On February 11 from 7-9 p.m. at the Patrick Henry Pub and Grille in Richmond, the Poe Museum will team up with James River Writers to bring back the grand tradition of the salon, an intimate setting to meet & fraternize with local authors as they in turn guide you in your own writing practice. Whatever your genre, this will be a great way to connect, to learn, and to philosophize. There is no cover charge. We welcome writerly types of all experience levels and readers, thinkers, and artists of every sort. To top it off, the building in which we will be meeting was the home of J.W. Fergusson, Poe’s assistant at the Southern Literary Messenger and one of the few people to attend Poe’s wedding. The theme for the first salon will be “The Secret Heart–Considering the Dark Side of Romance” with speaker Slash Coleman.
Here are the Details:
February Topic: The Secret Heart – Considering the Dark Side of Romance
Speaker: Slash Coleman
Thursday, February 11, 7:00-9:00 p.m.
Patrick Henry Pub & Grille, in the upstairs salon
2300 East Broad Street (free street parking)
About the Speaker:
NPR calls award-winning storyteller Slash Coleman “Extremely provocative and entertaining,” and WGBH says the NYC based author, “has the power to change the way people think.”
The author of The Bohemian Love Diaries, the personal perspectives blogger for Psychology Today, and an advice columnist at howdoidate.com (Ask Uncle Slash), Slash is best known for his PBS Special The Neon Man and Me and is currently creating The New American Storyteller for PBS. Slash’s performances have been featured in American Theatre Magazine, Backstage Magazine, The Washington Post, and most recently on the NPR series How Artists Make Money.
Click here for more information.
What’s your favorite Poe story? The Poe Museum is determined to find out which is Poe’s Greatest Hit, and you can help. Just vote right now for your favorite Poe story from the finalists on this list. Voting continues until January 16 at 5 p.m. Eastern. The winning story will be announced at 5:30 p.m. during Poe’s Birthday Bash on January 16 at the Poe Museum in Richmond, and we’ll post it on our blog and social media.
What will the winning short story receive? The Poe Museum will feature it in the new exhibit Poe’s Greatest Hits and will develop special programming around that story in the near future.
Here are the finalists. You can click each one to read or reread it.
“The Black Cat”
“The Cask of Amontillado”
“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”
“The Fall of the House of Usher”
“The Man That Was Used Up”
“The Masque of the Red Death”
“The Murders in the Rue Morgue”
“Never Bet the Devil Your Head”
“The Oval Portrait”
“The Pit and the Pendulum”
“The Purloined Letter”
“Some Words with a Mummy”
“The Tell-Tale Heart”
Vote below for your favorite Poe story.
From the man who sneaked into his dead wife’s crypt to spend the night on her corpse to the woman who believed she was in communication with Poe’s spirit after his death, colorful characters seemed to flock to Edgar Allan Poe. But Stella stands out even among this crowd. It is said that, when he saw her approaching his front door, Poe fled through the back door to avoid her. She may have even convinced her husband to pay Poe to write positive reviews of her work. In spite of that, she told Poe’s biographer John Henry Ingram she had been Poe’s good and trusted friend, and she boasted that she had been the inspiration for his poem “Annabel Lee.” The Poe Museum now owns a strange letter she wrote to one of Poe’s biographers. Because it reveals some entertaining insights in her personality and her relationship with Poe, we have named it the Poe Museum’s Object of the Month.
Estelle Anna “Stella” Lewis (1824-1880) was a moderately successful writer and the wife of lawyer Sylvanus Lewis. She first became acquainted with Poe around 1846. She soon joined a group of Poe’s female admirers in helping the poet, his mother-in-law Maria Clemm, and his gravely ill wife Virginia in a time of need. After Virginia’s death in January 1847, Stella continued to visit Poe and his mother-in-law. According to Stella, she became his trusted confidant, but other sources believed she was really trying to bribe him to write complimentary reviews. Meanwhile, Stella’s “trusted confidant” Poe wrote in a June 16, 1848 letter to Annie Richmond, “If she [Stella] comes here I shall refuse to see her.”
Poe was close enough to Stella to write the following acrostic poem for her. The first letter of the first line, the second of the second, and so forth spell out her name.
“Seldom we find,” says Solomon Don Dunce,
“Half an idea in the profoundest sonnet.
Through all the flimsy things we see at once
As easily as through a Naples bonnet—
Trash of all trash!—how can a lady don it?
Yet heavier far than your Petrarchan stuff—
Owl-downy nonsense that the faintest puff
Twirls into trunk-paper the while you con it.”
