Museum News

Poe Museum Portraits Nominated to Virginia’s Most Endangered Artifacts

We nominated-blog

Each year, the Virginia Association of Museum’s accepts nominations for Virginia’s Most Endangered Artifacts, and this time the Poe Museum’s newly acquired portraits of Edgar Allan Poe’s worst enemy Rufus W. Griswold and his wife Caroline made the list of nominees. This honor means that people realize the significance of these historical artifacts and how important it is to preserve them. As we have seen in a previous blog post, these portrait have not been cleaned since they were painted back in 1840. The 176 years of accumulated dust and tobacco smoke have almost completely obscured the surfaces to the point that it is difficult to tell there are even portraits under there. The paintings also suffered from severe cracks and paint loss resulting from being removed from their frames and stored rolled up for years.


The good news is that much of the original paint is still intact underneath all the grime. A conservator recently tested the paintings to determine just how bright the colors once were and how easily they can be returned their original appearance. Once the process is complete, we can be among the first see the paintings as Griswold himself would have seen them.

You can help bring these treasures out of the shadows and allow the public to see them for the first time. Just click here to cast your vote for the paintings of Rufus and Caroline Griswold to be Virginia’s Most Endangered Artifact for 2016. For more information about the program, click here. To donate to the conservation effort, please click here.

Poe’s “Oval Portrait: and The Picture of Dorian Gray: the Artist, the Subject, and the Audience*

Poe’s Bride in ” The Oval Portrait” (

After reading Oscar Wilde’s, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), I was struck by how much his theme about the value of art resembled the one found in Poe’s 1842 short fictional work, “The Oval Portrait.” Both stories focus on the relationship between the artist, his subject, and the viewer, or, in the case of literature, the reader.  In Poe’s story, the young artist is driven to paint the ultimate portrait of his beautiful new wife. His goal was to produce a masterpiece that would portray a symbol of youth and vitality that would last an eternity. Poe writes, “As a thing of art, nothing could be more admirable than the painting itself.” The artist writes about the bride (the subject of his art): “She’s  a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee; all light and smiles, and frolicsome as the young fawn; loving and cherishing all things; hating only the Art which was her rival; dreading only the pallet and brushes and other untoward instruments which deprived her of the countenance of her lover.” However, she wanted to satisfy her husband and sat idly for days, while the artist was engrossed in his creation. He “turned his eyes from the canvas merely, even to regard the countenance of his wife.” After his last brush stroke, “the painter stood entranced before the work which he had wrought.” Instead of joy, “he grew tremulous, very pallid, and aghast crying with a loud voice, ‘This is Life itself!’ [and] turned suddenly to regard his beloved—She was dead!” Poe’s story shocks readers and forces them to make a judgment on the artist’s values, as well as their own values. Some  might conclude that the story demonstrates that the value of even the most beautiful art is diminished when an artist lives without compassion and positive connection with humanity. Others might conclude that the value of art exceeds the human sacrifice it took to produce it. “The Oval Portrait” also foreshadows the idealistic relationship that modern artists have with their work, as they splash images of their creations across social media and urge people to “Like” them. In many cases, they value their work more than they try to establish and maintain positive human interactions.

Wilde writes, in his Preface of the Picture of Dorian Gray, “We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it.” Wilde, like Poe, focuses on the relationship between the artist, his subject, and the reader: In the opening pages, he writes, “As the painter looked at the gracious and comely form he had so skilfully mirrored in his art, a smile of pleasure passed across his face.” The artist was deeply satisfied and even “riveted” by the profundity and beauty shown in his painting. The viewer of the painting, Lord Henry, who also symbolizes the reader, or the critic of art, remarks, “It is your best work, Basil, you must certainly send it next year to the Grosvenor.” The painter remarks that he cannot send it the exhibition, because “I have put too much of myself into it.” Lord Henry, acting as the art critic remarks, “What odd chaps you painters are. You do anything in the world to gain a reputation. As soon as you have one, you seem to want to throw it away.” Although Basil is still interested in having his art recognized, he cannot risk showing Dorian’s portrait because he fears that it will expose the darkness of his soul. The artist believes that he has become too emotionally connected to his subject to allow the purveyors of art to view his creation. Basil was once as scornful of his painting as Poe’s young bride was. However, he becomes enthralled with it after it is finished, and wants to keep it as a symbol of his youth. He makes a Faustian-like request: He wishes to remain eternally young and beautiful, and in his steed, his portrait would age with time. As this a Wilde novel, he is granted his wish. As he ages, he decides that he must hide his painting in the attic for fear that someone might discover that he has found the secret formula to eternal youth. Poe was also consumed with writing about the secret of longevity and eternal life and developed this theme throughout his career in several fictional works, including “Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” and “Some Words with a Mummy,” and in his final science treatise, Eureka: A Prose Poem.

Since he is granted long-lasting youth, Basil’s youthful appearance does not change after several decades. However, his life becomes increasingly decadent and even more violent than any character in a Poe story! He heartlessly scorns his lover, Sybil Vane, because she proposes to love Dorian rather than to continue as being a famous Shakespearean actress. In her final stage role, she portrays Juliet, who died an unnecessary death in Shakespeare’s tragedy. When she ceases to be an idealistic object of worship for Dorian Gray, she becomes totally undesirable to him. Dorian’s heartless rejection of her also causes her to commit suicide in real life. Afterward, Dorian and his mentor, Lord Henry, coldly justify that her dramatic death was even more profound than her life would have been as a faded actress and wife of an artist. The scenario with Sybil reminds readers of the wife, in Poe’s story, who was more dedicated to her husband than to his art, and of her the husband, who was more dedicated to his art than to his loving wife. The tragic suicide of Sybil, a word meaning an auspicious omen, foreshadows the tragic downfall of Dorian and, by psychic connection, of Basil, the artist who painted him. Due to Dorian’s decadent human activities, his portrait increasingly begins to mirror his corrupted soul. In the final scenes of the book, he must decide what he is going to do to relieve the guilt he feels when he looks at his hideous portrait. He tries to resolve his tormented soul by killing the artist who painted the work and by destroying the picture. But, does he succeed? Not all that we see in Gray is certain. Readers are as shocked about the conclusion of Wilde’s book as they were about The Oval Portrait. But,  they are not certain if Dorian Gray was conveyed realistically or whether it was entirely imagined in the mind of both the artist and his subject. The creator of the novel, Oscar Wilde, provides little to no clues to help unravel the mysteries of his well-constructed story. Instead, he challenges us to draw our own conclusions. There are several unanswered questions. For example, Did Dorian’s immoral behavior cause the painting to deteriorate? Was there a psychic connection established between the artist and the subject which caused both of them to see the painting in the same way?

Oscar Wilde’s book, Dorian Gray, was also continuing a trend that was pioneered by Poe, which introduced indeterminate endings. In this type of literature, readers had to use their own resources to unravel the loose ends of a story. For example, we do not anything about the relationship between Poe’s artist and his wife before he created his painting. We also don’t know if or how the artist changed after his wife’s death. Readers and literary critics are uncertain whether Gray’s actions caused the portrait to revert back to its former youthful vibrancy, or whether the changes seen in the portrait were only in the minds of Dorian and the artist who created the painting. Wilde wrote that art imitated life and that life imitated art, concluding that readers could understand much about themselves by the ways that they interpreted literature and art. If they thought that the lack of morals caused the tragic destruction of Dorian Gray,then that would be one conclusion about the over-arching theme of the story. However, if they concluded that Dorian lived a full and productive life of hedonistic pursuits, then they might consider that his death could be considered as noble. After all, he did try to reach for eternity. I have stopped a bit short of fully describing the final ending so that readers might explore it and draw their own conclusions about The Portrait of Dorian Gray! However, if you do like that book, I suggest that you also read any of Poe’s stories—many of which had a strong influence on Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece!

