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).
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: