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Poe Museum Collections Highlights

DonateIf a picture is worth a thousand words, an artifact is worth a million. The objects used by historical figures provide valuable insights into how they lived, worked, and thought. 

As the world center for Poe studies, the Poe Museum holds more of Edgar Allan Poe’s personal possessions than any other institution and comprises the world’s most comprehensive collection of Edgar Allan Poe artifacts and memorabilia. Museum guests can see such rarities as Poe’s boyhood bed, his clothing, and a lock of his hair. Researchers can access the museum’s renowned collection of first editions, manuscripts, and letters. In fact, the museum’s diverse collection includes just about anything Poe-related, from movie posters to action figures.

There are so many Poe artifacts to look at, visitors might not even realize how fully immersed in Poe history they really are. When you walk up a certain set of stairs, you're walking in Poe's footsteps; the staircase that blends so innocuously into one of our buildings was taken from his boyhood home. Or as you relax in the Enchanted Garden, you are effectively sitting in Poe's office. The paths of the garden are paved with bricks salvaged from the building where Poe began his journalistic career.

Collection Highlights

Poe’s Boyhood Bed

Poe's Boyhood BedEdgar Poe slept in this bed as a child in the home of his foster parents John and Frances Allan.

After Poe outgrew the bed, Allan gave it to his business partner Charles Ellis, whose daughter, Elizabeth Thorowgood Munford, used it. She, in turn, bequeathed the bed to her daughter, Etta White Munford, who left it to her grandnephew, A. Churchill Young, Jr., who donated the bed to the Raven Society of the University of Virginia. The Raven Society then gave the bed to the Poe Museum in 1979.

The Poe Museum owns a number of pieces of furniture from the Allan homes. These artifacts allow visitors a glimpse into the world of Poe’s childhood to learn about the factors in Poe’s early years that might have influenced his writing.

Poe’s Vest

Poe's VestThis fine embroidered silk vest was once owned by Edgar Allan Poe. It serves as a reminder of contemporary descriptions of the poet as an “elegant appearing gentleman.” After Poe’s early death, this piece was one of the articles of Poe’s clothing his mother-in- law, Maria Clemm, kept in a trunk of his possessions. Although the trunk is lost, we know that it also contained Poe’s socks as well as Mrs. Clemm’s stockings and cap. Before her death, Mrs. Clemm left the trunk with her niece Elizabeth Rebecca Herring, through whose family the trunk descended until it came into the possession of Mrs. Edmund Morton Smith. As a child, her granddaughter fondly recalled seeing Mrs. Smith open the trunk and show her family the vest, which she said belonged to “Cousin Eddy.” Usually, Mrs. Smith would return these items to the trunk after the showing but, on the last occasion, she left the vest, socks, stockings, and cap on a shelf in her hall closet. She passed away shortly afterwards and her possessions, including the trunk, were given to charity and forever lost. The few items of clothing that had been left on the shelf were saved by Mrs. Smith’s daughter and eventually donated to the Poe Museum by her daughter, Mrs. Antoinette Suiter, the great-granddaughter of Elizabeth Rebecca Herring.

Visitors to the Poe Museum might be surprised to learn that someone who earned as little as Poe did could afford such fine clothing. Although he earned a meager income as a writer, he had been reared in the home of a wealthy Richmond tobacco exporter and had been groomed to be a Virginia gentleman. The pride, manners, and bearing of a gentleman were traits that stayed with him throughout his life.

Poems of 1831

The first owner of this book, Ben B. Harden, was the father of one of Poe’s fellow West Point cadets and hated the volume so much he inscribed it with an obscenity-laced note voicing his dissatisfaction with Poe’s poetry. Although the book is dedicated to “The U.S. Corps of Cadets,” more than a few cadets--who had paid for the volume’s publication--were apparently angered by the book’s poor quality and by the fact that, instead of containing witty verses, it featured somber poems like “Irene,” “The Doomed City,” and “The Valley Nis.” One of the cadets, Allan B. Magruder, recounted the book was “a miserable production mechanically, bound in green boards and printed on inferior paper…” 

Poe's PoemsPublished in 1831 when he was twenty-two, Poems was Poe’s third book, and his second to be distributed. At the time of its writing, Poe was a virtually unknown cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point, where one classmate, David Emerson Hale, described him as “a fellow of talent” but “too mad a poet to like Mathematics.” A little “too mad” for the life of a cadet, Poe had already been expelled from West Point by the time Poems was printed.

