Those who visited the Poe Museum last month to see the exhibit Poe’s Cabinet of Curiosities might have noticed, among the hair art and Poe portraits, a little pressed flower in a large leather-bound album. They may not realize it, but this humble book is one of the Museum’s most important pieces, not only because it contains hundreds of autographs and letters from Poe’s prominent contemporaries but also because it tells the story of one woman’s love of literature and her dedication to collecting mementos of her favorite writers. Her name is Lucy Dorothea Henry (1822-1898).
Lucy Dorothea Henry Laighton
There was always something different about Lucy. Growing up on a Virginia plantation, she was not interested in learning to sew or to manage the household servants. When her sisters were busy with their embroidery, Lucy hid behind the boxwood hedge to read. Literature was her escape from the monotony of country life in 1840s Virginia. As the granddaughter of the famed Revolutionary War orator and Virginia Governor Patrick Henry, Lucy lived on her grandfather’s plantation Red Hill, about twenty-seven miles from the nearest town. So isolated was the family’s home that they only received mail once a week, and her mother provided the delivery boy lunch that day to thank him for making the trip. Just as literature was her escape from the boredom of country life, that weekly delivery was Lucy’s connection to the outside world. As a young girl, she began writing her favorite authors to solicit autographs, advice, and poems.
Lucy’s daughter, Fayetta Laighton, would later recall,
Her early life on a Virginia plantation was spent in the usual way, carefree, surrounded by a cultivated social class, and many servants. But this did not satisfy the active mind of Lucy Henry. She projected herself into the outer world of literature, which she loved, by means of correspondence with John A. Thompson, N. P. Willis, Rufus Griswold, [John] Keese, [Charles Fenno] Hoffman, [Henry Wadsworth] Longfellow, and others. She was especially interested in obtaining autographs of the writers of the day.
Lucy Henry was only twenty-one when she received a note from the rising literary critic and poet Edgar A. Poe who, at thirty-four, had written some of what would be remembered as some of his greatest tales, including “The Black Cat,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” but he was probably better known to Miss Henry as the former editor of the Southern Literary Messenger and as a poet who had been featured in Rufus W. Griswold’s 1842 anthology The Poets and Poetry of America. This was about to change. A few months earlier, in February 1843, the Saturday Museum had printed a profile of Poe along with his portrait. The same month Poe wrote Henry, he published “The Gold-Bug,” which would soon be his most widely reprinted tale. In fewer than two years, he would become a celebrity with the publication of “The Raven.”
Henry pasted Poe’s note into her big leather album with sealing wax. This album would eventually include letters, poems, and autographs from over 250 mid-nineteenth century celebrities including Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, and Samuel Houston, but her main focus was accumulating the autographs of writers. Among the many authors whose letters, autographs, or manuscripts she was able to acquire are William Cullen Bryant, Lord Byron, Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore S. Fay, Horace Greeley, Rufus Griswold, Sarah J. Hale, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Anna Lynch, John P. Kennedy, John Keese, John Neal, Frances Osgood, Richard Henry Stoddard, William Makepeace Thackery, N.P. Willis, John G. Whittier, and William Wordsworth. Several of these pieces came directly from the authors.
Sonnet to Anna Lynch by J. R. Thompson
New York book and autograph dealer John Keese assisted her by requesting autographs from his fellow literati on her behalf. Many American authors were glad to oblige the granddaughter of the “orator of the Revolution,” but British poet William Wordsworth replied with a testy letter refusing to send the requested autograph. Wordsworth, however, signed the letter. Keese also supplied Henry with the papers of Virginia statesman John Randolph of Roanoke. These included letters from politician Henry Clay and author Washington Irving.
Detail of Washington Irving Letter
Henry and Keese got to know each other well enough that she visited him in New York and stayed at his home. During her New York trip, the country girl saw the famous singer Jenny Lind and the violinist Ole Bull (from whom she secured an autograph). Thereafter, Henry would keep a daguerreotype of Keese. His own fondness for her is evident in a gift he sent her, an autograph album containing a poem addressed to her by Knickerbocker poet and editor Charles Fenno Hoffman.
Another literary friend, Southern Literary Messenger editor and Poe’s friend John Ruben Thompson of Richmond also provided several pieces, including two Poe manuscripts and a pressed flower picked from the grave of poet John Keats in 1854.
Flower from the Grave of John Keats
Henry’s quest for autographs eventually brought her into contact with New Hampshire poet Octave Laighton, who had just returned from an unsuccessful attempt to strike it rich in the California Gold Rush. Not long afterwards, he struck up a correspondence with Lucy Henry, and they were married on July 18, 1857. At last, she had the opportunity to escape her family farm when she moved with her new husband to Fulton City, Illinois to start a temperance newspaper. Although Lucy thought she would have an opportunity to practice her literary talents by writing for the paper, she was disappointed to find that she was stuck cooking and cleaning for her husband. The paper failed within a few months of its inception, so the couple moved back Octave Laighton’s family home in New Hampshire in 1857. They finally settled, in 1859, at a small farm called Springdale near Petersburg, Virginia. Her daughter would later describe it as “a flat little house, with precious earth around it, to grow white pinks and honey suckle.”
Then the Civil War broke out, the Laightons’ farm was caught between the Confederate and Union lines. During these perilous times, Lucy gave birth to two daughters, Fayetta and Alberta. Given the increasing difficulty of maintaining her literary correspondences, Lucy devoted herself to her farm and family. She started a garden to raise vegetables to feed the soldiers.
In the final days of the conflict, Lucy fled to the safety of Red Hill with her most prized possessions—her daughters and her autograph collection—while her husband stayed in Petersburg. As a native of New England, Laighton believed he could convince any invading Union soldiers not to burn down his house. His efforts were at least partially successful; he saved the house but not the outbuildings.
Lucy returned to Springdale after the War and would have settled into a comfortable life if her husband had not died shortly afterwards. For the next thirty-two years, Lucy remained at Springdale with her daughters. Her daughters recalled that she was such a “striking” woman that daguerreotypists “jumped” at the chance to take her picture, free of charge.
After Lucy’s death, her daughter Alberta moved to Dutchess County, New York, and Fayetta eventually became the principal of the D.M. Brown School in Petersburg. Fayetta recalled that she burned about twenty of her mother’s albums to avoid paying to ship them during a move. The daughters did, however, preserve a few of Lucy’s things, including the present autograph album, the small album given her by John Keese, a daguerreotype of their mother, and their mother’s daguerreotype of Keese.
