Do you love literature and want to instill a love of reading and writing in future generations? Here’s something you can do today to help the Poe Museum cultivate that love of the written word for years to come: From 6 A.M. on September 19 until 6 P.M. on September 20, the Poe Museum is participating in the Amazing Raise, a great fundraising opportunity and competition for non-profits in the Greater Richmond area. Each organization in the Amazing Raise competes to get the most donors to contribute to their organization during the 36-hour period. In addition to receiving these donations, each organization also competes for prizes offered by the Community Foundation of Greater Richmond. These prizes include bonuses for the highest number of donations, the organization with the first 50 unique donations, the organization which gets the donation closest to sunset, and the longest distance donation. The donation form is located below, and you can also find it on the Community Foundation’s website.
Why help the Poe Museum?
Especially in today’s very competitive academic and professional environments, excellent written and oral communication skills are a necessity, but many students have difficulty in these disciplines because they lack interest in reading comprehension and writing. Many teachers tell us they struggle to convince their students to read—until they study Poe. Very often, Poe’s works are the first that students actually enjoy reading. As such, his works provide the perfect opportunity for educators to inspire a life-long love of reading in their students. Regrettably, these same educators have little time to focus on researching any individual author while trying to cover as many writers as possible in an effort to meet the requirements of standardized tests. That is where the Poe Museum can help. By providing guided tours, teleconference programs, off-site educational programs, educator information packets, educator workshops, and a website full of accurate information on Poe’s life and work, the Edgar Allan Poe Museum has become an invaluable aid to both teachers and students. By offering a multidisciplinary approach to interpreting literature, the Poe Museum’s programs address the standards of learning in a number of different disciplines including English, History, Art, and Science. For these reasons, the Poe Museum has become a trusted resource for educators around the globe. Just last week, we hosted a guided tour for a German group and sent educator information packets to teachers in 21 different states as well as educators in the Dominican Republic and Canada. In the month ahead, we will host tours for thousands of students and travel to sites throughout Virginia and Maryland to conduct off-site programs.
As the Poe Museum enters its ninety-first year, it faces new challenges. With corporate and local government support on the decline, expenses are on the increase. Rather than pass those expenses on to the already cash-strapped schools, the Poe Museum is seeking the support of those who believe in the importance of the Poe Museum’s mission. We hope we can count on your support today. Even a small donation can make a big difference. For more information, you can view the Poe Museum’s profile here, or you can visit our website.
Ancient Egypt has long been of great fascination to the world, capturing the imaginations of everyone from the Greeks who conquered Egypt in 332 BC, all the way to people of our own time. Much of the ancient civilization’s culture is preserved in the monumental temples and pyramids, the cryptic hieroglyphics, and of course in the elaborate burials and mummifications that became the hallmark of Egypt. While the interest in Ancient Egypt continues on, it was perhaps at its most fervent in the Victorian era. Discoveries such as the Rosetta Stone by the French in 1799 made it possible for scholars to finally translate the hieroglyphics that had stumped them for centuries, and created an intense interest in this formerly mysterious culture.
It was with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and the discovery of the Rosetta Stone that the discipline of Egyptology was born. The publication of the essay Description de l’Égypte(1809-1829) officially made the study an academic discipline. Soon, historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists alike flocked to Egypt to excavate the tombs and study what was inscribed on the walls of its temples and other landmarks. Many of these excavations yielded crypts of pharaohs richly adorned with gold, jewels, and mummies, many of which were taken back to Europe to be put on display in museums. The people of the Victorian age came in droves to see these mummies, which both delighted and terrified them. There were even mummy unwrapping parties, which guests could attend and watch as the linen wrappings were peeled back to reveal the embalmed body inside. When Poe was fourteen, there was even a mummy on public display in the Senate Chamber of the Capitol in Richmond.
An Invitation to a Mummy Unwrapping Party
Poe wrote a satirical critique of this fascination with mummies entitled “Some Words With a Mummy” (published in 1845). The story is a commentary on the treatment of the artifacts of Ancient Egypt, particularly the mummies. Once back in Europe, many mummies were damaged or destroyed in the name of science by dissections and examinations, and others were stolen from their tombs by grave robbers to be ground into a powder which was thought to have medicinal properties. Poe’s mummy, Allamistakeo, admonishes his examiners on their treatment of him, showing the author’s view on the Egypt Mania and the disrespect of the tombs that had overtaken the Victorian era.