One hundred thirty-one of the 232 cadets paid $1.25 per book. Fewer than one thousand were printed and only about twenty survive. This copy was one of several first editions of Poe’s works given to the Poe Museum in 1927 by the California psychiatrist Dr. John W. Robertson. In addition to collecting the first printings of most of Poe’s stories and poems, Robertson compiled a bibliography of the first printings of Poe’s works and wrote the book Poe: A Psychopathic Study, in which he theorized that Poe wrote while in an altered state.

Among the poems first printed in this collection is “To Helen,” which Thomas Ollive Mabbott considered “the finest of Poe’s lyrics.” Biographer Arthur Hobson Quinn wrote that Poems contains “poetry of a kind that had not yet been written in the English language.” The first printings of Poe’s poems are of interest to scholars because he revised most of his compositions several times over the course of his career. By reading the different versions of Poe’s works, scholars can learn more about his thought process by charting the changes he made to his compositions. Handwritten notes or inscriptions, like the one in this copy, teach us about the kinds of people who read Poe’s works in his time and how they responded to his writing.

Poe’s Autobiography

Poe's AutobiographyWhen he learned Rufus W. Griswold was compiling the anthology, The Poets and Poetry of America, Poe sent Griswold this autobiographical note for inclusion in the book, but the account is full of fabrications and exaggerations. Poe began the narrative by misstating his age by two years. Then he added that he graduated first in his class at the University of Virginia before traveling to Europe to fight the Greek Wars of Independence — only to be captured and sent to Saint Petersburg, Russia. The fanciful adventures Poe described helped earn him the nickname “The American Byron” (a reference to the English poet Lord Byron, who actually had fought alongside the Greeks). From an early age, Poe spread wild rumors about himself, which brought him fame apart from his actual written works. The public image he crafted made him the subject of other authors’ stories and novels even during his lifetime, and he was profiled in the press well before the publication of “The Raven” made him one of the world’s most famous poets.

This manuscript was given to the Poe Museum by Griswold’s grandson, Roger Griswold, in 1949. The sheet on which the memorandum is written measures only ten centimeters in height. It was originally part of a larger letter and the reverse of this page bears a postmark. While many of Poe’s letters are useful as primary sources that reveal accurate information about Poe’s daily life, this manuscript also teaches us how Poe wanted the public to see him.

Poe's Letter to Samuel Kettell

Poe LetterThis long-lost letter was unknown to Poe scholars before its discovery in 2005 in a private collection in Alabama. The owner was a pastor who had received the letter years earlier as a gift from a church member who had purchased it, along with some pages from Andrew Jackson’s journal, at a yard sale. The pastor had placed the valuable sheet in a folder and misplaced it during a move. She told the Poe Museum’s curator she had completely forgotten about the letter for twenty years until one day she carelessly picked up the folder and saw the letter fall onto the floor.

She soon contacted the Poe Museum, which put her in touch with an appraiser who could authenticate the letter. The appraiser’s primary concerns about the piece’s authenticity were that the letter lacked a postmark and that the size of the paper was smaller than that used for most other Poe letters. The note was not mailed but, according to the text of the letter, was left at the recipient’s office—meaning there was no postmark on the back of the letter. Because many forgers cannot produce these postmarks, the lack of one is sometimes a warning sign of a forgery. The small size of the paper was explained by the fact that the document was a hastily written note and that the paper seems to be a sheet torn from the end pages of a book. The content of the letter, however, is consistent with the facts known about Poe’s life at the time, and the handwriting does not resemble that of any of the major forgers who have profited by selling counterfeit Poe letters.

After the appraiser was convinced of the piece’s authenticity, the Poe Museum offered to purchase it from the owner. Without adequate funds to make such a large acquisition, the museum began a fundraising drive and was able to pay for the letter several months later with the help of several generous benefactors.

