It was recently brought to my attention that Poe was once a comedian.
I recall first hearing this statement claimed a few years ago-after all, he has written more satire and humorous stories combined than horror-but who would believe that this “miserable” and “melancholy” writer was once a comedian?
If you still remain skeptical, do not worry-so do I. Upon reading Poe’s satires, including “Lionizing” and “The Devil in the Belfry,” one can see jabs at humor here and there, especially jabs which mock the social life of nineteenth century America; unfortunately, it is just that point that leaves readers scratching their heads. Poe’s humor was catered to his time and is not catered to our contemporary readers. In fact, Poe still leaves me desperately searching for an annotated edition so that I may understand what his Latin sentences mean, what his made up words are equivalent to, and even what the statements that are assumedly supposed to be funny mean.
In fact, the editor of the Emporia Gazette in 1911 commented:
If there is anything in the world more gloomy and heartrending than Poe’s tragic tales, it is Poe’s humorous work. He hadn’t the first qualification of a humorist. There was nothing buoyant or effervescent in his make-up. His “humorous” stories are such labored things as to make the reader weep. The fact that he constantly uses italics to identify and emphasize his alleged jests is enough for any reasonable man (EAPoe).
Not only did Poe write satire and make an attempt to make his readers laugh, but he also liked to throw out the occasional pun. Let us not forget the gentleman whom Poe chastised for using a pun in the writer’s “Best Conundrum Yet”:
With this heading we find the following in the New York Signal: — “Why may Prince Albert be considered a saving and frugal personage?” [[“]]Answer — because he lays by a sovereign every night.” Mr. [Park?] Benjamin, we have a very high respect for you, but not for your opinion about your own puns. Do you seriously think that conundrum a good one — we don’t. To be good, a double entendre should be at least good English when viewed on either side. Now we may lay by a piece of money — but we lie by a wife (EAPoe). (Note, this was attributed to Poe in 1943 by Clarence Brigham.)
In short, Poe was a tad hypocritical when it came between his own writing and critiquing others works. But we digress.
The Poe enthusiast who spurred this post reached out to me with an article from EAPoe’s website. This article, full of Poe’s puns, is both a joy and also upsetting-what was Poe thinking when he wrote these jokes?
We will provide a few examples of our favorites below:
“I have a table needing repairs; why must the cabinet-maker who comes for it be in good circumstances?
Because he is comfortable. — come for table.” We think Poe should reflect on the previous criticism regarding Mr. Benjamin’s pun. Poe’s grammar is just as, if not more, poor here than Benjamin’s.
“Why is his last new novel sleep itself?
Because it’s so poor. — sopor.”
“Why is a chain like the feline race?
Because it’s a catenation. — a catty nation.”
“When you called the dock a wharf, why was it a deed of writing? Because it was a dock you meant. — a document.”
“Why does a lady in tight corsets never need comfort?”
“Because she’s already so laced. — solaced.”
Lastly, we cannot forget the pun where Poe mentions himself,
“Why ought the author of the ‘Grotesque and Arabesque’ to be a good writer of verses?
Because he’s a poet to a t. Add t to Poe makes it Poet.”
We will point out that these puns were so bad, Poe had to even write out the answers himself.
Although we may snicker and sneer at Poe’s jokes, or lack thereof, it must be noted that he was aware of his bad humor. In fact, he made this statement in regard to justifying his bad puns,
“Why is a bad wife better than a good one? — Because bad is the best.” This somewhat ungallant old query, with its horrible answer, is an embodiment of the true genius of the whole race to which it belongs — the race of the conundrums. Bad is the best. There is nothing better settled in the minds of people who know any thing at all, than the plain truth that if a conundrum is decent it wo’nt do — that if it is fit for anything it is not worth twopence — in a word that its real value is in exact proportion to the extent of its demerit, and that it is only positively good when it is outrageously and scandalously absurd. In this clear view of the case we offer the annexed. They have at least the merit of originality — a merit apart from that of which we have just spoken. At all events if they are not ours, we have just made them, and they ought to be (EAPoe).
If Poe was self-aware, then why did he proceed to torture his readers?
Do you think you would go to Poe’s show if he were hosting at a comedy club? Would you cheer him on or jeer and throw tomatoes at the poor man? If we were able to give him advice during the time he wrote these puns, we would advise he not quit his day job.
