To be buried while alive is, beyond question, the most terrific of these extremes which has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality.
~Edgar A. Poe, “The Premature Burial”
“The Premature Burial” by Harry Clarke
From August 27 until October 18, 2015, the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond will host Buried Alive, an exhibit exploring the theme of premature burial in Poe’s works. Poe called the subject of being buried alive, “the most terrific of these extremes which has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality.” Characters are entombed alive in Poe’s tales “Berenice,” “The Premature Burial,” “Loss of Breath,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
When searching for explanations for Poe’s repeated use of the theme in his works, one needs look no further than the newspapers of his day. At a time when many people died at home without a doctor present, people in a cataleptic state could be mistaken for dead and accidentally buried—or almost buried. Sometimes such people awoke while the first few shovels of dirt were thrown over their coffin. Others awoke on medical school dissecting tables. Articles about real cases of premature burial abounded in the press of the day, and certain readers grew so terrified of being buried alive that they purchased “safety coffins” in which an accidentally buried person could ring a bell to alert passersby to rescue him in the event he woke up six feet underground. While several designs for such coffins were devised, there is no record of anyone being rescued from one of them. Eventually, some concerned citizens formed The Society for the Prevention of People Being Buried Alive. Among other ideas, this organization proposed a law that would prevent burial of people until they started to “smell dead.”
The Poe Museum’s Buried Alive exhibit will feature rare first printings and the only surviving portion of “The Premature Burial” in Poe’s own handwriting. When visiting the gallery, be sure to try out the life-size coffin in which you can have your picture taken. We promise not to bury you in it.
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.
The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether
True! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?
~ Edgar Allan Poe, ”The Tell-Tale Heart,” 1843
“I am constitutionally sensitive — nervous in a very unusual degree.”
~ Edgar Allan Poe, Letter to George W. Eveleth, January 4, 1848
In stories like “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Poe explores the mind’s descent into insanity with such vivid realism that they have lost none of their power after over 170 years. Generations of readers have confused the author Edgar Allan Poe with the mentally ill narrators of his famous stories “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “Berenice,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” While the real Poe bears no resemblance to these characters, the fact that so many people have been fooled is evidence of Poe’s research and the realism of his writing. The Poe Museum’s new exhibit, Madness: Insanity in the Works of Edgar Allan Poe, will uncover the truth about mental illness in Poe’s life and work.
Visit this exhibit to discover the identities of the real murderer upon whom Poe based the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” and the possible inspirations for Madeline and Roderick Usher from “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Then find out what doctors in Poe’s time knew about mental illness and how to treat it. Find the truth behind Poe’s stories of madness and murder in the Poe Museum’s new exhibit Madness: Insanity in the Works of Edgar Allan Poe opening July 23 from 6-9 p.m. with a special Unhappy Hour devoted to Poe’s tale “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.” The exhibit continues until September 20, 2015.
“The Fall of the House of Usher”
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
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 Edgar Allan Poe Museum turned ninety-three this week. The above photograph was taken at the opening ceremony, which featured distinguished guests, readings of original Poe letters and manuscripts, and a tea party. Below is the program for the event, which was held on April 26-28, 1922.
Countless artists have been inspired to translate Edgar Allan Poe’s works into visual art, music, sculpture, film, ballet, and opera; but few know his works have inspired landscape gardens. This will be no surprise to those who have read his short story “The Domain of Arnheim” or his many poems celebrating the beauty of gardens.
When the founders of Richmond’s Poe Museum decided to memorialize Poe with a garden based on one of his works, they chose the relatively obscure poem “To One in Paradise.” Poe was about twenty-four when he wrote the poem, which first appeared in the January 1834 issue of the Lady’s Book as part of the short story “The Visionary.” In this early story, a young man based on Poe’s boyhood idol, the British poet Lord Byron, falls in love with the young wife of a much older man. Suffering from his unrequited love for her, the young man writes the following poem on paper in a book with pages “blotted with fresh tears.”
Thou wast that all to me, love,
For which my soul did pine —
A green isle in the sea, love,
A fountain and a shrine,
All wreathed with fairy fruits and flowers;
And all the flowers were mine.
Ah, dream too bright to last!
Ah, starry Hope, that didst arise
But to be overcast!
A voice from out the Future cries,
“Onward!” — but o’er the Past
(Dim gulf!) my spirit hovering lies,
Mute — motionless — aghast!
For alas! alas! with me
The light of life is o’er.
“No more — no more — no more,”
(Such language holds the solemn sea
To the sands upon the shore,)
Shall bloom the thunder-blasted tree,
Or the stricken eagle soar!
Now all my hours are trances;
And all my nightly dreams
Are where the dark eye glances,
And where thy footstep gleams,
In what ethereal dances,
By what Italian streams.
Alas! far that accursed time
They bore thee o’er the billow,
From Love, to titled age and crime,
And an unholy pillow! —
From me, and from our misty clime.
Where weeps the silver willow!
After reading the poem, the young man’s friend answers the door to discover the lady has poisoned herself. The friend rushes to tell the young man, who has also just committed suicide. In the context of the story, the poem reads almost like a suicide note written by a man who believes “the light of life is [over].” The poem begins with a description of Paradise as “green isle in the sea” with a fountain and shrine. The garden is filled with “fruits and flowers,” possibly symbolizing ideal and carnal love. Then the narrator writes that this dream is too bright to last. The garden dies. The tree is struck by lightning and killed. He lives his days as if in a trance and spends his nights dreaming of his lost love.