And, veritably, Sol is right enough.
The general tuckermanities are arrant
Bubbles—ephemeral and so transparent—
But this is, now,—you may depend upon it—
Stable, opaque, immortal—all by dint
Of the dear names that he concealed within’t.
Unlike many of the poems Poe addressed to women, there is no hint of romance in this one. He also had this daguerreotype of himself made for her.
He gave Annie Richmond another, very similar, daguerreotype taken at the same session.
Stella later told John Henry Ingram, “I saw much of Mr. Poe during the last year of his life. He was one of the most sensitive and refined gentlemen I ever met. My girlish poem — ‘The Forsaken’ — made us acquainted. He had seen it floating the rounds of the press, and wrote to tell me how much he liked it: ‘It is inexpressibly beautiful,’ he said, ‘and I should like much to know the young author.’ After the first call he frequently dined with us, and passed the evening in playing whist or in reading to me his last poem.”
On his last night in New York before starting his ill-fated trip to Richmond, Stella invited Poe and his mother-in-law to her home for dinner. As Stella told it, “The day before he left New York for Richmond,” continues Stella, “Mr. Poe came to dinner, and stayed the night. He seemed very sad and retired early. On leaving the next morning he took my hand in his, and, looking in my face, said, ‘Dear Stella, my much beloved friend. You truly understand and appreciate me — I have a presentiment that I shall never see you again. I must leave to-day for Richmond. If I never return, write my life. You can and will do me justice.’ ‘I will!’ I exclaimed. And we parted to meet no more in this life. That promise I have not yet felt equal to fulfil.” Poe died a few months afterwards. Stella died three decades later without fulfilling that promise.
In the years following Poe’s death, Stella invited his mother-in-law to live with her. It seems that, in order to endear herself to Stella, Mrs. Clemm told her she had been the inspiration for “Annabel Lee”—even though nothing in the poem suggests this. Stella almost immediately told her friends, and the rumor appeared in the papers not long after that. Another of Poe’s friends, Frances Osgood, responded in the December 8, 1849 issue of Saroni’s Musical Times that Poe’s wife was the only woman he had ever loved and was unquestionably the true subject of “Annabel Lee.” Osgood continues, “I have heard it said that it was intended to illustrate a love affair of the author; but they who believe this, have in their dullness, evidently misunderstood or missed the beautiful meaning latent in the most lovely of all its verses…” Most people now agree with Osgood.
Poe’s ex-fiancée Sarah Helen Whitman, however, (who also thought she had been the inspiration for “Annabel Lee”) was so insulted by Stella’s claim that she spread the rumor that a New York writer familiar with all the parties involved told her Maria Clemm had only been flattering Stella to repay some favors and that Osgood had invented the claim that Virginia was the real Annabel Lee solely to spite Stella. (In case you’re counting, that’s three possible Annabel Lees in this blog post.)
Just to make sure her role in Poe’s life was recorded for posterity, she befriended his enemy and biographer Rufus W. Griswold. She still failed to convince the public she could have been the real Annabel Lee.
In 1858, Stella divorced her husband, began a feud with Maria Clemm (who apparently sided with Sylvanus Lewis in the divorce), accused another writer of stealing from her, and headed for Europe. About this time, Martin Van Buren Moore (1837-1900), a young reporter from Tennessee, wrote her for assistance in writing an article about Edgar Allan Poe. In her response, she boasts that Poe himself had entrusted her to be his biographer, calls Maria Clemm the “black cat” of Poe’s life, talks about her divorce, and asks Moore if she should change her name to La Stella or Anna Stella. She eventually settled on the name Stella. Here is a photo of this note.
The text of the letter reads:
I had not time to reply to you [sic] letter which reached me the day before I sailed for Europe. I called at Mr. Scribner’s on my way to the vessel and told his brother to say to you that I would write the notice of Poe–I will if you can wait. It was his last request of me– “Write my life–you know better than anyone else.” he said. If any one else should write it do not permit the name of that old woman who calls herself his mother-in-law to appear in it. I have heard that she is not his mother-in-law–That she has something else on him. Any how. I believe that she was [the] black cat of his life. And that she strangled him to death. I will tell you about it when we meet. If you get the work out before I return to America put Poe first, and Stella next in the Poets of Maryland. You cannot get it out till next year as it ought to be– do wait–that is a good Van.
