Now one of the most valuable books in American literature, this humble volume could have easily ended up in a trash heap or floating down the Hudson River along with several other copies. Ben Hardin, Jr. (1784-1852), the first owner of this first edition of Poe’s third book Poems, scrawled abusive language on the end pages. Ben Hardin, Jr. was a Kentucky lawyer who had likely received the book from his son John Pendleton Hardin (1810-1842, Class of 1832, resigned 1832), one of Poe’s fellow cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point. John Hardin would have been one of the 131 out of the 232 cadets who contributed $1.25 toward the work’s publication in April 1831. Fewer than 1,000 copies were printed, and, judging by the cadets’ response to the book, it is not surprising that only about twenty survive. (Some of those cadets are said to have thrown their copies into the river in disgust.)
Dedication Page of Poems
One of the cadets, Allan B. Magruder, later recalled, “[The book] was a miserable production mechanically, bound in green boards and printed on inferior paper, evidently gotten up on the cheapest scale. The subscription was not fully paid until the book was delivered, and I remember a general expression of indignation at the inferior quality and condition of the book.”
Another cadet, Thomas W. Gibson, added, “The book was received with a general expression of disgust. It was a puny volume, of about fifty pages, bound in boards and badly printed on coarse paper, and worse than all, it contained not one of the squibs and satires upon which his reputation at the Academy had been built up.”
Ben Hardin, Jr., the owner of the Poe Museum’s copy, wrote on the front page, “This book is a damn cheat. All that fills 124 pages could have been compiled in 36.” Beneath this, someone wrote “lie.” Below that is written, “Calliope [the Greek muse of epic poetry] is a cheat/ any how–.”
What little critical notice the book attracted was not overwhelmingly favorable, either. In the May 7, 1831 issue of the New-York Mirror, the reviewer (probably George P. Morris), complains that Poe’s poetry is incomprehensible:
The poetry of this little volume has a plausible air of imagination, inconsistent with the general indefinitiveness of the ideas. Every think in the language betokens poetic inspiration, but it rather resembles the leaves of the sybil when scattered by the wind. The annexed lines, which close a short poem, entitled the “Doomed City,” are less incomprehensible than most in the book, although the meaning is by no means perfectly clear…It sometimes happens that poetry, at first sight unintelligible, is discovered, upon a repeated and more careful examination, to be fraught with the treasure of thought and fancy. The “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” belongs to this class; but we cannot flatter Mr. Poe with any similar hopes respecting his own composition, although it occasionally sparkles with a true poetic expression, and sometimes a conflict of ¬beauty and nonsense takes place, in which the latter seems to have the best of it. It is indeed encumbered by numerous obscurities, which we should be pleased to see either very much brightened or entirely expunged. What is the meaning of this?
In anticipation that the meaning of his poetry would confound some critics, Poe wrote in the volume’s introduction,
Poetry, above all things, is a beautiful painting whose tints, to minute inspection, are confusion worse confounded, but start boldly out to the cursory glance of the connoisseur…A poem, in my opinion, is opposed to a work of science by having, for its immediate object, pleasure, not truth; to romance, by having for its object an indefinite instead of a definite pleasure, being a poem only so far as this object is attained; romance presenting perceptible images with definite, poetry with indefinite sensations, to which end music is an essential, since the comprehension of sweet sound is our most indefinite conception. Music, when combined with a pleasurable idea, is poetry; music without the idea is simply music; the idea without the music is prose from its very definitiveness.
By the time Poems was released in April 1831, Poe was living in New York after having been expelled from West Point in February. Even though Poe was no longer at the academy, he remained the subject of the cadets’ scorn and ridicule for some time after his departure. As Gibson recalled, “For months afterward quotations from Poe formed the standing material for jests in the corps, and his reputation for genius went down at once to zero. I doubt if even the ‘Raven’ of his after-years ever entirely effaced from the minds of his class the impression received from that volume.”
After the commercial failure of Poems, Poe still considered himself primarily a poet and continued to write poetry, but he would not publish another volume of his poetry for fourteen years when he issued The Raven and Other Poems in 1845.
Listing from Chamberlain Catalog
The Poe Museum’s copy of Poems eventually entered the collection of scientist Jacob Chester Chamberlain (1860-1905) who worked in Thomas Edison’s laboratory during the early 1880s and contributed to Edison’s pioneering work with electric lighting. The book was #706 in the auction of Chamberlain’s collection on February 16, 1909 at the Anderson Auction Company in New York when the formerly $1.25 book sold for $315. The piece next entered the library of book collector Walter Thomas Wallace of South Orange, New Jersey. He sold his collection at auction on March 22-24 at the American Art Galleries in New York. This time, the book sold for only $140. The next owner was the California psychologist John Wooster Robertson, whose special interest in Poe led him to compile a bibliography of Poe first printings and to write the book Edgar A. Poe: A Psychopathic Study. Robertson donated Poems, along with the rest of his large collection of Poe first editions, to the Poe Museum in 1927.
Listing from Wallace Catalog
Although some readers in Poe’s time could not appreciate it, Poems is now considered one of Poe’s most important collections. Among the soon-to-be classic poems first printed in this volume are early versions of Poe’s classics “To Helen,” “Lenore” (under its original title “A Paean”) and “Israfel.” Poe’s biographer Arthur Hobson Quinn summed up the significance of the book as follows:
If the volume of 1829 [Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems] contained poetry unlike any that had as yet appeared in the United States, the volume of 1831 gave us in “To Helen,” “Israfel,” “The Doomed City,” “The Valley Nis” and “Irene,” poetry of a kind that had not yet been written in the English language.
The Poe Museum is fortunate Ben Hardin, Jr. decide not to discard his copy of Poems. Thanks to collectors like Robertson, Wallace, and Chamberlain, the book has been preserved for future generations to study and enjoy. That is why this first edition of Poems is the Poe Museum’s Object of the Month.
Walter Wallace Bookplate in Poems
During “Vincent Price at the Poe Museum,” legendary horror actor Vincent Price and iconic author Edgar Allan Poe reunite this Halloween Weekend (October 31-November 1, 2014) at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia.
The weekend kicks off Halloween night, October 31, from 6-10 P.M. with Poe Goes to the Movies
, a costume contest and film screening hosted by Vincent Price’s daughter, Victoria Price
. Ms. Price and a panel of special guests will help judge the costume contest and Poe Look-Alike Contest. Then Victoria Price will introduce the movie Tales of Terror starring Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Basil Rathbone. The evening will also include the opening of the Poe Museum’s newest gallery, The Raven Room, featuring James Carling’s original ca.1882 illustrations for Poe’s poem “The Raven.” Poe Goes to the Movies will be a fun, frightening evening with games, tricks, and treats for the whole family. Admission for the evening is $20, and proceeds benefit the Edgar Allan Poe Museum’s education programming.
The following evening, November 1 from 6-10 P.M., the Poe Museum will host The Author’s Appetite, featuring the new Vincent Price Signature Collection wines in addition to Vincent Price’s foods prepared from recipes in his own cookbook. Victoria Price will share some her memories of her famous father. The evening will also feature performances of Poe’s works by Anne Williams, a book signing by Victoria Price, curator talks in the new Raven Room. Admission for the evening is $50 and will benefit the Edgar Allan Poe Museum’s educational programming.