*This article was originally posted on Murray Ellison’s, Website.


 Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education at Temple University (1973), a Master’s of Arts in English Literature at VCU (2015), and  a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech in 1987. He is married and has three adult employed daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. Currently, he serves as a literature teacher, board member, and curriculum advisor for the Lifelong Learning Institute in Chesterfield, Virginia, and is the founder and chief editor of the literary blog, He is an editor for the “Correctional Education Magazine,” and editing a book of poetry written by an Indian mystic. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and all-around helper at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. You can write to Murray by leaving a Comment or at [email protected]

Murray Ellison at the Richmond Poe Museum

Murray  at the Poe Museum

Poe Museum Launches International Poe Film Festival


From September 22-24, the Poe Museum, in partnership with the Byrd Theater, will host the Poe Film Festival to showcase the best in Edgar Allan Poe movies of the past ninety years from around the world.


There have been hundreds of cinematic adaptations of Poe’s works and biopics of his life. These films, featuring Hollywood stars like Vincent Price, Jack Nicholson, and Sir Christopher Lee, have become part of our cultural heritage. Yet, so far, there has never been a film festival devoted entirely to Poe movies. By bringing the first Poe Film Festival to Richmond, the Poe Museum, along with special guests such as Victoria Price and Raul Garcia, invites fans to explore Poe’s legacy and influence through iconic American cinema.


The three-day event will begin at the Poe Museum on Thursday, September 22 from 6-9 p.m. with a special “Poe Goes to the Movies” Unhappy Hour, with special guest Victoria Price, daughter of screen legend Vincent Price. The Unhappy Hour will also showcase a new exhibit of Poe-inspired art in partnership with Ohio’s Good Goat Gallery.


On Friday the 23rd, from 7:00-10:30 p.m. the Byrd Theatre will show two feature-length adaptations of Poe’s most beloved works, Stonehearst Asylum (2014) and House of Usher (1960) hosted by Victoria Price. On Saturday from 10:00 a.m.—5:00 p.m., the Byrd will screen a series of short films, followed by panel discussions with film experts such as Raul Garcia, director of Extraordinary Tales; Scott Peeples of the College of Charleston; John LaTier, director of The Tell-Tale Heart; Sean Kotz of Radford University; and many more.


On Saturday evening from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m the Poe Museum will host a special “Evening with Victoria Price.” This ticketed event will allow attendees to meet and mingle with Victoria Price and to celebrate the artistic legacy of Vincent Price and Edgar Allan Poe.

Richmond's landmark movie palace the Byrd Theatre will host the Poe Film Festival.

Richmond’s landmark movie palace the Byrd Theatre will host the Poe Film Festival.

Admission for each film or panel is $8. Admission to the Saturday evening reception is $75. Unhappy Hour admission on Thursday night is $5. Tickets are available at the Poe Museum or by visiting Here is the tentative schedule:

I. Thursday, September 22 (Poe Museum)
A. Unhappy Hour at the Poe Museum
B. Opening of Good Goat Gallery Exhibit “A Poe-tic Tribute”
C. Screening of 1928 silent film “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Jean Epstein in the Poe Museum Garden with live music

II. Friday, September 23 (Byrd Theatre)
A. 7 p.m. Screening of “House of Usher” (1960) introduced by Victoria Price
B. 9 p.m. Screening of “Stonehearst Asylum” (2014)

III. Saturday, September 24 (Byrd Theatre)
A. 10:00-12:00 Poe in Black-and-White Panel
1. Panelists Scott Peeples and Sean Kotz
2. Moderator Chris Semtner
3. Screening of “The Black Cat” (1934) “The Fall of the House of Usher” (Watson, 1928)
B. 1:00-2:45 Animated Poe Panel
1. Panelists Raul Garcia and TBA
2. Moderator Chris Semtner
3. Screening of “Extraordinary Tales” (2014)
C. Adapting Poe Panel
1. Panelists John LaTier, Poe Movies, and Victoria Price
2. Moderator Scott Peeples, University of Charleston
3. Films: “The Cask of Amontillado” (2015) by Poe Movies and “The Tell-Tale Heart” (2016) by John LaTier

IV. Saturday Evening, September 24 (Cultural Art Center at Glen Allen)
A. 6:30-9:30 p.m. Reception at the Cultural Art Center at Glen Allen with talk by Victoria Price, screening of “Tales of Terror,” and meet and greet with panelists

More details will be coming soon. Click here to purchase tickets. For more information, please contact the Poe Museum at [email protected] or 804-648-5523.

What Ever Happened to Poe’s Hat?


The other day someone brought me a top hat supposed to have once belonged to Edgar Allan Poe. I had never doubted that Poe would have worn a hat. Fashion plates from Graham’s Magazine (which Poe edited) and other popular magazines of the day showed men in top hats, and, as seen in the below illustration from an 1842 almanac, even a lawless gang wore top hats while murdering people.

Tragic Almanac (Rogers)

In fact, the surviving photographs of Poe often show the tell-tale signs of “hat head” in which the hair is flattened down on top and sticks out, mullet-like, in the back. Of course, he took his hat off for his photos and portraits, and only one photo even shows what appears to be the edge of a hat. That does not provide a very clear picture of the kind of hat he would have worn, but we can probably make some educated guesses based on the fashions of Poe’s day.

Graham's Magazine fashion plate from 1841

Graham’s Magazine fashion plate from 1841

Another Graham's Magazine fashion plate from 1841

Another Graham’s Magazine fashion plate from 1841

A gentleman’s hat at the time might have been made of beaver fur or silk, which was gradually growing in popularity by the 1840s. During the 1840s and 1850s, hats were getting especially tall, as can be seen in the photo below.

Men in hats from 1857 photo via Wikipedia

Men in hats from 1857 photo via Wikipedia

Using a reproduction of one of William Abbott Pratt’s daguerreotypes, taken in Richmond in September 1849, I have envisioned how Poe may have looked in his top hat.

PoewithTopHat copy2

Top hats were not the only gentlemen’s hats available at the time. This illustration from the first printing of Poe’s story “The Gold-Bug” (1842) shows a man on the left wearing a broad-brimmed hat.


Some people who saw Poe on his summer 1849 visit to Richmond describe him wearing just such a hat to shield his eyes from the bright summer sun. A Richmonder at the time later wrote, “I was in Richmond in 1849, and remember Mr. Poe, with his white linen coat and trousers, black velvet vest, and broad Panama hat.” Here is a photograph showing how he would have looked wearing it.

PoeinPanamaHat copy3

I regret I cannot tell if Poe ever used the hat shown to me. The owner could tell me nothing of its provenance, so I had no evidence tying it to Poe. Although someone had written the name “Poe” on the inside of the hat, there are several people with than name. To make matters worse, someone wrote the date “1850” in the hat, and, if the date is correct, the piece dates to a year after Edgar Allan Poe’s death. Of course, we do not know who wrote that in the hat or why they wrote it. Maybe more evidence will become available to help us determine just whose hat this was.