I intend to drop the name of Lewis–but cannot do it at once–What do you think of La Stella or Anna Stella. Call me Stella on all occasions–ring on it in biographical notice– You know that the Divorce was all in my favor–That is after trying for a year they could not get anything against me–and gave it up–say this in the notice–say that I stood unscathed against the treachery of a half dozen Lawyers. Let me hear from you the moment you get this. Direct to care of Mr. John Monroe, Banker, no 5, Rue de La Paix, Paris—
After leaving the United States, Stella meandered around Europe before settling in London around 1874. While there, she provided information about the poet to another of Poe’s biographers John Henry Ingram. At the same time, Poe’s nurse Marie Louise Shew and his fiancée Sarah Helen Whitman were also supplying Ingram sometimes contradictory accounts of their own relationships with Poe.
Stella still found time to write poetry and plays. Her major works include the tragedies Helémah, or the Fall of Montezuma (1864) and Sappho of Lesbos (1868). The latter was printed in seven editions and translated into Greek to be performed in Athens. The Poe Museum owns a autographed copy of this, her most celebrated work. In 1865 she composed a series of sonnets about Poe. Her other works include The Child of the Sea and other Poems (1848), The Myths of the Minstrel (1852), Poems (1866) and The King’s Stratagem(1869).
Stella died in London in 1880. By then, the French poet Alphonse de Lamartine deemed her the “Female Petrarch” while Ingram considered her merely a “harpy” who had preyed upon Poe in his final years.
Martin Van Buren Moore eventually wrote his essay about Poe. The manuscript for it is also in the Poe Museum’s collection. His grandson Otis D. Smith of Richmond, Virginia donated both the Stella letter and the manuscript to the Museum in 1979 but kept the envelope because he thought he might be able to sell it to a stamp collector.
On this page from Moore’s manuscript, he acknowledges the assistance of the “brilliant” Stella to whom he is “indebted for many of the facts in regards to Poe’s life” that were used in the essay. Among these facts, he continues, “She stated positively that Poe was born in Baltimore and not in Boston.” Click here to find out where Poe was really born. Fortunately, Moore’s essay makes no attempt to promote the discredited claims that Stella was the real Annabel Lee.
While the Poe Museum owns a number of Edgar Allan Poe’s letters, most visitors do not realize the collection also holds several rarely seen letters from the people in his life. While these are rarely anthologized and seldom read, they nevertheless provide value insights into Poe’s life and work as seen by his contemporaries. Since this Stella letter was written to a person researching an article about Poe, the document reveals the way in which Poe’s biography was shaped (or distorted) by the biases and self-interests of the people who knew him as they provided information of varying quality to his biographers.
Illustration for the first printing of “The Gold-Bug”
Armies have been sending sensitive information through encoded messages for thousands of years to protect that information from falling into enemy hands, but it was Edgar Allan Poe who popularized the use of these cryptograms as a form of entertainment and in fiction with his story “The Gold-Bug.” Even before the publication of this trailblazing treasure-hunt mystery, Poe was so interested in cryptograms that he challenged the readers of his magazine to send him codes to solve. From September 24 until December 31, the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia will explore Poe’s love of cryptography in the new exhibit The Poe Code: Cryptograms and Puzzles in the Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Visitors to the exhibit will learn how to decode a simple cryptogram and how to hide a name in plain sight by composing an acrostic poem.
While you are here, be sure not to miss the special exhibit Buried Alive, which closes on October 18.
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.
Virginia Clemm Poe
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.
Fabric from Virginia Poe’s Dress
On Friday, June 26 from 7-8:30 p.m., the Poe Museum at 1914 East Main Street in Richmond, Virginia will host a reading and reception at which the students of the 2015 Edgar Allan Poe Young Writers’ Conference will read the works they produced during the week-long residential writing conference. This year’s students will be coming from Virginia, Kansas, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Michigan, and Puerto Rico to learn the craft of writing from professionals in the field and to be inspired by the places featured in Edgar Allan Poe’s stories and poems. Admission to the reading and reception is free.
About the Edgar Allan Poe Young Writers’ Conference
From June 21-27, 2015, a select group of eleven high school students from across the country will come to Richmond, Virginia to learn from and to be inspired by American author Edgar Allan Poe at the Edgar Allan Poe Young Writers’ Conference. Among the speakers addressing the students during the conference will be Pollack Prize and Library of Virginia People’s Choice Award winning novelist Gigi Amateau; novelist and blogger Julie Farley; author and journalist Harry Kollatz; poet Joanna Lee; and Theresa Pollack Award-winner and New Virginia Review Editor Mary Flinn. When not attending lectures and writing workshops in the Parish Hall at St. John’s Church (where Poe’s mother is buried), the students will seek inspiration by visiting a number of Poe sites including the the cemetery in which his foster parents and first love are buried, the setting of his short story “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains,” and the locations that inspired some of Poe’s best-known stories and poems. The students will also visit major Poeana collections including that of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum, where students will conclude the week with a reception and reading.
