“Burton not only lies, but deliberately and wilfully lies . . . Were I in your place I would take some summary method of dealing with the scoundrel, whose infamous line of conduct in regard to this whole premium scheme merits, and shall receive exposure.”-Poe to Joseph Snodgrass, June 17, 1840
Many may be familiar with the fact that Poe worked for multiple editors during the 1830s-1840s, including Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine; however, many may not know that Burton, Poe’s eccentric, conniving manager was a comedic-thespian during his day before becoming owner of his magazine, which would only run for about four years.
So, how did this actor-turned-magazine enthusiast become manager of his own magazine, and why did he and Poe have a strained relationship?
William E. Burton came to Philadelphia from London in 1834, according to William L. Keese in William E. Burton, and first appeared in September of that year at the Arch Street Theater (4). This was not his first time acting, however, for he, according to his private journal obtained by Keese, wrote while in England, “‘July 19, 1825. Opened at the theater in Southern to only 50 shillings. In Ollapod, eighth time, in the ‘Hunter of the Alps.’ I sang the comic song of ‘Gaby Grundy’s Courtship'” (46). Therefore, he had already made his footing in theater. In fact, his first performance in Philadelphia was as Ollapod (46).
From William E. Burton by Keese
After establishing himself in his new home, he contributed to periodicals with articles that were “sketches of life and character made lively by touches of humor, and not infrequently a story would appear of graver import, often rendered somber by the introduction of a weird element” (5). He later published his own collection of pieces, “Waggeries and Vagaries.” His establishment in the literary and publishing field may have inspired him to start his own magazine, known as The Gentleman’s Magazine, in 1837-this would become known to Poe as Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine. Burton included his own articles in the magazine, including a notable sketch of his friend, Wallack (6).
Keese explains that Poe was associated with Burton in the conduct of a magazine about this time, however, “though Burton was disposed to be indulgent and friendly towards his associate, the comedian and the poet did not pull well together, and the relationship was severed” (9). This is when the magazine was sold to George Rex Graham, Poe’s future employer at Graham’s Magazine.
In Joseph Jefferson’s autobiography, he states, “Burton’s ambition to succeed in the various tasks he had set himself was strongly fortified by his quick apprehension and great versatility. He was at the same time managing the Arch Street Theater in Philadelphia, the Chambers Street Theater in New-York, acting nightly, and studying new characters as fast as they came out. In addition to these professional duties, he was building a country residence at Glen Cove, writing stories for the magazines, and taking prizes at the horticultural shows for hot-house grapes and flowers” (10). Not only was Burton interested in the theater and writing, but also horticulture, and, later stated, books-he carried with him to New York a library of over twelve-thousand volumes, which then grew to twenty-thousand before his death in 1860 (11).
We have established Burton’s acting career and its launch, as well as mentioned the magazine he managed and hired Poe under. Poe had already worked for the Southern Literary Messenger in his hometown of Richmond, so he had already begun forming and practicing excellent, albeit biased and sometimes very harsh editorship skills. But how did Poe come to know Burton, and why did they have that falling out previously mentioned?
From William E. Burton by Keese
Burton seemed as amiable of a boss as Poe could have had, although Burton’s daughters later recalled that their father “loved his children, but at all times demanded strict obedience…” (20). This implies a rough edge to Burton’s facade of being a comedic, genial gentleman. Would Poe have also had these strict holds on him while working under Burton?
Poe’s works were initially rejected by Burton. However, if we look at some of the material written by Poe published just a few months after being hired, including “The Fall of the House of Usher,” we can infer that Poe’s restrictions were gradually lifted. What appears to be very significant in the publishing of a story like “Usher” is that it was horrific, different, and potentially scarring to Burton’s readers. Burton was taking a risk for his magazine, just as White’s Southern Literary Messenger had done with Poe’s stories. The fact that these stories were being published, if even briefly for Burton’s, seems relatively positive in light of their relationship.
That Poe was an excellent editor wasn’t a question to Burton, who wrote in an announcement of the June, 1839 issue, “William E. Burton, Editor and Proprietor, has much pleasure in stating that he has made arrangements with Edgar A. Poe, Esq., late Editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, to devote his abilities and experience to a portion of the Editorial duties of the Gentleman’s Magazine” (EAPoe). Burton had full confidence in his new editor.
From William E. Burton by Keese
Not only might they have gotten along as colleagues, but also as acquaintances, for Poe might have found common ground with Burton in the fact that Burton was a thespian, just like Poe’s biological parents. With Poe’s appreciation for theater, as well as literature, one might surmise that Burton and Poe would have had well-mannered conversations regarding these subjects.
Unfortunately, these weren’t enough for the proprietor and his assistant’s relationship, and their ultimate falling out occurred. In Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography, Arthur Hobson Quinn explains that Poe wrote all of the reviews between the July and August issues, which were Burton’s responsibility (283). He follows this up with another statement, “Burton began to feature his own name on the front wrappers with larger display type. Yet Poe was acting as Editor during Burton’s absences on the road” (293). Finally, a letter by Charles W. Alexander on October 20, 1850, reminisces,
…I well remember his [Poe’s] connection with the “Gentleman’s Magazine,” of which Mr. Burton was editor, and myself the publisher, at the period referred to in connection with Mr. Poe.
The absence of the principal editor on professional duties left the matter frequently in the hands of Mr. Poe, whose unfortunate failing may have occasioned some disappointment in the preparation of a particular article expected from him, but never interfering with the regular publication of the “Gentleman’s Magazine,” as its monthly issue was never interrupted upon any occasion, either from Mr. Poe’s deficiency, or from any other cause, during my publication of it, embracing the whole time of Mr. Poe’s connection with it. That Mr. Poe had faults seriously detrimental to his own interests, none, of course, will deny. They were unfortunately, too well known in the literary circles of Philadelphia, were there any disposition to conceal them. But he alone was the sufferer, and not those who received the benefit of his pre-eminent talents, however irregular his habits or uncertain his contributions may have occasionally have been (297).
With a fair perspective from a bystander, may we approach more of the happenstance between Burton and Poe. Although a supposed letter from Burton to Poe, to which Poe responded to, is lost, Poe responds to said “ghost” letter with the following,
Sir,-I find myself at leisure this Monday morning, June 1, to notice your very singular letter of Sunday, and you shall now hear what I have to say. In the first place, your attempts to bully me excite in my mind scarcely any other sentiment than mirth. When you address me again, preserve, if you can, the dignity of a gentleman. If by accident you have taken it into your head that I am to be insulted with impunity I can only assume that you are an ass. This one point being distinctly understood I shall feel myself more at liberty to be explicit. As for the rest, you do me gross injustice; and you know it (297-298).
He goes on to chastise Burton for making him write 11 pages per month on average, not the supposed 2 or 3 that were, apparently, asked of Poe in the beginning (299). He then continues,
At first I wrote long articles which you deemed inadmissible, [sic] & never did I suggest any to which you had not some immediate and decided objection. Of course I grew discouraged & could feel no interest in the Journal. I am at a loss to know why you call me selfish. If you mean that I borrowed money of you-you know that you offered it-and you know that I am poor. In what instance has any one ever found me selfish…You first “enforced,” as you say, a deduction of salary…You next spoke disrespectfully of me behind my back…Lastly, you advertised your magazine for sale without saying a word to me about it. I felt no anger at what you did-none in the world (299-300). [Note: Quinn states that this letter may have been a rough draft copy of the one sent to Burton; however, Mrs. Richmond, when enclosing the letter to biographer John Ingram, explained that it was “a perfect copy…precisely like the original” (300).]
Amidst all of this, the rumor of Burton’s getting rid of the magazine to attend to his own prospective theater had gotten to Poe, as well as come true, for Burton’s theatrical project premiered in the opening of the National Theater on Chestnut Street on August 31, 1840. Because of this, any sort of break between the two was inevitable. As for Burton’s managerial skills, and describing the sort of treatment Poe underwent, Francis C. Wemyss, manager of the Walnut Street Theater, states of Burton, “As an actor, Mr. W. E. Burton has no superior on the American Stage-but as a manager, his faults are, first, want of nerve to fight a losing battle; in success he is a great general, but in any sudden reverse, his first thought is not to maintain his position, but to retreat” (301).
In the end, Burton’s magazine was sold to Graham, Poe was, for the most part, transferred, and the name William E. Burton left a sour taste in Poe’s mouth. Not only did Poe confide in Snodgrass that he was convinced that it was never Burton’s intention to stay true to the initial offer he had given Poe before taking the job, but in an April 1, 1841 letter to Snodgrass as well, he implied that Burton had spread rumors regarding Poe’s drinking habits (301-303). (Don’t let the date it was written fool you, for Poe was not in the least joking in this letter.)