According to the text of the letter, Poe has sent his mother-in- law fifteen miles into New York City (from their home in Fordham) to retrieve the manuscript for an article he has changed his mind about publishing. Poe asks the recipient Samuel Kettell, editor of The Democratic Review, to accept another manuscript in its place. Maria Clemm, the bearer of the note, will pick up the old manuscript and leave the replacement with Kettell.

Why Poe decided not to sell the article is unknown, but he does identify its subject as Richard Adams Locke, an author Poe had suggested might be guilty of plagiarizing one of Poe’s stories. Poe would soon include a description of Locke in his article "The Literati of New York City," so it is possible Poe wanted to retrieve the manuscript to incorporate it into that piece.

Cornwell Daguerreotype of Poe

Cornwall Daguerreotype of PoePoe stares out at us from this haunting image taken only four days after a suicide attempt. He was in Providence, Rhode Island, in November 1848. After his wife, Virginia, died the previous year Poe sought companionship with the Providence poet Sarah Helen Whitman. When he first proposed marriage to her, she rejected him. In a state of utter despair, he consumed a large amount of laudanum, but he was so inexperienced with the use of opiates that he miscalculated the dosage and survived. Whitman finally agreed to marry Poe ten days after this photograph was taken, but she changed her mind after just one month.

Whitman had at least four copies of the daguerreotype made before the original plate disappeared in 1860. One of these copies was obtained by the New London, Connecticut, physician and Poe enthusiast, Dr. Henry Sylvester Cornwell. Since he had exchanged letters with Whitman, he may have acquired the plate directly from her. In 1880, Cornwell allowed the engraver Timothy Cole to copy this image as a wood engraving that would appear in the May 1880 issue of Scribner’s Magazine. After Cornwell’s death in 1886, he left the daguerreotype to the newspaper editor John Clark Turner, who gave the plate to his niece, Mrs. Christine Smith Rawson. She, in turn, sold the plate to a group of collectors who pooled their money in order to purchase the piece for the Poe Museum.

One of the best-known likenesses of Poe, this daguerreotype measures only three inches in height, so visitors to the Poe Museum must come very close to get a good look at the photograph. When viewed from the wrong angle, the plate looks blank because the reflective silver surface must be seen from the correct angle for the image to appear. This is a hallmark of the daguerreotype, an early kind of photograph invented by Louis Daguerre in 1839. Rather than printing the photographs on paper, like a modern photograph, the daguerreotype exposed a silver-plated piece of copper to light, and the image was burned directly onto the plate without the use of a negative. Poe was fascinated with the new invention of photography and sat for at least eight daguerreotypes between 1842 and his death in 1849.

Poe’s Walking Stick

Poe's Walking StickOn his last night in Richmond, two weeks before his death, Edgar Poe left this walking stick at the home of his friend and physician, Dr. John Carter. Poe departed Carter’s house that evening carrying Carter’s sword cane instead of his own. After Poe’s death, Carter was able to retrieve his own cane, which Poe had left in his room at the Swan Tavern, but Carter also kept Poe’s walking stick as a souvenir instead of returning it to Poe’s relatives.

When, in his later years, Carter grew ill and needed a caretaker, he moved into the home of William Henry Booker, where he left Poe’s cane after his death. Booker’s daughter, Mrs. Charles Harnish, inherited it from him. When the Poe Museum opened in 1922, Mrs. Harnish loaned the walking stick to the new museum to exhibit, and she eventually sold the museum the piece for $250. Poe’s walking stick is inscribed “Poe” on the silver tip, so be sure to look closely for this inscription when you visit the Poe Museum.

Poe’s Trunk

When Poe lay dying in a Baltimore hospital, his attending physician asked him where his trunk was. Since Poe was traveling when he died, it was assumed he had a trunk of clothes with him, but he could not remember what had happened to it. The piece was discovered only after Poe’s death and was obtained by Poe’s cousin Neilson Poe, who Edgar considered his worst enemy.

Poe's TrunkWith the trunk in his hands, Neilson found himself besieged with parties claiming rightful ownership of the trunk and its contents. From Richmond, Poe’s closest living relative--his sister Rosalie Mackenzie Poe--contacted Neilson through her representative, John R. Thompson, to request the trunk be sent to her because she had the legal right to it. From Fordham, New York, Poe’s mother-in- law, Maria Clemm, wrote asking Neilson to send her the trunk. From New York City, Poe’s literary executor, Rufus W. Griswold, wrote Neilson requesting the manuscripts and annotated editions from the trunk for his upcoming edition of Poe’s collected works. After some time, Neilson finally passed the manuscripts to Griswold and the trunk to Rosalie Poe, who, in her later years, left it with her foster niece, Martha Mackenzie Byrd Miller.