There is no telling what ever happened to Poe’s hat. When he was found at a Baltimore polling place four days before his death, someone had already stolen it and replaced it with a cheaper one. As a witness, Dr. Joseph Snodgrass, later wrote, Poe’s “hat, or rather the hat of somebody else, for he had evidently been robbed of his clothing, or cheated in an exchange, was a cheap palm leaf one, without a band, and soiled.” It appears someone may have purloined Poe’s hat and likely disposed of it at some point without ever realizing (or caring) that it had once belonged to a famous poet.

Third Anniversary of the Positively Poe Conference at the University of Virginia


Poe was in the second class of students who attended the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. According to the UVA Website(, “Edgar Allan Poe enrolled at the University on February 14, 1826, the 136th of 177 students registering for the second session. He attended classes in the Schools of Ancient and Modern Languages, under Professors Long and Blaetterman respectively. Although not known for spending long hours at his lessons, Poe was already remarkable for his brooding, lonely genius. His excellent memory allowed him to read ahead in class and recite correctly even when utterly unprepared. In his final examinations, he took top honors in French and Latin and was cited for excellence by both professors.” Chris Semtner, Poe Richmond Museum Curator, noted that Poe often watched the construction of Jefferson’s Rotunda as it was being built and that he attended Jefferson’s funeral. Although Poe’s stay at the college was short, it is still notably marked around campus with a bust in the library and the preservation and public display of his college dorm room. During my three days of attendance at the Positively Poe Conference at the University, in July 2013, Poe’s Room, right across the street from where the conference was held, appeared to be the most visited site on campus.

Poe attended UVa in 1826.

Poe attended UVa in 1826.

As July is nearing an end this year, I fondly remember back to my first immersion at a major Poe conference with many of the top Poe scholars of the world. It was organized by the Richmond Poe Museum and it’s Board President Harry Lee (Hal) Poe and by Gorky Institute of Moscow Professor, Alexandra Urakova. As I was beginning my Master’s Thesis on Poe’s book, Eureka: A Prose Poem, I was accepted to deliver a workshop proposal on that topic. It was a most inspiring immersion experienced for me, as it initiated me into the modern world Poe community.

The program began on Monday evening, July 24, 2013, in the Rotunda Room, which was undergoing extensive renovation. The main speaker was the scholar, Ben Fisher, and a “Poe Performance” of the “Imp of the Perverse,” by Rob Velella.  I offer a summary of the program that was offered below. In my subsequent Blog, I will discuss what I presented during my electrifying workshop.

From the Positively Poe Program Brochure:

About the Conference

Over the last few years, we have seen several notable additions to the number of film and television adaptations of Poe and his works. They are notable for having large enough budgets to have no excuse for doing such a bad job of treating Poe. In this dreary cultural context, the idea for this conference grew. We wondered what would happen if scholars were invited to reflect on the positive aspects of Poe and his work. Poe’s reputation as a tortured, tragic figure, melancholic poet and the “master of the macabre” has fueled his popularity for over a century and a half, while debunking stereotypes and myths associated with that reputation has always been an essential part of Poe criticism. Going beyond the debunking of the popular caricature, we would like to discover the “positive” side of Poe’s life and work. Just as his life had its ups and downs, his writing, too, reflects a wide range of experience, not exclusively the dark and dismal. We have been gratified by the response to this little boutique gathering set at Poe’s university at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains he so loved. In planning this conference, we considered the setting to be of major importance, and we hope the conferees can find the time to enjoy Mr. Jefferson’s university and the mountains around it.

The Poe Museum

For over ninety years the Poe Museum has strived to preserve and advance the legacy of Edgar Allan Poe. Located in the Old Stone House, the oldest residence in Richmond, the museum stands in the midst of the neighborhood where Poe lived as a child before his foster father came into his fortune. The museum preserves the largest collection of Poe artifacts and memorabilia in the world which includes such items as Poe’s childhood bed, the walking stick he left behind in Richmond on his last fatal trip, the chair he used at The Southern Literary Messenger, his trunk, and many items from his boyhood home. In addition to a collection of first editions of Poe’s books and first appearances of his stories, poems, and articles, the museum also has a large collection of rare and unique images related to Poe, as well as a large library of secondary works on Poe. The museum hopes that Poe scholars will find its holdings useful to scholars as they continue to explore the body of his work in the third century since his birth.

Workshops Offered

Tuesday, July 25, 2013

9:00    a.m.       Session One – Poe Makes Friends

Chair – Stephen Railton, University of Virginia

Richard Kopley

 “Edgar Makes a Friend”

Chris Semtner

“A Young Girl’s Recollections of Edgar Allan Poe”

Philip Phillips

“Yankee Neal and Edgar Poe: The Fruits of a Literary Friendship”

John Gruesser

“Poe, Whitman, and Melville in New York and Beyond”

11:15  a.m.        Session Two – POEtic Effect

                  Chair – Jerome McGann, University of Virginia

Jerome McGann,

“Poe’s ‘The Bells’ as a Musical Mirror of a Discordant Age”

Stephen Rachman

“From “Al Aaraaf” to the Universe of Stars: Poe, the Arabesque, and Cosmology”

Emron Esplin and Margarida Vale de Gato

“‘Excellent system(s) of positive translation(s)’: Why Poe’s Translators Have Neither Been Invisible nor Ephemeral”

1:45   p.m.       Session Three – Poe and Art

                  Chair – Bonnie Shannon McMullen,  Independent Scholar, Oxford (UK)

Scott Peeples

“Poe in Love”

Sonya Isaak

“‘When Music Affects Us to Tears’:  Poe’s Silent Music – Divine Aspiration and Lasting Inspiration”

Anne Margaret Daniel

“Bob Dylan: ‘like being in an Edgar Allan Poe story’”

Tuesday, June 25, 2013 (cont.)

3:30  p.m.         Session Four: Collecting Poe

Susan Jaffe Tane and Harry Lee Poe

6:00 p.m.      Picnic – The Ragged Mountain

Beth Sweeney: Readers’ Theatre Boston:

Reader's Theatre

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

All paper sessions in the Harrison Institute/Small Special Collections Library auditorium

9:00   a.m.        Session One – The Comic Side of Poe

                  Chair – Richard Kopley, Penn State University

  1. Barbara Cantalupo

“‘A little China man having a large stomach’:  Poe’s Homely Details in ‘The Devil in the Belfry’”

  1. Alexandra Urakova

“‘Shreds and patches’: Poe, Fashion, and Godey’s Lady’s Book

  1. Elina Absalyamova

“A Comic Poe: European Success Story”

11:00  a.m.       Session Two – Tales: Rethinking the Gothic

Chair – Margarida Vale de Gato, University of Lisbon

Bonnie Shannon McMullen

“The ‘Sob from the ebony bed’: The Reanimation of the Gothic Tale in ‘Ligeia’”

Susan Elizabeth Sweeney

“Positive Images: Poe and the Daguerreotype”

William E. Engel

“Jaunty dialogs with the non-human: a Closer Look at Dogs in the Works of E.A. Poe”

1:30 p.m.           Session Three – Poe and Ethics

                        Chair – Bill Engel, University of the South

Gero Guttzeit

“‘Constructive Power’: Poe’s Mythology and Ethics of Authorship”

Katherine Rose Keenan,

“You Can’t Escape Yourself”: Poe’s Use of Moral Doppelgangers”

Shawn McAvoy and

Heather Myrick Stocker

“Selective Symbolism: Poe’s Romantic Theology”

Wednesday, June 26, 2013 (cont.)