But who ultimately won in the end? One could argue that Burton won, for he sought his theatrical pursuits free of debt and any nightmarish effects Poe and Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine may have had on him. As for Poe, he continued working only for nine more years thereafter, consistently impoverished, getting into literary and editorial brawls with writers such as Longfellow and editors such as Griswold, and riding a rollercoaster of slight gain and immense loss.
Ultimately, when the two parted, Burton returned to playing his characters, where as Poe continued writing his own.
With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, we thought the Poe Museum’s Object of the Month for February should be a memento of Poe’s “first and last love.”
Shelton’s CDV of Poe
Edgar Allan Poe was a distasteful subject in Elmira Royster Shelton’s home. In fact, her daughter forbade her to mention his name in her presence. For decades, the widow Shelton refused requests for interviews about her famous fiancée, and, when she finally agreed to answer some questions from Richmond historian Edward Valentine in 1874, she denied that she and Poe had ever been engaged. Scholars eventually questioned whether they had been or if the engagement was just one of the many legends that have grown up about Poe’s love life. After all, a number of women had emerged to claim their place as inspirations for his poetry. While one of Poe’s lady friends legally changed her name to match the nickname Poe had given her and while yet another held séances to communicate with his spirit, Elmira Shelton lived a quiet life in Virginia, attended church regularly, and revered the memory of her late husband. But, to her death, she kept this tiny photograph of the author as a memento of the poet.
Elmira Royster Shelton
The facts of Poe’s relationship with Shelton are already well known, even if some of the details have been obscured by time or disputed by historians. It is known that they first met in Richmond when Poe was fifteen and Shelton, about fifteen. James Whitty, a Poe collector who interviewed her in her later years, told Poe biographer Mary Phillps that Shelton been a “beautiful girl” who “was fond of all the boys, but liked Edgar best, while he was interested in all the girls but lingered longest with Elmira.” Her father was the merchant James Royster, who disapproved of the attention the orphan Poe was paying his daughter. Shelton later told Valentine, “He was a beautiful boy — Not very talkative. When he did talk though he was pleasant but his general manner was sad…” In an 1884 interview with John Moran, she related, “We spent much of our time together when we were children. They play the same piano, sang songs, and took walks through a neighbor’s walled garden together. By one account, the Presbyterian Elmira accompanied Poe and his foster mother Frances Allan to Sunday services at Monumental Episcopal Church.
It is believed that Poe and Elmira became secretly engaged before he left to attend the University of Virginia. One source, Shelton descendant Belle Fitzhugh, wrote the Poe Museum in the 1940s that she owned a letter Elmira had written to her own mother telling her about the engagement. That letter, however, disappeared after Fitzhugh’s death.
“Our acquaintance was kept up until he left to go to the University,” Shelton later told Valentine, “and during the time he was at the University he wrote to me frequently, but my father intercepted the letters because we were too young — no other reason.”
By the time Poe returned to Richmond after his first—and only—term at the University, she had engaged herself to the wealthy Alexander Barrett Shelton who had a shipping business on the canal. They were married a year later, in 1828, when he was twenty-one and she was eighteen. After their marriage, Mrs. Shelton was baptized at St. John’s Episcopal Church at the age of twenty-four.
The break from Elmira had sent Poe on a different path. Having accumulated so much debt at the University that he was unable to continue his studies, Poe went to work in an unpaid position at his foster father John Allan’s export business. After three months of increasingly heated arguments with Allan, Poe stormed out of his guardian’s house in a quest “to find some place in this wide world, where I will be treated — not as you have treated me.” The following day, Poe wrote Allan for money to facilitate this quest.
When Poe finally returned to Richmond in 1835, the twenty-six year old writer had published three books of poetry and had seen his poems and short stories published in newspapers and magazines. In fact, his first story to be printed in a nationally circulated magazine was “The Visionary,” which told of a young man hopelessly in love with a beautiful young woman who is married to a much older man she does not really love.
Poe had also met one of Elmira’s close friends, Mary Winfree of Chesterfield County, Virginia. She is said to have assured Poe that Elmira did not really love Alexander Shelton.
While in Richmond, Poe found employment at the Southern Literary Messenger and married his cousin Virginia. Shortly after the marriage, Mr. and Mrs. Poe attended a party where they encountered Mr. and Mrs. Shelton. Elmira later wrote to Poe’s aunt Mara Clemm that “I remember seeing Edgar, & his lovely wife, very soon after they were married — I met them — I never shall forget my feelings at the time — They were indescribable, almost agonizing— ‘However in an instant,’ I remembered that I was a married woman, and banished them from me, as I would a poisonous reptile…”
Within a year, Poe and his bride moved to New York, not to return to Richmond for over a decade. The Sheltons had four children, two of whom died young. The surviving children, Ann Elizabeth and Alexander, did not have much time to know their father before his death in 1843 at the age of thirty-seven. He is said to have died from pneumonia after having leapt into the freezing James River to rescue a drowning man. The only problem is that he died on July 12, in the middle of a hot Richmond summer, so his exact cause of death is unknown.
Alexander Shelton’s Grave in Shockoe Hill Cemetery, Richmond
Alexander’s death forced Elmira into a period of Victorian mourning. A proper lady like Elmira was expected to follow the etiquette of mourning, which dictated her behavior, clothing, and even her stationery for the next four five years. As her period of mourning drew to a close in 1848, she wrote a cousin, Philip Fitzhugh, “I am fearful Cousin Philip, that I shall never be a happy woman again…” Shelton had certainly changed since Poe had known her. One of their mutual acquaintances, Susan Archer Talley Weiss, described her as “a tall, rather masculine-looking woman, who drew her veil over her face as she passed us on the porch, though I caught a glimpse of large, shadowy, light blue eyes which must once have been handsome.”
Edward Alfriend, who knew Shelton, had a very different view of her appearance:
When I knew Mrs. Shelton she had a lovely, almost saintly face. Her eyes were a deep blue, her hair dark brown, touched with grey, her nose thin and patrician, her forehead high and well developed, her chin finely modeled, projecting and firm, and her cheeks round and full. Her voice was very low, soft and sweet, her manners exquisitely refined, and intellectually she was a woman of education and force of character. Her distinguishing qualities were gentleness and womanliness. She was just the woman in which such a perturbed spirit as that of Poe would have sought rest and found it.
Shelton was also gifted in business. In the six years since her husband’s death she had increased her $60,000 inheritance to about $70,000 at a time when American women still had few rights.
Then Poe reentered her life. As she told Valentine,
I was ready to go to church and a servant told me that a gentleman in the parlour wanted to see me. I went down and was amazed to see him — but knew him instantly — He came up to me in the most enthusiastic manner and said: “Oh! Elmira, is this you?” That very morning I told him I was going to church, that I never let anything interfere with that, that he must call again and when he did call again he renewed his addresses.
Since leaving Richmond, Poe had moved from New York to Philadelphia and back to New York, working at some of the nation’s leading periodicals and becoming a literary celebrity along the way. While living outside New York, in the village of Fordham, his wife died after a prolonged battle with tuberculosis. The only alleviation from the crippling depression that ensued seemed to be the friendly admirers who came to Fordham to visit the famous poet. By the time he resumed his lecture tour in 1848, he was desperate to find a new wife to fill the void left by Virginia’s absence. His travels brought him from Fordham to Richmond to Providence and back to Richmond. Along the way, he became fixated on Nancy Richmond of Lowell, Massachusetts. Unfortunately, she was happily married at the time, so he turned his attention to Providence, Rhode Island where an eccentric widow named Sarah Helen Whitman had addressed a Valentine’s Day poem to him. She closed the poem by expressing her desire to share a “lofty eyrie” with the “raven.” When he read a copy of her Valentine, Poe dropped everything to visit her in Providence, and proposed to her on their first meeting. She declined, and he attempted suicide. About two weeks later, she accepted his proposal on the condition that he abstain from drinking. The engagement only lasted a month.
Elmira Shelton’s House on Church Hill, Richmond
Less than a year later, Poe showed up on Elmira Shelton’s doorstep. He was in town to lecture at the Exchange Hotel and to sell his essays to the Southern Literary Messenger, which was by then under new ownership. Although she had initially refused to receive him, Poe soon became a frequent visitor. On one such visit, Shelton later recalled, “he looked very serious and said he was in earnest and had been thinking about it for a long time. Then I found out that he was very serious and I became serious. I told him if he would not take a positive denial he must give me time to consider of it. And he said a love that hesitated was not a love for him.”
On August 29, Poe wrote his aunt Maria Clemm, “And now let me tell you all about Elmira as well as I can in a letter. — We are solemnly engaged to be married within the coming month (Septr) — but I make no doubt that in a week or 10 days, all will be over.”