Word of Lucy’s album spread from Petersburg to Richmond, where Poe collector and Poe Museum co-founder James H. Whitty decided to acquire the Poe manuscripts for the Museum’s growing collection. On December 1, 1923, Whitty wrote Fayetta Laighton to ask about the documents. Over the next few years, the Museum sent a series of letters expressing its desire to borrow or purchase the Poe pieces “for the enjoyment of the public.”
James H. Whitty
Another Poe Museum founder, Mrs. Archer Jones, befriended Ms. Laighton, visiting her in Petersburg to discuss flowers, gardens, and Lucy Henry. Laighton’s interest in Poe and the Poe Museum grew until she was leading book clubs devoted to the poet and sending flowers from her garden to be planted at the Poe Museum.
Mrs. Archer Jones
The Laighton sisters debated over what to do with their mother’s Poe manuscripts until May 29, 1926 when Fayetta wrote the Poe Museum, “My sister and I have talked about the final disposition of these papers, and they will find their way to [the] ‘Poe Shrine’ some time I think.”
The Poe Museum’s secretary Mrs. Ford responded with a letter thanking her and assuring her they “were much interested in the Poe items” and expressing the wish that the items could be donated because the tiny museum “would never be able to compete with the dealers for such rare things.”
When, another year later, the Laighton sisters finally agreed to donate the manuscripts, Mrs. Ford wrote them, “I can assure you that these manuscripts will nowhere be more appreciated than here at the Edgar Allan Poe Shrine…”
Fayetta replied, “I am glad they will repose in such an appropriate place as ‘The Shrine.’”
Four years after the Poe Museum first contacted them, Fayetta and Alberta Laighton formally donated their mother’s album to the Museum. Mrs. Jones personally drove to Petersburg to retrieve them just in time to be displayed on Poe’s birthday, January 19, 1928.
The three Poe documents contained in the album were carefully removed from the book and became among the most important pieces in the Poe Museum’s collection. One of these, the manuscript for “The Rationale of Verse,” is Poe’s history of English poetry. Another is the manuscript for an article Poe wrote about the poet Frances S. Osgood, and the third document is the autograph Poe sent Lucy Henry.
Detail of Essay about Frances Osgood
While these three Poe documents have long attracted most of the attention—as well as inclusion in multiple exhibits—the rest of Lucy Henry’s album certainly deserves further study. In a surprising act of generosity, the Laighton sisters gave the Poe Museum not only the Poe manuscripts but the entire album, as a memorial to their mother. This collection of literary letters and autographs is both a document of one woman’s love of literature and a priceless snapshot of the American literary scene in Poe’s time. For a fledgling museum beginning its sixth year of existence, this was a transformative gift—the kind that instantly provided it a world-class manuscript collection which would continue to grow over the course of the next nine decades. That is why Lucy Dorothea Henry’s album is the Poe Museum’s Object of the Month for August 2015. You can see it on display on the first floor of the Exhibit Building until August 23. Poe’s manuscripts for “The Rationale of Verse” and “Frances Sargent Osgood” (both long-since removed from the album) are also currently on view in the Elizabeth Arnold Poe Memorial Building.
Every once in a while, a discovery sheds new light on history bringing past events more clearly into view. While historians have preserved descriptions of Edgar Allan Poe’s wedding to his thirteen year old cousin Virginia, no artifacts of the event seem to have survived–until now. Tucked away in private collections for nearly 180 years, two fragments of Virginia Poe’s wedding dress have come to light and will be on display at the Poe Museum in Richmond this summer.
Long a source of public fascination, Poe’s “child-bride” Virginia Poe has been the subject of at least two novels, and she has been a character in such films as The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe (1942) and Edgar Allan Poe (1915). In spite of countless Poe biographies, articles, and studies, few verifiable facts about the ceremony and even fewer artifacts have come to light. There is even dispute about which house hosted the ceremony.
Rev. Amasa Converse, who performed Poe’s wedding ceremony
Based on eye-witness accounts, the small private ceremony took place in the parlor of a house in downtown Richmond, either at 8th and Main or at 11th and Bank Streets. The minister performing the ceremony, Amasa Converse, recalled Virginia was “polished, dignified and agreeable in her bearing… [possessing] a pleasing manner but…very young.” One of the wedding guests, Virginia’s young playmate Jane Foster, later recalled Virginia was “attired in a new traveling dress, and ‘yore her hat.” This is likely the dress from which the present fragments were taken. Thanks to the research of a renowned Poe scholar, we now a little more about this important dress and are able to envision how it looked. While modern viewers are accustomed to seeing white wedding gowns, many will be surprised to see how brightly colored Virginia’s wedding dress actually was.
The pieces of fabric are on loan from Poe scholar Dr. Richard Kopley of Penn State University, who purchased them in 1992 from a descendant of Poe’s sister’s foster brother John Hamilton Mackenzie. According to the provenance, Mackenzie’s mother-in-law paid for Virginia Poe’s wedding dress, from which these fragments were taken to be sewn into a quilt. The pieces were later removed and placed in an envelope kept with other Mackenzie and Lanier family papers. During the course of his research into Poe’s early years, Kopley acquired this collection.
John Hamilton Mackenzie
Thanks to a generous loan from Dr. Kopley, the Poe Museum is pleased to announce it will display the two pieces of fabric cut from Poe’s wife’s wedding dress this summer until September 30. These unusual artifacts are the only known surviving pieces of Poe’s wife’s clothing and will be displayed alongside her mirror and trinket box from the Poe Museum’s permanent collection.
Since 1922, the Poe Museum has collected thousands of pieces of Poeana, but, with so many items, some have rarely or never been displayed. Now is your chance to see some of these hidden treasures. From June 25 until August 23, 2015, the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia will host Poe’s Cabinet of Curiosities, an exhibit focusing on the unusual, unseen, and uncanny items in the Poe Museum’s massive collection of Poe artifacts and memorabilia. While most of the Poe Museum temporary exhibits focus on certain Poe stories or aspects of the author’s life, this show focuses on the act of collecting and some of the strange acquisitions the Poe Museum has made over the course of its ninety-three year history. These include Victorian hair art, plaster heads taken from the crown molding in Poe’s sister’s house, bricks from various homes in which Poe lived, a replica skull with the verses of “The Raven” carved into it, and a pressed flower taken from the grave of poet John Keats (1795-1821) back in 1854.
Victorian Hair Art
The term “cabinet of curiosities” refers to the encyclopedic collections that were the ancestors of modern museums. The Poe Museum’s exhibit will emulate one of these densely packed rooms or cabinets displaying a wide variety of artifacts and art.
Skull Carving by Zane Wylie
Poe’s Cabinet of Curiosities will open on Thursday, June 25 with an Unhappy Hour featuring live music by Fool’s Errand.