3.30 p.m.     Session Four – Poetry, Science, and Eureka

Panel Chair – Harry Lee Poe, Union University

René van Slooten

“The Facts in the Case of Eureka”

Murray Ellison

“Judging Edgar Allan Poe’s Eureka after the Author’s Death”

Diffusion Diagram from Poe's, Eureka: A Prose Poem

Diffusion Diagram from Eureka: A Prose Poem

Ironically, as I began my final presentation of the conference on Poe’s strangest and most enigmatic work, Eureka: A Prose Poem, the lights in the University of Virginia’s Special Collections Library began to flicker. This show from Nature was followed by some of the most powerful lightning and thunderclaps I ever remember experiencing. Not surprisingly after these impressive  events, our lights were lost and flickered to the minimum backup generator dim-strength. Our Power, which was to illuminate my elaborate Power Point presentation on the difficulties of evaluating Poe’s, Eureka, left the building! If scientists at the University of Virginia would have argued that the power failure was caused by the energy of the Poe enthusiasts in the room, I would not have disagreed with them! I will explain how I handled the situation and what I said about what I thought would be needed to conduct a proper evaluation of Eureka in my next Blog.


 Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education at Temple University (1973), a Master’s of Arts in English Literature at VCU (2015), and  a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech in 1987. He is married and has three adult employed daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. Currently, he serves as a literature teacher, board member, and curriculum advisor for the Lifelong Learning Institute in Chesterfield, Virginia, and is the founder and chief editor of the literary blog, He is an editor for the “Correctional Education Magazine,” and editing a book of poetry written by an Indian mystic. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and all-around helper at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. You can write to Murray by leaving a Comment or at [email protected]

Murray Ellison at the Richmond Poe Museum

Murray  at the Poe Museum


Rufus Griswold Visits the Conservator

Griswold portraits at the conservation studio

Griswold portraits at the conservation studio

The Poe Museum’s newly acquired portraits of Rufus and Caroline Griswold have just returned from a visit to a conservator who examined them so that he can put together a proposal for treating them. We will post that information when it becomes available. To find out more about these portraits, click here.

The good news is that the paintings are in great shape. The bad news is that those great paintings are covered under layers of dirt, grime, and varnish. A quick examination revealed a little of what these paintings have endured over the past 176 years.

Rufus and Caroline Griswold meet George III at the conservation studio

Rufus and Caroline Griswold meet George III at the conservation studio

The portraits were painted in 1840 when Rufus Griswold was twenty-five years old. Rufus and Caroline had married three years earlier, but he would leave her in New York in November 1840 in order to take a job in Philadelphia. She remained in New York, where she died just two years later. Griswold was devastated by her sudden death. He refused to leave her side until he was forced to do so by a relative thirty hours later. Then he returned to her crypt forty days later and spent the night with her corpse.

The loss of Caroline inspired Griswold to write poetry in her memory. Among these were “Five Days” and “To Elizabeth Waring—A Christmas Epistle.” The manuscript for the latter is in the collection of Griswold’s letters and manuscripts included with the above portraits. The poem begins,

A day of joy to all the world is this,
But unto me, alas! A day of gloom;
For she who was the fountain of my bliss
Is hid from me forever in the tomb.
“A happy Christmas!” comes from many a voice,–
‘Tis kindly meant,–it brings me only pain,–
She who alone could bid my soul rejoice,
Oh, wo is me! I ne’er shall see again!”

But fifty days ago,–she by my side,–
I knew no pleasure which was not mine own,–
Ah, cruel Death!—to take from me my bride!—
Thou hast the temple of my hopes o’erthrown.
With broken heart, my weary way I wend,
No stars henceforth upon my pathway shine,–
Alas, what stars like eyes of such a friend,
As thou to me, oh, sainted Caroline!

These portraits serve as a record of the young couple in the early years of their marriage. A year after this portrait was painted, Griswold met Edgar Allan Poe. Another year later, Griswold rose to literary fame with the publication of his anthology The Poets and Poetry of America. Poe faintly praised the book at first but later ridiculed it for placing too much emphasis on northern writers while overlooking southern poets. This was only the beginning of the literary feud that ended after Poe’s death with Griswold attacking him in print with a largely fabricated biography.

The painting has been attributed to the artist Charles Loring Elliott in the 1943 book Rufus Wilmot Griswold: Poe’s Literary Executor by Joy Bayless. Griswold is known to have commissioned more portraits from him, so it is possible the Poe Museum’s portraits could be Elliott’s work. These paintings are, however, so dirty that it is difficult to tell what they really look like or who might have painted them.

When Griswold died at the age of forty-two in 1857, his daughter Emily Griswold took ownership of the paintings. From her, they descended through her family until they arrived at the antique dealer who sold them to the Poe Museum. A quick look at the surface of the paintings tells us a little of what happened to them over the years.

The paintings were done with oil paint on canvas. The canvas was then nailed to a wooden frame called a stretcher. Then they were installed in frames to protect them. At some point, both canvases were removed from their stretchers and frames and rolled up to make them easier to transport. This left a series of horizontal cracks in the paint surface. You can see some of those cracks in this picture. Some of the cracks are difficult to see because a restorer painted them the same color as the surrounding paint.

Horizontal cracks in Rufus Griswold painting

Horizontal cracks in Rufus Griswold painting

When the paintings were attached to new stretchers, somebody decided to make them narrower, so he or she attached them to smaller stretchers and rolled the excess canvas around the side of the stretcher bar. Bare canvas along the bottom of Caroline’s portrait shows that the person who performed this procedure had trouble lining up the canvas on the new stretcher. Since they could not stretch Rufus’s canvas around the bottom edge of his stretcher, they just nailed the canvas through the front. That’s right. There is a nail sticking out of the picture. You can almost see it in this picture.

Lower edge of Rufus Griswold portrait

Lower edge of Rufus Griswold portrait

You might also notice a slight bulge in the lower edge of the canvas in that picture. The bulge was caused by the accumulation of junk between the back of the canvas and the front of the stretcher. The conservator found leaves, dust, and dead insects back there.

Then people smoked in front of the pictures, and the smoke gradually deposited on the surface of the paintings. Fortunately, the paintings had been varnished shortly after they were painted, so the smoke particles stuck to the varnish instead of adhering to the paint. Eventually, the varnish looked dull and brown from all the smoke and dust stuck to it, so somebody applied another layer of varnish on top of the first varnish. Naturally, more tobacco smoke and dust stuck to that layer.

By this time, the painting was so dark it was difficult to see, but it is still down there underneath all that dirty varnish. The conservator wanted to find out what the paint looks like under the varnish, so he used solvents to remove the tobacco smoke, dust, what appears to be some kind of liquid spilled on the surface, and both layers of varnish. The photos below show what he found.




Next time, we will post the conservator’s analysis of the paintings and what he thinks he can do for them.

Relic of Edgar Allan Poe’s Wife is Poe Museum’s Object of the Month

Virginia Clemm Poe

Virginia Clemm Poe

One hundred and eighty years ago Edgar Allan Poe married his cousin Virginia Clemm in a small ceremony in Richmond.

For a very awkward moment, try explaining to a group of thirteen-year-old middle school students that they are the same age Edgar Allan Poe’s wife was when he married her—and that her husband was twenty-seven at the time. (To learn more about the wedding ceremony, click here.) Even though Virginia Clemm Poe lived until the age of twenty-four, she is still frequently referred to as Poe’s “child-wife,” as if she were forever thirteen.