At the same time as the publication of “Some Words With a Mummy”, the Egyptian Building was being constructed to house the Medical College of Virginia here in Richmond. Designed by architect Thomas W. Stewart, the building is in the Egyptian Revival style and brings to mind the colossal temples that dot the Nile Valley. The choice to make the building very Egyptian in appearance may coincide with the Egypt Mania of the time, or perhaps ally the medical campus with Imhotep, the Egyptian priest who is thought to have been the first physician. The building became a national landmark in 1969, and is a treasured part of the MCV campus today. It has been in continual use since 1845, and houses an auditorium and classrooms.
Let’s face it: no one likes a trip to the dentist. The mere thought of a root canal is enough to make us cringe and that high-pitched whir of the dentist’s drill is more than enough to send a shiver up our spines. While the modern day dentist’s office may be a far cry from a walk in the park, dentistry in the Victorian era was even more cringe-worthy. While dental practices were experiencing a renaissance from the 18th century, they were still a far cry from modern dentistry. Without electricity or numbing agents like Novocain, going to the dentist was the definition of pain. The mere thought of tooth extraction was so horrifying that Poe utilized it in his lesser-known tale “Berenice.”
A Victorian foot-powered dentist's drill
The Victorian era dentist did not have an office separate from his home –his home was his office. Dentists were also extremely expensive, meaning only the affluent families could afford to pay a visit. The dentist would reuse his instruments instead of replacing them after every visit, and at the most give them a perfunctory wipe-down between appointments (this was an era before sterilization). The most infamous dentist tool, the drill, was powered manually by a foot pedal that the dentist had to pump furiously in order to generate enough power to use it. Because of this, what we know as preventative dentistry today did not exist; the one-stop cure for all dental maladies was tooth extraction.
Towards the latter half of the 19th century, dentists began using ether and chloroform to anesthetize their patients. These gases would render the patient unconscious, but only for a brief period of time. A dentist thus had to work very quickly to extract the tooth (or teeth) before the gas would wear off and the patient would wake up.
Tooth Keys: Corkscrews for tooth extraction
Because of the high number of tooth extractions happening in dentistry, dentures became a way of remedying the lack of teeth in one’s mouth. These dentures were not custom-made and often were one-size fits all, meaning that they were extremely uncomfortable to wear. While George Washington’s dentures are by far the most famous dentures in American history, they were not made of wood. Fake teeth at the time were made from ivory taken from hippopotamus teeth or elephant tusks. Or, if you had a doctor who dealt in the black market, your teeth had a much more sinister place of origin; grave robbers could be paid off to dig up corpses and remove their teeth to be used in dentures.
Three years after the Edgar Allan Poe Museum opened its doors in 1922, tragedy befell the city of Richmond in the Church Hill area when the train tunnel beneath what is now Jefferson Park collapsed, killing four people and burying a train engine beneath the hill. Although the bodies of one worker and the conductor were recovered, the locomotive and the remains of two workers are still trapped under the earth.
Completed in 1875 to connect the C&O Railroad to the Shockoe area, the Church Hill train tunnel had a history of structural problems. Because the soil contained a high clay content, the ground which the tunnel was built through retained a large amount of groundwater after rain, making the tunnel structurally unsound. During its initial construction, ten workers were reportedly killed due to collapses. Because of this instability, the tunnel fell into disuse after the construction of the river viaduct, and would be unused for twenty years.
In 1925, efforts were made to restore the tunnel to a useable condition to increase railroad capacity in the city. It was during these repairs that the western end of the tunnel would collapse on October 2nd, trapping six people, Train Engine #231, and ten flat cars beneath the hill. Two workers managed to crawl out to the eastern end beneath the flat cars; by the time rescue teams managed to dig to the engine, they discovered the bodies of the conductor and one other worker. Due to the tunnel’s instability, however, the bodies of the two remaining workers were never recovered. The Virginia State Corporation Commission ordered the tunnel sealed to prevent others from being trapped in subsequent cave-ins. The train locomotive and the cars are still there today.