However, to support and enlighten Edgar’s comedic voice, we will end this with another of his own:
“Why are these conundrums like a song for one voice?
“Because they’re so low.”[solo]-Just like Poe’s puns.
Carl Laemmle, Jr. needed a monster. The twenty-three year old president of Universal Pictures had produced a string of successful features since inheriting the company as his twenty-first birthday present. It was the depths of the Great Depression. Thousands were unemployed. More than ever, Americans needed an escape, and it came in the form of movies. This was an age of screwball comedies, lavish musicals, and westerns. It was also the time when Universal Pictures introduced its classic monsters — Dracula, the Mummy, and Frankenstein’s Monster. These monsters starred in the horror films that saved Universal and made stars of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. In its quest for the next great monster, Universal searched the works of Edgar Allan Poe and found Erik. If you’ve never heard of Erik that is because it is the name they gave the previously unnamed orangutan from Poe’s mystery “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” In the process of converting Poe’s detective story into one of Universal’s gothic monster movies, the producers transformed the orangutan into a classic movie monster and threw in a mad scientist for good measure.
Filming on Murders in the Rue Morgue (the studio dropped the first “The” from the title.) wrapped on December 23, 1931 at the cost of $190,099.45, far less than it had spend the previous year on Dracula. In January 1932, Universal Pictures’ publicist P. L. Hickey visited Richmond’s Poe Museum, where the Museum’s Acting Secretary Catherine Campbell led him on a guided tour of the complex. In addition to working for Universal, Hickey wrote fiction, true stories, and poetry for the pulp magazines True Detective Magazine and Weird Tales. Even though the Poe Museum had closed two of its buildings to conserve energy during the Depression, Hickey was sufficiently impressed with his visit that he told Universal’s Head of Exploitation Joe Weil.
Weil specialized in finding unique ways to promote Universal’s films. For the premiere of Dracula, Weil plastered New York City with cryptic messages like “Beware! Friday the 13th—Dracula,” “I’ll be on your neck Friday the 13th—Dracula,” and “Good to the last gasp! Dracula.” He wrote advertising copy and leaked a fake telegram in which the film’s director supposedly begged the studio not to release the movie on Friday the 13th because he was superstitious. Weil also worked with local businesses, convincing department stores have special Dracula-themed displays in their windows. Some studios of the era went so far as to station ambulances outside theaters just in case Universal’s movies frightened anyone to death.
For Murders in the Rue Morgue, Weil probably thought the Poe Museum was a natural fit to help him promote the Poe-inspired film. On January 23, 1932, he wrote Campbell, telling her how much Hickey had enjoyed his visit and promising to send her publicity stills from the film “with the compliments of Mr. Laemmle.” He also promised to send her 1,000 rotogravure heralds to distribute on the film’s behalf. Campbell wrote Weil on February 9, thanking him for the “very interesting pictures of The Murders in the Rue Morgue which your President was kind enough to send us.”
She assured him she would “certainly see the picture if it ever comes to Richmond and will try and have some of [his] pictures in a conspicuous place.” While there is no record of the stills having ever been displayed in the Poe Museum, they have remained in the museum’s collection for the past eighty-four years.
The first thing one might notice when scanning these photos is that the star of the film, the legendary horror film star Bela Lugosi does not appear in any of them. The second is that a lesser known actress named Sidney Fox appears in every one. The average fan of classic horror films might be shocked to discover that, in the film’s opening credits, Fox’s name appears before Lugosi’s—even though she was still a relative newcomer while he was at the height of a long and distinguished career. The rumor at the time attributed her sudden rise to fame to her having an affair with studio boss Carl Laemmle (or even his sixty-four year old father). The truth might be that she was seen as a promising young Hollywood star after having garnered praise on Broadway and beating out Bette Davis for the coveted role of the bad sister in 1931’s Bad Sister.
Also in 1931, Bela Lugosi’s title role in the film Dracula saved Universal from financial ruin and launched the studio’s cycle of horror films. This was the film in which Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi introduced the tuxedo- and cape-wearing interpretation of a suave Count Dracula to the silver screen. Having starred for decades at the Hungarian Royal National Theater and on Broadway, Lugosi believed he would inevitably become a leading man in Hollywood, but his thick accent and inability to master the English language doomed him to be typecast as a foreign villain.