For more information, contact the Poe Museum at 804-648-5523.
Edgar Allan Poe lived at the perfect time in history to be able to observe and to write about many of the most dramatic technological changes that had taken place in world history. Scientist Sir Alfred Russell Wallace called the nineteenth century “The Wonderful Century” because of its “marvelous inventions and discoveries,” which he regarded as immensely superior to anything which had been developed up until that time by “our comparatively ignorant forefathers”(1). Suddenly, within the span of a few decades, the introduction of new Industrial Age technologies such as electricity, telegraphic communications, cross-country railroads, photography, astronomy, and high- speed printing presses dramatically altered the culture and lifestyle of the American public in ways in which few people who lived at the time could ever have expected. In 1903, Sir Norman Lockyer, the then President of the British Association echoed Wallace’s remarks, stating that, “The nineteenth century will ever be known as the one which the influence of science was first fully realized in western countries; the scientific progress was so gigantic that it seems rash to predict that any of its successors can be more important in the life of a nation” (Nature). By the time that Poe started writing professionally (in the early 1830s), the literacy rate was higher than it had previously ever been in America, and the average person could read and understand most articles written in the newspaper. A person could travel to distant parts of the country by rail, and communicate almost instantly via the telegraph to almost anyone in the United States. Through the development of the daguerreotype (an early prototype of photography), people could obtain realistic and long lasting images of their family members to remember for generations. Many of those taken at that time may still be clearly visible today. The introduction of a new class of highly powerful telescopes and microscopes also demonstrated that the Universe of space and the unseen space within objects are much more expansive than anyone had previously imagined.
Peter Swirski argues that it is essential for our present understanding of nineteenth century culture to explore popular writers like Edgar Allan Poe because his “writing may be a suitable barometer of the role that science and philosophy had on nineteenth century society. Poe’s science narratives are perhaps most important because he was the first American authors who was able to distill the important information and ideas that were developed by professional scientists and publish them to a national and international audience in the form imaginative poems, non-fiction essays and journalistic stories, fiction, and science fiction stories.
The next entry of the “Poe and Science” blog will discuss how a studying the stories of the non-professional science writer helps us to have a better understanding of nineteenth-century society. Please send comments or questions to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Lockyer, Sir Norman. “Inaugural Address as President of the British Association.” Nature. 10 September 1903: 439.
Swirski, Peter. Between Literature and Science: Poe, Lem, and Explorations in Aesthetics, Cognitive Science, and Literary Knowledge. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2000.
Wallace, Alfred Russell. The Wonderful Century: Its Successes and Failures. Toronto: George N. Morang, 1898 (digital reproduction).
Not only does the Edgar Poe’s family history contain an abundance of interesting details and accounts, but also does his foster father’s family, the Allan family. A family history enriched with a Scottish background, John Allan and family influenced young Edgar, as well as the Poe Museum, in many ways. In the following post, we will follow accounts of Edgar Poe and his foster family in Europe, visiting with Allan’s Scottish family members, learn about an uncovered Allan family gravestone in Scotland found in the late 1990s, and learn about the family’s descendants’ correspondences with the Poe Museum in the early twentieth century (in part two, soon to follow).
Edgar Poe traveled to many places during his life, between Baltimore, Philadelphia, Richmond, New York, and Boston. However, in his childhood, he lived in Europe for about five years. This is the account of the Allan family’s move to England and their life there with a brief biographical account of their time in Europe, and a year-by-year, nearly month-by-month account of their stay.
John Allan, born in Ayrshire in 1780, would not see his native land until two decades after leaving Scotland when he was fifteen years old.
After working for his uncle for five years while living in the States, Allan started a firm, Ellis & Allan, which dealt mainly in tobacco that was immensely profitable and grew increasingly popular (Celtic Life). In 1815, the Allan family embarked for Europe potentially to better help John Allan and Charles Ellis’ business. Arriving in Irvine, Scotland, where, according to Ayrshire Roots Online, most of the Allan relatives lived, including the Galts, Allans, and Fowlds. The family was spread throughout Irvine, Kilmarnock, and other nearby areas around Ayrshire. John and his family traveled to Glasgow, Edinburgh, Greenock, and London later that Fall of 1815. Young Edgar attended school in Irvine, at the Kailyard Grammar School at Kirkgatehead. He did not remain there very long, however, because the school was closed and replaced by a new academy that next July.
While in Irvine, young Edgar stayed with John’s sister, Mary, in a two-story house owned by the Allan Family. It is said Edgar shared a room with James Galt, a cousin, who also attended the Grammar School. James, approximately nine years older than Edgar, was said to have watched over Edgar because he had made threats to run back to America. Edgar, however, was back in London with his foster-family in 1816.
John Allan, his foster father, was trying to build a branch of his Richmond firm there, trading tobacco and other general merchandise. Young Edgar was sent to a boarding school, where he remained until the summer of 1817. This school, at 146 Sloane Street, in Chelsea was ran by the Misses Dubourgs. In the fall of 1817, Edgar was admitted to the Manor House School of the Rev. Mr. John Bransby, at Stoke Newington. He remained there until his withdrawal and then departure back to the United States in the spring of 1820 (Ayrshire Roots). The family returned to Richmond due to the fall of Ellis & Allan’s business, to which Allan was required to pay back debt and loans he had accumulated.
Let it be noted that just beside the river of Irvine remains the parish church and graveyard, in which the Allan ancestors are buried. According to The Edgar Allan Poe Review, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Spring 2000), p. 80, Mark Strachan, Senior Museum Assistant at the North Ayrshire Museum in Saltcoats, Ayrshire, Scotland, in August 1999, added the Poe-Allan headstone, originally from the church parish grounds-turned-museum, to their collection. The headstone reads as follows, copied from the article exactly as formatted:
In memory of
David Poe late Carrier in Saltcoats
Who died 21st Augt 1799 aged 47 years
And of Ann Allan his wife
Who died 18th July 1828 aged 72 years
And of James their son
Who died abroad in the year 1800
Aged 18 years
And also of three of their children
Who died in infancy
Mary Poe died May 25th 1853
Aged 63 years
And of Janet Poe who died 27th May 1861
Aged 62 years
(And on the reverse-)
In memory of his daughter
Who died on the 24th Feby 1846 aged 15 years
Ann & Thomas
Who died in infancy
And his wife
Who died on the 30th Octr 1854 aged 65 years
The above David Poe
Died on the 7th Decr 1878 aged 91 years
1815 marks the year of the Allan family’s plan to move, and their official move to Scotland. On June 15, they left for Norfolk, Virginia, where they “[would] board the Lothair, bound for Liverpool, under Captain Stone, ‘to sail next week.’” They sold a large majority, if not all, of their possessions before the move, and then set sail on the Atlantic Ocean on June 23 (Thomas 24-25). Captain Stone was described as being “penurious,” and John Allan further complained “that his wife and sister-in-law [Ann Valentine, Frances’ sister] [were] ‘denied the privileges of Fire to broil a slice of Bacon’.” John Allan also slept on the floor of the ship, and it was said Frances had terrible seasickness. Despite the rough journey, the family, comprising of Edgar, John Allan, Frances Allan, and Ann Valentine, successfully disembarked on July 28 in Liverpool. The next day, John Allan wrote to Charles Ellis, his business partner from Richmond, “I am now on English ground after an absence of more than 20 years. After a pssage [sic] of 34 days all [is] well—Frances and Nancey very [sic] sick but are now perfectly Hearty. Edgar was a little sick but soon recovered. Capt. good seaman but too close….We got here yesterday at 5 P.M. I took our abode at Mr. Lillymans Hotel today” (Thomas 25).