According to the letter, Shelton tried to postpone the wedding until January, so Poe stormed out and went to his sister’s house in the country. Then Shelton “went out to Mackenzie’s after me & all about town — so that every body knows of our engagement. It was reported, indeed, that we were married last Thursday.”
Ann Elizabeth Shelton on left
But there was some strong opposition to the match. Poe’s sister Rosalie Poe disliked Shelton, who had tried to discourage her from annoying Edgar by following him everywhere he went. Additionally, Shelton’s married daughter opposed the marriage because, in Poe’s opinion, Ann Elizabeth’s “pecuniary interests will be injured…” The problem was a stipulation in Shelton’s late husband’s will stating that, if she ever remarried, she would lose three quarters of her inheritance, which would still leave her more money than Poe had made from his entire twenty-two year career as a writer. Poe, of course, had struggled with poverty his entire adult life and made plans to save $500 a year by educating her son Southall himself at home. The ten-year-old would have probably hated the idea. He is known to have mocked Poe behind his back while Ann Elizabeth giggled uncontrollably.
Poe had other plans for the marriage. In addition to expressing his intention to move with Elmira to a cottage in the country, he also wanted to bring Maria Clemm to Richmond to live with them. She accepted the plan, writing Clemm, “I am fully prepared to love you, and I do sincerely hope that our spirits may be congenial — There shall be nothing wanting on my part to make them so…”
If Elmira was looking forward to the wedding, Poe still had doubts. He wrote Maria Clemm, “There is one other thing, too, dear mother, which drives me frantic — my love for Annie — I worship her beyond all human love. My passion for her grows stronger every day. I dare not, at this crisis, either speak or think of her — if I did I should go mad…Indeed, indeed, there is no expressing or conceiving the devotion I have for her. My love for her will never, never cease, either in this world or the next.”
A couple weeks later, Poe wrote Clemm, “I confess that my heart sinks at the idea of this marriage. I think, however, that it will certainly take place & that immediately.” Just eight days after writing that letter, Poe wrote Clemm again, this time making plans to meet her in New York to bring her back to Richmond for the wedding. By then, he expressed his renewed devotion to Elmira, writing, “I think she loves me more devotedly than any one I ever knew & I cannot help loving her in return.” In spite of his poverty, Poe bought Elmira extravagant gifts including a gold locket containing a lock of his hair, a gold wedding ring, and a daguerreotype of himself. Meanwhile, the hotel in which he had been staying confiscated his luggage until he could pay his bill.
Shelton’s Daguerreotype of Poe ruined during a cleaning attempt
Regardless, Poe was in good spirits. He visited the office of the Southern Literary Messenger, where, as the editor John Rueben Thompson recalled, “The evening before his departure from Richmond he was with me and spoke in the highest spirits of his resolves and prospects for the future. He had become a Son of Temperance and was soon to be married to a lady here.” By joining the Sons of Temperance, Poe pledged to abstain from drinking alcohol.
On his last night in Richmond, Poe spent the evening with Elmira. He complained of feeling sick, and she thought he seemed “very sad.” The next morning, he caught a steamship to Baltimore, where he died ten days later.
Poe spent his last four days in a Baltimore hospital under the care of Dr. John J. Moran who noted a month later in a letter to Maria Clemm, “He told me…he had a wife in Richmond (which, I have since learned was not the fact).” The “wife” to whom Poe referred could have been Elmira.
Elmira was stunned to read about Poe’s death in the newspaper and frantically wrote Maria Clemm, “Oh! how shall I address you, my dear, and deeply afflicted friend under such heart-rending circumstances? I have no doubt, ere this, you have heard of the death of our dear Edgar! yes, he was the dearest object on earth to me… Oh! my dearest friend! I cannot begin to tell you what my feelings were, as the horrible truth forced itself upon me! It was the most severe trial I have ever had; and God alone knows how I can bear it!”
By the time of Poe’s death, word had already spread about his engagement. The day after Poe’s funeral, his friend John Pendleton Kennedy wrote in his diary, that Poe “was soon to be married to a lady in Richmond of quite good fortune.” Poe’s acquaintance and editor of the Richmond Semi-Weekly Examiner John Moncure Daniel, wrote, “It was universally reported that [Poe] was engaged to be married. The lady was a widow, of wealth and beauty, who was an old flame of his, and whom he declared to be the ideal and original of his Lenore.”
Others believed the engagement had been broken before Poe left Richmond. Dr. John Carter, whose house Poe visited immediately after his last evening at the Shelton house, wrote in 1902, “I had not seen Poe for some days, when he one evening, about half-past nine o’clock, called at my office, which, being on Seventeenth and Broad Streets, had afforded him a half-way resting-place between Duncan Lodge and the residence of Mrs. Shelton, on Church Hill, during his brief engagement to that lady. As was well known to his intimate friends, the engagement was broken off before he left Richmond, though whether afterwards resumed is not certain.”
A friend of Poe’s sister’s, Susan Archer Talley Weiss, wrote in 1904, “He himself always denied, even in public, that any engagement existed between himself and Mrs. Shelton, and spoke of the schoolboy love affair with her as a case of ‘measles.’” Weiss believed that Poe could only been interested in marrying Shelton for her money because Shelton was “not gifted with those traits which might be supposed capable of attracting one of his peculiar taste and temperament.” But Weiss does mention in the same account that “Mrs. Shelton, on Poe’s death, donned ‘widow’s weeds’ of the deepest mourning.”
Weiss also reported that Shelton’s neighbor, the former Civil War spy Elizabeth Van Lew, told her, “I used at first to often see Mr. Poe enter there, but never during the latter part of his stay in Richmond. It seemed to be known about here that the engagement was off. . . . Gossip had it that Mrs. Shelton discarded him because persuaded by friends that he was after her money. All her relatives are said to be opposed to the match.”
If Poe had been a celebrity during his lifetime, he became a legend after his death. Countless newspapers printed his obituary, and magazines carried accounts of his life. Rufus Griswold printed a memoir of the author, and Sarah Helen Whitman wrote her own Poe biography a few years later. John Rueben Thompson started deliver a lecture about “The Genius and Character of Edgar Allan Poe.” It seems almost everyone who had ever met the author started telling their story to any journalist who would listen. A number of women from Poe’s life were eager to alert the media that they were the inspiration for “Annabel Lee,” “Lenore,” or some other Poe poem. Elmira, however, refused to speak about her former fiancé. When she finally did answer a few questions from Edward Valentine, she insisted, “He never addressed any poems to me.”
After Poe’s death, Shelton continued to live in her Church Hill home, spurning the advances of potential suitors. Southall fought and lost an eye in the Civil War. Ann Elizabeth moved with her husband John Henry Leftwich to Ashland, Virginia. After the War, Elmira fell on hard times, eventually selling the locket, mother-of-pearl purse, drawing, and daguerreotype Poe had given her. At some point, she gave her wedding ring—with Poe’s name inscribed inside the band—to Poe’s sister Rosalie MacKenzie Poe.
Ann Elizabeth Shelton Leftwich
Around 1870, Shelton left Richmond to move in with her daughter in Ashland. After all those years, Ann Elizabeth still detested Poe, forbidding her mother to mention his name in her presence. Ann Elizabeth’s daughter Jennie Leftwich Wright later recalled, “The feeling of my mother was so strong against Mr. Poe and any association of his name with my grandmother’s that even as an old lady my mother would become incensed whenever their names were linked.”
By 1875, Shelton was living in a house on Clay Street in Richmond. She revered the memory of her husband and rarely spoke of Poe. The only person permitted to mention the poet was her favorite grandson, Southall’s son Alexander F. Shelton, who occasionally called out, “Well, Lost Lenore?” when she returned from visiting friends. To this she insisted she was most certainly not the “Lost Lenore.” Incidentally, the home in which she briefly lived in Ashland is listed on the National Record of Historic Places as the “Lost Lenore” House.
When she finally agreed to speak with Valentine, she insisted she had never been engaged to Poe: “He [continued] to visit me frequently but I never engaged myself to him. He begged me when he was going away to marry him. Promised he would be everything I could desire.”
In 1884, when Poe’s attending physician John J. Moran was preparing his own biography of Poe, he requested an interview, and Elmira accepted. On meeting her, he observed that “though in feeble health and well advanced in years, her face indicates a peaceful mind and a joyous hope of the rest beyond.”