The nature of the relationship between Poe and his bride has long been a matter of speculation. To make matters more confusing, in the same August 1835 letter, he called her a sister, a cousin, and a “darling little wifey.” His nickname for her was Sissy (sister), and he called her mother, Maria Poe Clemm, Muddy (mother). Virginia sometimes referred to Edgar as Buddy (brother).

In letters to his mother-in-law, Poe speaks of Virginia in affectionate terms. During an 1844 trip to New York with Virginia, Edgar wrote Maria, “Sis is delighted, and we are both in excellent spirits. She has coughed hardly any and had no night sweat. She is now busy mending my pants which I tore against a nail…You can’t imagine how much we both to miss you. Sissy had a hearty cry last night, because you and Catterina [their cat] weren‘t here.”

Unfortunately, when she was nineteen, Virginia displayed symptoms of tuberculosis, a wasting disease that robbed her of her strength, her energy, and eventually her life. In a January 4, 1848 letter to G. W. Eveleth, Poe describes the agony of seeing her suffer and die from the disease.

Six years ago, a wife, whom I loved as no man ever laved before, ruptured a blood-vessel in singing. Her life was despaired of. I took leave of her forever, and underwent all the agonies of her death. She recovered partially, and I again hoped. At the end of a year, the vessel broke again. I went through precisely the same scene. . . . Then again — again — and even once again, at varying intervals. Each time I felt all the agonies of her death — and at each accession of the disorder I loved her more dearly and clung to her life with more desperate pertinacity. But I am constitutionally sensitive — nervous in a very unusual degree. I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity. During these fits of absolute unconsciousness, I drank — God only knows how often or how much. As a matter of course, my enemies referred the insanity to the drink, rather than the drink to the insanity. I had, indeed, nearly abandoned all hope of a permanent cure, when I found one in the death of my wife. This I can and do endure as becomes a man. It was the horrible never-ending oscillation between hope and despair which I could not longer have endured, without total loss of reason. In the death of what was my life, then, I receive a new, but — Oh God! — how melancholy an existence.

Aside from his mentions of her in letters like these, scholars have also tried to find traces of Virginia in Poe’s literary productions. While it is tempting to learn about Poe’s feeling for Virginia in his poems like “Eulalie” and “Annabel Lee,” the poem in which he mentions her by name is “To My Mother,” which is addressed not to his mother but to his mother-in-law, Virginia’s mother. Written after Virginia’s death, the poem describes how much she meant to him in the lines,

You who are more than mother unto me,
Filling my heart of hearts, where God installed you,
In setting my Virginia’s spirit free.
My mother — my own mother, who died early,
Was but the mother of myself; but you
Are mother to the dead I loved so dearly,
Are thus more precious than the one I knew,
By that infinity with which my wife
Was dearer to my soul than its soul-life.

Of the relationship between Edgar and Virginia, one of their mutual acquaintances Frances Osgood wrote, “Of the charming love and confidence that existed between his wife and himself, always delightfully apparent to me, in spite of the many little poetical episodes, in which the impassioned romance of his temperament impelled him to indulge; of this I cannot speak too earnestly — too warmly. I believe she was the only woman whom he ever truly loved.”

Another of their friends, Lambert A. Wilmer, recalled,

I could mention several striking examples of Poe’s sensibility if my limits would permit. He was unquestionably of an affectionate disposition; of which he gave the best kind of proof when he labored cheerfully for the maintenance of his aunt and cousin, before his marriage with the latter. While he was editor of the Southern Literary Messenger he devoted a large part of his salary to Virginia’s education, and she was instructed in every elegant accomplishment at his expense. He himself became her tutor at another time, when his income was not sufficient to provide for a more regular course of instruction. I remember once finding him engaged, on a certain Sunday, in giving Virginia lessons in Algebra.

One of his severe chroniclers says: “It is believed by some that he really loved his wife; if he did, he had a strange way of showing his affection.” Now it appears to me that he showed his affection in the right way, by endeavoring to make his companion happy. According to the opportunities he possessed, he supplied her with the comforts and luxuries of life. He kept a piano to gratify her taste for music, at a time when his income could scarcely afford such an indulgence. I never knew him to give her an unkind word, and doubt if they ever had any disagreement. That Virginia loved him, I am quite certain, for she was by far too artless to assume the appearance of an affection which she did not feel.

Casting aside nineteenth century propriety, Virginia is said to have run to the sidewalk to embrace her husband when she saw him returning home from work. Other accounts tell of them playing music together or playing games in their yard. Witnesses describe their marriage as a cheerful one. Describing her love for her husband, the twenty-three year old Virginia wrote in 1846,

Ever with thee I wish to roam —
Dearest my life is thine.
Give me a cottage for my home
And a rich old cypress vine,
Removed from the world with its sin and care
And the tattling of many tongues.
Love alone shall guide us when we are there —
Love shall heal my weakened lungs;
And Oh, the tranquil hours we’ll spend,
Never wishing that others may see!
Perfect ease we’ll enjoy, without thinking to lend
Ourselves to the world and its glee —
Ever peaceful and blissful we’ll be.

In her short life, Virginia grew into a lovely young woman described by one of her houseguests Mary Gove Nichols as looking “very young” with “large black eyes, and a pearly whiteness of complexion, which was a perfect pallor. Her pale face, her brilliant eyes, and her raven hair gave her an unearthly look.” Nichols believed she looked “almost [like] a disrobed spirit, and when she coughed it was made certain that she was rapidly passing away.” By this time, Virginia had been suffering for the past few years from tuberculosis, which would have caused her to be very thin and pale—a look considered very attractive at the time. In the words of Poe’s friend Mayne Reid, “I well knew the rose tint upon her cheek was too bright, too pure to be of the earth. It was consumption’s color—that sadly beautiful light which beckons to an earth tomb.”

While most who knew her described Virginia, as Reid did, as “angelically beautiful in person and not less in spirit,” Susan Archer Talley Weiss, a Poe groupie who never actually met Virginia, thought she was “small for her age, but very plump; pretty, but not especially so…[with a] round, ever smiling face.”

There are no known photographs of Virginia to help us determine whether Reid or Weiss was closer to the truth, and the popular post mortem portrait of Virginia hardly gives us a sense of how this cheerful, loving woman must have looked in life.

Post Mortem Portrait of Virginia Poe

Post Mortem Portrait of Virginia Poe

After Virginia succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four, her mother saved some of her cherished possessions. Among those items she felt worthy of saving, for their sentimental value or for some other reason, was a simple red trinket box covered in red leatherette with little brass flowers on top. Two years later, Edgar Poe also died, and Maria Clemm became dependent on the support of friends and relatives in New York, Alexandria, and Baltimore. In Baltimore, she found Poe relatives who offered some assistance before she ended up in one of the city’s charity homes.

Virginia Poe's Trinket Box

Virginia Poe’s Trinket Box

One of the friendly relatives was Virginia’s half-sister, Josephine Clemm Poe. To her, Maria Clemm bequeathed some of Virginia’s possessions, including her little red trinket box. Josephine, in turn, left the items to her daughter, who gave some of them to her niece Josephine Poe January.

Virginia's Half-Sister Josephine Clemm Poe

Virginia’s Half-Sister Josephine Clemm Poe

Josephine Poe January had grown up revering the memory of her great aunt Virginia Poe and, in 1909, wrote the article “Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Child Wife’” about her for the October 1909 issue of The Century. In the account, January describes Virginia’s “unchanging love” for Edgar. The article concludes with the lines, “One sees it now, and thinks of the poverty, the sorrow, the renunciation, of those two, and at first it seems so pitifully little that life gave to them. But is it little? To him the gift of song, to her the gift of love.”