Presumably, after days of settling down in the new land, the family visited John Allan’s sisters, Mary Allan and Jane Johnston, in Irvine, Scotland on August 11. According to Dwight Thomas of the Poe Log, “Perhaps for a few days Poe attends the Old Grammar School. Here Poe probably sees archers shooting the popinjay on the cathedral. Poe’s playmates are James Anderson and a lad named Gregory.” (Please note that Poe referred to the popinjay in “Romance” and “The Bargain Lost.”) Before August 22, the family also visited John Allan’s younger sister, Mrs. Allan Fowlds (née Agnes Nancy Allan) on Nelson street (25). On the 21st of September, from Greenock, Scotland, John Allan wrote to Charles Ellis,
I arrived here about a half an hour ago . . . finding some American Vessels on the eve of sailing I avail myself of the chance to write a few lines, though I cannot say much about our business. . . . I flatter myself from the small quantity [of tobacco?] in London & the Posture of affairs on the Continent that our sales will be profitable. It would appear that France and the Allies have concluded a Treaty but it has not been promulgated — the Allies will hold the strong posts for a while until the refractory spirit of some of the old adherents of Bonaparte has subsided. . . . Frances says she would like the Land o cakes better if it was warmer and less rain, she bids me say she will write Margaret [Ellis] as soon as she is settled but at present she is so bewildered with wonders that she canna write. Her best Love to Margaret & a thousand kisses to Thos [Ellis]. Nancy says give my love to them all — Edgar says Pa say something for me, say I was not afraid coming across the Sea. Kiss Thos. for him We all unite in best Love to my Uncle Galt & all our old Friends. Edgars love to Rosa & Mrs. Mackenzie (26).
Later on October 7, the family arrived in London, however only three days later Frances felt ill with a bad cold and sore throat. John Allan wrote to Charles Ellis from the Blake’s Hotel they were staying at, “I arrived here on the evening of the 7th, from Kilmarnock by way of Greenock, Glasgow, Edinburg, New Castle [and] Sheffield…” (26). October 30, He wrote,
. . . by a snug fire in a nice little sitting parlour in No. 47 Southampton Row, Russell Square where I have procured Lodgings for the present with Frances and Nancy Sewing and Edgar reading a little Story Book. I feel quite in a comfortable mood for writing. I have no acquaintances that call upon me and none whom as yet I call on. 6 Guineas a week furnished lodgings is what I have agreed to for 6 months until I can find a more convenient and cheaper situation. I have no compting room yet of course. I cannot copy the Letters which I am obliged to write — everything is high it alarms Frances she has become a complete economist and has a most lively appetite. I begin to think London will agree with her (26-27).
That November, John Allan once more wrote that he and his family were sick with colds. These persistent illnesses would occur periodically throughout their five year stay, with Frances being the sickest of all. It is implied by many letters written by John Allan that Frances was quite possibly a hypochondriac. She was ill multiple times; for instance, in 1819, as the family was preparing to return to the States, Frances pleaded not to go back as she thought she would never be able to cross the Atlantic (41).
By November 20, however, Allan decided he and his family would stay two more years than the planned three. He thought this would profit his business with Ellis (27). The next year, in 1816, the family continued to have a miserable time. John Allan’s Aunt, his father’s sister, Jeannie Bone died, and in early April, young Edgar was sent to the boarding school of the Misses Dubourg (29).
A charming account of John Allan’s correspondence with his family includes giving advice to young William Galt, Jr., before his anticipated departure for America,
Now my good Boy you will soon be ushered into the World where your own exertions and good Sense will be put to the test, never fail to do your Duty to your Creator first, to your Employer next & by all means keep clear of bad company. Mixing with improper characters tends only to make you the slave of vicious Habits which you will avoid as you shun the coiled Serpent (31).
In 1817, John Allan’s business seemingly was thriving. He wrote to William Galt that their property assets would be worth $140,000. Midsummer in London, he rented No. 39 Southampton Row, but did not take possession of the house until September or October. During this time, young Edgar was in school (33-34). That August, John Allan explained to George Dubourg how Frances desired a parrot. According to the Poe Log, as presented on EAPoe online, Frances’ parrot, which was lodged with the Dubourgs, spoke French and,
Whitty (1935), pp. 188-90, thought the following lines from “Romance” were autobiographical: “To me a painted paroquet / Hath been — a most familiar bird — / Taught me my alphabet to say — / To lisp my very earliest word.” Mabbott (1969), 1:128-29, linked “Romance” with the popinjay in Scotland and also called attention to the paroquet in “The Bargain Lost.” In his “Philosophy of Composition” Poe stated that in planning “The Raven” he first considered a parrot, then an owl, and settled for a raven (33-34).
The next year, 1818, proved to be an impressionable year for young Edgar. He was reading Latin pretty well, according to John Allan in late June. According to EAPoe online’s transcription of The Poe Log,
In “William Wilson” (1839), Poe’s fictional account of his experiences at the Manor House School, the schoolmaster was part Bransby and part George Gaskin, rector of St. Mary’s Church. Poe perhaps knew three men named William Wilson: two conducted business with John Allan and a third taught school in Richmond (see Jackson, 1983, p. 13). “I [William Elijah Hunter] spoke to Dr. Bransby about him [Poe] two or three times during my school days. . . . Dr. Bransby seemed rather to shun the topic, I suppose from some feeling with regard to his name being used distastefully in the story of ‘William Wilson.’ In answer to my questions on one occasion, he said, ‘Edgar Allan’ (the name he was known by at school) ‘was a quick and clever boy and would have been a very good boy if he had not been spoilt by his parents,’ meaning the Allans; ‘but they spoilt him, and allowed him an extravagant amount of pocket-money, which enabled him to get into all manner of mischief — still I liked the boy — poor fellow, his parents spoilt him!’ ” (Hunter, p. 497) (36).
Manor House School, Stoke Newington
Mid-August, John Allan planned a trip to Isle of Wight to see if the sea air would help poor Frances’ health. She visited Devonshire not too long after this (37-38). Later that October, Frances visited Tydemouth with, it is believed, Jane Gault, and then rejoined her family in London on, or before, November 28 (39-40).
That next year, 1819, the Allan & Ellis firm began suffering financial difficulties. John Allan began considering returning home. In June of that year, the family attended the wedding of his sister Elizabeth to John Miller in Irvine, Scotland. Edgar was left in Irvine until September (41). Although the family had been planning to return to the States for a while, the family was unable to return to America until they had enough money. Along with the alleged hypochondriac Frances, lack of finances posed problems in returning home. Frances was assuaged, however, because John Allan wrote that December to Ellis that Frances has, “the greatest aversion to the sea and nothing but dire necessity and the prospect of a reunion with her old and dear Friends could induce her to attempt it. Ann [Frances’ sister] submits her wonted good nature and patience” (42).