Even after the tunnel was sealed, it continued to be a problem for the Church Hill area, collapsing in various other locations and creating sinkholes. In 2006, the Virginia Historical Society drilled a hole through the tunnel seal and used a camera to look inside and see if there was any way to recover the lost train engine. The tunnel was discovered to be full of water and silt, and any attempts to open the tunnel would inevitably result in further sinkholes developing in Church Hill.
The sealed western end of the tunnel lies mere blocks away from the Poe Museum at 18th and Marshall Streets, and can be visited by the public.
One of Edgar Allan Poe’s favorite places for a stroll in Richmond was Shockoe Hill Cemtery. Located at 4th and Hospital Streets, the cemetery was a retreat from the noise and activity of the city. The cemetery was established in 1820 as Richmond, Virginia’s first city-owned cemetery, and the first burial took place there in 1822. Seven years later, Poe’s beloved foster mother was buried there. She would be only one of many important figures from his life to be interred there.
During a recent visit to the cemetery, I took some photos of a few of the graves of people Poe would have known.
These are the graves of Poe’s foster parents, the Allans. From left to right, the monuments are for Louisa Allan (Poe’s foster father’s second wife), John Allan (Poe’s foster father), Frances Valentine Allan (John Allan’s first wife and Poe’s foster mother), William Galt (John Allan’s uncle who left Allan a fortune), and Rosanna Galt. Although Allan inherited a fortune, he left Edgar Poe out of his will.
This is the grave of John Allan’s oldest son, John Allan, Jr., who died during the Civil War.
Here is the grave of Allan’s second son, William Galt Allan, who also served in the Civil War.
This is the grave of Allan’s third son, Patterson Allan. Like his brothers, Patterson died young. John Allan’s second wife outlived all three of her children.
Above is a photo of the grave of Anne Moore Valentine, Poe’s “Aunt Nancy.” Valentine was the unmarried sister of Poe’s foster mother Frances Valentine Allan, and she lived with the Allans even after Frances Allan’s death in 1829.
This is the grave of Poe’s first and last fiancee, Elmira Royster Shelton. The inscription on this monument is only barely legible, but you can still read the name of Elmira’s husband Alexander Barrett Shelton.
Here is the grave of Poe’s first great love, Jane Stith Craig Stanard, the woman to whom he dedicated his poem “To Helen.” She died from “exhaustion from the mania” when Poe was fifteen, and he and her son are said to have paid frequent visits to her grave in the months after her death.
This plaque was placed at the base of Jane Stanard’s grave in 1923 by Poe Museum founder James H. Whitty and Poe Museum benefactor John W. Robertson. They dedicated the plaque on the first anniversary of the opening of the Poe Museum and considered the event so important that they invited the President of the United States, Warren G. Harding. He declined the invitation with the below letter.
Shockoe Hill Cemetery is also the final resting place to a number of historical figures including the United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, Revolutionary War hero Peter Francisco, and Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew.
Richmond Poe Museum staff on the recently rebuilt steps of the Edgar Allan Poe House in Baltimore
Edgar Allan Poe lived in this small row house from 1832 to 1835. The household also included Poe’s aunt Maria Clemm, as well as Maria’s two children Virginia and Henry, and Poe’s paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Cairnes Poe. Poe would later marry his cousin Virginia. The family was just about able to afford the rent for this house thanks to Grandmother Poe’s pension, which was granted to her because of her late husband’s service to the country during the American Revolution.
David Poe, Sr. (Edgar’s paternal grandfather – b. 1743 d. 1816) strongly sympathized with the American Revolutionary cause and donated a lot of the Poe family fortune to support the Continental Army. He served as Quartermaster General for the city of Baltimore and although his official rank was that of major, he was affectionately known in the city of Baltimore as “General Poe.”
So, Edgar’s connection to the city of Baltimore was very strong. It makes sense that Poe would choose to live with family after his disagreements with his foster father, John Allan and dishonorable discharge from West Point. Life in Baltimore was not easy, the Poe family had little money. They lost Poe’s elder brother, William Henry Leonard Poe, in 1831 before they came to the little house at 203 Amity Street. Grandmother Poe was ailing and bedridden during their time in the house. When Grandmother Poe died in about September 1835, the pension died with her, meaning the family could no longer afford to keep the house. Around the same time, Poe began work at the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond and soon thereafter married his beloved cousin, Virginia.