The attendees of this unique conference will follow in Poe’s footsteps, visiting the places his lived or worked and seeing the places that inspired his poems and short stories. Founded in 2004 by Edgar™ Award-winning author and Poe relative Dr. Harry Lee Poe, the conference has attracted students from California to Massachusetts over the years.
Illustration for the 1843 first printing of “The Gold-Bug”
Poe was much more than the Master of the Macabre. He was also the Master of Mystery, the inventor of detective fiction, and an avid cryptographer who introduced puzzles and codes into his poems and short stories. His short story “The Gold-Bug” features an encrypted treasure map and a search for clues and codes that set the standard for such popular films as National Treasure and The Da Vinci Code. This spring the Poe Museum planted a new Gold-Bug Garden modeled after this setting of this important story. In honor of the opening of the new Gold-Bug Garden at the Poe Museum in Richmond, on Tuesday, June 23 at 6 p.m., Poe scholar Richard Kopley will deliver “Decoding the Gold-Bug,” a talk about Edgar Allan Poe’s influential treasure hunt mystery “The Gold-Bug.” Admission is free.
About Richard Kopley:
Richard Kopley is Distinguished Professor of English, Emeritus, at Penn State DuBois. He is the author of Edgar Allan Poe and the Dupin Mysteries, as well as numerous articles, chapters, and reviews on Poe. He is the editor of Poe’s Pym: Critical Explorations and the co-editor, with Jana Argersinger, of Poe Writing, Writing Poe. He has spoken on Poe widely in the United States, and he has given papers on Poe in Spain, Italy, Poland, Russia, and (by DVD) Japan.. He is a former president of the Poe Studies Association, organizer of several Poe conferences, co-organizer of the recent Fourth International Edgar Allan Poe Conference in New York City, and a member of the program committee for the next international Poe-Hawthorne Conference, scheduled for June 21-24, 2018, in Kyoto, Japan.
About the Poe Museum’s Gold-Bug Garden:
Designed by Riely and Associates, the firm that restored the gardens at the Virginia Executive Mansion, Monticello, and the University of Virginia, the Poe Museum’s Gold-Bug Garden recreates the Low Country setting of “The Gold-Bug” with an unusual combination of palms, umbrella plants, fatsia, and banana shrubs. This garden is only one stage in the Garden Club of Virginia’s restoration of the Poe Museum’s gardens, which date back to 1922.
While strolling through the world’s finest collection of Poeana, visitors to the Poe Museum may be intrigued by a collection of items belonging not to the master of the macabre, but to a group of his acquaintances. A brimming manila folder, housed in the Valentine Museum archives, has kindly taken it upon itself to give these acquaintances the collective and slightly euphemistic title: “Women He Knew.” Items belonging to Edgar Allan Poe’s various paramours and female family members truly are gems within the museum’s already impressive collection. After all, we cannot fully understand Poe without understanding the vital roles played by these women. Today, we’re going to focus on one of the earliest members of this elite group: one who has not (for reasons we will explore) had her fair share of the spotlight.
Whom do we picture when we think of the women in Edgar Allan Poe’s life? Young, tubercular, Virginia Clemm? Exquisite, unstable Jane Stith Craig Stanard? Perhaps Elmira Shelton, Poe’s girl-next-door-turned-long-lost-love? We think of these women because they are inextricably linked to Poe’s writing. Individually or collectively, they were the inspiration for Lenore, Annabel Lee, Helen, and arguably every other romantically-inspired female in his vast collection of stories and poems. There is one woman, however, who is generally overlooked. Frances Allan, Poe’s foster mother from the time he was 2½ years old, is difficult to class among the others. Unlike the women mentioned above, Fanny’s life was virtually devoid of the histrionic (and often fictional) tales that make Poe enthusiasts prick up their ears. Reading through Poe’s letters, we see her affectionately, but simply, referred to as “ma.” Throughout her relatively short life, Fanny seems to have led the kind of quiet existence every wealthy Richmond lady might have led. The little we know of her life and her relationship to Poe is pieced together from the few surviving letters written by her, as well as from John Allan’s voluminous correspondence with friends, business associates, and Poe himself.