Shortly after he starred in Dracula, Lugosi was offered the role of the monster in Universal’s upcoming adaptation of Frankenstein. Worried that the monster makeup required for the role would obscure his handsome face and that the monster did not have any dialog to showcase his acting, Lugosi declined the offer.
Meanwhile, French Expressionist Robert Florey expected to direct Frankenstein, but Universal awarded the job to British director James Whale. Without Lugosi, the studio was in need of a new monster, and Whale found him, in the form of forty-one year old British actor Boris Karloff.
With the release of Frankenstein on November 21, 1931, Karloff was a star, Whale was a respected director, Lugosi was regretting his decision, and Florey still needed a showcase for his talents. Universal followed up on the success of Frankenstein with The Old Dark House (directed by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff) and The Mummy (also starring Boris Karloff).
While Karloff was claiming the spotlight, Lugosi appeared in minor roles in a series of long-since forgotten B-movies like 50 Million Frenchmen, Women of all Nations, The Black Camel, and Broadminded. By 1932, both Lugosi and Florey needed a chance to shine, and Universal gave it to them with Murders in the Rue Morgue.
Murders in the Rue Morgue premiered on February 21, 1932. Although it made a profit, the film helped launch the careers of many of those involved. The director Florey left Universal for Paramount and Warner Brothers where he specialized in B-movies, making about fifty of them before his death in 1979. His best-known film is probably the Marx Brothers comedy The Cocoanuts (1939).
Bela Lugosi clearly relished the part of the mad Dr. Mirakle, who abducted women to inject them with ape’s blood in order to prove the theory of evolution. When the injection invariably kills them, he dumps them into the River Seine through a trapdoor conveniently located in his laboratory floor. By the way, he is also fluent in whatever language apes speak. As implausible as that may sound, it absolutely works in the context of the unreal atmosphere of the film.
Four years later, when it came time to cast the sequel to his hit film Dracula, Universal replaced Lugosi with a dummy, which is burned at the beginning of the movie. He would, however, reprise his vampire role in films like Mark of the Vampire (1935), Return of the Vampire (1944), Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), and Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire (1951). Over the course of his prolific career, he displayed a great versatility, playing everything the Frankenstein monster’s sinister sidekick Ygor in The Son of Frankenstein and The Ghost of Frankenstein to a gangster in Black Friday (1940). He even obscured his face and grunted to perform the previously rejected role of Frankenstein’s Monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). Universal eventually released Lugosi from his contract, and the actor spent his remaining years playing villains in low-budget films until his death in 1959. His last film was Plan 9 from Outer Space, which has been named the “Worst Film Ever Made.” Per his request, he was buried in his Dracula cape.
Leon Ames portrays the hero of Murders in the Rue Morgue, the medical student Pierre (not Auguste) Dupin. His character is responsible for delivering such corny lines as “You’re like a song the girls of Provence sing on May Day. And like the dancing in Normandy on May Day. And like the wine in Burgundy on May Day.” After Murders in the Rue Morgue Ames found steady acting work until his retirement in 1986. His best known role was that of D.A. Kyle Sackett in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).
His co-star Sidney Fox was only nineteen when she filmed Murders in the Rue Morgue, and he only made a few more films. The persistent rumors of her affair with Carl Laemmle were among the factors that caused her to move to Europe. Her career never recovered. Her poor acting and grating, high-pitched voice have been blamed (a little unfairly, considering the writing) for ruining Murders in the Rue Morgue. She died from an overdose of sleeping pills ten years later.
The cinematographer, Karl Freund, went on to a celebrated career. By the time he made Murders he had already been the cinematographer for Dracula and the director for The Mummy. After working on several films, he became the cinematographer for the television comedy I Love Lucy in 1951. In so doing, he innovated television by introducing flat lighting, a technique that illuminates all parts of the scene evenly so that three different cameras can be used at the same time from different angles without having to adjust the lighting for each camera.
The producer, Carl Laemmle, saved Universal with his series of monster movies and defined pop culture depictions of Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Mummy for decades. Regrettably, he lost control of the studio in 1936 and retired a few years later. His influence on later horror films is incalculable.