He spoke with her for four hours during which “she talked freely with me of their childhood and riper years when they were in each other’s company.” He later quoted her as telling him, “I am lost in wonder and amazement at the singular drama now being enacted. Oh, sir, you can have no idea of the thoughts that have so crowded upon my memory and occupied my mind. How often I have wished to see his physician, so that I could learn from his own lips Mr. Poe’s dying words. And to think that so many years after his death, we are face to face, reviewing his life, from his childhood to his grave. All this I have anxiously hoped for before I should die, and it is now fulfilled.” She wept the tears with her handkerchief as she spoke.
Four years later, Elmira was dead. Her February 12, 1888 obituary in the Richmond Whig, entitled “Poe’s First and Last Love,” began, “One more of the few ties that prominently connect the name of Edgar Allan Poe to earth has been broken.” The article’s eleven paragraphs told of Poe’s life, his engagement to Sarah Helen Whitman, his marriage to Virginia Clemm, and nothing about Shelton’s life apart from him. Her granddaughter had grown up with no idea that her grandmother had once known a famous writer, but there was no missing the fact after the publication of that obituary.
Although Elmira Shelton had long-since sold almost all her mementos of Poe, she kept a tiny albumen print photograph of him until her death. It is unknown when or where she got the picture, but she must have acquired it at least twenty years after Poe’s death because the pastel portrait depicted in the photo was not created until 1868 and probably not reproduced until 1870.
The photograph is stamped “Lee Gallery, Richmond VA,” so she could have received it from any of her friends in the city or even from Poe’s sister, who resorted to selling photographs of her famous brother in the lean times after the Civil War. Rosalie Poe is said to have considered this portrait the best likeness of Poe, so copies of it could be among those she sold.
After Shelton’s death, the photograph was among her possessions that passed to her daughter Ann Elizabeth Shelton to Ann Elizabeth’s daughter Lou Newton Leftwich Coghill to her son daughter Bessie Coghill Cobb to her sons Maj. William Magruder Cobb and Thomas Tracy Cobb. William and Thomas Cobb donated their collection of Shelton family photographs and portraits to the Poe Museum in 1979. In addition to the photograph of Poe, the group includes two photographs of Ann Elizabeth Shelton Leftwich, a miniature of James Royster, a photograph of John Henry Leftwich, two photographs of Elmira Shelton’s sister, and one of two known daguerreotypes of Elmira Shelton.
Daguerreotype of Elmira Shelton donated by the Cobbs
Ever since Poe’s death, various scholars have tried to dismiss the possibility that Poe and Elmira were engaged at the time of his death, but evidence has emerged to lend support to claims made by Poe, Thompson, Kennedy, Daniel, and Shelton herself that they really were engaged and very likely would have married if his life had not been cut short just days before the ceremony was to have taken place. The truth is we can never be certain whether or not Poe would have married Shelton and finally settled down into a comfortable upper-class life for the first time in his adult life. All that remains as evidence of their relationship are some second-hand accounts, a couple letters, and a few scattered artifacts, among which is the Poe Museum’s photograph.
The albumen print carte-de-visite is slightly smaller than a baseball card. Poe’s image emerges in slightly faded sepia tones on one side. On the back of the photograph, Elmira wrote the name “Edgar Allan Poe” in handwriting clearly recognizable from her letters. Above her signature is written in a different handwriting, “Poe’s picture kept by Elmira Royster/ WMC [William M. Cobb] 1950/ Writing below probably/ Elmira Royster’s.” There is no other evidence to suggest what this photograph—or its subject—meant to her.
Back of CDV
Today the Poe Museum devotes a case to Elmira Royster Shelton. In it are displayed a handful of items donated by Shelton’s descendants. Her spectacles, a daguerreotype of her, a miniature of her father, a copy of a drawing Poe made of her, a photograph of her daughter, and a selection of other artifacts serve to tell the story of a love that could have been.
Do you have friends or family in for the holidays but you’re not sure what to do with them? Bring them to the Poe!! Below are our hours for this week. Please note that we’re closing early on Christmas Eve and will be closed on Christmas, but we’re open for business as usual on December 26.
Tuesday, 12/22: 10-5
Wednesday, 12/23: 10-5
Thursday, 12/24: 10-3
Friday, 12/25: CLOSED
Saturday, 12/26: 10-5
Sunday, 12/27: 11-5
Wishing you all a very happy and safe holiday season!
Several weeks ago, a group of Poe fans telephoned the Poe Museum in Richmond to complain that they had scheduled a tour for that day, and had just arrived only to find that the museum was closed. The Poe Museum assured them that they were, indeed, open and to come right in. The group insisted that the door was locked and the windows were dark. Suspicious, the museum representative asked where exactly they were. Quoth the tourists “Baltimore.”
Wrong museum. And who could blame them? For Poe fans, there is no Walden Pond. A pilgrimage for us does not end at one tidily preserved home-turned-museum like it does for fans of some well-known authors. Along the East Coast, there are no fewer than eight major destinations associated with Poe. Differentiating between the Poe Cottage, Poe Museum, Poe House and Museum (also known as Poe Baltimore), the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site, two graves, and his birthplace in Boston can be problematic to say the least. And this is without considering the Poe Arch at West Point, his dorm room at the University of Virginia, and Sullivan’s Island in Charleston.
There have been efforts over the past 166 years to recognize one of the cities associated with the master of the macabre as the Poe-est place of all. This would not only give one lucky city highly-coveted bragging rights, but would also provide fans with a more contained, convenient Poe experience. Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Richmond have positioned themselves as the main contenders for playing host to Poe’s legacy. Each has a unique and valid reason for claiming Poe, but despite their best efforts, Poe refuses to be claimed.
Poe was born in Boston, but he grew up in Richmond, and died in Baltimore. He wrote many of his finest works in Philadelphia, but “The Raven” was not finished until New York, where he would watch his wife succumb to tuberculosis. The man simply would not stay put.
Much of this was, of course, due to his persistent lack of funds. Always on the brink of financial ruin, Poe went wherever he felt he could turn his literary and editorial talents into cold, hard cash.
The biggest mistake that can be made, however, is to assume that Poe’s lifestyle was driven solely by financial embarrassments. Throughout his career, he led a quiet revolt against the idea of rooting oneself and one’s writing in a single location.
An example of this can be found in his tenure as editor of the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond.
As the name suggests, the Messenger was founded to encourage the creation of Southern literature. As editor, Poe was supposed to contribute articles and stories dealing with issues unique to genteel, Southern culture. It was his chance to show the world that he was a Richmonder (if not born, then certainly bred). Had he done what was expected of him, the Poe Museum would probably be the undisputed capitol of Poe-dom.
But Poe did no such thing. Instead, his first short story for the Messenger was set in an unidentified (but definitely not southern) region, and featured a protagonist with a Greek name who digs up his deceased fiancée in order to extract her teeth. It’s worth noting that the same issue also featured pieces entitled “The Village Pastor’s Wife,” “Sketch of Virginia Scenery,” “Courtship and Marriage,” and “To the Bible.”
Poe’s “Berenice” was not a rejection of Richmond or Southern culture—merely a rejection of regionalism. For Poe people, this little act of rebellion is both irritating and oddly freeing. We will never be able to pin him down, never be able to contain his weird and wonderful legacy in one convenient location. But is that such a bad thing?
A Poe pilgrimage makes for an epic road trip. Tracking his legacy will take the stout of heart (and car) from the boom of Boston to the wilds of South Carolina. The Poe experience is unlike any other because Poe was unlike any other.
In short, the group that found itself in Baltimore instead of Richmond had the right idea. Getting lost in what J.W. Ocker calls “Poe-Land” is both incredibly rewarding, and is possibly the best way to pay homage to Poe’s life.
But of course, we don’t want you to stay lost. If you’re looking for the Poe Museum, our address is 1914 East Main Street, Richmond, Virginia. We love visitors, and Pluto and Edgar (our black cats) love a good massage.
What do a gangsta rap group from the 1990’s and a melancholy poet from the 1840’s have in common? Listen here to find out. In addition to writing poems and novels Poe also performed his works of poetry and some of his criticisms.
“On that last night, as the shadows fell across him, it must have been the horrors of shipwreck, of thirst, and of drifting away into unknown seas of darkness that troubled his last dreams, for, by some trick of his ruined brain, it was the scenes of Arthur Gordon Pym that rose in his imagination, and the man who was connected most intimately with them. ‘Reynolds!’ he called, ‘Reynolds!, Oh, Reynolds!’ The room rang with it. It echoed down the corridors hour after hour all that Saturday night” (Allen Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe, 846-47).
The legend of Poe shouting Reynolds on his deathbed is mysterious and attention grabbing, but nobody has figured out who this infamous Reynolds was. Many theories revolve around the ambiguous name, and below are some of the theories we’ve come up with.