Bottom of Virginia Poe's Trinket Box

Bottom of Virginia Poe’s Trinket Box

At some point, January met the Richmond-born diplomat Alexander W. Weddell whose wife was from Saint Louis, where January was living. Mr. Weddell had been born in St. John’s Church, a short distance from Poe’s mother’s grave in the adjoining cemetery. After passing his Foreign Service exam in 1909, he traveled on diplomatic assignments to Zanzibar, Catania, Sicily, Athens, Beirut, Cairo, Calcutta, Mexico City, and Montreal before returning to Richmond, where he used materials salvaged from an eleventh century English priory to build a grand mansion called Virginia House.

During a meeting with the Weddells, January must have told them about her relation to Edgar Allan Poe, and the Weddells informed her that they were supporters of the newly formed Edgar Allan Poe Shrine (now the Poe Museum) in Richmond. As a result of the conversation, January wrote Pultizer Prize-winning editor, historian, and Poe Shrine president Douglas Southall Freeman on September 5, 1927,

My Dear Dr. Freeman,
My friend and yours Alexander W. Weddell told me he thought you would be interested to have for the Poe Shrine in Richmond a little possession that was once Virginia Clemm Poe’s. My grandmother Josephine Clemm Poe was her sister and this little red box came with the other little relics of Virginia’s bitter-sweet life.

It is in the form of a little chest of red wood or hard card board perhaps with a brass ring on the lid and may well have held some of her own little trinkets in the Fordham days. At least it is completely authentic and has never been in any other than her family’s hands. We were brought up as children to share my grandmother’s sense of loyalty and to know the inside truth of their wishing to have Virginia go to school and live with them a little longer before marrying Edgar. So we loved everything about her and my aunt who became custodian after her parents’ death loved everything about E.A.P.

I hope very much to come to Richmond when the dear Weddells are in “Virginia House” and to see the Shrine. Meanwhile I feel that it is the place Virginia’s little box should go to as nobody after me would value it as much as I have. If you care to have it and will let me know here where I shall be until October I will post it to you when I return to St. Louis.

Very Sincerely,
Josephine Poe January

Josephine Poe January's Letter to the Poe Museum

Josephine Poe January’s Letter to the Poe Museum

The Poe Shrine jumped at the chance to accept the donation of this priceless relic of Poe’s wife. The chairman of the executive committee, museum co-founder Annie Boyd Jones wrote her, “As the children say, we just can’t wait to see the little red box.”

Decoration on Top of Trinket Box

Decoration on Top of Trinket Box

Since 1927, Virginia Poe’s trinket box, one of her very few surviving possessions, has been on display at the museum for the public to study and appreciate, imagining how Virginia must have kept her few, modest trinkets in it and how she, Edgar, and Maria survived in genteel poverty while Edgar wrote for a succession of magazines in Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York. One wonders what miniature treasures Virginia kept in the box and what became of them. Maybe the box held the portrait of her husband she supposedly kissed and gave to her nurse Marie Louise Shew shortly before dying. Maybe it held a ring or a letter from Edgar. We may never know. Another question we may never answer is precisely why, out of all Virginia’s possessions, Maria Clemm chose to save this box. Maybe it had been a favorite of Virginia’s, a gift from a good friend, or just a reminder of happier times. Like most great artifacts, it makes us ask far more questions than it answers.

The Trinket Box Getting Scanned

The Trinket Box Getting Scanned

Earlier this year, Virginia Commonwealth University’s Virtual Curation Laboratory visited the Poe Museum to make a 3D scan of the trinket box so that a three dimensional replica could be printed. Such a replica would allow museum visitors to see the actual trinket box locked safely in its case while handling the nearly identical replica. This new printing technology will offer new ways for the public to experience the museum’s collection, bringing us just a little closer to understanding what this box meant to the most important woman in Poe’s life.

Digital Image of the Trinket Box During Scanning

Digital Image of the Trinket Box During Scanning

Now displayed alongside Virginia’s mirror in the Poe Museum’s Model Building, the box is a favorite among the museum’s many guests. Museum visitors this summer also have the rare opportunity to see two fragments of Virginia Poe’s trousseau (on loan from Dr. Richard Kopley) in the same exhibit case.

In honor of Poe’s 180th wedding anniversary, Virginia Poe’s trinket box is the Poe Museum Object of the Month. Click here to find out more about some of the other Objects of the Month.

Rufus Griswold Archive Arrives at the Poe Museum

How would you like to have your worst enemy’s portrait hanging in your living room? Although a few people half-jokingly advised us that Edgar Allan Poe would not approve of having a portrait of Rufus Griswold in the Poe Museum, we decided there was no better place for such an artifact than here in the center of the Poe-verse. Griswold, after all, is the one responsible for defaming Poe and creating the dark myth which far too many people have mistaken for fact. If it hadn’t been for Griswold, people wouldn’t still believe Poe was a drug addicted madman whose horror stories were merely based on his disturbed life.

Photograph of the Rufus Griswold portrait printed in the 1943 book Rufus Wilmot Griswold by Joy Bayless

Photograph of the Rufus Griswold portrait printed in the 1943 book Rufus Wilmot Griswold by Joy Bayless

Here is just a sample from Griswold’s obituary of Poe:

He walked the streets, in madness or melancholy, with lips moving in indistinct curses, or with eyes upturned in passionate prayers, (never for himself, for he felt, or professed to feel, that he was already damned), but for their happiness who at the moment were objects of his idolatry — or, with his glances introverted to a heart gnawed with anguish, and with a face shrouded in gloom, he would brave the wildest storms; and all night, with drenched garments and arms wildly beating the winds and rains, he would speak as if to spirits that at such times only could be evoked by him from the Aidenn close by whose portals his disturbed soul sought to forget the ills to which his constitution subjugated him — close by that Aidenn where were those he loved — the Aidenn which he might never see, but in fitful glimpses, as its gates opened to receive the less fiery and more happy natures whose destiny to sin did not involve the doom of death.

If that description sounds about right to you, it’s because of Griswold. This is the caricature of Poe he created, and, although it has long since been reputed, it is still the myth some of us learn in English class and from popular culture. It’s also the hopelessly drunk and depressed Poe portrayed by John Cusack in the 2012 film The Raven. When reading such a description it’s easy to see why most people think Poe only wrote horror stories when he actually wrote more comedies and science fiction tales.


This distorted view of Poe is so popular that a few people think we are either mistaken or lying when we at the Poe Museum tell them the true story of Poe’s life. That is when we have to inform them about Rufus Wilmot Griswold, the rival editor, anthologist, and failed poet who, to avenge some wrong Poe had done him, wrote such a libelous obituary of the author that, at first, he chose to sign it with a pseudonym. Published two days after Poe’s death, it begins, “EDGAR ALLAN POE is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.”

As if that were not enough, Griswold continued his smear campaign with a biography of Poe that portrayed the dead man as a vile, despicable human being, a liar, a blackmailer, a madman and a womanizer. Griswold even implied Poe had made a pass at his foster father’s mother and forged some of Poe’s letters to quote in the memoir. While some of Poe’s friends came forward with articles defending Poe’s good name, many were afraid to speak out until after the influential anthologist Griswold was dead. Three years after Griswold’s death, Poe’s former fiancée Sarah Helen Whitman published her own biography of Poe, and several others followed. With a few notable exceptions, most of them portrayed Poe in a much better light. Now any objective biographer can safely dismiss the popular view of Poe as an insane opium addict.