Born in 1785, Frances Keeling Valentine Allan was the daughter of John Valentine (the prominent family behind the Valentine Museum in Richmond) and his wife, Frances Thorowgood. Like Poe, Fanny was orphaned at a young age. She and her younger sister, Ann, were raised by their half-sister, Sarah Valentine, and her husband, John Dixon. Fast-forwarding to Fanny’s early years as an adult, it is evident that she was a much-admired figure in Richmond. A portrait of her done by Robert Sully depicts an elegant and refined young woman—the perfect match for up-and-coming merchant John Allan. The two were married, according to an announcement in the local newspaper, on February 5, 1803 and lived above the Ellis & Allan store at the northeast corner of Main and Thirteenth streets. It is probable that, like so many other Richmond women, Fanny was extremely fond of the theater, and was familiar with Poe’s mother’s performances. She was one of three women to answer Eliza Poe’s plea for help printed in the Richmond Inquirer.
Portrait of Frances Allan by Robert Sully, ca. 1828
The Allan Home
Barely a week after the ladies’ first visit, Eliza Poe was dead and Edgar had been warmly welcomed (by Fanny at least) into the home above Ellis & Allan. Contrary to today’s expectations, the Allans took no formal steps towards adopting the infant Edgar. Many biographers believe that he and his sister Rosalie (cared for by William and Jane Scott Mackenzie) were baptized several weeks after their mother’s death, at which time “Allan” was added to Poe’s full name. The choice not to formally adopt Poe certainly did not come from Frances, who continued in her determination to be the primary provider for Edgar. There is evidence that both the parents and sister of David Poe (Edgar’s father) wrote to the Allans, expressing concern over Edgar’s situation. One particularly poignant letter from Poe’s aunt is addressed to “Mrs. Allan the kind Benefactress of the infant Orphan Edgar, Allan.” In it, Elizabeth Poe gushes:
“Permit me my dear madam to thank you for your kindness to the little Edgar—he is truly the Child of fortune to be placed under the fostering care of the amiable Mr. and Mrs. Allan, Oh how few meet with such A lot—the Almighty Father of the universe grant that he may never abuse the kindness he has received and that from those who were not bound by any ties except those that the feeling and humane heart dictates.”
Despite the effusiveness of Elizabeth Poe’s letter, there is evidence to suggest that both she and Edgar’s grandparents had expected to take care of the young boy themselves. The letter quoted above was the second sent to Frances–written, it would appear, on the assumption that the first had been lost. Suggestions such as this have prompted biographers to speculate whether Fanny purposefully neglected to answer the anxious letters written by Edgar’s grandparents and aunt, or whether the agreement to allow the Allans to continuing caring for Poe was, in fact, mutual.
Roughly three and a half years after Poe’s arrival, John relocated his small family to London in order to establish another branch of Ellis & Allan. Letters written by John during this period have been preserved in the Valentine Museum, and through them we glimpse something more of Fanny’s personality and quirks. Her chronic ill health, in particular, is brought to the forefront following the difficult voyage from Richmond to Liverpool. John Allan’s correspondence makes frequent but vague references to Fanny’s illness, at one point merely saying that she was “complaining as usual.” After reading letters exchanged between the couple, it becomes clear that the legitimacy of Fanny’s indisposition was, at times, questioned (to her annoyance) by the robust and pragmatic John. In one of the only surviving letters between them, Fanny remarks: “I fear it will be long ere I shall write with any facility or ease to myself, as I fiend [find] you are determined to think my health better contrary to all I say it will be needless for me to say more on that subject.” The scolding tone of this passage is, however, quickly belied by jovial hints at her flirtation with a certain “smart Beau” and the resulting need for “a little finery.” The capricious letter reveals a somewhat surprising side of Fanny Allan’s character. Despite hypochondriacal tendencies, it is obvious that Fanny was not without spunk and good humor.
Portrait of John Allan by Thomas Sully, ca. 1804
Sadly, we see less of Fanny’s high-spirits during the latter part of the Allan’s stay in England, and even less upon their return to Richmond. The Allan’s departure from London after unexpected financial troubles was delayed repeatedly due to Frances’ indisposition, to the point where John wrote that Frances had “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 [the journey].” Thankfully, the inducement was sufficient to get Fanny, seasickness and all, across the Atlantic to Virginia. With the Allans back in Richmond, we enter a period of even greater uncertainty concerning Fanny. In his biography of Poe, Hervey Allen suggests that something besides financial woes precipitated Fanny’s more serious bouts of illness, as well as the increased coolness between Edgar and John Allan. He writes “it seems warrantable to infer that Frances Allan was by now aware of the fact that she had not been the whole object of her husband’s affections.” By the time the Allans took in Edgar, John had already fathered two children with two different women. It is impossible to be sure when or even if Fanny learned about her husband’s infidelity, but the sudden tension within the Allan family, coupled with Fanny’s failing health, makes it tempting to agree with Hervey Allen’s theory.