According to W. T. Bandy in his article, “Dr. Moran and the Poe-Reynolds Myth,” “‘[His] state continued until Saturday evening . . . when he commenced calling for one “Reynolds,” which he did through the night up to three on Sunday morning.’” This would be the start of the Reynolds mystery.
James A. Harrison, who published a letter written to Maria Clemm, stated that Reynolds may have been the author of the “Address on the subject of a Surveying and Exploring Expedition to the Pacific Ocean and the South Seas,” which may have given Poe ideas for his novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. This address, presented in the Southern Literary Messenger January 1837, by Jeremiah N. Reynolds, was a proposal for exploring the Pacific and South seas for the benefit of Whale Fishing expansion. Under the header of this article is the note, “Critical Notes by Edgar A. Poe, Editor.” Because we know Edgar worked for the Southern Literary Messenger, these two coincide and this brings light to the idea that this Reynolds, whose article Poe edited, may have been the Reynolds whom Poe spoke aloud for.
Arthur Hobson Quinn, in his biography, Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography, backs up this theory by writing,
On Saturday night he began to yell loudly for “Reynolds!” Perhaps to his dim and tortured brain, he seemed to be on the brink of a great descending circle sweeping down like the phantom ship in the “Manuscript Found in a Bottle” into “darkness and distance.” In that first published story, Poe had written, “It is evident we are hurrying onward to some exciting knowledge – some never to be imparted secret, whose attainment is destruction. Perhaps this current leads to the South Pole itself.” It would have been natural enough for his favorite theme, the terror of the opening chasm, to lead his thoughts to that other story, Arthur Gordon Pym, and from that to Jeremiah Reynolds, projector of the voyages to the South Seas, whose very language he had used in that tale. He could easily have known Reynolds, but what led to his wild cries must still remain uncertain (640).
Something to note is that there is also a J. N. Reynolds who appears in a bankruptcy petition written by Poe, from 1842. This Reynolds, who most likely is the same Reynolds noted above, had given ten dollars to Poe. Not only did Poe edit Reynolds address, but Poe owed him money, and thus we surmise the two had remained in some form of contact until this point.
Another example of a Reynolds is a gentleman in Baltimore who was a carpenter serving at the Fourth Ward Polls as election judge, Henry R. Reynolds. However, this is the extent of our knowledge regarding this fellow, so we can neither completely validate, nor deny this gentleman being the true Reynolds. Something to note regarding this Reynolds is that this may potentially tie into a popular theory of Poe’s death, the “cooping” theory. This theory involved ambassadors for political figures going about town and snatching victims, who they would strip of and replace their own clothes, send them to polls and force them to stuff ballots. Could it be that, because Henry Reynolds was involved in the political campaigns at the same time these events regarding Poe occurred, he may have caused wrong to Poe or may have been involved in some way to the point where Poe would cry out his last name?
John Evangelist Walsh in Midnight Dreary, states,
Even now, to the little mystery there can be added only one new fact, small but rather interesting. As newspapers of the day record, at Ryan’s Fourth Ward polls in Gunner’s Hall on election day, one of the three presiding judges was a man who bore the name of Henry R. Reynolds. Present in the same room as Poe on October 3rd at Ryan’s place, only days before he began in his delirium to call out the name, was an actual, flesh-and-blood Reynolds (122).
Walsh goes on to suggest, however, that, “The sodden brain may simply have picked up a sound it heard spoken in the haze of the noisy room, sparking some far-drawn memory” (122).
Although Walsh paints a potential portrait of the Reynolds theory, he even discounts the facts.
This leads us to indicate that there are, unfortunately, inconsistencies with the account of Poe shouting “Reynolds,” not only based on what we’ve found, but also based on revised and re-revised versions of Moran’s story. The first account was given in 1849. By his account in 1875, he claimed, “I had sent for his cousin, Nelson Poe [sic], having learned that he was his relative, and a family named Reynolds, who lived in the neighborhood of the hospital . . . Mr. W. N. Poe came, and the female members of Mr. Reynold’s family.” According to Bandy, Jeremiah Reynolds is ruled out as he was living in New York, not Baltimore, and could not be of the family Reynolds living in the neighborhood. This may coincide with Henry R. Reynolds, however.
Another inconsistency lies in the fact that by 1885, in Moran’s Defense, he had omitted the “Reynolds” legend. According to Bandy, Moran quotes a similar passage to his previous one, stating, “I had sent for his cousin, Mr. Nielson [sic] Poe, now Judge Poe, of the orphan’s court of Baltimore, having learned that he was related to my patient; and also for a Mr. Herring and family, who lived in the neighborhood. Judge Poe came as soon as he was notified and also the Misses Herring.” Notice that Herring is replaced by Reynolds in this passage. This leads us into the final theory.
This Herring, referring to Poe’s uncle, in fact was called to Poe in the Baltimore tavern, although he refused to take Poe in despite Poe’s disheveled state. It is theorized that because Herring was Poe’s relative, and due to the fact that Moran revised the name in his latter statement, Moran may have meant to provide the name “Herring” rather than “Reynolds,” although the two are incomparably dissimilar.
Finally, the Reynolds story even expands to modern day. Just a few years ago, Reynolds was featured as the main antagonist in James McTeigue’s film The Raven. As Poe (John Cusack) sits on a bench, shivering to the bone, an unknown gentleman approaches him, to which Poe asks him to “Get Reynolds.” He leans his head back and a fade-out-fade-in reveals Moran announcing Poe’s death. Moran explains to another character, Fields, a detective, that Poe was referring to Fields as being Reynolds, which prompts Fields to chase after Reynolds. Although we won’t spoil the antics that Reynolds was up to in the film, we will say that this creative interpretation is most likely not the case, and we do not believe Reynolds was a (spoiler) serial killer out for Poe’s blood.
Over all, there is no telling who this mysterious “Reynolds” truly was. Some believe that Moran’s original account was true and that, despite the inconsistent accounts given later on, his first is to be believed. Others believe, such as Bandy, that a Reynolds did not truly exist, calling Moran “…a chronic liar, interested only in taking advantage of his fortuitous acquaintance with Poe to attract attention to himself.”
What do you think? Do you think Moran was true in his accounts, or do you believe he really was only attempting to gain attention by creating such false lies? This certainly would not be the first time a contemporary of Poe’s would attempt to falsify accounts of Poe’s life (and death).
One is a pop princess and the other a master of macabre. What could Edgar Allan Poe and Katy Perry possibly have in common? Listen to find out.
Last year, we shared part one of Eliza Poe’s life. Follow the rest of her journey as David, Edgar, and Edgar’s siblings are introduced.
Following Eliza’s marriage, she and her husband, Charles, arrived in Alexandria, Virginia, and were set to perform at Liberty Hall for six weeks in August 1802 (Smith 59-60). When Eliza began rehearsals there, the hall was the newest theatre in Virginia, having been only three years old. According to Smith, a tragic accident had befallen during the summer of its opening, as the company lost Thomas Wade West, the manager of the company. His wife, Margaret, took over and successfully kept the company alive. Under new management, Eliza was working alongside old, fellow actors, and together the company performed operas, ballets, melodramas, and pantomimes during their six week season (60).
Eliza was a skillful dancer and was featured in a triple hornpipe, a lively dance performed in sailor costume and accompanied by hornpipes, according to Smith (61). She also danced a Spanish Fandango in The Mountaineers (61). After their engagement, the couple traveled to Fredericksburg, Virginia, in the “land of hog, hominey, and hoe-cake” (61). The couple opened September 18 under the same group they had worked with in Alexandria, performing a little over a month with the company. At the end of that engagement, the company disbanded and Charles and Eliza traveled to Petersburg to join the Virginia Company (62).
In November 1802, Eliza and Charles arrived in Petersburg, Virginia, which then had a population of less than four thousand (63). According to Smith, the Virginia Company was well established in this city of equestrian races, carnivals, and a prominent shipping port (63). Eliza and Charles found themselves with their previous fellow members, and Eliza began learning new parts immediately. For their first performance, she performed as Zelina in Oberon. Although the reviewers for that opening night bemoaned the other actors, Eliza and Charles received good reviews: “The pleasing manner in which Mrs. Hopkins performed the part and sung the songs of Zelina had a very good effect…Mr. Hopkin’s performance of Ratta and Caustic, were in the best style of acting” (64).
The New Market, Corner of Market and Sixth Street
The troupe then proceeded on to Richmond, where Eliza had performed just four years earlier. The city, although having increased in population, remained familiar and nearly unchanged. The old Academy Theatre had burned in 1798, however, and the new theatre was located in the Market Hall on 17th Street, around the corner from the Bell Tavern (65).