The real star of the film, Erik the Ape, dies in the film, and he would not be resurrected to appear in any sequels like his fellow Universal monsters Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Mummy. The chimp who portrayed Erik in close-ups lived out his remaining years in the Selig Zoo, which provided animals for films. Joe Bonoma, who wore the ape suit in action shots, went on to a career as a stuntman. Charlie Gemora, who designed the ape suit and wore if for stationary shots, became renowned for his “realistic” ape costumes and would wear them in several films including The Monster and the Girl (1941), the Marx Brothers movie At the Circus (1939), the Laurel and Hardy comedy Swiss Miss (1938), and the Marlene Dietrich feature Blonde Venus (1932). He also found success as a special effects artist at Paramount Studios.
Murders from the Rue Morgue gradually became a cult classic and is considered a fine example of Expressionist filmmaking in America. Universal decided Poe’s name was bankable enough that they added his name and the titles of his works to films like The Black Cat (1935) and The Raven (1935) that bear absolutely no relation to anything Poe ever wrote. This tradition of adding Poe’s names and the titles to unrelated horror films continues to this day.
This was not the last time Hollywood came to the Poe Museum. A decade after the release of Murders in the Rue Morgue, Twentieth Century Fox approached the museum for help with its upcoming romance The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe. The museum consulted the studio on the life of Poe in order to make the film as true to life as possible. Then the studio’s writers promptly ignored this advice and wrote a film that bore only a passing resemblance to the author’s life. Regrettably, the thoroughly historically inaccurate The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe (1942) remains one of the most accurate Poe biopics so far.
Even earlier, in 1928, director James Watson wrote the Poe Museum to see if the institution could assist him in getting the avant-garde film The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) shown in Richmond. The Museum’s secretary replied that she was not sure of any place in town that would be willing to screen it. In recent years, the Poe Museum has shown the film in its Enchanted Garden.
Even when the Poe Museum opened in 1922, Edgar Allan Poe and his works were no strangers to film. No less prestigious a director than D.W. Griffith had already made a Poe film. In fact, the first cinematic adaptation of a Poe story dates to 1907.
Over the years, the Poe Museum has had several visitors from Hollywood. In 1975, Vincent Price, star of several Poe adaptations, visited and toured the museum, Shockoe Hill Cemetery, and Talavera, where he recited some verses from “The Raven” on the spot on which Poe once stood when he recited the poem. Around 1990, writer/director/actor Sylvester Stallone visited the museum and spoke about his own desire to write a new Poe biopic. With the critical success of his recent film Creed, maybe he will find the support he needs to make his Poe film a reality.
While the Poe Museum is best known for its collection of rare Poe manuscripts and historical artifacts dating to the early nineteenth century, but the Museum also collects pop culture ephemera like movie posters and comic books. While the core of the Museum’s movie poster collection was donated by Dr. Harry Lee Poe in 2006, the collection of Poe movie memorabilia dates to the 1932 gift of these Murders in the Rue Morgue film stills. Items like these serve as evidence of Poe’s lasting impact and our culture and the ways writers, visual artists, filmmakers, musicians, and other creatives continue to be inspired by his works. That is why–just in time for this year’s Oscars– this set of publicity stills is the Poe Museum’s Object of the Month.
The Edgar Allan Poe Museum, located in Poe’s hometown of Richmond, Virginia, is proud to announce its 2016 Young Writers’ Conference, to be held June 19-23, 2016. The Young Writers’ Conference is a five-day residency program for high school students who would like to hone their writing skills in a stimulating environment with other like-minded young writers.
Designed to encourage and develop the writing skills of all participants, the conference will feature a variety of experiences, including lectures from visiting writers across a range of genres, intensive workshops, discussion of craft and the artistic process, a focus on Poe through lectures and field trips to places he knew, and much more. The conference concludes with a reading in which students will share the work they’ve produced throughout the week.
As the conference is sponsored by the Poe Museum, one of its goals is to further the legacy of Poe, who was not only a short story writer but also a poet, journalist, editor and critic. Poe grew up in Richmond and began his literary career here, but he also returned to this city throughout his life. The Poe Museum contains the world’s largest collection of Poe’s manuscripts, letters, first editions, artifacts and memorabilia, making it a rich place to study both Poe and the craft of writing.