The world of Poe scholarship has produced countless books, papers, and scholarly articles; but rarely has it produced a work of art. While the written works of Poe scholars like Burton Pollin (1916-2009) and Thomas Ollive Mabbott (1898-1968) have contributed greatly to our understanding of Poe’s life and work, the sculpture of Richmond schoolteacher Edith Ragland (1890-1989) has provided posterity an invaluable resource for understanding Poe’s life in Richmond. As meticulously researched as some academic papers, Ragland’s model reconstructs the city Poe knew in a way words alone cannot. That is why the model is the Poe Museum’s Object of the Month for March 2015.
According to an undated manuscript written by Poe Foundation co-founder Annie Boyd Jones (d. 1947), the sculptor Edward Valentine (1838-1930) proposed the project. Valentine studied sculpture with August Kiss in Germany before enjoying a celebrated career in Richmond. In addition to sculpting the statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis for Richmond’s Monument Avenue and the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee for the National Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol, Valentine produced “The Recumbent Lee” for Washington and Lee University. Valentine was also a historian with a special interest in Edgar Allan Poe. In 1875, he became one of the privileged few to be able to interview Poe’s last fiancée Elmira Royster Shelton. In 1898, he and his brother, Mann S. Valentine II, founded the Valentine Museum, which owned a number of Edgar Allan Poe letters in addition to a portrait of Poe’s foster mother Frances Allan. After retiring from sculpting in 1910, he devoted much of his remaining years to the study of Richmond history and the presidency of the Valentine Museum. By 1922, the eighty-four-year-old Valentine took an interest in the newly opened Edgar Allan Poe Museum, speaking at its opening ceremony as well as donating a portrait of Poe’s foster mother to the Museum’s collection.
Mr. and Mrs. Archer Jones
One evening in 1924 or 1925, Mrs. Jones spent several hours talking about old Richmond in Mr. Valentine’s parlor. He told her he had spent the last sixty years researching a book about Richmond history but had accumulated so much information he could not edit it sufficiently to publish it. As she was leaving, he pointed out a photograph of a photograph of a model of old Paris and exclaimed, “Wait a minute girl; here’s what you do. Make a model of Richmond in Poe’s Time and place it in the [Poe Museum’s] Old Stone House!”
Edward Virginius Valentine in his studio
Mrs. Jones offered to manage the project if he would sculpt it, but he replied, “Oh go away girl, you know I can’t work anymore, but you are an enthusiast—you will get it done…Now go ‘long and make it.”
As soon as she returned home, she told her husband, Archer G. Jones, who enthusiastically supported the idea. She later recounted, “I could see his inventive mood creeping into his eyes.”
The first obstacle to constructing the model was finding an artist to do the work. The solution came one day when Gutzon Borglum (1867-1941) visited the Poe Museum. Borglum was an accomplished sculptor who would later rise to fame for his carving of the presidential monument at Mount Rushmore. The party accompanying Borglum to the Poe Museum included Julia Sully (1870-1948, granddaughter of Poe’s friend, the painter Robert Matthew Sully, 1803-1855) and the young teacher Edith Ragland. During the course of the afternoon, Mrs. Jones mentioned her idea for the model of Richmond to Sully, who recommended Ragland for the project. Jones asked Ragland to build the model, but Ragland replied, “I would not know the first or the remotest way to go about.”
“Nonsense,” Sully answered, “You model beautifully. None of us knows how to go about it, so will all learn together.”
In this spirit of collaboration, Edward Valentine and City Hall supplied Ragland Photostats of maps at no charge, and the Poe Museum paid the Virginia State Library for Photostats of more maps. Valentine provided his notes on Richmond history, city directories, and Virginia Mutual Insurance records. Ragland also consulted Samuel Mordecai’s (1786-1865) 1856 book Richmond in By-Gone Days, an account of life in the city during the first half of the nineteenth century.
Ragland Sculpting the Model
Archer Jones insisted that a model of Richmond needed to accurately reflect the city’s hills, so he suggested carving the topography out of wood. According to the Poe Foundation board minutes for March 18, 1925, “Miss Ragland found that she needed some knowledge of engineering in order to make the correct elevations in her model so she set to work to study that subject.” She built the model on three connected stretcher tables covered with blocks of wood nine inches thick. With the assistance of surveyors, she chiseled those blocks into the hills and valleys of 1840s Richmond.
She also wrote to artists to determine which materials to use. Because she had been advised the technique would waterproof the model, Ragland covered the piece with asphaltum, a substance similar to tar. To this, she added a thin layer of plaster. When the plaster dried, she applied a layer of lead white gesso. She modeled the houses and churches from clay and let them air dry rather than firing them. She fashioned trees from pieces of sponge and wire. She then colored them with oil paint.
Ragland built the model in the Poe Museum’s Old Stone House. Upon completion, the model measured approximately eighteen feet wide and six feet deep and represented the city from about Fifth Street to Twenty-Eighth Street and from the James River to Marshall Street. This includes depictions of such sites as Poe’s boyhood home Moldavia, Poe’s mother’s grave at St. John’s Church, and the Virginia State Capitol. The most impressive aspect of the model’s creation is that it was constructed in a room measuring only nine feet wide, leaving the artist about one and a half feet of clearance on each side. Ragland, herself, was self-deprecating when speaking of her accomplishment. In a 1976 interview with Denise Bethel, Ragland humbly recalled that the work was fairly easy because the insurance records and maps told her exactly what structures to place on each block. She boasted that some old-timers told her she had even reproduced the correct trees in the right places.
In 1926, tragedy struck when Annie Jones’s husband committed suicide for financial reasons. Mrs. Jones decided that, once complete, the model would be presented to the Museum in his memory.
When Ragland completed her model in 1927, the Poe Foundation’s president, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and journalist Douglas S. Freemen reported to the Foundation’s board, “This is undoubtedly a work of charm, art and beauty. It is the creation and expression of experts—in invention, engineering, research and execution—but as a map of Richmond complete accuracy is most desirable.” He stressed that the gift would not be accepted by the Poe Foundation “until its accuracy at every point is beyond question.”
The minutes of the January 1928 meeting of the Poe Foundation’s board state that the model’s “accuracy is now vouched for by City engineers and surveyors, by Mr. E. V. Valentine, Dr. Stanard [editor of The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography] and other authorities, and that it ties up with Mordecai—except where he himself is inaccurate.” Dr. Freeman moved that the board formally accept the model into the Poe Museum’s collection, and the motion passed. So accurate was the model that Richmond historian Mary Wingfield Scott was able to create a key that identified most of the houses and buildings. In all, the model contains twenty-two identifiable taverns and hotels, fifteen churches, at least twelve public buildings, and the homes of several “distinguished citizens.”