In the final year of their stay, February was a hard month for the family. Frances appeared to be in a terrible state, and the assassination of Duke Charles Ferdinand of Berry, on February 13, appeared to have an impact on John Allan because he wrote about the troubling incident (43). After making one last trip to Irvine, Scotland to visit his sisters in June, the family departed and arrived in New York on July 21. They returned to Richmond August 2 (44-46).
Despite the hardships that had occurred during their five-year stay, and the crash of Allan and Ellis’ firm, the trip to Europe appeared to have a great impact on Edgar and later influenced his stories. The boarding school experiences inspired certain aspects of later short stories, and it is said, had he stayed in Scotland, he would have made a fine addition to Europe.
Now that we have learned about Poe’s journey in Europe, and the influence of the Scottish Allan family on Edgar, what is the story behind this portrait? Find out here!
Last Sunday, the Poe Museum was proud to host a talk by award-winning authors Mary SanGiovanni and Brian Keene. Guests came from as far away as Pennsylvania and Illinois to meet the authors and hear their insights into the continuing relevance of Poe’s fiction.
Since the Poe Museum’s mission is to “interpret the life and influence of Edgar Allan Poe for the education and enjoyment” of the public, Keene and SanGiovanni helped support this mission by speaking about Poe’s influence on today’s writers. SanGiovanni began by discussing the impact of Poe’s short story “The Masque of the Red Death” on horror fiction. She provided a fascinating overview of the themes and imagery of the story and drew parallels between these and the recurrent themes found in modern psychological horror and cosmic horror.
After SanGiovanni’s talk, Keene spoke about Poe’s novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, its inspiration for his own writing, and its influence on later writers. He traced the influence of this novel on Herman Melville, Jules Verne (who wrote a sequel to it), and H.P. Lovecraft (whose novel At the Mountains of Madness borrows from it). Keene continued by describing how At the Mountains of Madness helped inspire John W. Campbell’s novel Who Goes There which has been adapted into three films, the second of which is John Carpenter’s 1982 movie The Thing, which Keene considers the most important horror film of the 1980s. The Thing topped Boston Globe’s list of the Fifty Scariest Movies of All Time and was ranked #2 on Moving Arts Film Journal’s list of the Twenty-Five Greatest Horror Films. The film, in turn, was a great inspiration to Keene himself.
The talks were followed by a question-and-answer period in which the authors discussed their own work as well as the international significance of Poe’s literary contributions. A sizeable crowd gathered afterwards to have the authors sign copies of their books. Keene and SanGiovanni also donated some copies of their books to the museum’s gift shop to help support the museum’s educational mission. The Poe Museum would like to thank SanGiovanni and Keene for sharing their insights with our audience.
Our next author talk will take place on October 15 at 6 P.M. when the Virginia Literary Festival Presents: An Evening with Clay McLeod Chapman. Click here for a complete list of upcoming events.
Clay McLeod Chapman, our October speaker
Edgar Allan Poe had many enemies during his life–there is no questioning this—but only one man held the significant title of being Poe’s “bitterest enemy.” Was it Rufus Griswold, Poe’s literary executor, you may ask? No. Maybe, John Allan, Edgar’s foster father who butted heads with the poet until Allan’s death? Not quite. Who, you may inquire, was named Edgar Poe’s bitterest enemy? His own cousin, Neilson Poe.
Born with his twin sister, Amelia, to Jacob and Bridget Poe, in Baltimore on August 11, 1809, Neilson (pronounced “Nelson”) was grandson of George Poe Sr.(Frank 278, 281; Silverman 82; Thomas xxxviii, 6). Although there are no significant accounts of Neilson’s childhood, we know that at age eighteen he joined the staff of William Gwynn’s Baltimore Gazette and Daily Advertiser, beginning a three year apprenticeship as a journalist (Thomas xxxviii). Two years later, in 1829, made acquaintances with his second cousin, Edgar.
Later Neilson became the owner and editor of the Frederick Examiner, a semiweekly newspaper in Frederick, Maryland, where Edgar applied for a job in 1831 after Neilson had left. In 1834, Neilson acquired the Baltimore Chronicle, an influential Whig daily. The next year marked the beginning of the Neilson and Edgar rivalry (Thomas xxxviii).
In 1835, Edgar received word that Virginia Clemm, his future wife, was to be taken in by her cousin, Neilson and his wife, her half-sister, Josephine. This struck a deep chord in Edgar’s heart and he frantically pleaded with his Aunt, Maria Clemm, to not send Virginia to his second cousin’s residence, regarded Neilson as a rival for Virginia’s affection. He allegedly thought the plan was “cruel” and a betrayal that “wound[ed him] to the soul” (Frank 280, 281; World of Poe). Edgar went on to explain to Maria in his letter,
Oh think for me for I am incapable of thinking. Al[l of my] thoughts are occupied with the supposition that both you & she will prefer to go with N. [Neilson] Poe. I do sincerely believe that your comforts will for the present be secured — I cannot speak as regards your peace — your happiness. You have both tender hearts — and you will always have the reflection that my agony is more than I can bear — that you have driven me to the grave — for love like mine can never be gotten over. It is useless to disguise the truth that when Virginia goes with N. P. that I shall never behold her again — that is absolutely sure. Pity me, my dear Aunty, pity me. I have no one now to fly to. I am among strangers, and my wretchedness is more than I can bear. It is useless to expect advice from me — what can I say? Can I, in honour & in truth say — Virginia! do not go! — do not go where you can be comfortable & perhaps happy — and on the other hand can I calmly resign my — life itself. If she had truly loved me would she not have rejected the offer with scorn? Oh God have mercy on me! If she goes with N. P. what are you to do, my own Aunty? (You can read the rest of the letter here.)
Edgar won the dispute and successfully “saved” Virginia from their cousin Neilson. It is said Neilson had not known why Virginia and Maria turned down his offer until years later when he was shown, by Maria, the letter Edgar had written (World of Poe). Also, according to Kenneth Silverman in Edgar A. Poe: A Biography, Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance, “…Neilson meant to rescue Muddy from her poverty, but he also reportedly hoped to prevent Virginia from marrying at so young an age, keeping open the possibility of her marriage to Edgar a few years later, if they both still desired it.” For some reason, Edgar believed he would never see Virginia again had she gone to stay with Neilson and Josephine (104).
The cousins did not keep in close contact after this. In 1833, Neilson’s daughter, Amelia Fitzgerald, was born. This particular Poe child, out of seven siblings, was significant in relaying information to Poe scholars later on in her life, giving information about Edgar to biographers, John Ingram and George Woodberry (Frank 278).