DAILY SCHEDULE: Each morning of the Young Writers’ Conference begins with breakfast followed by a keynote speaker who would give an hour-long presentation centering on his or her writing specialty. That lecture would be succeeded by an intensive workshop focusing on the presentation topic. After lunch, the afternoon schedule varies from day-to-day and might include a walking tour of Poe’s old neighborhoods, a talk from the Poe Museum’s curator about Poe’s life and work, a trip to Charlottesville where Poe studied at the University of Virginia, visits to historic sites in Richmond such as Monumental Church and Shockoe Hill Cemetery, or a movie night at the famous Byrd Theatre. Every afternoon would include dinner and time for the students to write.
MORNING PRESENTATIONS: The talks in the morning will focus on different kinds of writing each day. Authors who specialize in fiction, poetry, drama, journalism, non-fiction and other genres combine theory and practice to tell the students about the challenges, techniques and rewards of their various fields.
WORKSHOPS: Every morning following the lecture the students participate in a workshop in which they will read from their own work; receive critique, instruction and support from their workshop leader and peers; and engage in exercises and writing prompts that will serve to develop their skills.
HONING THE CRAFT OF WRITING: Time will be set aside each afternoon for the students to practice their writing—often by experimenting with the things they have learned in the morning and on previous days. An essential part of the program, this independent creative time concentrates writing activity and allows students to develop a piece to read aloud on the last evening of the conference.
FOCUS ON POE: Taking advantage of the staff and resources of the Poe Museum and its location in the historic neighborhood of Shockoe Bottom in Poe’s hometown of Richmond. The conference will provide students with several chances to engage closely with Poe’s life and work through lectures, tours, presentations, and activities.
ELIGIBILITY: The 2016 Young Writers’ Conference is open to anyone who is enrolled in the 9th, 10th, 11th or 12th grade at the time of application.
LOCATION AND RESIDENCE: The 2016 Young Writers’ Conference is centered at the Linden Row Inn, at 100 East Franklin Street, Richmond VA 23219. Students will reside at the Inn throughout their stay; some meals and many activities will be there as well. This is a residential program, which involves the students living together as a community of writers wherein the participants encourage and creatively engage each another through conversation, reading each other’s work and sharing a common routine and schedule.
COST: The 2016 Young Writers’ Conference is $750 per participant. This fee includes four nights’ lodging at the Linden Row Inn and three meals a day for the four full days of the conference, plus dinner on the first night after arrival.
RULES: Those who apply to the 2016 Young Writers’ Conference should be high school students who are actively engaged in writing and serious about improving their skills and contributing to a residential writing community. Attendees are not allowed to bring or use tobacco products or alcohol. The residence is gender segregated and visits to the rooms of members of the opposite gender are prohibited.
TO APPLY: Those interested in participating in the 2016 Young Writers’ Conference must submit their application by MAY 1, 2016. The application process is open to anyone enrolled in high school in the spring of 2016; those applying should demonstrate a serious interest in writing and the ability to live in a residential writing community for five days. All applicants will receive notice of the result of their application by May 6, 2016. Those accepted will be expected to send a deposit of $100 to secure their spot by May 27, 2016. The remainder of the fee will be due in full before or upon arrival at the Conference.
From March 18 until May 22, Art students from Petersburg, Virginia’s Appomattox Regional Governor’s School for the Arts and Technology will display their new Poe-inspired artwork at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond. Under the supervision of their instructors David Bartlett, Susanne Whittier, Jason Taylor, and Patty Lyons; the students have produced both 2-D and 3-D artwork in a variety of media. In addition to the visual art, the students will also provide live music at the March 18, 6-8p.m. opening reception in the form of the small ensemble Descendants of Tamerlane. The exhibit will be a great opportunity for the public to see the work of some of the great artists of tomorrow.
“Bits and Pieces” by Olivia Nash
The Appomattox Regional Governor’s School for the Arts and Technology provides gifted and talented students a differentiated and rigorous education, cultivates a supportive environment that inspires unique artistic and technological visions, promotes cultural tolerance, nurtures community partnerships, and produces active, engaged citizens.
“Emergence” by Branden Berkey
The exhibit is part of the Poe Museum’s “Poe Inspires” initiative to collaborate with a diverse variety of outside groups to interpret Poe’s influence through writing, visual art, performing art, gardening, and science. On March 19 and 20, the Latin Ballet of Virginia will perform the Poe-inspired ballet POEMAS at the Poe Museum.