The Model in 1937
The model was on continuous display in the room of it construction for forty years. In 1963, the Poe Museum renovated a neighboring building for the display of the model. In order to move the model, city workmen cut it into three pieces. Then six off-duty Richmond policemen, five off-duty firemen, and four other city employees volunteered to move the pieces to their new exhibit space. Several buildings and trees detached from the model in the six-hour process.
Ragland returned to the work on her model, reconnecting the three segments and reattaching the fallen houses. The Poe Foundation agreed to pay her $600 for her work in addition to cab fare from her home to the Museum three days a week for three months. Mrs. R. S. Reynolds donated a custom-built glass case for the model. The work was complete (for a second time) by December 6, 1964 when she appeared in a Richmond Times-Dispatch photograph (below) with her freshly restored masterpiece nearly four decades after she began work on it. To protect the work from further damage, Mrs. R. S. Reynolds donated a large glass case to protect it.
Ragland with Repaired Model in 1964
The model’s story continued well after Ragland completed her work. In 1981, an anonymous donor concerned by the object’s apparent state of deterioration offered to pay for its restoration. President of the Richmond Jaycees and graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts, Sergei Troubetzkoy conducted the repairs and repainting. Because the model remained on display during this process, he was only able to work on it while the Museum was closed and when he was not working at his day job. As a friend of Edith Ragland’s, Troubetzkoy knew of some details she had intended to include if time had allowed, so he added fences and other buildings he could document. Although he planned to do so, he was unable to add the fence around Capitol Square.
In 1999, the model was almost lost when a fire started in the room housing it. In fact, much of the room was destroyed. The tables underneath the piece were severely damaged, and firemen shattered its glass case. Smoke and water caused additional harm. In the wake of the fire, the Museum called conservators to assess the damage. The wood and paint had cracked. Several houses had again become detached. Additionally, a thick layer of dust and spiders had built up on the model in the years before the fire.
In consultation with 1717 Design Group, the Museum decided to reinstall the model in a new case facing the opposite direction. In order to rotate the model, a volunteer cut it into two pieces using the 1964 cuts as a guide.
With the guidance of historic object conservation specialist Russell Bernabo, artist Chris Semtner and art historian Michelle Dell’Aria cleaned and repaired the model over the course of six months. They first divided the surface into a grid of twelve-inch squares. Each square was carefully dusted into a tiny vacuum attachment. Pieces of rubber sponge were then used to remove grime that was not loosened by the dusting. Only when needed and when it could be performed without damaging the paint layer, wet cleaning was performed using a mixture of alcohol and water. In the course of their work, the conservators found that the original paint was often too unstable to clean but that a previous restorer’s applications of acrylic paint could be cleaned without damaging the surface. Additionally, they observed that the base layer of asphaltum had bled through the plaster and paint to discolor the topcoat. They glued houses back in place and reattached flaking paint and plaster using a solution of B-72 and xylene. In painting was conducted only sparingly. When this work was complete, they reattached the two halves of the model and filled and in-painted the seam.
Carpenters carefully removed the model from its damaged original tables and attached it to a new custom-made table and built a new case around it. In order to make the piece easier for guests to view, the Museum enlisted a team of volunteers from Open High to tilt the model to a twenty degree angle while the carpenters secured it in place. The model was then displayed with one side against the wall. Because the long ends of the model were not perpendicular, the Museum added extensions to allow the long end to sit flush against the back wall.
Museum guests were able to watch the entire conservation process through a large window in the gallery and to ask the conservators questions. Seeing a large dead spider perched atop one of the houses, a guest commented, “If the spiders were that big in Poe’s time, no wonder he wrote the kind of stories he did.”
After this major conservation project, the model received occasional cleanings using soft brushes and vacuums. The most notable of these was conducted in 2008 with the help of volunteers from Hampton Hotels’ Save-a-Landmark program.
Over ninety years after Edith Ragland began her masterpiece, this model of Poe’s Richmond remains a highlight of the Poe Museum’s collection—a resource to visiting historians as well as a favorite with the Museum’s youngest visitors. Like few other historical documents, Ragland’s model helps the viewer visualize the city, its topography, and its structures as Poe would have known them.
The Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia recently acquired a rare 1846 British pamphlet Mesmerism in Articulo Mortis, in which Edgar Allan Poe’s fictional story of mesmerizing the dead, “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,”(1845) is reprinted as a true account for a London audience. The Poe Museum’s new acquisition is a gift from Poe collector and Poe Museum trustee Susan Jaffe Tane. This important piece has appeared in exhibits at the Poe Museum in 1997 and the Grolier Club in New York in 2014. The book retains its original paper cover and is in fine condition. It is now on display in the Poe Museum’s Elizabeth Arnold Poe Memorial Building.
About the “Valdemar” Hoax
In Edgar Allan Poe’s time (1809-1849), many of his readers fell victim to his notorious hoax, now titled “The Balloon Hoax,” about a balloon trip across the ocean, but, more amazingly, the public was also willing to believe “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” which purports to recount a scientific experiment in which a dead man is mesmerized in order to facilitate communication with him after his death. The story concludes with the dead man awakening from his trance and immediately dissolving into “a nearly liquid mass of loathsome—of detestable putridity.”
Although “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” seems outlandish by today’s standards, it was soon reprinted in London’s Popular Record of Modern Science, which stated that “credence is understood to be given it at New York…The angry excitement and various rumors which have at length rendered a public statement necessary, are sufficient to show that something extraordinary must have taken place.” The Poe Museum’s new acquisition, Mesmerism in Articulo Mortis, was printed in London in January 1846—just weeks after the story’s first printing in the United States in the December 1845 issue of the American Review in New York. It is the first separate printing Poe’s important story. In this edition, the story is prefaced with a statement that the account is “a plain recital of facts” and that “credence is given to it in America, where the occurrence took place.”
Shortly after the story appeared, the Boston mesmerist Robert H. Collyer wrote Poe, “Your account of M. Valdemar’s Case has been universally copied in this city, and has created a very great sensation…I have not the least doubt of the possibility of such a phenomenon.” Collyer asks Poe to verify that the story is true “in order to put at rest the growing impression that your account is merely a splendid creation of your own brain, not having any truth in fact.”
Unconvinced of “Valdemar’s” veracity, the editor of the New York Herald wrote, “whoever thought it a veracious recital must have the bump of Faith large, very large indeed.” Poe responded in the Broadway Journal, “For our parts we find it difficult to understand how any dispassionate transcendentalist can doubt the facts as we state them; they are by no means so incredible as the marvels which are hourly narrated, and believed, on the topic of Mesmerism. Why cannot a man’s death be postponed indefinitely by Mesmerism? Why cannot a man talk after he is dead? Why? — Why? — that is the question; and as soon as the Tribune has answered it to our satisfaction we will talk to it farther.”