In the summer of 1838, Edgar contacted his cousin, imploring for financial assistance, to which Neilson declined. He, too, was having monetary issues during this time. He sold his Chronicle on December 2 of that next year, due to financial debt. In 1840, he left the business he had been practicing since eighteen and commenced the practice of law, where he remained the rest of his life (Thomas xxxviii). It is said Neilson corresponded with Edgar in August 1845 in one surviving letter, which, according to “The World of Poe” online,
…is very civil, but decidedly cool. He [Edgar] responded to his cousin’s evident friendly overtures with a bland courtesy, assenting that it was indeed a pity that their two families were estranged, but he showed no sincere desire to amend that situation. The letter also indicated that Neilson and his family were unaware that for the past three years, Virginia had been battling a hopeless illness (which Poe always mysteriously called “the accident”)–a striking sign of just how alienated they were from her life. (You can read this letter here.)
Edgar’s death four years later would come as a shock and blow to Neilson who, despite not being on the best of terms with his cousin throughout their lives, still maintained concern for Edgar during his dying days. When word reached him that his cousin was in the hospital, Neilson visited Edgar and, despite being considered “the little dog” by his writer cousin, sent a change of linens and called again the next day to check on Edgar (Silverman 434). Despite the efforts to help Edgar, Poe died and Neilson began preparing for the funeral. He attended Edgar’s funeral on October 8, 1849, and provided the hack and hearse (Thomas 848).
After his cousin’s death, and despite their rivalry (which, may have been more on Edgar’s part than Neilson’s) Neilson spoke well of his cousin with supportive comments. Going back to just after the release of Edgar’s 1829 volume, Neilson predicted that “Our name will be a great one yet,” because of Edgar’s writings (World of Poe; Silverman 82). Despite their quarreling at times, Neilson never seemed to hold such hatred against his cousin as one may perceive. In fact, Neilson attended Poe’s November 17, 1875 memorial tribute and eulogized him. He also paid for an Italian marble headstone; however, this was destroyed in an accident transporting it to the cemetery (Frank 281; Thomas xxxviii; Find A Grave). He also intended to write a memoir of his cousin in 1860, but it is said,
…[he] made some collection of facts, but never wrote anything. He belongs, so his friends say, to the class of dilatory men, who plan and never do…He talks very freely about his cousin. I have not found him reticent; but I do not think the Poes [sic] fully appreciate the genius of Edgar (Miller 52).
Despite this “unappreciative” nature, it seems Neilson did genuinely hold some reverence for his cousin.
The rest of Neilson’s life seems straightforward regarding his family and career. In 1878, he was appointed Chief Judge of the Orphans’ Court of Baltimore, a position he held until two months before his death, January 3, 1884. He had seven children living at the time of his death; two daughters and five sons (Thomas xxxviii). He also was, notably, the grandfather of the six Poe brothers who played football at Princeton University between 1882 and 1903 (Find A Grave). Neilson’s other notable achievements include being director of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, as well as director of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad for a short time (Find A Grave). He was associated with the Baltimore Chronicle, and had accomplished being a journalist, publisher, editor and lawyer (Frank 281).
Whether now you see Neilson as Poe’s “bitterest enemy”, or believe that he was a misunderstood journalist and lawyer, Neilson Poe goes down as being one of the most curious Poe relatives. What made Edgar despise his cousin? Was it jealousy, greed, or a great misunderstanding leaving a stubborn Eddy loathing his cousin until his death? You decide!
Every object in the Poe Museum tells a story. Each artifact or piece of ephemera helps us interpret the story of Edgar Allan Poe’s life and influence. The July Object of the Month is no exception. The Cornwell Daguerreotype is a distinctly arresting image of Poe taken at a low point in the author’s life, four days after a suicide attempt. His fiancée Sarah Helen Whitman, who owned the original, which she named the “Ultima Thule” Daguerreotype, pronounced it “wonderful” and told Poe’s biographer John H. Ingram that it had been taken “after a wild distracted night . . . and all the stormy grandeur of that via Dolorosa had left its sullen shadow on his brow.” One of four copies made directly from the original plate, this tiny daguerreotype (an early type of photograph made on a light-sensitive silver-plated piece of copper) has long been one of the most important artifacts in the museum’s collection. The image serves as an especially poignant document of Poe’s brief and troubled life. (Click here to learn more about the circumstances under which it was taken.) But this is only the beginning of the daguerreotype’s story. If it had not been for one woman’s determination, the piece might never have entered the collection.
Our account begins in 1933, when the world was still mired in the Great Depression. Early that year, the United States unemployment rate peaked at 25%, a drought plagued the heartland, over 5,000 banks had failed, and hundreds of thousands of Americans were homeless, struggling for survival in makeshift shanty towns. The Poe Museum (then known as the Poe Shrine) was not immune to this global crisis. To conserve energy, the Museum closed all but one of its four buildings and turned off its oil burner. Instead it heated one room in the Old Stone House with a wood stove. Before a December board meeting, the Poe Shrine’s secretary Mary Gavin Traylor wrote the museum’s president, Richmond News Leader Editor and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Dr. Douglas Southall Freeman, for permission to at least use the oil burner during the meeting. If not, she added, “we will rock along with the fourth of a cord of oak and pine blocks and the small load of kindling donated to us…”
To save money, Dr. Freeman instructed the museum’s hostesses to take off one month for every three months of work. His note ended “If things are not better in spring, we will have to reduce the force by one.”
A notation in the financial records reads, “Personnel has been reduced to one lady for five hours in the morning and one lady for five hours in the afternoon at very small wage but positively all that could be paid…There was a loss in the ‘nest egg’ for the endowment at the time of the bank failures. Have not had heat or a phone since the depression…”
In early 1933, just when the museum’s situation was at its bleakest, Christine Smith Rawson of Bradford, New Hampshire contacted Ms. Traylor at the Poe Museum. Rawson was in need of money and owned a rare daguerreotype she knew would be of interest to the museum. Though she admitted she had no idea how much the piece was worth, she offered it to the museum for $500. This is the equivalent of $8,895 in today’s dollars. At a time of bank failures and staggering unemployment, this seemed like an impossible sum, but Traylor believed the Poe Museum needed this artifact. Before she attempted to acquire it, however, she would need to learn more about the piece. In order to learn something about the provenance (or history) of the piece, she quizzed Rawson about what she knew of the plate’s origin. Rawson had received it from her uncle John Clarke Turner, who had been given it by a Dr. Cornwell of New London, Connecticut. More research revealed that Dr. Cornwell had been a poet who had published a number of poems in the Poet’s Corner of the New London Telegram, and that Turner was editor of the Poet’s Corner. Through this connection, the two writers became friends, so, shortly before his death, Cornwell gave his cherished daguerreotype to his friend.