Poe's Trunk KeyWhen Poe collector James H. Whitty contacted Rosalie Poe’s relatives in search of Poe artifacts for his collection, he discovered the trunk, which Mrs. Miller insisted that Rosalie Poe had always told her belonged to Poe. For several years, Mrs. Miller refused to sell the trunk to anyone, but in 1922, her daughter, Mollie Mackenzie Byrd Miller, sold it to the Poe Museum for $35. By then, the trunk was empty.  Rosalie Poe may have sold the contents to support herself after her foster family lost its fortune in the aftermath of the Civil War. The key to the trunk, which is also in the Poe Museum, is said to have been found in Poe’s pocket after his death. 

Lock of Poe’s Hair

Lock of Poe's HairIf you look closely at this picture, you will see a few strands of hair attached to the back of an envelope, which is glued to a letter of authenticity with the entry from an auction catalogue attached to it. These strands were cut from Poe’s brow after his death. According to Poe’s attending physician, John Moran, no fewer than fifty of the leading citizens of Baltimore visited Poe’s body and clipped locks of his hair. The Poe Museum’s lock was clipped by Poe’s friend, the magazine editor Joseph Snodgrass. When Poe was found semiconscious in a Baltimore polling place just a few days before his death, he asked for Snodgrass, who sent him to Washington College Hospital. Snodgrass later considered himself an authority on Poe’s death and gave lectures on the subject.

Snodgrass gave this souvenir of his famous friend to G.W. Magers. It was purchased by the Poe collector James H. Whitty, who donated it to the Poe Museum in 1921. When the Poe Museum opened the following year, this was among the highlights of the collection.

Visitors to the Poe Museum are often surprised to discover that Poe’s hair is not black but brown. He appears to have black hair in his photographic portraits because they are black-and- white images, but contemporary descriptions and paintings made of him during his lifetime confirm that his hair was brown.

Poe’s Wife’s Trinket Box

Virginia Clemm Poe's Trinket BoxPoe’s wife, Virginia Clemm Poe, owned this little trinket box covered in red leatherette. Often on the verge of starvation, the Poe family lived in modest homes and had few expensive possessions. For this reason, Virginia would have cherished small items such as this, which she could have carried with her as she traveled up and down the East Coast as her husband looked for magazines to publish his stories and articles.

After Mrs. Poe’s early death in 1847, when she was only twenty-four, the box passed to her mother, Maria Clemm, who, shortly before her death, left it to her stepdaughter Josephine Clemm Poe. It was given to the Poe Museum in 1928 by Josephine Clemm Poe’s granddaughter, Josephine Poe January. The box is now displayed alongside a mirror said to have belonged to Virginia Poe.

Portrait of John Allan

Portrait of John AllanThis small oil portrait on tin of Edgar Poe’s foster father John Allan has been attributed to a few different artists, including the portraitist Thomas Sully, whose style of painting it resembles. Based on Sully’s ledger, which includes listings for portraits of some of Allan’s friends (but no mention of Allan) the portrait was probably painted in 1804, while the artist was living in Richmond.

From John Allan’s granddaughter, Louise Allan Pryor, the portrait was purchased by the Poe collector Orrin C. Painter, whose sister, Mrs. J. Hyland Kuhns, gave it to the Maryland Historical Society. Since John Allan never lived in Maryland, the Maryland Historical Society sold the portrait to the Poe Museum in Richmond, where Allan had spent most of his life. A companion portrait of Allan’s wife, Frances Valentine Allan, is now lost, but the Poe Museum owns a copy of it painted by Thomas Sully’s nephew, Robert Sully, who was also a friend of Poe’s. Both of these portraits hang together in an exhibit of Allan family furniture at the Poe Museum.

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The collection continues to grow with the help of generous gifts from collectors, Poe family members, and others interested in knowing their artifacts will be preserved and presented to audiences of all ages for generations to come.

 

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