Despite his adamant defense of the story’s veracity, when he was asked by a London pharmacist if “Valdemar” were true, Poe responded, “‘Hoax’ is precisely the word suited to M. Valdemar’s case . . . Some few persons believe it — but I do not — and don’t you.”
The Poe Museum’s new acquisition, a first printing of Mesmerism in Articulo Mortis, is a vivid reminder of how revolutionary Poe’s fiction was in its time. This semblance of realism based on the scientific knowledge of his day became a hallmark of the fledgling literary genre that would eventually become known as Science Fiction.
One hundred seventy years ago, the most famous poem in American literature made its first appearance in print. Edgar Allan Poe had initially shown his poem “The Raven” to the staff of Graham’s Magazine, which rejected it. Afterward, George Colton agreed to publish the poem in his magazine, The American Review, a Whig Party publication. Colton probably paid Poe about fifteen dollars, which was standard based on space rates for the magazine. That would be about $468.75 in today’s money. Different sources relate that Poe might have been paid $9, $10, or even $30 for the piece.
“The Raven” appeared in the February issue, which came out in the middle of January. The editor prefaced the poem with this comment:
Although the poem first appeared under the pseudonym “____ Quarles” instead of under Poe’s own name, the identity of the author was soon revealed when the Evening Mirror reprinted “The Raven” in the January 29 issue. The editor, N.P. Willis, provided the following introduction:
We are permitted to copy (in advance of publication) from the 2d No. of the American Review, the following remarkable poem by EDGAR POE. In our opinion, it is the most effective single example of “fugitive poetry” ever published in this country; and unsurpassed in English poetry for subtle conception, masterly ingenuity of versification, and consistent, sustaining of imaginative lift and “pokerishness.” It is one of these “dainties bred in a book” which we feed on. It will stick to the memory of everybody who reads it.
The New York Express claimed the poem “far surpasses anything that has been done even by the best poets of the age…In power and originality of versification the whole is no less remarkable than it is, psychologically, a wonder.”
The poem soon caused a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. Elizabeth Barrett (now know as Elizabeth Barrett Browning) wrote Poe, “Your ‘Raven’ has produced a sensation, a ‘fit horror,’ here in England. Some of my friends are taken by the fear of it and some by the music. I hear of persons haunted by the ‘Nevermore,’ and one acquaintance of mine who has the misfortune of possessing a ‘bust of Pallas’ never can bear to look at it in the twilight.” Poe would proudly show this letter to guests to his home.
When Poe issued the book The Raven and Other Poems in 1845, he dedicated it to Elizabeth Barrett. Having just read Poe’s terror tale “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” she wrote her future husband Robert Browning, “I send you besides a most frightful extract from an American magazine sent to me yesterday…no, the day before…on the subject of mesmerism—& you are to understand, if you please, that the Mr. Edgar Poe who stands committed in it, is my dedicator…whose dedication I forgot, by the way, with the rest—so, while I am sending, you shall have his poems with his mesmeric experience & decide whether the outrageous compliment to me EBB or the experiment on M. Vandeleur [sic] goes furthest to prove him mad.”
Around the same time, the young British artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti read “The Raven” and drew some illustrations for it. He also wrote a poem, “The Blessed Damosel,” inspired by it. This became Rossetti’s first popular poem, and he went on to become a prominent poet and painter.
A month after its first printing, “The Raven” was parodied when the Mirror printed “The Owl: A Capital Parody on Mr. Poe’s ‘The Raven’” by “Sarles.” This was followed by “The Veto” by “Snarles” in the February 22 New York World, “The Craven” by “Poh!” in the March 25 Evening Mirror, “A Vision” by “Snarles” in the April 15 New World, “The Gazelle” by C.C. Cooke in the May 3 Weekly Mirror, “The Whippoorwill” by “I” in the June 7 Weekly Mirror and “The Turkey” in the June 25 Alexander’s Weekly Messenger.
The popularity of “The Raven” allowed Poe to perform his poetry to large audiences in the nation’s major cities. He became so associated with the poem that his nickname became “The Raven.” In spite of its success, the poem made Poe very little money. Without effective copyright laws, his works were reprinted multiple times without Poe being paid.
After seventeen decades, “The Raven” remains a favorite with readers, it is read countless times at Halloween, and even has an NFL team named after it. In honor of the anniversary of the first printing of Poe’s greatest poem, we will end this post with a reading by that master interpreter of Poe’s works, Vincent Price.
Most of what we know about Poe is wrong. It has long been well known that his literary executor Rufus W. Griswold fabricated stories about him in a successful effort to damage Poe’s reputation. When considering Poe’s literary enemies, one must not forget Thomas Dunn English, a rival editor Poe referred to in a January 4, 1848 letter to George Evelyth as “the Autocrat of all the Asses.” Poe and English even came to blows in 1846. According to Poe (in a June 27, 1846 letter to Henry B. Hirst), “I gave E. a flogging which he will remember to the day of his death — and, luckily, in the presence of witnesses. He thinks to avenge himself by lies — by [sic] I shall be a match for him by means of simple truth.”
English’s own account of that “flogging” (written fifty years after the fact), tells a different story:
One word led to another, and he rushed toward me in a menacing manner. I threw out my fist to stop him, and the impetus of his rush, rather than any force of mine, made the extension of my arm a blow. He grasped me while falling backward over a lounge, and I on top of him. My blood was up by this time, and I dealt him some smart raps on the face. As I happened to have a heavy seal ring on my little finger, I unintentionally cut him very severely, and broke the stone in the ring, an intaglio cut by Lovatt, which I valued highly. Tyler tried to call me off, but this did not succeed; and finally the racket of the scuffle, which only lasted a few moments, brought Professor Ackerman from the front room, and he separated us. He then led Poe away. The latter, in going up the street, met a friend of mine, who asked him how he had cut his face so terribly. His reply was that an Irishman carrying a beam on his shoulder had accidentally struck him.
During Poe’s lifetime, Thomas Dunn English ridiculed the author in the novels Walter Woolfe, or the Doom of the Drinker and 1844, or the Power of S.F., in which the character Marmaduke Hammerhead, the drunken author of “The Black Crow,” was based on Poe. English also attacked Poe in the press, and Poe even sued a magazine for libel (and won) after it printed some of English’s unfounded accusations. Even the lawsuit did not stop English from publicly ridiculing Poe, and the Poe Museum’s Object of the Month for December is English’s short-lived magazine The John-Donkey, which regularly printed jokes at Poe’s expense.