That the daguerreotype had once been owned by Cornwell was also recorded by Edmund C. Stedman, who had borrowed it from him in 1880 to have it reproduced as a wood engraving by Timothy Cole. The engraving appeared as an illustration for an article about Poe in the May 20, 1880 issue of Scribner’s Monthly. A footnote in the article notes,
The frontispiece-portrait in the present number of SCRIBNER is reproduced, on an enlarged scale, from what is thought to be the last daguerreotype obtained of the poet. The editor is indebted to the kindness of Dr. H. S. Cornwell, of New London, for the use of this picture, and for the facts establishing its authenticity. It was taken by the late Mr. Masury, of Providence, R. I., and Mr. Cornwell makes it probable that Poe sat for it within a year or two of his death in 1849. The lines of the neck and chin are not so heavy as in the Bendann daguerreotype, but my comments on the latter otherwise apply to this picture. The unusual development of Poe’s forehead in the regions where the analytic and imaginative faculties are thought to hold their seat, is here shown as in no other likeness of the poet. Mr. Cornwell writes of it:
“The aspect is one of mental misery, bordering on wildness, disdain of human sympathy, and scornful intellectual superiority. There is also in it, I think, dread of imminent calamity, coupled with despair and defiance, as of a hunted soul at bay.”
Timothy Cole’s woodcut reproduction of the daguerreotype can be seen below.
During Traylor’s investigation, she learned that a biography of Cornwell, John Sylvester Cornwell, A Memoir by Ellen Morgan Frisbie, had been published in 1906. She was able to find a copy in the Library of Congress and took notes on any information relevant to her search. She found that Cornwell was born in 1831 and died on 1886. A passage on page two reads, “Our poet numbered among his friends, Sarah Helen Whitman, the brilliant woman who at one time was the fiancée of Poe and they frequently exchanged poems in the course of their correspondence.”
Sarah Helen Whitman
On page sixteen, she learned, “From 1873 to 1880, The New London Telegram enjoyed a reputation for printing very good poetry. The Poet’s Corner was under the supervision of John C. Turner and was frequently graced by Dr. Cornwell’s compositions.”
On the same page, she found another passage: “One of the Doctor’s most cherished possessions was an old daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe whom he so much admired. It is now the property of Mr. Turner, to whom it was presented by the poet some little time previous to his death.”
Once she had traced the ownership of the plate to Dr. Cornwell, she could only speculate on how he had acquired it. The fact that he had corresponded with Sarah Helen Whitman was an important clue because she had been the owner of the original plate from which this copy had been made. From Stedman’s footnote, she knew that Cornwell had acquired his daguerreotype in Providence, the city in which Whitman lived. It had even been made in the same studio that had taken the original. Because daguerreotypes were made directly on a light-sensitive plate without the use of a negative, copies were made by carefully photographing the original. Since Mrs. Whitman owned the original, she probably authorized the making of this copy. She is thought to have made the copy in the Pierpont Morgan library for her friend Caleb Fiske Harris and that she had the copy now in the Fales Library for one of her correspondents Sarah E. Robbins.
Given the exceptional quality and clarity of the image in Lawson’s daguerreotype, it was believed the plate was the original, but this was easily dismissed by comparing it with the other copies. Aside from the Robbins daguerreotype, they all have Poe’s part on the same side. At the time of production of the plate, the images in daguerreotypes were reversed. If Lawson’s plate had been the original, it would be a mirror image of the other copies.
Later investigations revealed that the pattern on the daguerreotype case was produced in limited quantities around 1853. If the case is original to the plate, this would support the plate being dated to before 1860, the year Sarah Helen Whitman’s daguerreotype, from which it was copied, disappeared from her home.
Having established the provenance of the piece as well as she could, Traylor decided to find out if $500 was a reasonable price to pay for it. She wrote to Brown University, the Pierpont Morgan Library, and other owners of Poe daguerreotypes to ask what they had paid for their pieces. When these institutions were unable to provide any useful information, she wrote University of Virginia professor and Poe authority Dr. James Southall Wilson for his opinion. He answered, “I would not pay more than three hundred dollars for the picture offered you and…I believe…such an offer would be accepted.”
Armed with this information, Traylor brought the matter to the Poe Museum’s board but was told that the museum simply did not have any money for the purchase. Seeing how passionate she was about not letting the institution miss the chance to acquire what she believed to be the most important of the very few daguerreotypes made of Poe, the board eventually authorized her to try to raise the $500 on her own.
Traylor started contacting her wealthy friends for donations. One of her typical fundraising letters expresses her passion about acquiring the plate:
Some time ago, a rare find was brought to the Shrine in the hope that we would buy it, the Board met and regretfully had to say “no fund,” much as they felt it was a splendid thing for us to acquire. I was so filled with the realization of its importance and determined that it should not escape the Shrine that I asked permission to try to get a number of subscribers to a fund, so that they as a group might present it to the Shrine…”
Within a few months, Traylor was able to get commitments totaling $290. Among the twenty donors were Granville Valentine with $25, John Stewart Bryan with $25, Ambassador Alexander Weddell with $50, Dr. Douglas Freeman with $15, and James Rindfleisch with $50. Among the many who found themselves unable to contribute was novelist Ellen Glasgow, who wrote, “It would be splendid if the Poe Shrine could buy this daguerreotype, and I regret that I am unable to contribute toward the purchase.”
When she wrote back to Lawson that she could not possibly pay more than $300 for the daguerreotype. Lawson responded by suggesting Traylor pay $300 up front and the final $200 in one year.
On May 15, 1933, Traylor answered,
The Shrine cannot, for the board on such things, distinctly said, as much as they would like to have it, they could not with financial circumstances such as they are, purchase it. The financial circumstances are worse than they were, for as I told you we lost heavily in the American Bank not opening its doors. The Shrine cannot take on any obligation. Then there is no one left to make you a note but me, and the Heavens in their high sky are not further away than such a possibility is far from me. Who could make a note, the group of people I have approached, have contributed $5 and $10 dollars each, each doing in doing that, all that he or she could feel able to do, there would be no chance of asking them to make a note. No one of them, at a time, when to eat and live is of so much more importance than a Poe Daguerreotype, would dream of being responsible for any $200 that might be collected, no individual is taking on responsibilities at this date either. To have a note made out to you is utterly out of the question. To carry on here at the Shrine with what we have is much more important, vital necessity and not in any manner to endanger that, is more important than to endanger that, is more important than to enhance the collection at this moment with no matter how interesting a Poe item, be it a manuscript, daguerreotype or piece of furniture. This is the situation as it exists today. Everybody has marveled that I have been able to get the promise of $300 to be given me…
After pointing out that the daguerreotype is a copy and, therefore, not as valuable as an original, Traylor continues,
I am anxious to have it, you should be able to readily see that. But $300 cash is the extent of my ability…You will not be able to get more elsewhere…Do please just let the group have it for the $300 I have the promise of and let it be presented to the Shrine. I feel you will never regret it, dear Mrs. Rawson…
On May 26, Rawson replied,
I have succumbed to your pleadings and enthusiasm and your unbounded interest in the Poe Shrine. I am going to let you have the picture for $300…Feeling happy that the picture is going to the Poe Shrine and thanking you for your great interest and help…
Now Traylor found herself faced with the task of collecting all the money that had been pledged. She rushed to collect the donation from Ambassador Weddell, who was about the leave the country. His donation alone amounted to one sixth of the total, so missing him before he left would have been the end of her effort. With Weddell and most of the other donors still able to fulfill their pledges, Traylor was able to purchase the plate in time it to go on display at the Poe Museum on October 7, the anniversary of Poe’s death. Thanks to Traylor’s vision and determination, the museum’s guests still able to see this important artifact at the Poe Museum.