Beginning in this difficult period, Fanny seems to fade weakly into the background. In the meantime, the Allans go from nearly bankrupt to flush with cash after the death of John Allan’s uncle William Galt. As Edgar and John grew farther and farther apart, it is probable that Fanny endeavored to remain as neutral as possible, and it is certain that her affection for Poe remained unchanged. In the same way, even his bitterest communications with his foster father, Poe expressed a desire to be remembered fondly to “ma.” Describing Poe’s dramatic departure from the Allan house after the disastrous stint at the University of Virginia, The Poe Log refers to an idea suggested by several Poe biographers—namely that Fanny wrote not one but two letters to Poe absolving him from blame. Both letters have yet to be found, however, and thus must be taken with a grain of salt. Sadly for poor Fanny, matters between John and Edgar grew steadily worse up until her final days. On March 2, 1829 the Richmond Whig announced her death with an entry reading:“Died on Saturday morning last, after a lingering and painful illness, Mrs. Frances K. Allan, consort of Mr. John Allan, aged 47 years. The friends and acquaintances of the family are respectfully invited to attend the funeral from the late residence on this day at 12 o’clock.”
To his anguish, Poe did not arrive until the night after her burial. It is worth noting, however, that the period immediately following Fanny’s death saw a brief reconciliation between Edgar and John Allan. Out of respect, it would seem, for his dead wife, John relented enough to pen a cold but effective letter to Major John Eaton (the Secretary of War at the time), in support of Edgar’s application to West Point.
It is in these rare moments of softness between the two men that we come closest to understanding Fanny’s role in Edgar Allan Poe’s life. Compared to the other “women he knew” her contributions may seem mundane, but perhaps this is what makes Fanny such a unique and important part of Poe’s life. In a newspaper article printed in 1905, Susan Ingram (a friend of Poe) describes an incident that occurred barely a month before the poet’s death. She says:
“I was fond of orris-root and always had its odor about my clothing. One day when we were walking together he said, — ‘I like it too. Do you know whom it makes me think of? My adopted mother. Whenever the bureau drawers in her room were opened there came from them a whiff of orris-root, and ever since then, when I smell it, I go back to the time when I was a boy and it brings back thoughts of my mother.’”
The recent appearance of the first four pages of Poe’s letter to Maria Clemm gives us hope that we may find more material on Frances Allan. Until then, it might be wise to view her obscurity as a clue rather than a barrier to understanding her character. If she does not seem to belong with the other “Women He Knew,” it may be because her relationship to Poe was of a vastly different nature. Based on Susan Ingram’s account, it seems clear that Poe did not associate Fanny with some classical ideal of beauty or tragedy, but with something possibly even more indefinable–something that the warm, homey fragrance of orris root could somehow capture. And in the end, perhaps the best description one can give of Fanny is that of a sweet and gentle, if at times intangible, presence in the tumultuous life of America’s famous poet.
What mysteries are lurking in your own backyard? What made Richmond the weird place we know and love? Why would anybody ride a sturgeon?
From May 29 until October 30, 2015, the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond and Richmond Discoveries will be teaming up to offer Richmond’s Strange Stories, a series of neighborhood walking tours profiling Richmond’s hidden history—the weird people and bizarre (but true) events from history that made Richmond what it is today. The tours meet at the Poe Museum at 1914 East Main Street at 5:30 and last until 7 p.m. Three different tours will be offered: Capitol District (May 29, June 19, July 10, July 31, August 21, September 11, October 2, & October 23), Church Hill (June 5, June 26, July 17, August 7, August 28, September 18, October 9, & October 30), and Shockoe and the River (May 22, June 12, July 3, July 24, August 14, September 4, September 25, & October 16). These fascinating tours will be fun for adults and children eight and older. The price is $12 for adults and $10 for senior citizens and military personnel, $6 for Poe Museum members, and $6 for children under twelve. Preregistration is required, and tickets can be purchased through the Richmond Discoveries website, by calling (804) 222-8595 OR (804) 648-5523, or in person at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum. Click here to book today.