The first issue, dated January 1, 1848 contains the following notice alluding to Poe’s drinking.
A week later, in the January 8 issue, English responded to a Pennsylvania magazine that had written a positive notice of Poe.
The January 29 issue contained “Sophia Maria,” a parody of Poe’s new poem “Ulalume.”
The February 5 issue of the Saturday Evening Post calls “Sophia Maria” “a capital parody on a poem recently published in the [American Review], and supposed to have been written by E. A. Poe — at least it is decidedly Poe-ish.”
In the February 5 issue of the John-Donkey, English jokes about the announcement that Poe will be delivering a lecture about the universe.
Contrary to English’s opinion, Poe’s lecture on the universe received favorable reviews. The Morning Express for February 4 reported, “The conclusion of this brilliant effort was greeted with warm applause by the audience, who had listened with enchained attention throughout.”
In the April 15 issue, English announces that Poe is planning a new version of The Literati of New York City, a popular series of opinions on New York authors. In The Literati Poe praises some of the writers, including Frances Osgood, while ridiculing others, including English. In the July 1846 installment, Poe points out English’s deficiencies as the editor of The Aristidean:
No spectacle can be more pitiable than that of a man without the commonest school education busying himself in attempts to instruct mankind on topics of polite literature. The absurdity in such cases does not lie merely in the ignorance displayed by the would-be instructor, but in the transparency of the shifts by which he endeavours to keep this ignorance concealed…he was not, I say, laughed at so much for his excusable deficiencies in English grammar (although an editor should certainly be able to write his own name) as that, in the hope of disguising such deficiency, he was perpetually lamenting the “typographical blunders” that “in the most unaccountable manner” would creep into his work. Nobody was so stupid as to suppose for a moment that there existed in New York a single proof-reader — or even a single printer’s devil — who would have permitted such errors to escape. By the excuses offered, therefore, the errors were only the more obviously nailed to the counter as Mr. English’s own.
In the same article, Poe pokes fun at English’s poetry, writing, “The inexcusable sin of Mr. E. is imitation — if this be not too mild a term. Barry Cornwall and others of the bizarre school are his especial favorites. He has taken, too, most unwarrantable liberties, in the way of downright plagiarism, from a Philadelphian poet whose high merits have not been properly appreciated — Mr. Henry B. Hirst.”
This is English’s April 1848 response to learning that Poe is planning a new series of similar articles:
English was sure he would be featured if the article were to be printed. Fortunately for him, the new series, Literary America, did not appear until after Poe’s death. The entry about English was given the name “Thomas Dunn Brown” although much of the entry was taken from earlier entry for English printed in The Literati. Among the additions to the Literary America entry was the following passage:
Mr Brown had, for the motto on his magazine cover, the words of Richelieu,
–Men call me cruel;
I am not: –I am just.
Here the two monosyllables “an ass” should have been appended. They were no doubt omitted through “one of those d——d typographical blunders” which, through life, have been at once the bane and the antidote of Mr Brown.
Poe’s most enduring response to English’s attacks was the short story “The Cask of Amontillado,” which ridicules English while making reference to English’s novel 1844, or The Power of S.F.
Although Poe was a favorite target, The John-Donkey also took aim at other literary and political figures of the day. Here is a notice about Poe’s rival Rufus Griswold.
Here is a review of some female poets.
This is one of the political cartoons to appear in the magazine.
The John-Donkey ceased publication after about a year. Thomas Dunn English lived until 1902. In his later years, his interests turned to politics. He served on the New Jersey General Assembly in 1863 and 1864 and was elected to Congress from 1891 until 1895. He chaired the Committee on Alcoholic Liquor Traffic during the Fifty-Third Congress.
English harbored a dislike of Poe for years after the author’s 1849 death, and English supplied the critic E.C. Stedman with negatively biased information about Poe. (Here is a letter from English to Stedman in the Poe Museum’s collection.) English also responded to Poe’s biographers who he thought either were either overlooking Poe’s faults or libeling Poe’s biographer Rufus Griswold. In 1896, English wrote for the Independent the series Reminiscences of Poe, a supposedly frank account of his relationship with the poet. According to English, he finally wrote the series, nearly fifty years after Poe’s death, to defend himself against the attacks on his and Griswold’s character made by Poe’s biographers. The series opens with English’s own attacks on Poe’s biographers William Gill, John Henry Ingram, and George Woodberry. English continues by portraying Poe as a drunk, a liar, and a cheat. He also hints at an affair between Poe and the poet Frances Osgood.
On one point, however, English actually defends Poe’s reputation against the rumors surrounding him. In response to accusations about Poe’s use of drugs, English writes, “Had Poe the opium habit when I knew him (before 1846) I should both as a physician and a man of observation, have discovered it during his frequent visits to my rooms, my visits at his house, and our meetings elsewhere — I saw no signs of it and believe the charge to be a baseless slander.”
Thomas Dunn English
As an editor and author, Thomas Dunn English helped shape the public’s perception of Poe as a drunken scoundrel. Even though Poe himself discredited English by successfully suing his for libel, English’s image of Poe is still widely accepted as fact. This Poe myth English, Griswold, and others created has long concealed the truth about Poe’s life and character. The Poe Museum’s issues of The John-Donkey document these literary rivalries so that today’s biographers can paint a more complete picture of the genesis of the Poe myth and the literary feuds that promoted it.
It all began with a high school yearbook. Believe it or not, the Edgar Allan Poe Museum’s world renowned collection of Poe artifacts and memorabilia began in 1921 with the donation of a 1917 Collegiate School yearbook containing a parody of “The Raven.” Since then, thousands more items have entered the collection. Within a decade of opening, the Poe Museum outgrew its first building and expanded to occupy a complex of four buildings of Poeana surrounding a garden constructed from even more Poe memorabilia—the salvaged materials from buildings in which Poe lived and worked from Richmond to New York. With a mission to “interpret the life and influence of Edgar Allan Poe for the education and enjoyment of a global audience,” the Poe Museum has amassed a diverse collection that tells the story of Poe’s life, documents his literary contributions, and showcases the ways his legacy continues to inspire today’s culture. This means the Poe Museum is charged with preserving and sharing thousands of objects including Poe’s possessions, first editions, manuscripts, and pop culture ephemera like movie posters and comic books.