Opening night was December 14, and shortly after the company received news that Thomas Wignell, who had supported and influenced Eliza, passed away suddenly. Despite this sad news, Eliza moved on to Norfolk, where she was to make one of her greatest and most important debuts. Scheduled for opening night, Eliza performed in leading roles Louisa in August von Kotzebue’s Sighs and Rosina in William Shield’s opera Rosina (65-66). Following her dramatic performances, she switched to comedic roles, including Moggy McGilpin in The Highland Reel (67).
After various engagements between Norfolk and Petersburg, their Norfolk season ended July 13, and Eliza had successfully completed her first tour with the Virginia Company (68). She had made “important gains with this management” and began playing more challenging roles (69). Over all, things seemed to be in her favor.
Eliza and Charles traveled back to Richmond in August 1803, where they appeared in a concert at the Bell Tavern (70). A reviewer had the following to say about her:
Mrs. Hopkins…is amply compensated by the loud plaudits with which she is always received, which evince, that of all the ladies of the theatre, she is at least a second favorite with the public – though perhaps incapable of ever arriving at the eminence of a Siddons or a Merry. Mrs. Hopkins’ interesting figure, her correct performance, and the accuracy with which she always commits her part, together with her sweetly melodious voice when she charms us with a song, have deservedly raised her to that respectable rank which she indisputably holds in the public favor (70).
The summer of 1804 marked a notable season for Eliza. The company was in Richmond and Eliza and Charles were cast as Susan Ashfield and Sir Abel Handy in Speed the Plow (72). Cast as the hero, Henry, was a young actor making his Richmond debut, nineteen year old David Poe (72). Poe, an avid theatregoer was from Baltimore, and the son of Irish-born Revolutionary War figure, Major David Poe, or “General Poe,” and his wife, Elizabeth Carnes Poe. David left his family while studying law and sought an acting career, joining the Charleston Theatre company in December 1803. Having no experience, the beginning of his career was rocky, and he was called out for being diffident, timid, and paralyzed with stage fright (72-73). However, according to Smith, because of his good looks and fine voice, he was able to get along well.
That summer, the three worked together, and Charles began co-managing the theatre. The new managers chose George Colman II’s The Heir at Law for their new season, with Eliza playing Caroline Dormer and David Poe playing Dormer’s lover, Henry Morland. Eliza found herself benefiting from the roles her co-manager husband chose for her, which expanded her repertoire and allowed her to play more dramatic roles, including Stella in James Boaden’s The Maid of Bristol. According to Geddeth, “At this time of her career the vivaciousness of Moggy McGilpin or the predictability of Caroline Dormer were far less challenging than portraying the bitterness and despair of this leading character. It was a difficult role with long speeches and scenes of sustained tension…” (73).
After the close of the season, another followed soon in September, when they traveled to Fredericksburg and then returned to Petersburg. While the trio performed in Adam Cherry’s The Soldier’s Daughter, they were featured in the next issue of The Intelligencer, which wrote about Eliza,
Among those who acquitted themselves with the greatest eclat, I cannot omit to mention the names of Mrs. West, Jr., in the character of the Widow Cheerly and Mrs. Hopkins in Mrs. Malfort–the sprightly vitality of the one, and the placid melancholy of the other, alternately awakened the opposite feelings of innocent hilarity, and heart-rending sorrow (75).
That winter, a cold wave swept through Richmond, causing the theatre to close and the death of one of the troop’s actresses, Anne West. West’s mother, who was involved in management with the group, left after her daughter’s death and the company was affected greatly. This proved to be good for Eliza, however, and she also found herself having to fill in the prominent shoes of West as an actress (76-77).
David returned to Baltimore for a benefit night, debuting in June 1805, while Eliza and Charles traveled to Washington to perform at a theatre they had not been to in five years (77-79). For their opening, two comedies were performed, Elizabeth Inchbald’s Wives as They Were and Maids as They Are and George Colman II’s Ways and Means. Charles performed the leading role in the first play, and Eliza in the second. During this time, David was cast in and was playing the role of Joseph Surface in The School of Scandal (80).
To Eliza’s dismay, a yellow fever epidemic had spread throughout Washington and infected Charles, who passed away on October 26. According to Geddeth, the Richmond Enquirer read, “He has left an affectionate wife to lament his loss,” and at eighteen Eliza was widowed (81). This did not stop her from continuing the show however, and a week later she had a benefit for herself, choosing Adelmorn the Outlaw, a play she and Charles had performed frequently together as the romantic duo Orilla and Herman (81).
She returned to Richmond where she was cast in multiple plays with David Poe, who also had returned. Although, according to Geddeth, “David was very handsome…nervous, highly strung, and had a volatile temper, there was an appealing sensitivity about him,” and Eliza was smitten. The feelings were mutual, and the nineteen and twenty-year-olds issued a marriage bond on March 14, 1806 (82-83). Eliza’s benefit night, performing in Douglas, was the last night she was listed as Mrs. Hopkins, and when the theatre reopened after Easter, she and David were married (83).
She and David returned to Boston, ten years after she had left, and performed among other thespians whom they barely knew. Actors and friends, Charlotte and Luke Usher were notable to Eliza however, and may have been the inspiration for Edgar Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher.
After opening night on October 13, a review for the play the couple performed in, Speed the Plow, stated,
The parts of Henry and Miss Blandford were filled by Mr. and Mrs. Poe from the Virginia theatres, their first appearance in Boston. Estimating the talents of this couple by comparison, we might say the same characters have been more ably sustained on our boards. A first performance however does not always afford a criterion by which merit may be estimated. Mr. Poe possess a full manly voice, of considerable extend; his utterance clear and distinct. The managers will undoubtedly find him a useful, and the town a pleasing, performer in the Henrys, Charles Stanleys, etc. Of the talents of Mrs. Poe we are disposed to judge favorably (The Polyanthos).
In the fourteen weeks of that season, Eliza and David played more than twenty parts before the critical crowd. According to Geddeth, she learned more than one new part a week for the next season, and her talent was not unnoticed. She was described as “excellent” in The Emerald and in a pleasing way deemed “truly laughable” in The Polyanthos (87).
David was not receiving the same reviews, however, and audiences were becoming displeased with his performances. This discouraged David and lead to jealousy between his and Eliza’s marriage, although his feelings may have been abated with a child on the way.
The couple’s first child, William Henry Leonard Poe, was born January 30, 1807. David continued on stage while Eliza remained at home, although she would return only three and a half weeks later to the stage. In the meantime, with David on stage, he was receiving criticism for his attempt to play the character of Charles Surface in The School for Scandal, which he had never played before and which he was forced to play. The Emerald, noted, “We are ready to make allowances for Mr. Poe’s deficiency in Sir Charles Surface, in manners, spirit, and orthoepy…The suddenness with which the character must have been assumed is a mantle, which like charity, covers a multitude of sins” (88-89).
Eliza’s return was not positive, either. She was to perform as Cordelia in King Lear; however, due to an actor’s sprained ankle, she performed as Little Pickle in The Spoiled Child, which she had not performed in two years (90). The Polyanthos gave Eliza harsh criticism, calling her “a very green Little Pickle” (91). David called on the critic, J. T. Buckingham, to avenge for Eliza; however, he left hurting both of their careers even more.
Finally, after the end of that season in May, Eliza and David were able to rest until the end of the year, and the couple, along with son Henry, took a vacation to Baltimore to visit David’s parents. David’s parents had rejected Eliza initially; however, they now accepted her and Henry into their home. Since Henry was General Poe’s first grandson, he had stolen his and Elizabeth’s hearts, and they would take him into their home after the death of his mother. David Poe’s sister, Maria Clemm, the Maria who was Edgar’s aunt and mother-in-law, said about Eliza, “She was a lovely little creature and highly talented. I loved her most devotedly” (93).
After returning to Boston in the fall, Eliza and David were delighted to hear that the infamous critic, J. T. Buckingham of The Polyanthos, would not be criticizing them any longer because the paper had shut down. During this season, David found more encouraging reviews, although the critic of The Emerald stated about his performance as Vernon in Henry IV, that he had “mutilated some of his speeches in a most shameful manner” (94). This review was in contrast to a positive review, which stated he “was courtly in manners, if he was not perfect in his delivery” (94).
Boston Harbor and East Boston
During a performance of Cinderella that the troupe put on, Eliza found time, according to Geddeth, to walk down to the Boston harbor where she sketched many of the vessels at bay, inscribing, “Morning 1808,” adding, “For my little son Edgar, who should ever love Boston the place of his birth and where his mother found her best and most sympathetic friends.” This gift would be given to Edgar later and cherished by the son greatly (96).