The lovely Amber, Jessy and Jen with Baltimore Poe House Curator Jeff Jerome and some bottles of cognac left by the fabled “Poe Toaster”
During our visit Jeff Jerome,the curator of the Baltimore Poe House, treated the Poe Museum staff to a wonderful tour of Poe’s Baltimore home as well as Westminster Hall and Westminster Burying Ground where Poe and his family are laid to rest. We were treated to a fabulous surprise performance of “The Tell-Tale Heart” by renowned Baltimore actor and Poe impersonator, Tony Tsendeas and got to see some of the bottles of cognac left by the mysterious Poe Toaster over the years. Many of these bottles are now part of the Baltimore Poe House collection, which also includes a telescope and lap desk used by Poe and an assortment of crystal and china from the Allan home among other things. We checked out the tiny garret bedroom at the top of the house used by Poe (presumably the site where he wrote some of his early tales like “Berenice”).
After our visit to the Poe House, Jeff then took us to Westminster Hall as well as the Westminster Burying Ground and Catacombs.
The Westminster Burying Grounds were established around 1792 and Westminster Presbyterian Church (now de-consecrated and known as Westminster Hall) was built on top of the burying grounds in 1852. The Catacombs were created to allow people access to the resting places of loved ones whose tombs wound up underneath the church. The burying grounds are the final resting place for many famous Baltimoreans including General James McHenry (for whom Fort McHenry was named) and, of course, our beloved Poe and many of his family members.
Spooky Catacombs beneath Westminster Hall
A couple more photos from Westminster Hall and Burying Ground
We paid our respects at BOTH of Poe’s graves on the property. Poe was originally buried in the Poe family burial plot but was moved to his current resting place in 1875. Virginia and Maria are now buried in the same place.
We at the Poe Museum would like to thank Mr. Jerome for allowing us to come visit and for giving us such a wonderful tour of Poe’s Baltimore. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit and we encourage others to pay the Baltimore Poe House and Museum a visit too!
What at first might seem a fictional subject of one of Poe’s more grisly tales, premature burial was actually a legitimate concern in the time of the author’s life. There exist numerous accounts of people being buried alive dating from as far back as the 12th century, and stories abound of exhumed caskets discovered to have scratch marks on the roof when opened. In fact, President George Washington was so terrified of being buried alive that as he lay on his deathbed he begged his servants not to put him in his grave for twelve days to ensure that he was indeed dead.
"The Premature Burial" by Antoine Wiertz (1854) (taken from Wikipedia.org)
If it was scary enough to frighten our first president, who was a fearless war general, you can bet the prospect of being buried alive is pretty terrifying. Poe was aware of the widespread fear of being buried alive (known as taphophobia) and utilized it in a few of his stories such as The Premature Burial, Berenice, and The Fall of the House of Usher. The characters buried alive in these stories suffered from catalepsy, an actual nervous condition that causes muscle rigidity, a decreased reaction to pain, and unconsciousness. All were signs that doctors associated with death.
There were tales of people erroneously declared dead awaking at the morgue reported all the way through the 1890s, and while advances in medicine at this time would have made premature burials less prevalent, there were still preventative measures in place just to make sure. Wakes, which began as an ancient Hebrew tradition to ensure death became the most popular method. During the wake, friends and family would sit near the casket and watch for the earliest signs of decomposition, just to make sure that their deceased loved one had actually died. This burial custom is still used today, though it is not necessarily to ensure that the person is dead.
There was an entire market for caskets and contraptions that would provide extra ways of preventing an individual from suffering a premature burial. Signal bells were installed next to some graves. Attached to a piece of string that would be tied around the deceased’s finger, this string could be pulled to ring the bell and signal a person nearby in the event that the departed was not quite so departed after all. Others had air pipes built into their coffin roofs to allow fresh air to get into the victim, prolonging their life. Still others created vaults that had escape hatches so that the revived person could escape.
Taberger's Safety Coffin (taken from Wikipedia.org)
Premature burial certainly gave new meaning to “rest in peace” as the outcome of being buried alive was anything but peaceful. After being buried, a casket has only a few hours’ worth of oxygen trapped inside of it. If someone was unfortunate enough to wake up, they would inevitably become panic-stricken as they tried to escape; this elevated stress level would cause the individual to consume oxygen at a much higher rate. In this state, they would lose consciousness in less than five minutes and die of asphyxiation in less than half an hour.