How did the Poe Museum get such a great collection? James H. Whitty became the Museum’s first donor when he presented that yearbook in 1921, the year before the Museum opened. He went on to donate scores of Poe illustrations, documents, portraits, and objects including a lock of Poe’s hair. Since then, hundreds of generous donors have contributed everything from Poe’s tiny nail file (a gift of Kenneth Bengel in 1964) to Poe’s vest (a gift of Mrs. Antoinette Suiter in 1997). Even those who did not have artifacts to donate helped build the collection by making financial contributions of all sizes. In 1930, for instance, twenty benefactors gave towards the fund that allowed the Poe Museum to purchase the Cornwell Daguerreotype that is now prominently displayed in the Memorial Building. Similar initiatives allowed the Poe Museum to purchase Poe’s letter to Samuel Kettell in 2005 and George Julian Zolnay’s bronze bust of Poe in 2010. Other benefactors have contributed to the Poe Museum’s historic collections preservation fund or supported its annual fund drive. The Poe Museum’s outstanding collection would not have been possible without all these gifts. If you would like to join the Museum in collecting, preserving, and exhibiting the life and work of Edgar Allan Poe, just click here or contact us at [email protected]
Below are a few of the excellent items donated to the Poe Museum in 2014.
The James A. Michener Museum donated the plaster model for Charles Rudy’s 1956 statue of Poe, the first full-length statue of Poe in Virginia. The same size as the finished bronze that now adorns Capitol Square, this model is now on display in the Elizabeth Arnold Poe Memorial Building.
Gregory Lorris donated twelve pages from the 1811 edition of Institutes of Natural Philosophy, Theoretical and Practical by William Enfield . .. . And the addition of an Appendix to the Astronomical Part by Samuel Webber, a text book Poe might have used while a student at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Though we have not been able to authenticate the writing, each page bears Poe’s signature. These pages of diagrams deal with such sciences as optics and astronomy, and they give us a good idea of the material Poe studied at West Point. One of the twelve pages is now on display in the Model Building.
After hearing that we needed to borrow the book Mesmerism in Articulo Mortis for an exhibit, Susan Jaffe Tane donated a copy of the pamphlet to the Museum. Tane had already made several generous loans from her collection for the Poe Museum’s exhibits.
Sculptor Zane Wylie donated an unusual casting of a skull (above) with the verses of “The Raven” carved into it while painter Anelecia Hannah donated a painting (below) of the bust of Poe in the Museum’s garden.
Judy Rash donated a copy of the beautiful 1884 edition of “The Raven” featuring illustrations by Gustave Dore.
An anonymous donor sent a copy of the edition of Poe’s Works edited by his literary executor Rufus Griswold.
The Garden Club of Virginia provided several new plants for the Enchanted Garden in addition to the research, design, and planting that have already gone into the restoration of the site.
As the Poe Museum’s collection continues to grow, we would like to thank all those who helped build that collection. You can click here to see selections from the collection, or you can click here to learn about our Object of the Month.
November is the time for Thanksgiving, football, and Black Friday shopping. With the Christmas shopping season now underway, visitors to the Poe Museum often ask what kinds of gifts Poe gave his own family and friends. The answer is November’s Object of the Month, Poe’s gift to Louisa Anna Lynch—a copy of The New Year’s Gift and Juvenile Souvenir for 1836.
In Poe’s day, Christmas was regaining popularity in the United States thanks to the influx of European immigrants bringing with them their winter holiday customs. Many of the customs Americans now associate with the holiday were introduced at this time. Among these are Christmas trees, poinsettias, mistletoe, Christmas cards, and the popular poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which begins “T’was the night before Christmas…” You can read more about Christmas in Poe’s time here.
Gift giving was also fashionable, but, unlike today’s elaborate displays, presents in Poe’s time often consisted of small items like gloves or candy. Another popular present was the gift book. In the 1830s, American publishers started issuing these deluxe gift books each year around Christmas. Poe contributed to several installments (1836, 1840, 1842, 1843, 1845) of the most popular of these, The Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present. None of these stories, which include “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “William Wilson,” and “The Purloined Letter,” had a Christmas theme. His stories also appeared in The Baltimore Book: A Christmas and New Year’s Present in 1838, The Opal in 1844 and 1845, The Missionary Memorial in 1846, and the May Flower in 1846. The Irving Offering and the American Keepsake published his works immediately after his death.
Poe did not contribute a story to The New Year’s Gift and Juvenile Souvenir for 1836, a collection of children’s stories. On the first page of the Poe Museum’s copy, he inscribed the present in his tiny handwriting, “To Miss Louisa Ann Lynch with the compliments of her sincere friend Edgar A. Poe.” The recipient of the present was a young girl named Louisa Ann Lynch (1825-1891). Her father, Peyton Lynch (1787-1832) died when she was just seven years old, and she grew up with her mother and three brothers in Petersburg, Virginia. She would have been about ten years old when this book was published.
Like most gift books of its kind, The New Year’s Gift and Juvenile Souvenir was likely published in the fall of 1835 for the 1836 New Year. Poe could have given it to Lynch if she and her family visited Richmond in late 1835 or as late as early 1837, when Poe left Richmond for New York. He could have also given the book to Miss Lynch in Petersburg, which is about thirty miles south of Richmond. The donor recalled Poe presenting it during a visit to Petersburg, which could have been during his honeymoon in May 1836 (a little late for a Christmas present). He must certainly have given her the piece before July 23, 1844, when she married the commission merchant James C. Deaton in Petersburg, because Poe would have written her married name instead of her maiden name.
In addition to the inscription on the first page, Poe also wrote in pencil on page 67, “To L.A. Lynch.” The reason for the second inscription is unknown, but it is tempting to speculate it might have something to do with the story on that page “Days at My Grandfather’s,” which references Ralph the Raven, but Poe did not publish his own poem “The Raven” until 1845.
By the early 1850s, Mr. and Mrs. Deaton had moved to Richmond, where they settled in a brick house at the northeast corner of 1st and Cary Streets (pictured below). On January 6, 1854, the funeral of the Deaton’s son Walter was held in this house. (Daily Dispatch, January 7, 1854) Another son, James C. Deaton, Jr., became a prominent Richmond physician. Louisa Ann Deaton passed away on July 23, 1891 at the age of sixty-six.
Her descendant, Mary Elizabeth Morton, who inherited the book, gave both it and Deaton’s album, filled with poems written for her by her friends, to the Poe Museum in 1979. This month, the gift Poe gave his friend is on display in the Poe Museum’s Model Building as a reminder of Poe’s generosity and his fondness for inspiring young readers. Maybe this Christmas you will be inspired by Poe’s example to give someone special the gift of a good book.
The Facts behind “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”
Now showing until December 31 at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond is an intriguing exhibit devoted to Poe’s short story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” a tale of the power of mesmerism to suspend the process of death. Made possible by a loan of items from the collection of James Vacca, Mesmerized: The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar explores the popularity of mesmerism in Poe’s time and belief among his contemporaries that this gruesome story might be true.
Mesmerism in the Nineteenth Century
Mesmerism, originally called animal magnetism, was developed by German physician and astronomer Franz Anton Mesmer (1734 – 1815) who theorized that a natural energetic transference occurred between all living creatures. Though he failed to receive scientific recognition for his theories, Mesmer believed this force could have healing properties.
While experiments in mesmerism abounded from 1780 until 1850, many quack mesmerists staged performances and published sensationalized accounts of their powers. By Poe’s time, in the 1840s, some practitioners even believed that mesmerized people could demonstrate clairvoyant abilities. The November 18, 1843 issue of the New York Brother Johnathon carried the following notice:
ANIMAL MAGNETISM! — A series of experiments are now going forward in different parts of this Country, with different subjects, by different magnetisers — wholly ignorant of what others are doing — and by people who have not direct communication with one another; all of which go to prove that the Moon is inhabited — that the people have a written language — and make war. The most miraculous coincidences have happened. We are quite serious.
Poe and Mesmerism
“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” was Poe’s third tale on the subject of mesmerism. “A Tales of the Ragged Mountains” (1844) and “Mesmeric Revelation” (1844) also dealt with the theme. The latter would be the first of Poe’s tales translated into French by the poet and critic Charles Baudelaire. The French Romantic painter Eugene Delacroix declared the story “a bizarre and profound piece of writing which throws you into a state of contemplation.”
In addition to his fictionalized accounts of the controversial pseudoscience, Poe also wrote reviews of other authors’ books on the subject. In the April 5, 1845 issue of the Broadway Journal, Poe called Chauncey Hare Townshend’s book Facts in Mesmerism (London, 1840) “one of the most truly profound and philosophical works of the day — a work to be valued properly only in a day to come.” How seriously Poe actually regarded mesmerism is debatable. In some works, he poked fun at the mesmerist Andrew Jackson Davis, who gave a number of public demonstrations in New York while Poe was living there.
Poe’s writings about mesmerism caused some of his contemporaries to believe he had special knowledge of the subject. Mary Hill Hewitt wrote in an 1846 letter to Poe’s future fiancée Sarah Helen Whitman, “People seem to think there is something uncanny about him, and the strangest stories are told, what is more, believed, about his mesmeric experiences, at the mention of which he always smiles.”
“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” was not Poe’s first hoax. In 1838, he published The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, an account of a trip to Antarctica, thought to be true by English readers. Six years later, in 1844, he convinced New Yorkers that scientists had successfully crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a hot air steering balloon in a story now known as “The Balloon Hoax.”
The Balloon Hoax
Also dealing with the theme of mesmerism, Poe’s story “Mesmeric Revelation” was so realistic it was reprinted in the November 29, 1845 issue of the London Popular Record of Modern Science.
The Public’s Response
“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” was rejected by at least one magazine before the American Review printed it in its December 1845 issue. Within months, the story was reprinted in The Broadway Journal (New York), Spirit of the Times (Philadelphia), Sunday Times (London), the Morning Post (London), the Popular Record of Modern Science (London), and the Boston Museum. The following year it was published as a pamphlet in London. Although many readers believed “Valdemar” to be a true story, the editor of the New York Herald wrote, “whoever thought it a veracious recital must have the bump of Faith large, very large indeed.”
To this, Poe answered in the Broadway Journal,
For our parts we find it difficult to understand how any dispassionate transcendentalist can doubt the facts as we state them; they are by no means so incredible as the marvels which are hourly narrated, and believed, on the topic of Mesmerism. Why cannot a man’s death be postponed indefinitely by Mesmerism? Why cannot a man talk after he is dead? Why? — Why? — that is the question; and as soon as the Tribune has answered it to our satisfaction we will talk to it farther.
Poe’s statement cannot, however, be taken entirely seriously since he frequently ridiculed the Transcendentalists. When asked by a London pharmacist if “Valdemar” was true, Poe responded, “‘Hoax’ is precisely the word suited to M. Valdemar’s case . . . The article . . . is now circulating in France. Some few persons believe it — but I do not — and don’t you.”
Poe was so amused by the receipt of a letter from a believer in the story’s veracity that he printed it in the Broadway Journal:
Collection of James Vacca
The story’s popularity was such that he reprinted it in the Broadway Journal, adding the following note:
In London, the story was reprinted as a true account of the powers of mesmerism, and the London publisher Short and Little issued it as a pamphlet, Mesmerism in Articulo Mortis in 1846.
Collection of James Vacca
Collection of James Vacca
At least one British poet was not a fan of “Valdemar,” Elizabeth Barrett (the future Elizabeth Barrett Browning) sent Robert Browning a copy of the story and wrote:
I send you besides a most frightful extract from an American magazine sent to me yesterday…no, the day before…on the subject of mesmerism—& you are to understand, if you please, that the Mr. Edgar Poe who stands committed in it, is my dedicator…whose dedication I forgot, by the way, with the rest—so, while I am sending, you shall have his poems with his mesmeric experience & decide whether the outrageous compliment to me EBB or the experiment on M. Vandeleur [sic] goes furthest to prove him mad.
Collection of James Vacca
Thanks in part to Poe’s story, the Spiritualist movement associated mesmerism with communication with the dead and used it for that purpose. One of Poe’s fiancées, Sarah Helen Whitman, was a devout Spiritualist who held séances while in a mesmeric trance.
Over time, popularity of both Spiritualism and mesmerism declined. The meaning of the word mesmerism has also evolved. In 1843, the Scottish physician James Braid proposed the term hypnosis, which is now the usual meaning of word mesmerism.
Poe’s use of realistic and scientifically based details made “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” an early and influential example of modern science fiction. The story’s gruesome conclusion in which the mesmerized patient suddenly “rots” into “a nearly liquid mass of loathsome — of detestable putridity” has been an inspiration to modern horror writers concerned with shock and gore. Since Poe’s time, the story has been reprinted countless times and translated into several languages. It has been adapted to comics and movies, most notably the 1963 Roger Corman film Tales of Terror starring Vincent Price and the 2002 black comedy The Mesmerist starring Neil Patrick Harris.
Vincent Price as Valdemar
Mesmerized: The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar will be on display on the first floor gallery of the Poe Museum’s Exhibits Building until December 31, 2014. On display on the second floor galleries of the Exhibits Building are The Halloween Gang Presents: The Black Cat (until December 31) and The Raven Room. The Poe Museum’s other three buildings contain permanent exhibits of the Museum’s renowned collection of Edgar Allan Poe personal belongings and memorabilia.