The next time you visit the Poe Museum’s Enchanted Garden you might come upon this small plaque placed in memory of Mary Gavin Traylor.
The 2014 World Horror Grand Master is coming to Richmond. On Sunday, July 27 from 2-5 P.M., the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia is pleased to announce it will be hosting a talk by authors Brian Keene and Mary SanGiovanni. The authors will discuss how Poe has influenced the modern horror genre. Don’t miss this opportunities to learn how Poe inspired two of today’s best horror writers. Admission is included with Poe Museum general admission.
About the authors:
Brian Keene writes novels, comic books, short fiction, and occasional journalism for money. He is the author of over forty books, mostly in the horror, crime, and dark fantasy genres. His 2003 novel, The Rising, is often credited (along with Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead comic and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later film) with inspiring pop culture’s current interest in zombies. Keene’s novels have been translated into German, Spanish, Polish, Italian, French, Taiwanese, and many more. In addition to his own original work, Keene has written for media properties such as Doctor Who, Hellboy, Masters of the Universe, and Superman.
Several of Keene’s novels have been developed for film, including Ghoul, The Ties That Bind, and Fast Zombies Suck. Several more are in-development or under option. Keene also serves as Executive Producer for the independent film studio Drunken Tentacle Productions.
Keene also oversees Maelstrom, his own small press publishing imprint specializing in collectible limited editions, via Thunderstorm Books.
Keene’s work has been praised in such diverse places as The New York Times, The History Channel, The Howard Stern Show, CNN.com, Publisher’s Weekly, Media Bistro, Fangoria Magazine, and Rue Morgue Magazine. He has won numerous awards and honors, including the 2014 World Horror Grand Master Award, two Bram Stoker Awards, and a recognition from Whiteman A.F.B. (home of the B-2 Stealth Bomber) for his outreach to U.S. troops serving both overseas and abroad. A prolific public speaker, Keene has delivered talks at conventions, college campuses, theaters, and inside Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, VA. The father of two sons, Keene lives in rural Pennsylvania.
Mary SanGiovanni is the author of the novels THE HOLLOWER (nominated for the Bram Stoker Award), FOUND YOU, THE TRIUMVIRATE, THRALL, and CHAOS, and the novellas FOR EMMY, POSSESSING AMY, and THE FADING PLACE, as well as numerous short stories. Her fiction has appeared in periodicals and anthologies for the last decade. She has a Masters degree in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University, Pittsburgh, where she studied under Gary Braunbeck, Tom Monteleone, Mike Arnzen, and others. She is currently a member of The Authors Guild, The International Thriller Writers, and Penn Writers, and was previously an Active member in the Horror Writers Association.
Like many businesses, the Poe Museum was closed on July 4th for Independence Day. As we observe the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, we might not realize that Poe would have celebrated the holiday, too.
At the time of Poe’s birth in 1809, only thirty-three years had passed since America had declared its independence from England. Such Founding Fathers as the author of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson and the nation’s second president John Adams were still alive. In fact, Poe would enter Jefferson’s University of Virginia while its founder was still residing at nearby Monticello. (Jefferson’s death occurred while Poe was at the University–on July 4.)
David Poe's Grave
The spirit of the American Revolution was ever present during Poe’s childhood. His grandfather, David Poe, Sr. had been honorary Quartermaster General of Baltimore during the Revolution and a friend of the Marquis de Lafayette. In Richmond, Poe would have attended Sunday services at Monumental Church with John Marshall, who had served in the Continental Army long before becoming Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Poe would have also seen the “Virginia Giant” Peter Francisco, who fought the British with distinction at the Battle of Brandywine, the Battle of Germantown, the Battle of Stony Point, and other battles before witnessing Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. Both Marshall and Francisco are buried at Richmond’s Shockoe Hill Cemetery along with Poe’s foster parents and a number of his friends. Another Revolutionary War hero living in Richmond during Poe’s time was the “Hero of Stony Point” Major James Gibbon.
When Poe was fifteen, he was honored to serve on the honor guard selected to escort the Marquis de Lafayette on the latter’s 1824 tour of Richmond. Poe must have known about the friendship between his grandfather (who had died in 1816) and the Frenchman. While in Baltimore during the same United States tour, Lafayette visited Poe’s grandfather’s grave. According to J. Thomas Scharf’s Chronicles of Baltimore (1874):
“The next day he [Lafayette] received visitors at the Exchange and dined with the corporation, &c., &c., and in the evening visited the Grand Lodge; after which he attended the splendid ball given in Holliday Street Theatre, which had been fitted up for the occasion. After the introduction of the surviving officers and soldiers of the Revolution who resided in and near Baltimore, to General Lafayette on Friday [October 8, 1824], he observed to one of the gentlemen near, ‘I have not seen among these my friendly and patriotic commissary, Mr. David Poe, who resided in Baltimore when I was here, and of his own very limited means supplied me with five hundred dollars to aid in clothing my troops, and whose wife, with her own hands, cut out five hundred pairs of pantaloons, and superintended the making of them for the use of my men.’ The General was informed that Mr. Poe was dead but that his widow [Elizabeth Cairnes Poe] was still living. He expressed an anxious wish to see her.
“The good old lady heard the intelligence with tears of joy, and the next day [October 9, 1824] visited the General, by whom she was received most affectionately; he spoke in grateful terms of the friendly assistance he had received from her and her husband: ‘Your husband,’ said he, pressing his hand on his breast, ‘was my friend, and the aid I received from you both was greatly beneficial to me and my troops.’ The effect of such an interview as this may be imagined but cannot be described. On the 11th General LaFayette left the city with an escort for Washington.”
Being surrounded by reminders of the American Revolution during his childhood might have influenced his decision to enlist in the United States Army when he was eighteen, but he hired a substitute to serve the remainder of enlistment after just two years.
Poe would have observed the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence during his lifetime. Celebrations of one kind or another had been taking place since 1776 when, on July 8, Philadelphians hearing a public reading of the Declaration of Independence started shooting into the air, lighting bonfires, and exploding fireworks (although the name Independence Day was not used until 1791). Before long, similar celebrations were being held throughout the young nation, and they increased in popularity after the War of 1812. By Poe’s time, Independence Day celebrations could include parades, cannon fire, bonfires, the ringing of bells, drinking, and fireworks, but the day did not become a national holiday until 1870. Unlike the Poe Museum’s employees, Poe worked on Independence Day. We know this because there are business letters written by him dated July 4.
The Poe Museum will reopen at 10 A.M. on July 5 and will be open its regular hours the rest of the weekend.
Many know Edgar Allan Poe, the esteemed poet and writer of horror and mystery fiction. Many are unaware; however, that Poe had an older brother, Henry, “The Pirate”. Nicknamed for his sailing expeditions, William Henry Leonard Poe (who went by Henry) was a sailor and a poet. Born January 30, 1807 in Boston, his parents were actors, David and Elizabeth Arnold Poe (Poe Forward’s Poe Blog). [Let it be noted that it is thought he was born between January 12 and February 22 based on Eliza and David Poe’s brief vacation from the stage during this time (Timoney).] After Henry’s birth, Eliza and David took a trip to Baltimore where they left Henry with his grandparents, Elizabeth Cairnes and General David Poe. Henry stayed with them during the rest of his parents’ brief careers and after their deaths, when he was four (Timoney). Henry did remain at his mother’s bedside as she was dying, however. He, according to Kenneth Silverman in Edgar A. Poe: A Biography, Mournful And Never-Ending Remembrance, recalled his mother saying a “long…last farewell”. Henry then received a lock of his mother’s hair (8).