Given the poem’s melancholy tone, one might wonder why it would have been chosen as the model for the Poe Museum’s garden. The answer likely lies with Museum founder and Poe collector James H. Whitty, who believed the poem references a real Richmond garden in which a teenage Poe courted his first fiancée Sarah Elmira Royster. Much like the plot of “The Visionary,” Royster married an older man in 1828, five years before Poe wrote the story and poem. Given the poem’s autobiographical nature and its connection to a lost Richmond garden Poe himself once frequented, “To One in Paradise” seemed the perfect poem for Poe Museum to recreate in its garden.
Not everyone, however, agreed with Whitty. An alternate theory, recorded in Thomas Ollive Mabbott’s edition of Poe’s poems, holds that Poe was inspired by Lord Byron. According to Thomas Moore’s biography of the poet, the day before Byron’s early love was to marry another man, Byron wrote a similar poem to her in one of her books. Since the baron in “The Visionary” very likely based on Byron, this theory makes sense. As a young man, Poe identified closely with Byron and modeled both his early poetry and his public image after the British poet. Poe went so far as to tell people he had tried to join the Greek Wars of Independence just as Byron had done.
Poe reprinted “The Visionary” in 1835 in the Southern Literary Messenger, in 1840 in Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, and in 1845 in The Broadway Journal (under the title “The Assignation.” Eventually, he decided the poem was strong enough to stand on its own. Removing the last stanza, Poe published the poem (without the story) in 1839 under the title “To Ianthe in Heaven.” In 1841, he changed the title to “To One Beloved.” Poe first printed the poem under its current title, “To One in Paradise,” in 1843.
Whether the first stanza describes Paradise, Heaven, an island in the sea, the garden in which Poe courted his first love, none of these, or a combination of the above; the vivid description provided rich inspiration for the Poe Museum’s founders who built their garden around a central green isle featuring a fountain and shrine. The perimeter of the garden is planted with flowers and shrubs mentioned in Poe’s poems and short stories. Enclosing the entire garden is a tall brick wall recalling the walled garden in which Poe and Royster spent time. Among the many building materials salvaged and repurposed for use in the Poe Museum’s garden are granite paving stones taken from the paths of the garden Poe knew. At one point, the Poe Museum’s garden also featured a stone urn and a gate latch taken from that garden.
Just as Poe inspired the Poe Museum’s garden, the garden itself has inspired generations of writers, artists, and gardeners. You can see some 1924 paintings of the garden here, and you can learn about this month’s exhibit of new paintings of the garden here. National Poetry Month is the perfect time to find your own inspiration in the Poe Museum’s Enchanted Garden. When you visit, be sure to bring a copy of “To One in Paradise.” Until then, you can listen to it here.
To learn more about some of our other favorite Poe poems, click here and here.
Pastel by Kailee Cross
In a departure from the darkness and mystery usually associated with the works of author Edgar Allan Poe, the Poe Museum in Richmond will feature an exhibit celebrating the beauty of nature and gardens. From April 23 until June 21, 2015, the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond will host Painting the Enchanted Garden 2, its second annual exhibition of new paintings, drawings, and photographs of its legendary Enchanted Garden. In honor of the current restoration of this ninety-three year old landmark by the Garden Club of Virginia, artists were challenged to visit the garden beginning in March in order to produce new work to display in time for the exhibit opening at 6 p.m. on April 23. The artists who took up the challenge in order to participate in the exhibit are David Bromley, Clarise Carnahan, Kailee Cross, Bill Dompke, Kim Hall, Linda Hollett, Chris Ludke, and Dwight M. Paulett.
The Poe Museum’s Enchanted Garden was based on a description of Paradise in Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “To One in Paradise.” The flowers, trees, and shrubs planted there are ones named in Poe’s poems and short stories. Even the paving stones, benches, and bricks were salvaged from buildings in which Poe lived or worked in Richmond and New York. Over the past nine decades, the Enchanted Garden has inspired poems, novels, and visual art from generations of artists. It has even inspired a replica garden in South Carolina.
According to Poe Museum Curator Chris Semtner, “Since the garden was inspired by Poe’s writing, it is fitting that the garden continues to inspire new artists and authors. This exhibit is a fitting document of that legacy of inspiration.”
The paintings in this exhibit will be for sale, and proceeds from the sale benefit the Poe Museum’s educational programs.
View of last year's exhibit with painting by Chris Ludke
You can be a part of the Poe Museum’s next exhibit. After the success of last year’s Painting the Enchanted Garden, the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia is calling on artists to visit the Museum’s legendary Enchanted Garden to sketch, paint, collage, or photograph the site for a the exhibit Painting the Enchanted Garden 2, which will run from April 23 until June 21, 2015. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the artwork will benefit the Poe Museum’s educational programming.
The exhibit is open to all artists, including ones who participated last year. Since the first call for artists was so well received, the Museum will be displaying this year’s exhibit in a larger gallery on the first floor of the changing exhibits building.
If the weather permits, artists can begin working in the Garden on March 15 and must have their completed works ready for display by April 19. In order to avoid conflict with the Museum’s special events and facility rentals, artists must schedule their painting or sketching visits with the Museum’s curator Chris Semtner by writing him a [email protected] or by calling 804-648-5523. For those interested in joining a group painting session, the Museum will host one on Sunday, April 12 from 2-5 p.m. with artist Chris Semtner.
Interested artists can learn more about this opportunity by contacting [email protected] or calling 804-648-5534. In order to participate, please register for the show by April 1.
A copy of the prospectus can be found here: Prospectus for Painting the Enchanted Garden 2015
Artwork by Chris Ludke
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.