When the Poe Museum tries to provide its visitors a fair and objective view of Poe’s life and work it is helpful to distinguish the facts from the fictions associated with his biography. A big part of this involves examining the man who started these myths and the reasons he did it. That’s why most Poe Museum tours end with at least some mention of Rufus Griswold’s infamous biography of Poe.

Rufus Griswold's Wife Caroline

Rufus Griswold’s Wife Caroline

A few months ago, an antique dealer contacted the Poe Museum with an offer to sell a collection of Rufus Griswold artifacts including oil paintings of Rufus Griswold and his wife Caroline as well as about forty-five letters to and from Griswold, members of his family, and the poet (and enemy of both Poe and Griswold) Elizabeth Ellet. As soon as the collections committee heard about the opportunity, it voted to acquire the items. To raise the money, the museum launched a Gofundme campaign which quickly raised the money thanks to generous gifts from Susan Jaffe Tane, Stephan Loewentheil, Abbe Ancell, Michael Brazda, Teresa Carter, Christine Clements, Christopher Davalos, Escape Room Live DC, Katrina Fontenla, Mary Lee Haase, Sarah Huffman, Magdalena Karol, L. L. Leland, Aimée Mahathy, Lizzie O., Neca Rocco, Robert Rosen, Jennifer and Joe Rougeau, Justin and Elizabeth Schauer, Ernst Schnell, John Spitzer, Wayne and Pat Stith, Kurt Strom, Amy H. Sturgis, Sara Tantlinger, Patrick Tsao, Ashleigh Williams, and Seven Anonymous Donors.

Now, after years in the possession of descendants of Rufus Griswold’s daughter Emily, this collection is finally in a public collection where anyone can see and study it. Although the portraits were printed once in a 1943 biography of Rufus Griswold, the small black-and-white reproductions in that book only provided the slightest hint of the face of Griswold we will see when we have finished conserving the original paintings. For the first time ever, the public will be able to see Rufus and Caroline Griswold as they appeared when Griswold himself owned the paintings.

Portrait of Griswold printed in 1943 book by Joy Bayless

Portrait of Griswold printed in 1943 book by Joy Bayless

While seeing the portraits will be like traveling back in time to meet the man, reading his private letters in this collection will be like having a conversation with him. This will be our chance to learn about Griswold’s private struggles, his aspirations, and his motivations.

Griswold descendant Benjamin Wakeman Hartley with the portrait in background ca. 1960

Griswold descendant Benjamin Wakeman Hartley with the portrait in background ca. 1960

The paintings’ trip to the Poe Museum is just one step on their decades-long journey. Painted in 1840, they went from Griswold (1815-1857) to his daughter Emily Griswold Hartley (1838-1906, a missionary) to her son Randolph Hartley (1870-1931, a librettist and theatrical agent) to Wakeman Hartley to a Massachusetts antique dealer. The next step is a visit to the conservator to repair the damage caused by decades of neglect. Now obscured by dark varnish, dust, smoke, and grime and covered with cracks, holes, and restorers’ over-painting, these 176 year old artifacts need to be cleaned and repaired in order for us to finally see them as they would have appeared in Griswold’s time. You will learn more about that in next week’s installment.

If you would like to help take care of the Poe Museum’s artifacts, please make a contribution here.

Poe, Lynch, and the Literary Salon Scene

Many who have visited the museum may have recognized the striking portrait of a mysterious woman in the Memorial Building, just above Maria Clemm’s socks and cornered to Samuel Osgood’s Poe portrait. Her eyes follow no matter where you step in the room, her inquisitive gaze and smirk presenting an air of grace, affluence, intelligence, and perhaps suspicion. She was not unknowing when it came to her guests; Poe, a short-time regular guest, was no exception. This stark woman was Anne Charlotte Lynch Botta, hostess of one of New York’s prominent literary salons, and dictator of who was “in” and who was “out” of the literary scene.

Anna Charlotte Lynch

According to Maggie MacLean, author of the Women History Blog, Lynch was a poet, sculptor, and teacher, who made her bearings in Philadelphia in the early 1840s. She was introduced to popular actress Fanny Kemble, who then opened Lynch to a world of artists and writers. In 1845, she moved to New York City, where she taught English composition at the Brooklyn Academy for Young Ladies. She also published poems, stories, and contributed to periodicals such as The Gift and the Democratic Review. (Source.)

It was this year, in 1845, when Edgar Allan Poe swept the nation with his popular poem, “The Raven.” In fact, most likely because of this he was given the privilege to attend Lynch’s events. According to Elizabeth Oakes Smith, a prominent literary figure, rights activist and Poe contemporary,

To be invited to the reception of Miss Lynch was an evidence of distinction, and one in itself, for she was strict in drawing the moral as well as the intellectual line. Perhaps no one received any more marked attention than Edgar A. Poe. His slender form, pale, intellectual face and weird expression of eye never failed to arrest the attention of even the least observant…women fell under his fascination and listened in silence (Elizabeth Oakes Smith, Wyman, 88).

Elizabeth Oakes Smith.

Elizabeth Oakes Smith.

It is said that these women, including Frances Osgood, would sit at his feet to hear him speak his eloquent, poetical topics of various discussion. In this same memoir, Oakes Smith recalled,

At that time, at the houses of Rev. Orville Dewey, Miss Anna C. Lynch (now Mrs. Botta)…Edgar Poe was an accepted and honored guest. His manners were refined, and the scope of his conversation that of the gentleman and the scholar. His wife, being an invalid, dared not encounter the night air, but he spoke of her tenderly, and often (121).

Lynch seemed to be an intelligent, respected hostess, and Edgar was now up to celebrity standards amongst his peers. However, this would not last for long. Amidst the Frances Osgood scandal, in which he swapped numerous flirtatious poems with Frances Sargent Osgood, he found himself surrounded by other vindictive women, including Ann Stephens, Margaret Fuller, and Elizabeth Ellet. According to Frederick Frank and Anthony Magistrale, authors of The Poe Encyclopedia, Poe was “‘soon off her [Lynch’s] guest list because of her disapproval of Poe’s contemptuous treatment of Elizabeth Fries Ellet'” (214).

Thus came Poe’s rise and fall with the prestigious literary scene led by the eminent Anne Lynch. As one views the portraits next to one another, they cannot help but wonder if Lynch is keeping an eye on Edgar’s antics indefinitely. What we do know is that her portrait deserves the prominence it has received hanging in the Poe Museum. To close, we will leave our readers with Poe’s own words regarding Lynch in his “Literati of New York City,”

In character Miss Lynch is enthusiastic, chivalric, self-sacrificing, “equal to any fate,” capable of even martyrdom in whatever should seem to her a holy cause-a most exemplary daughter…In person she is rather above the usual height, somewhat slender, with dark hair and eyes-the whole countenance at times full of intelligent expression. Her demeanor is dignified, graceful, and noticeable for repose.