[The Poet] feels it in the beauty of woman — in the grace of her step — in the lustre of her eye — in the melody of her voice — in her soft laughter — in her sigh — in the harmony of the rustling of her robes. He deeply feels it in her winning endearments — in her burning enthusiasms — in her gentle charities — in her meek and devotional endurances — but above all — ah, far above all — he kneels to it — he worships it in the faith, in the purity, in the strength, in the altogether divine majesty — of her love.-Poe, the Poetic Principle Poe was deeply touched by woman’s beauty throughout his life, and many such women became muses for his works. Not only does he dwell on the beauty of “woman” in the passage stated, but he also states in “The Philosophy of Composition”, “Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears.” We see Poe being touched, nay, moved to the point of tears by woman’s beauty. But what kind of beauty could evoke such strong emotion in Poe to bring him to tears? In this same article, which is arguably one of his most well known quotes, he states, “I asked myself-‘Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy’? Death-was the obvious reply. ‘And when,’ I said, ‘is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?’ From what I have already explained at some length, the answer, here also, is obvious-‘When it most closely allies itself to Beauty : the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world…”(165).
As explained, Poe saw beauty through death, and subsequently death through beauty. He was often moved by woman’s beauty, to the point, as the previous quote infers, to tears. From what we can ascertain, Poe found love for the women he admired not only through their physical beauty, which we will provide description examples of below, but also through their ability to inspire his writing. And perhaps we may receive a glimpse of the beauty that so moved Poe.
Jane Stanard Jane Stanard was the mother of Poe’s childhood friend, Robert Craig Stanard. Poe would often visit Robert just to be able to spend time with Jane, whom he’d developed boyish feelings for. She treated him like a son and provided him with the maternal love that he craved, not to mention that she was described as being “a woman of great beauty and of a somewhat classic countenance…Her family and relatives have preserved into modern times the memory of one unusual for her warmth of heart and graciousness in an age of gracious manners. In short, Mrs. Stanard is known to have been a beautiful woman, a splendid hostess, and possessed of a peculiarly radiant and extraordinary and memorable personality”(Allen 88).
Jane Stanard, painted by artist Chris Semtner
Not only did Poe find, according to Hervey Allen, “the chivalrous ideal of a young boy’s first idolatry and the material comfort of sympathy and appreciation,” but he also found arguably his first muse. Stanard, if at all known, is recognized as being the inspiration of Poe’s poem “To Helen.” The passion Poe expressed at such a young age indicates that not only did he appreciate the outward beauty of women, but as indicative of Stanard’s personality and his poem dedicated to her, he found a familial and transcendent love. He placed his “Helen” on the pedestal that Helen of Troy would have been placed upon, and he raised her image above his eye to admire from afar, despite being so close.
Her death in April, 1824 marked a difficult time in Edgar’s life, and, according to Allen, “There is an immortal story that Poe haunted the spot” (90). There is no doubt that many may have heard this tale, and, yes, it is widely told that Poe and Robert would often visit Jane’s grave to morn and weep-Robert, for his mother and also perhaps mentor and great friend, and Poe, for his first love, his “Helen,” and one of, if not his first, ideal forms of beauty.
Elmira Royster When Poe was just sixteen, he met his first fiancée, Sarah Elmira Royster. She would also become his last fiancée and love before his death in 1849. According to Poe biographer Hervey Allen, “…she was about fifteen and dowered with a trim little figure, an appealing mouth, large black eyes, and long, dark chestnut hair” (110). We emphasize that this was when Edgar first came to know her, amidst the beauty of childhood bliss and blooming love that happens at that tender age. She would have been the second significant female figure in his life to romantically interest him, and we see, from this description, that she held the characteristic dark eyes and hair that may have made her appear pale in complexion-at least, to Poe and his romantic eye.
Forged Drawing of Young Elmira Royster
As many may know the tale, Poe went off to college, Elmira’s father destroyed all of the letters that Edgar sent to her, and she became engaged to Alexander Shelton. When Poe returned, he learned of the unfortunate fate that had befallen their love, thus inspiring of a few of his poems including “I Saw Thee On Thy Bridal Day….” and “To [Elmira],” which even alludes to her eyes, “in Heaven of heart enshrined,” falling unto his “funereal mind,” thus displaying the connection of beauty with death. Not only do we have a copy drawing of a portrait of Elmira sketched by Poe here at the museum, which showcases her beauty and allows us to see the beauty Poe saw in her, but we also have other numerous quotes regarding her appearance later in life. You can read more about Elmira and her character and appearance in the post for this month’s “Museum Object of the Month,” here.