That Fall, and multiple performances later, Eliza found herself among new actors and actresses, and five months pregnant. Within two weeks after she had stopped performing that January, she gave birth on January 19, 1809, to their son Edgar. Three weeks later, she was back on the stage; however, nine weeks apparently show that David was not listed for any performances, and it is unclear where he was at. According to letters he had written to his cousin, he was in Pennsylvania on March 22 (100).
Geddeth describes Eliza’s situation while David is gone,
David was evidently still away, and she had a three-month-old baby at home. This meant that she was still probably unable to sleep through the night. If Henry was with her, she also had a two-year-old to be taken care of. Her hands were full to say the very least. The physical and nervous strain of the next six weeks of her life must have been enormous: along with the constant responsibility of her two small sons she faced a task at the theatre that demanded a superbly trained actress with leonine courage and nerve (104).
With David abandoning her briefly, Eliza’s world was probably spinning from the hectic stage life and motherhood. She gained a strong repertoire of roles and success despite these hardships, performing alongside a seventeen-year-old actor, John Howard Payne. To David’s regret, his wife had gained attention and success while he was elsewhere, causing a greater rift in their marriage and his increased jealously (107).
The Park Theatre Interior
When David returned, the couple hurried from Boston to New York to perform under new management at the Park Theatre. Despite the theatre’s grand interior and exterior, the audiences were less than attractive. Washington Irving had written, two years earlier, that the audience was “no inconsiderable part of the entertainment” (109). Unfortunately for the two, they found it difficult to establish themselves at first, and David had made a gaffe, which would haunt his career while there. Performing in Abaellino, Eliza played the Lady Rosamund and David performed as Dandoli. According to the critic for The Rambler, David persisted calling his character “Dan Dilly,” which would be his nickname in future reviews (111).
The negative reviews concerning David’s acting continued, with the same reviewer critiquing David’s performance in Pizarro stating, “…a more wretched Alonzo we have never witnessed. This man was never destined for the high walks of the drama…his person, voice, and non-expression of countenance, all combine to stamp him…” (111-112).
By the end of this season, after only six and a half weeks, David was either fired from or left the company, thus ending his acting career. According to Geddeth, his name no longer appeared in bills and all traces of him vanished (114).
Although it is unknown if David stayed with Eliza after he left the company or if he disappeared for good, Eliza remained vigilant and strong and continued working in the theatre group. She even received a good critique from the gentleman who had ridiculed David’s performances, potentially putting an end to his career (116).
That year, in July 1810, a benefit was held for Eliza. Geddeth explains that the New Yorkers wanted to help Eliza financially, although they were unaware, she was alone with her children, because David had left her permanently, and was expecting her third child (118-119).
She returned to Richmond later that month with Henry who was three, Edgar who was a year old, and expecting a third child who was due in four months. She was alone at twenty-three and had to support herself and her children.
In Richmond, Eliza’s new group was managed by William Green and Alexandre Placide, whom she had known from her work with Sollee’s company in 1797. Unfortunately, the Virginia Company she had worked with no longer existed (121). One of her most important roles in this new company was as Letitia Hardy in Hannah Cowley’s The Belle’s Stratagem. In this role, she acted, sang, and performed a double allemande with Placide, which Geddeth explains as being a, “courtly, somewhat serious dance” (121). She continued with the company to Fredericksburg in October and on to Norfolk, where she gave birth December 18 , 1810, to Rosalie at the Forrest home, a boarding house (123).
Now with five-year-old Henry, two-year-old Edgar, and baby Rosalie, Eliza had a lot to cope with and may have hired a nurse to help care for the children. Henry eventually was sent to Baltimore to live with his grandparents and Eliza continued traveling, most likely broken-hearted having had to part with her son (123).
Arriving in Charleston in 1811, she again played the parts of Priscilla Tomboy in The Romp and Angela in The Castle Spectre. She persisted, despite feeling emotionally, physically, and most likely mentally exhausted, and arrived in Norfolk March of that year. A benefit was to be held for her, and the following letter was printed in the Norfolk Herald:
Sir, permit me to call the attention of the public to the benefit of Mrs. Poe and Miss Thomas for this evening….The former of these ladies I remember (just as I was going in my teens) on her first appearance here met with the most unbounded applause–She was said to be one of the handsomest women in America; she was certainly the handsomest I had ever seen. She never came on the stage, but a general murmur ran through the house, “What an enchanting creature! Heavens what a form!–what an animated and expressive countenance!–and how well she performs! Her voice too! sure never any thing half so sweet!” –Year after year did she continue to extort these involuntary bursts of rapture from the Norfolk audience, and to deserve them too; for never did one of her profession take more pains to please than she. But now “the scene is changed.”–Misfortunes have pressed heavy on her. Left alone, the only support of herself and several young children–Friendless and unprotected, she no longer commands that admiration and attention she formerly did….And yet she is as assiduous to please as ever, and tho’ grief may have stolen a few of the roses from her cheeks, still she retains the same sweetness of expression and symmetry of form and feature (127).
She returned to Richmond, where she would perform her last role as Lady Santon in The Stranger. Her health, rapidly declining, forced her to bed rest. Geddeth states that Malaria was the cause of her death; however, most biographers list Tuberculosis as the cause. Regardless, a benefit was held on November 29, 1811. The Richmond Enquirer stated, “To the Humane Heart: On this night, Mrs. Poe, lingering on the bed of disease and surrounded by her children, asks your assistance; and asks it perhaps for the last time—The generosity of a Richmond Audience can need no other appeal…” (129).
She died Sunday, December 8, 1811, and was buried in an unmarked grave in St. John’s Churchyard that Tuesday. As the Richmond Enquirer stated in her obituary, “By the death of this lady the stage has been deprived of one of its chief ornaments” (129).
Following her death, Henry stayed with his grandparents, Edgar was taken into the Allan family, and Rosalie was received into the Mackenzie family. Most biographers state that David passed within two weeks of Eliza’s own death; however, it remains unknown. Henry and Edgar seemed to be most affected by her death, especially Edgar.
Henry wrote the following poem when he was fourteen, discussing his father and mother:
My Father’s!–I will bless it yet–
For thou hast given life to me:
Tho’ poor the boon–I’ll ne’er forget
The filial love I owe to thee.
My Mother’s too!–then let me press
This gift of her I loved so well,–
For I have had thy last caress,
And heard thy long, thy last farewell.
My Rosa’s! pain doth dim my eye,
When gazing on this pledge of thine–
Thou wer’t a dream–a falsity–
Alas!–’tis wrong to call thee mine!
A Father! he hath loved indeed!
A mother! she hath blessed her son,–
But Love is like the pois’ning weed,
That taints the air it lives upon.
Edgar received the painting of the Boston harbor Eliza had painted, and the inscription on the back would remain dear to his heart.
Geddeth perfectly describes Eliza, which may also be the way Edgar most likely would have seen the portrait of his mother:
Eliza’s beauty had always won her admirers, and when one studies the miniature of her dating from this period, it is easy to see why. The small portrait conveys a delicate beauty of feature–ivory skin tingled with a soft, talisman rose color at the cheeks and lips, a fine nose, tiny sensual mouth, and slightly dimpled, Cupid-like chin. The hair is light brown, fine, tightly curled, but not luxuriant. The artist has captured a warm, sweet, and sensitive expression in the eyes, which are light brown and project glowing vitality…(123)
And, it is without doubt that, just as in life, in death, throughout Henry, Edgar, and Rosalie’s lives, their mother may have been smiling down upon them with that delicate beauty and those sensitive, glowing eyes.
What do One Direction and Edgar Allan Poe have in common? The answer does not involve great hair or an ardent fan base, but an argument—two arguments, rather. One took place over the course of several months in 1845, the other over a period of hours in May of 2015. On May 30th of this year, the world suddenly learned that there was a DJ named Naughty Boy, and that this DJ had lived up to his pseudonym by insulting One Direction member Louis Tomlinson. We heard about it the same way we hear about everything: on social media. The insult had been tweeted, ensuring that everyone possessed of a social media account (and morbid curiosity) was treated to yet another celebrity Twitter war.
While social media sites such as Twitter have become the new platform for celebrity feuds, they are not the first. Nor are this century’s celebrities the first to indulge their appetite for argument.
In 1845, Edgar Allan Poe became embroiled in a celebrity feud of his own. His opponent? None other than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Plagiarism was the theme, and fat jokes were banned. The battlefield can be thought of as an ancient relative of Twitter—newspaper columns. The contrast between the two combatants could not have been more striking. On one side, we see Poe—the shabby, struggling editor of a magazine with just a handful of published poems and short stories to his name. On the other side, Longfellow—the wealthy, distinguished author and professor at Harvard. Poe was light-years away from Longfellow’s world of leather-bound books and Harvard halls, and he knew it. Perhaps this was one of the reasons he began his beef with “The Professor” (his bitter nickname for Longfellow) in the first place.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Edgar Allan Poe
Yet, although personal resentment might have influenced Poe, the fact of the matter is that Poe loved a good fight. His brutality as a critic had earned him the nickname of the “Tomahawk Man,” but until 1845, he had not blatantly denounced a figure as beloved and respected as Longfellow.