Cholera Pandemic Terrified and Inspired Edgar Allan Poe

The population of New York City was 515,547 at the beginning of 1849. When a cholera epidemic broke out that spring, about 100,000 people fled the city. Of those who remained, 5,071 succumbed to the disease. The July 8 issue of The Christian Intelligencer reported that 358 New Yorkers died of cholera in the week of June 30 through July 7. Also on July 7, Edgar Allan Poe wrote his mother-in-law, “I have been so ill — have had the cholera, or spasms quiet as bad, and can now hardly hold the pen…The very instant you get this, come to me. The joy of seeing you will almost compensate for our sorrows. We can but die together. It is no use to reason with me now; I must die…For your sake it would be sweet to live, but we must die together.” Poe wrote “New York” at the top of the page, but he probably wrote it in nearby Philadelphia, which was also suffering from a cholera epidemic. Twelve days later, he wrote his friend E.H.N. Patterson that he had “barely escaped with my life” from the cholera epidemic.


On August 7, Poe wrote Patterson that he had “suffered worse than death — not so much from the Cholera as from its long-continued consequences in debility and congestion of the brain — the latter, possibly, attributable to the calomel taken.” Calomel was a medicine derived from toxic mercury. One of many potentially dangerous “remedies” doctors of the time often prescribed to those suffering from a variety of maladies.
At a time before the acceptance of germ theory, doctors had little understanding of the causes of diseases and virtually no comprehension of how to cure them. Various quack remedies for cholera included prescribing opium, mercury pills, and oil of turpentine. If these failed to produce results, the doctor might perform tobacco smoke enemas or administer beeswax plugs to stop the diarrhea associated with the disease. The following article from the New York lists a few other proposed “cures.”


Unknown to North America before 1832, cholera tore a path of destruction across the continent that year as part of a worldwide pandemic that had begun in India and swept westward through Europe before crossing the Atlantic. In an April 9, 1832 letter, the German poet Henirich Heine described the arrival of cholera in Paris.

On March 29th, the night of mi-careme, a masked ball was in progress, the chabut in full swing. Suddenly, the gayest of the harlequins collapsed, cold in the limbs, and, underneath his mask, “violet-blue” in the face. Laughter died out, dancing ceased, and in a short while carriage-loads of people were hurried from the redoute to the Hotel Dieu to die, and to prevent a panic among the patients, were thrust into rude graves in their dominoes. Soon the public halls were filled with dead bodies, sewed in sacks for want of coffins. Long lines of hearses stood en queue outside Pere Lachaise. Everybody wore flannel bandages. The rich gathered up their belongings and fled the town. Over 120,000 passports were issued at the Hotel de Ville.

Out of a population of 650,000 Paris lost 20,000 of its citizens to cholera during the 1832 epidemic. In London, another 6,536 died. Cholera claimed 100,000 in France; 55,000 in the United Kingdom; 130,000 in Egypt; 100,000 in Hungary; and even more elsewhere during that pandemic. In New York City, which had a population of about 250,000 at the time, 3,000 people died, and an estimated 100,000 fled the city.
Poe was in Baltimore in 1832 and would have seen the panic brought about by the arrival of the disease. He also lost one of his closest friends Ebenezer Burling, who succumbed to cholera in Richmond. The best doctors of the time were unable to arrest the progress of the disease. It would be years before they would realize it was carried in the water. Unsuspecting victims contracted the germs from drinking water. Once they displayed symptoms, sufferers could expect about a fifty percent mortality rate.
Without a proper understanding of the causes of cholera, residents could do little to prepare for it. Writing twenty years later, Dr. George B. Wood seemed dumbfounded about how to stop it when he wrote, “No barriers are sufficient to obstruct its progress. It crosses mountains, deserts, and oceans. Opposing winds do not check it. All classes of persons, male and female, young and old, the robust and the feeble, are exposed to its assault; and even those whom it has once visited are not always subsequently exempt.”
Former New York mayor Phillip Horne was among many who thought they knew the real cause of the disease—the Irish. These immigrants, “filthy, intemperate, unused to the comforts of life and regardless of its proprieties…flock to the populous towns of the great West, with disease contracted on shipboard, and increased by bad habits on shore,” he wrote in his diary.
By the end of the 1849 epidemic, cholera had claimed 150,000 American lives. While this disease struck terror wherever it visited, cholera was not unique among the deadly pandemics that threatened Poe’s world. Yellow fever epidemics broke out multiple times in the early nineteenth century, forcing Poe’s mother to flee from an outbreak in New York and overtaking his grandmother in Charleston. His cousin George William Poe succumbed to yellow fever in Baltimore. Virginia experienced thirteen yellow fever epidemics in the 1800s. The worst of these took place in Norfolk in 1855, six years after Poe’s death. Of the city’s population of 16,000, about 6,000 fled the area, and 2,000 died.


Tuberculosis also claimed thousands of lives each year. Among those he knew, Poe’s mother, foster mother, brother, wife, and literary executor died from the extremely widespread and very contagious killer. He likely carried a latent form of the disease.

His first published short story “Metzengerstein” reflects the age’s tendency to romanticize the wasting disease, then called “consumption.” In the tale, the narrator says, “The beautiful Lady Mary! — how could she die? — and of consumption! But it is a path I have prayed to follow. I would wish all I love to perish of that gentle disease. How glorious! to depart in the hey-day of the young blood — the heart of all passion — the imagination all fire — amid the remembrances of happier days — in the fall of the year, and so be buried up forever in the gorgeous, autumnal leaves.”
Fifteen years later, Poe would watch his wife waste away from tuberculosis over the course of five agonizing years.

"King Pest" illustration by Harry Clarke

“King Pest” illustration by Harry Clarke

In the face of all these real-life terrors, Poe turned to his writing. The cholera pandemic of 1832 inspired his short stories “King Pest” and “The Masque of the Red Death” and provided a setting for his tale “The Sphinx.” The beautiful young women who succumb to wasting deaths in so many of his stories might be suffering from the same consumption that had claimed many of his loved ones.
Poe’s brother William Henry Leonard Poe, also wrote about yellow fever, setting his story “The Pirate” during an outbreak. Virginia Poe, Edgar’s wife, also wrote, in her only surviving poem, about the consumption that ravaged her lungs and how she wanted to move to a cottage in the country to “heal my weakened lungs.”
It was not until well after Poe’s death that doctors were finally able to effectively combat these illnesses. With greater understanding of the causes and cures of these diseases, the public gradually became less prone to live in fear of the next plague or to panic at the first sight of disease. That is why it is sometimes difficult to understand just how terrifying a story like “The Masque of the Red Death” might have been to the author’s contemporaries or to comprehend how deeply offensive Robert Louis Stevenson found Poe’s plague comedy “King Pest,” written just three years after the 1832 cholera pandemic. (Stevenson went so far as to write that the author of that story had “ceased to be a human being.”) This is why from June 23 through August 21, the Poe Museum will host the special exhibit Pandemics and Poe exploring the ways deadly diseases like yellow fever, cholera, and tuberculosis touched Edgar Allan Poe’s life and inspired some of his greatest work. The exhibit features rare first printings and original documents, including a Poe family bible, that trace the impact of disease and death on Poe’s world.

"The Masque of the Red Death" illustrated by Harry Clarke

“The Masque of the Red Death” illustrated by Harry Clarke

British Broadsheet warning about Cholera Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Broadsheet warning about Indian cholera symptons and recommending remedies, issued in Clerkenwell, London, by Thos. Key and Geo. Tindall: Church wardens. London, 1831. 1831 Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

British Broadsheet warning about Cholera
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
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Broadsheet warning about Indian cholera symptons and recommending remedies, issued in Clerkenwell, London, by Thos. Key and Geo. Tindall: Church wardens. London, 1831.
1831 Published: –
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0