Alex Harris, a student who has been doing a research project at the Poe Museum for the past month or so, wrote Poe a fun song which he shared with us (and a tour group) today! Check out the video here:
Thanks for sharing your song with us, Alex! and best of luck with your project!
Welcome to the first installment of the Poe Museum blog’s new monthly feature entitled Weird Richmond. Every month you will find here a new and bizarre tale to satisfy your craving for all things weird. This is history off of the beaten path, full of strange tales of Poe, the times he lived in, and this city that he called home.
"Goethe Deathbed Portrait" Friedrich Preller (1832)
We open Weird Richmond with deathbed portraiture. A deathbed portrait is exactly what it sounds like: a post-mortem image of a deceased person. What we see today as morbid was actually practiced in the 18th and 19th centuries as a means of capturing a final image of the dead for memorial purposes. In fact, many famous individuals have had deathbed portraits made of them, including Martin Luther, Goethe, and Victor Hugo, just to name a few.
Prior to the invention of the daguerreotype method of photography in 1839, deathbed portraits were either sketched or painted by artists. When photography became readily available in the mid-1800s, the deathbed portrait experienced a resurgence of popularity due to the camera’s ability to capture the departed exactly as they would have been upon their deathbed. During this time tuberculosis was running rampant across Europe and the United States, and many deathbed portraits from this time depict victims of what they termed “consumption.”
Virginia Clemm Poe - Deathbed Portrait (1847)
Here at the Poe Museum we have a print of the deathbed portrait of Virginia Clemm Poe, wife and cousin of Edgar Allan Poe. Her portrait was completed mere hours after her death at the age of 24 from tuberculosis, and for many years this was regarded as the only indisputable image of Virginia in existence (since then, another portrait has been validated). Virginia’s portrait is rendered in watercolor, and except for the odd angle that her head rests at, she could pass for still being amongst the living. While it was more common to have the deceased to be shown on their deathbed, some families posed their loved ones in chairs to make it look as if they still lived.
There are a few more modern cases of deathbed portraiture from the past century, most notably images of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie after being assassinated by Serbian nationalists in 1914. Even more recently, British artist Daphne Todd won the BP Portrait Award in 2010 for her deathbed portrait of her mother.
In 1826, Poe left Richmond to attend the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He enrolled at the university on February 14th, 1826. He was part of the second class to matriculate at Mr. Jefferson’s University. While in Charlottesville, Poe studied Ancient and Modern Languages and distinguished himself in both subjects. He appears to have been well-liked by other students and teachers and his room (number 13!) on the West Range at the University was a popular gathering place where Poe would entertain friends with tales of his own devising.
Unfortunately, Poe’s time at the University of Virginia was short-lived. His foster father, John Allan sent him to Charlottesville with insufficient funds to cover Poe’s school expenses. Mr. Allan did not respond to Poe’s requests for financial help, so Edgar resorted to gambling in an attempt to pay his bills. Edgar had no luck at this and wound up about $2000 in debt (bearing in mind that by his estimation, his bills at UVA would have totaled about $350 for the entire year). He left the University of Virginia on the 15th of December 1826 in disgrace.
Poe’s time at UVA has come to be appreciated in the ensuing years and his legacy there is maintained by The Raven Society, a prestigious honor society founded in 1904. The Raven Society lovingly maintains room # 13 on the West Range much as it must have appeared in Poe’s time and sponsors scholarships and fellowships to honor academic excellence.
Here is a picture of Poe’s West Range room from the Raven Society’s website:
Poe's room at the University of Virginia - Raven Society photo
We tracked down Poe’s dorm room on West Range and took pictures (of course!). We are geeks about such things here at the Poe Museum! (Endearing geeks. We hope.)
Jennifer and Melanie in 2 different photos by the door to room #13 West Range
We also checked out the nearby historic marker devoted to Poe and visited the Rotunda, the centerpiece of Jefferson’s plan for the University. (It would still have been under construction when Poe was there.)
Jennifer with Eddy’s historical marker
The UVA Rotunda on the day of our visit – it was a bit cloudy, but rather appropriately atmospheric under the circumstances
For more information on Poe at the University of Virginia, check out the Raven Society’s website – it’s worth the visit!