Not a lot is known about Henry’s childhood, except for a few references from Henry’s Aunt Eliza, including a letter dated February 8, 1813 in which she states Henry “frequently speaks of his little brother [Edgar] and expressed a great desire to see him” (Timoney). This was written when Henry was only six years old. Because Edgar Poe’s foster family, the Allan family, was not interested in staying in contact with Henry and the Poe family, the brothers did not see a lot of each other, despite efforts made by the Poe family to maintain contact.
In 1816, General David Poe died and Henry, who was nine, was sent to live with his father’s friend, Henry Didier. Didier was a law student with David Poe Jr. before David took up acting (Timoney). According to Thomas Mabbott in Edgar Allan Poe: Complete Poems, Henry Didier was, in fact, Henry’s godfather (515).
Before the age of 20, in 1827, Henry became a sailor and travelled the world. He served aboard the Frigate USS Macedonian in South America, the Mediterranean, Europe, the West Indies, the near East and possibly Russia. He namely visited Montevideo, South America, which he wrote an account of in February of 1827 and published in the North American. He also published in the Saturday Evening Post and the Baltimore Minerva and Emerald on returning to Baltimore, where he moved in with his aunt, grandmother, and cousin—the Clemm family. In 1829, he took up a job with Didier (Timoney).
It is said Henry was writing poetry as early as 1826. During this time, he fell in love with a woman named Rosa Durham. Not much is known about their love affair, except that, based on few poems, their engagement did not end well (Mabbott 516). These poems include “I’ve lov’d thee” and “To R.” (Allen 47, 48).
Regardless of the unfortunate end to their relationship, Henry remained preoccupied with writing. It should be noted that, when publishing in local newspapers, he would include Edgar’s poems and reprint them under his name (World of Poe).
Henry did not stop thinking of his brother during the time between his childhood and his arrival back in the States, and he soon was able to see his brother on multiple occasions. In 1825, Edgar took Henry to visit Sarah Elmira Royster. Elmira recalled Henry “as having been in the Navy or Merchant Marine because he ‘was dressed in a uniform that seemed to be that of a midshipman’” (Timoney). It is believed Henry’s short story “The Pirate” was based on Edgar and Elmira’s tryst and broken engagement (World of Poe).
Henry and Edgar continued to see one another in 1827, 1829 and 1831 (Mabbott 516). After being released from the army in 1831, Edgar moved in with Henry and the Clemm family.
Edgar nursed Henry during the last days of Henry’s life, and it is believed Henry passed away, if not in the same room as Edgar, but perhaps in the same bed as Edgar (Timoney). Henry died August 1 in 1831 at the age of 24 (Poe Forward’s Poe Blog). His cause of death is thought to have been from tuberculosis, however, cholera and alcohol have been taken into account. Alcoholism certainly may have been a major factor because Henry was a hard drinker the last two years of his life (Poe Forward’s Poe Blog).
Henry is buried in the churchyard of Westminster Hall and Burying Ground of the First Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, in the same family plot as his grandfather, General David Poe (Poe Forward Poe’s Blog). Interestingly, in the announcement of his death in a Baltimore newspaper, his surname was incorrectly given as “Pope” (World of Poe).
Grave of David Poe Sr.
Except for a few accounts, not much is known of Henry except for a few accounts. According to Frederick S. Frank and Anthony Magistrale of The Poe Encyclopedia, “There are temperamental resemblances between the brothers. Henry was ‘a thin, dark eyed young man who…shared Edgar’s dreamy Romanticism, morbid melancholy, wild streak and weakness for liquor’ but lacked his brother’s ‘compelling genius’” (281). It was reported in The Poe Log by Dwight Thomas and David K. Jackson, that Frederick William Thomas, a novelist, journalist, lawyer and friend of Henry’s in 1828, stated upon meeting Henry,
I was intimate with Poe’s brother in Baltimore during the year 1828. He was a slim, feeble young man, with dark inexpressive eyes, and his forehead had nothing like the expansion of his brother’s. His manners were fastidious. We visited lady acquaintances together, and he wrote Byron poetry in albums, which had little originality. He recited in private and was proud of his oratorical powers. He often deplored the early death of his mother, but pretended not to know what had become of his father. I was told by a lawyer intimate with the family that his father had deserted his mother in New York. Both his parents had visited Baltimore when he was a child, and they sent money from Boston to pay for his support. (Pgs 87-88, 295)
Thomas, in another account, stated he and Henry had been “rather rivals in a love affair” (Mabbott 515). In yet another account, Richard Henry Stoddard, a critic and poet of the nineteenth century, said “he was handsome and talented, but of irregular habits because of which his fiancée (Durham) dismissed him” (Mabbott 516). Finally, a Mrs. Jane Miller of the Mackenzie family (Rosalie Poe’s adopted family) had these statements to make about Henry:
All that I know about him is that he came to Duncan Lodge to visit when he was a young man. My grandmother told me that until he came there, Aunt Rose scarcely knew she was an adopted child. She had grown right up with my mother and the other children. At the time Henry Poe visited Duncan Lodge my grandmother was getting Aunt Mary ready to go away to school–to New York. And Henry talked to Aunt Rose about it and told her they were doing more for Aunt Mary because she was their real daughter and that Aunt Rose must look out for her rights–she must see to it that they gave her as many advantages as they gave their own children–they had adopted her. Henry Poe’s visit embittered Aunt Rose.
Amongst these recollections of Henry is evidence he and Edgar shared traits which would hint at more of Henry’s character as well. According to Janel Timoney,
Henry and Edgar seem to have shared many similar personality traits. They are described as being of a ‘similar poetically-inclined and somewhat melancholy temperament.’ Their health is also similar. Henry, even earlier than Edgar, shows a predilection for poor health (Allen 24). Their father, who died a death ‘hastened by a taint of alcoholism hereditary in the family,’ seems to have passed the alcoholism along to his sons. Henry was described as the ‘wayward’ son and not long before his death, Edgar wrote of his brother to John Allan saying that Henry was ‘entirely given up to drink and unable to help himself’ (Thomas xxxviii). Edgar would later develop alcohol problems of his own.
Henry continued to affect Edgar after his death, and his death is said to have played a major role in contributing to Edgar’s melancholy nature and his writing. An alias Edgar Poe used was Henri Le Rennet, a French version of Henry’s name. It is said Henry most likely inspired August Barnard in, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. It is even theorized he was the main personage of Lenore in Poe’s poems (Poe Forward’s Poe Blog).
Although Henry did not have an extensive past to draw information from, nor did he live a long life, he still remains a curious subject for Poe scholars and fans alike. And who knows? Henry may have gone on to be a famous poet and writer just like his younger brother.
You can visit the following link to view a piece in our collection here at the Poe Museum: