in a June 27, 1846 letter to Henry B. Hirst), “I gave E. a flogging which he will remember to the day of his death — and, luckily, in the presence of witnesses. He thinks to avenge himself by lies — by [sic] I shall be a match for him by means of simple truth.”
English’s own account of that “flogging” (written fifty years after the fact), tells a different story:
One word led to another, and he rushed toward me in a menacing manner. I threw out my fist to stop him, and the impetus of his rush, rather than any force of mine, made the extension of my arm a blow. He grasped me while falling backward over a lounge, and I on top of him. My blood was up by this time, and I dealt him some smart raps on the face. As I happened to have a heavy seal ring on my little finger, I unintentionally cut him very severely, and broke the stone in the ring, an intaglio cut by Lovatt, which I valued highly. Tyler tried to call me off, but this did not succeed; and finally the racket of the scuffle, which only lasted a few moments, brought Professor Ackerman from the front room, and he separated us. He then led Poe away. The latter, in going up the street, met a friend of mine, who asked him how he had cut his face so terribly. His reply was that an Irishman carrying a beam on his shoulder had accidentally struck him.
During Poe’s lifetime, Thomas Dunn English ridiculed the author in the novels Walter Woolfe, or the Doom of the Drinker and 1844, or the Power of S.F., in which the character Marmaduke Hammerhead, the drunken author of “The Black Crow,” was based on Poe. English also attacked Poe in the press, and Poe even sued a magazine for libel (and won) after it printed some of English’s unfounded accusations. Even the lawsuit did not stop English from publicly ridiculing Poe, and the Poe Museum’s Object of the Month for December is English’s short-lived magazine The John-Donkey, which regularly printed jokes at Poe’s expense.
The first issue, dated January 1, 1848 contains the following notice alluding to Poe’s drinking.
A week later, in the January 8 issue, English responded to a Pennsylvania magazine that had written a positive notice of Poe.
The January 29 issue contained “Sophia Maria,” a parody of Poe’s new poem “Ulalume.”
The February 5 issue of the Saturday Evening Post calls “Sophia Maria” “a capital parody on a poem recently published in the [American Review], and supposed to have been written by E. A. Poe — at least it is decidedly Poe-ish.”
In the February 5 issue of the John-Donkey, English jokes about the announcement that Poe will be delivering a lecture about the universe.
Contrary to English’s opinion, Poe’s lecture on the universe received favorable reviews. The Morning Express for February 4 reported, “The conclusion of this brilliant effort was greeted with warm applause by the audience, who had listened with enchained attention throughout.”
In the April 15 issue, English announces that Poe is planning a new version of The Literati of New York City, a popular series of opinions on New York authors. In The Literati Poe praises some of the writers, including Frances Osgood, while ridiculing others, including English. In the July 1846 installment, Poe points out English’s deficiencies as the editor of The Aristidean:
No spectacle can be more pitiable than that of a man without the commonest school education busying himself in attempts to instruct mankind on topics of polite literature. The absurdity in such cases does not lie merely in the ignorance displayed by the would-be instructor, but in the transparency of the shifts by which he endeavours to keep this ignorance concealed…he was not, I say, laughed at so much for his excusable deficiencies in English grammar (although an editor should certainly be able to write his own name) as that, in the hope of disguising such deficiency, he was perpetually lamenting the “typographical blunders” that “in the most unaccountable manner” would creep into his work. Nobody was so stupid as to suppose for a moment that there existed in New York a single proof-reader — or even a single printer’s devil — who would have permitted such errors to escape. By the excuses offered, therefore, the errors were only the more obviously nailed to the counter as Mr. English’s own.
In the same article, Poe pokes fun at English’s poetry, writing, “The inexcusable sin of Mr. E. is imitation — if this be not too mild a term. Barry Cornwall and others of the bizarre school are his especial favorites. He has taken, too, most unwarrantable liberties, in the way of downright plagiarism, from a Philadelphian poet whose high merits have not been properly appreciated — Mr. Henry B. Hirst.”
This is English’s April 1848 response to learning that Poe is planning a new series of similar articles:
English was sure he would be featured if the article were to be printed. Fortunately for him, the new series, Literary America, did not appear until after Poe’s death. The entry about English was given the name “Thomas Dunn Brown” although much of the entry was taken from earlier entry for English printed in The Literati. Among the additions to the Literary America entry was the following passage:
Mr Brown had, for the motto on his magazine cover, the words of Richelieu,
–Men call me cruel;
I am not: –I am just.
Here the two monosyllables “an ass” should have been appended. They were no doubt omitted through “one of those d——d typographical blunders” which, through life, have been at once the bane and the antidote of Mr Brown.
Poe’s most enduring response to English’s attacks was the short story “The Cask of Amontillado,” which ridicules English while making reference to English’s novel 1844, or The Power of S.F.
Although Poe was a favorite target, The John-Donkey also took aim at other literary and political figures of the day. Here is a notice about Poe’s rival Rufus Griswold.
Here is a review of some female poets.
This is one of the political cartoons to appear in the magazine.
The John-Donkey ceased publication after about a year. Thomas Dunn English lived until 1902. In his later years, his interests turned to politics. He served on the New Jersey General Assembly in 1863 and 1864 and was elected to Congress from 1891 until 1895. He chaired the Committee on Alcoholic Liquor Traffic during the Fifty-Third Congress.
English harbored a dislike of Poe for years after the author’s 1849 death, and English supplied the critic E.C. Stedman with negatively biased information about Poe. (Here is a letter from English to Stedman in the Poe Museum’s collection.) English also responded to Poe’s biographers who he thought either were either overlooking Poe’s faults or libeling Poe’s biographer Rufus Griswold. In 1896, English wrote for the Independent the series Reminiscences of Poe, a supposedly frank account of his relationship with the poet. According to English, he finally wrote the series, nearly fifty years after Poe’s death, to defend himself against the attacks on his and Griswold’s character made by Poe’s biographers. The series opens with English’s own attacks on Poe’s biographers William Gill, John Henry Ingram, and George Woodberry. English continues by portraying Poe as a drunk, a liar, and a cheat. He also hints at an affair between Poe and the poet Frances Osgood.
On one point, however, English actually defends Poe’s reputation against the rumors surrounding him. In response to accusations about Poe’s use of drugs, English writes, “Had Poe the opium habit when I knew him (before 1846) I should both as a physician and a man of observation, have discovered it during his frequent visits to my rooms, my visits at his house, and our meetings elsewhere — I saw no signs of it and believe the charge to be a baseless slander.”
Thomas Dunn English
As an editor and author, Thomas Dunn English helped shape the public’s perception of Poe as a drunken scoundrel. Even though Poe himself discredited English by successfully suing his for libel, English’s image of Poe is still widely accepted as fact. This Poe myth English, Griswold, and others created has long concealed the truth about Poe’s life and character. The Poe Museum’s issues of The John-Donkey document these literary rivalries so that today’s biographers can paint a more complete picture of the genesis of the Poe myth and the literary feuds that promoted it.
It all began with a high school yearbook. Believe it or not, the Edgar Allan Poe Museum’s world renowned collection of Poe artifacts and memorabilia began in 1921 with the donation of a 1917 Collegiate School yearbook containing a parody of “The Raven.” Since then, thousands more items have entered the collection. Within a decade of opening, the Poe Museum outgrew its first building and expanded to occupy a complex of four buildings of Poeana surrounding a garden constructed from even more Poe memorabilia—the salvaged materials from buildings in which Poe lived and worked from Richmond to New York. With a mission to “interpret the life and influence of Edgar Allan Poe for the education and enjoyment of a global audience,” the Poe Museum has amassed a diverse collection that tells the story of Poe’s life, documents his literary contributions, and showcases the ways his legacy continues to inspire today’s culture. This means the Poe Museum is charged with preserving and sharing thousands of objects including Poe’s possessions, first editions, manuscripts, and pop culture ephemera like movie posters and comic books.
How did the Poe Museum get such a great collection? James H. Whitty became the Museum’s first donor when he presented that yearbook in 1921, the year before the Museum opened. He went on to donate scores of Poe illustrations, documents, portraits, and objects including a lock of Poe’s hair. Since then, hundreds of generous donors have contributed everything from Poe’s tiny nail file (a gift of Kenneth Bengel in 1964) to Poe’s vest (a gift of Mrs. Antoinette Suiter in 1997). Even those who did not have artifacts to donate helped build the collection by making financial contributions of all sizes. In 1930, for instance, twenty benefactors gave towards the fund that allowed the Poe Museum to purchase the Cornwell Daguerreotype that is now prominently displayed in the Memorial Building. Similar initiatives allowed the Poe Museum to purchase Poe’s letter to Samuel Kettell in 2005 and George Julian Zolnay’s bronze bust of Poe in 2010. Other benefactors have contributed to the Poe Museum’s historic collections preservation fund or supported its annual fund drive. The Poe Museum’s outstanding collection would not have been possible without all these gifts. If you would like to join the Museum in collecting, preserving, and exhibiting the life and work of Edgar Allan Poe, just click here or contact us at [email protected]
Below are a few of the excellent items donated to the Poe Museum in 2014.
The James A. Michener Museum donated the plaster model for Charles Rudy’s 1956 statue of Poe, the first full-length statue of Poe in Virginia. The same size as the finished bronze that now adorns Capitol Square, this model is now on display in the Elizabeth Arnold Poe Memorial Building.
Gregory Lorris donated twelve pages from the 1811 edition of Institutes of Natural Philosophy, Theoretical and Practical by William Enfield . .. . And the addition of an Appendix to the Astronomical Part by Samuel Webber, a text book Poe might have used while a student at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Though we have not been able to authenticate the writing, each page bears Poe’s signature. These pages of diagrams deal with such sciences as optics and astronomy, and they give us a good idea of the material Poe studied at West Point. One of the twelve pages is now on display in the Model Building.
After hearing that we needed to borrow the book Mesmerism in Articulo Mortis for an exhibit, Susan Jaffe Tane donated a copy of the pamphlet to the Museum. Tane had already made several generous loans from her collection for the Poe Museum’s exhibits.
Sculptor Zane Wylie donated an unusual casting of a skull (above) with the verses of “The Raven” carved into it while painter Anelecia Hannah donated a painting (below) of the bust of Poe in the Museum’s garden.
Judy Rash donated a copy of the beautiful 1884 edition of “The Raven” featuring illustrations by Gustave Dore.
An anonymous donor sent a copy of the edition of Poe’s Works edited by his literary executor Rufus Griswold.
The Garden Club of Virginia provided several new plants for the Enchanted Garden in addition to the research, design, and planting that have already gone into the restoration of the site.
This year Stephen Montgomery and James Vacca loaned the Museum items for exhibits.
As the Poe Museum’s collection continues to grow, we would like to thank all those who helped build that collection. You can click here to see selections from the collection, or you can click here to learn about our Object of the Month.
From January 17 until May 24, 2015, the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia will host the contemporary art exhibit Chambers of the Red Death: A Study in Light and Shadows by Nicole Pisaniello. Artist and Illustrator, Nicole Pisaniello, will be using cut paper, paint, and lighting effects to interpret Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Masque of the Red Death.” Nicole graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from VCU. Her work has been published in two fantasy art collections as well as in Faerie Magazine, and displayed in several galleries. She is a co-host of Dr. Sketchy’s RVA and co-founder of RVA Krampusnacht.
The exhibit will open on January 17, 2015 from noon to midnight as part of the Poe Museum’s 12-hour Poe Birthday Bash, the world’s largest celebration of Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday. For more information call 804-648-5523.
From January 17 until April 19, 2015, the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia will host Reimagining Poe: The Poe Illustrations of Richard Corben a major exhibit surveying forty years of illustrations to Poe’s works by Eisner Award-winning artist Richard Corben. This, the first retrospective of Corben’s Poe illustrations, will feature several original drawings from the artist’s personal collection. The exhibit will open with a lecture about Corben’s illustrations by Randolph Macon College professor M. Thomas Inge on January 17 at 5p.m. The exhibit opening and lecture will be part of the Poe Museum’s annual Poe Birthday Bash, the world’s largest celebration devoted to the nineteenth century author’s birthday.
Richard Corben (born 1940) is a comic book artist and illustrator named Corben began his career in animation before turning to underground comics. In 1976 he adapted a Robert E. Howard story into what is considered the first graphic novel, Bloodstar. He is best known for his comics appearing in Heavy Metal magazine. His illustrious career has included work in album covers and movie posters, collaboration on a graphic novel with rock musician and filmmaker Rob Zombie, and an award-winning short film Neverwhere. He is the winner of the 2009 Spectrum Grand Master Award, and he was elected to the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame in 2012.
For over forty years, Corben has established himself as one of the most extraordinary illustrators of Poe’s works. His Edgar Allan Poe adaptations have appeared on the pages of the comic books Creepy, Edgar Allan Poe’s Haunt of Horror, and Edgar Allan Poe’s Spirits of the Dead. Among his dozens of comic book adaptations of Poe’s tales and poems are popular favorites like “The Raven” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” as well as little known classics like “Alone” and “Israfel.” Not content with literal illustrations of Poe’s words, Corben’s exquisite artwork is often paired with his own unusual and innovative reinventions of the stories. In the introduction to Corben’s latest collection of Poe adaptations, Edgar Allan Poe’s Spirits of the Dead, Dr. M. Thomas Inge states, “Corben has proven to be the most acute and creative interpreter of Poe in comics history.”
Edgar Allan Poe is the internationally influential author of such tales of “The Raven,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Black Cat.” He is credited with inventing the mystery genre as well as with pioneering both the modern horror story and science fiction. Poe died under mysterious circumstances at the age of forty. Although much of his life is known through contemporary documents, some areas of his life remain shrouded in mystery.
Opened in 1922, the Edgar Allan Poe Museum of Richmond is the world’s finest collection of Edgar Allan Poe artifacts and memorabilia. The five-building complex features permanent exhibits of Poe’s manuscripts, personal items, clothing, and a lock of the author’s hair. The Poe Museum’s mission is to interpret the life and influence of Edgar Allan Poe for a global audience. Edgar Allan Poe is America’s first internationally influential author, the inventor of the detective story, and the forerunner of science fiction; but he primarily considered himself a poet. His poems “The Raven,” “Annabel Lee,” and “The Bells” are classics of world literature.
Here are some photos taken during Halloween Weekend at the Poe Museum.
Victoria and Raven Price
Victoria Price signing books
Vincent Price Signature Wine Collection
Find out about Poe to Go, the Edgar Allan Poe Young Writers’ Conference, and the 2015 Unhappy Hour Season and more Poe Museum news in the Fall 2014/Winter 2015 of the Museum’s newsletter Evermore. Click here to read more.
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 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.