And just how does one go about accusing one of the country’s foremost authors of plagiarism? As Poe discovered, it’s really quite easy when you happen to be the editor of a literary magazine with a column to fill and circulation to boost. In the winter of 1845, Poe ended his review of Longfellow’s The Waif with this remark:
“We conclude our notes on the “Waif,” with the observation that, although full of beauties, it is infected with a moral taint — or is this a mere freak of our own fancy? We shall be pleased if it be so; — but there does appear, in this exquisite little volume, a very careful avoidance of all American poets who may be supposed especially to interfere with the claims of Mr. Longfellow. These men Mr. Longfellow can continuously imitate ( is that the word?) and yet never even incidentally commend.”
The response to the accusation was immediate, and seemed to come from all corners of the literary East Coast. Longfellow’s “coterie,” as Poe dubbed them, fell over themselves responding in various newspapers to his foul indictment of their beloved Longfellow. Longfellow himself haughtily refrained from acknowledging Poe’s insults publicly, but we do find this little rhyme in the diary he was keeping at the time: “In Hexameter sings serenely a Harvard professor / In Pentameter him damns censorious Poe.”
Sadly for Longfellow, censorious Poe was far from damned. He was not the only person who thought American poets imitative and Longfellow overrated. He continued in his quest for literary justice. At the height of what was becoming known as the “Little Longfellow War,” Poe was invited to the New York Historical Society to deliver his “Lecture on the Poets of America.” We can only hope the New York Historical Society knew what it was doing when it invited Poe, because the “lecture” turned out to be much more like a celebrity roast, only without Dean Martin and without the laughs. Longfellow was, of course, the main target of the evening. One paper described it as a “decapitation,” while another applauded Poe for making “unmitigated war upon the prevailing Puffery, and dragg[ing] several popular idols from their pedestals.”
Before the dust had settled from this latest attack, another combatant made his appearance. In a column submitted to a New York literary journal, a mysterious writer using the pseudonym “Outis” (Greek for “nobody”) attempted to silence Poe’s accusations once and for all. To this day, scholars are unable to establish the identity of Outis, although some evidence suggests that he might have been an invention of Lawrence Lebree (the editor of the New York paper Rover). Out of the many articles in defense of Longfellow during this season, Outis’ alone succeeded in finding a chink in Poe’s armor. Copying a technique that Poe himself had used in his early accusations of Longfellow, Outis printed excerpts of “The Raven” alongside an anonymous poem entitled “The Bird of the Dream.” The goal was to allow the readers to detect the similarities for themselves. Just in case they missed a few, Outis then proceeded to point out no less than 18 similarities between “The Raven” and “The Bird of the Dream.”
To the delight of Longfellow’s supporters, Poe’s response to Outis was ungraceful and revealed the extent of his embarrassment. One editor snickered “a Joker will rarely ever receive one in return good-naturedly; and this is the extent true of Mr. Poe.” Over the course of four lengthy responses, Poe struggled to defend his works and regain his dignity. Although he successfully disproved Outis’ claim that he had plagiarized “The Raven,” he found himself unable to continue in his accusations of Longfellow. Following his response to Outis, Poe waved the white flag by revoking his (many) statements accusing Longfellow of plagiarism. Even then, however, he stubbornly held to his view that Longfellow’s imitative style did not deserve the praise it continued to receive.
With that, Poe’s involvement in the Little Longfellow war came to an awkward close. His writing in years following contained very few references to “The Professor”, and in the end it was Longfellow himself who had the last word. Following Poe’s untimely death, he wrote to a friend, “My works seemed to give him much trouble, first and last; but Mr. Poe is dead and gone, and I am alive and still writing–and that is the end of the matter.”
Nevermore logo, courtesy of Nevermore NYC LLC.
WARNING: Contains Spoilers
As our museum reported earlier this year, a musical by the name of Nevermore: the Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe made its debut off-Broadway in New York City at New World Stages. Written, composed, and directed by Jonathan Christenson, the musical follows the birth and early life of Poe, touching lightly on the later half of his life before ending abruptly with his death. Sets, lighting, and costumes were designed by Bretta Gerecke, with sound design by Wade Staples. You can read more credits here.
Album art, courtesy of Nevermore NYC LLC.
Although I was unable to see the show during its New York run, I recently received the CD newly released June 14th, and the following will be a brief review of the story, music, sound design, and overall actors’ performances.
The opening song, “Prologue,” crescendos from a fadeout-to-fade-in note with forceful beats interrupting the ease of the first note. Waves crash, a harbor bell tolls, and piano plinks sound. A music box tinkles, and one of the “Eldorado Players” chimes, introducing the audience to a man, “a most peculiar man,” whom they had met on a steamer on his way to New York-Poe. They explain that although he looked “dreary,” he was still full of hope. The theme of hope and loss encapsulates the entire musical.
Photograph by Richard Termine, featuring Scott Shpeley as Edgar Poe and Ryan Parker as “Eldorado Player.” Courtesy of Nevermore NYC LLC.
As each of the six players’ voices gradually add their own testimony of Poe, Poe (Scott Shpeley) himself comes out and inquires about his mother, whom one of the players knows, and he yearns to hear about the life he seemingly has forgotten. Thus, the audience is at the mercy of the players telling Poe’s life, starting from the beginning, and Eliza Poe’s involvement with theatre and her husband, David Poe. The audience is quickly introduced to Rosalie (Beth Graham), Henry (Gaelan Beatty), David (Garett Ross), and Eliza (Lindsie VanWinkle), and just as each song, each chapter closes with the loss of someone close to Poe, another chapter opens. The musical continues with the theme of gain and loss, life and death, and the audience becomes overwhelmingly immersed in Poe’s life and struggle to want to live, to hold on to hope.
Upon listening to the soundtrack (admittedly multiple times now), there are many gems and delights, which cater to Poe enthusiasts, as well as some questionably creative rights taken to interpret certain characters and their outcomes. For example, Fanny Allan’s character gradually becomes synonymous with a familiar character in The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether, (namely the “chicken”). Another example of creative rights expanding beyond historical truth is the fact that Rufus Griswold (Ryan Parker) and Edgar were very good friends before Griswold destroyed his reputation (which is not true) and took Edgar’s place as editor for Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine. It is astonishing that Graham’s Magazine was nowhere to be found, but at least one of Poe’s editorial jobs was mentioned.
A few gems include the songs in general, which incorporate many of Poe’s poems, including “Eulalie,” “Tamerlane,” and “Dream Within A Dream,” using snippets from stanzas to convey Poe’s circumstances and feelings, as well as the other characters’ feeling, throughout the musical. Not to mention that a musical interpretation of Virginia’s poem, “Ever With Thee…” can be found in the song, “The Death of Sissy.”
I feel one could write pages regarding what was correct and what was historically inaccurate; however, everything seems to work. I would recommend reading a biography of Poe to check the facts rather than gain them from this musical.
Photograph by Joan Marcus, featuring Scott Shpeley as Edgar Poe and Lindsie VanWinkle and Shannon Blanchet as the Misses Duval. Courtesy of Nevermore NYC LLC.
Over all, the dark, gloomy, atmospheric tone of the music seems like a lullaby that carries one through Poe’s seemingly haunted, ethereal life, which Christenson accomplished flawlessly. The sound effects are cleverly distributed throughout the recorded album, giving the feel to one who wasn’t present to see the performance live a chance to experience it on their own. Finally, the casting choice was incredible. Beth Graham’s vocal talents and knack for voice interpretation are beyond belief. Gaelan Beatty’s vibrato rings with purity and distinction. Shannon Blanchett’s alto tones add to the haunting dynamic successfully portrayed, both in her character, Elmira, and in songs where harmony is called for. Ryan Parker’s voice belts richly and cleverly. Garett Ross’s similar knack for voice impressions, namely portraying a Scottish accent with John Allan, is fun and a thrill. Lindsie VanWinkle has a pristine voice that rings flawlessly and fully. Finally, Scott Shpeley’s performance as Edgar is remarkably done, with his ability to shift between the timid young Edgar, to the frightened child in the Allan household, to the confident man bold about his writing skills, to the man who, ultimately, ends up dejected and lost.
If you are interested in listening to the musical soundtrack, you can purchase it from the following places:
Have you either seen or listened to the musical? What did you think?