Virginia Poe Many are familiar with Virginia Poe, for she was the youthful wife of Edgar Poe. It may be argued that she was the main inspiration for many of his works, including “Annabel Lee,” “Ulalume,” and “Eleonora.” In the following passages, we receive a glimpse of her outward appearance.
“She was rather small for her age, ‘pump, pretty, but not especially so, with sweet and gentle manners and the simplicity of a child,'” she was described as being during the year of 1835, when she and Poe married. It was also said, according to Hervey Allen, that “When she [Virginia] was twenty-odd it was noticed by competent persons that she did not appear to be over fifteen. Her mind developed more normally that her cousin’s [Rosalie Poe], but her body was never wholly mature…it was remarked that the otherwise childish prettiness of Virginia was marred by a chalky-white complexion…” (311-312).
Virginia Poe-drawing after her “Death Portrait”
According to Allen, in accordance with Poe’s statement initially quoted at the beginning of this post, “For Poe the ‘delicacy’ which the advancing stages of the dread, but then fashionable and romantic, disease, conferred on his wife-the strange, chalky pallor tinged with a faint febrile rouge, the large, haunted liquid eyes-gradually acquired a peculiar fascination” (312). Although this is simply painted by Allen, who would not have seen Virginia personally during her decline before her death, his description is certainly romantic and promotes the ideal beauty of death to Poe.
Finally, “Mrs. Poe looked very young; she had 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. One felt that she was almost a disrobed spirit, and when she coughed it was made certain that she was rapidly passing away” (Mrs. Mary Gove Nichols, “Reminiscences of Edgar Allan Poe,” reprint, p. 8).
Concluding this section with Virginia, we can see that she most resembles the ideal figure of beauty quoted by Poe-she may have perhaps even influenced Poe’s famous quote, as she would have been the closest embodiment of death while he remained by her side until her finale repose.
Frances Osgood was notorious for arresting Poe with her lucid gaze and poise, not to mention the secretive romantic poems that she exchanged with him, albeit publicly. In the following descriptions, however, not only will we see Frances’ outer beauty, but also the inward beauty she held.
In character she is ardent, sensitive, impulsive-the very soul of truth and honor; a worshipper of the beautiful, with a heart so radically artless as to seem abundant in art; unusually admired, respected and beloved. In person she is about the medium height, slender even to fragility, graceful whether in action or repose; complexion usually pale, hair black and glossy; eyes a clear, luminous grey, large, and with singular capacity for expression (Poe 129, Godey’s Lady’s Book).
In the poem, “Stanzas [To F.S.O],” Poe writes, “The gladness of a pure heart/ Pure as the wishes breathed in prayer…/ The fullness of a cultured mind, Stored with the wealth of bard and sage…/ The grandeur of a guileless soul, / With wisdom, virtue feeling fraught, / Gliding serenely to its goal, / Beneath the eternal sky of Thought:- / These should be thine…” (Mabbott 386)
Poe comments on the purity of her heart and her “cultured mind,” almost proving that she has a transcended beauty about her. She, without question, inspired many other poems, which Poe dedicated to her, including “A Valentine.”
Sarah Helen Whitman: Finally, Whitman can be considered as one of the more eccentric love interests of Poe. This maiden of the occult cast her spell on Poe, bewitching him with only her vague figure from afar.
Below is the following account of when Poe first saw the spectral poetess.
“At a late hour, however, on this summer night, Poe became restless and left the hotel. He strolled past Mrs. Whitman’s house at the corner of Benefit and Church Streets. There was moonlight, and Mrs. Whitman happened to be standing in the street door taking the air” (Allen 528).
Sarah Helen Whitman
Our next piece of evidence lies in the lines of Poe’s poem, “To Helen,” written solely for Whitman.
I saw thee once-once only-years ago:
I must not say how many-but not many.
It was a July midnight; and from out
A full-orbed moon, that, like thine own soul, soaring,
Sought a precipitate pathway up through heaven,
There fell a silvery-silken veil of light,
With quietude, and sultriness, and slumber,
Upon the upturn’d faces of a thousand
Roses that grew in an enchanted garden,
Where no wind dared to stir, unless on tiptoe-
Fell on the upturn’d faces of these roses
That gave out, in return for the love-light,
Their odorous souls in an ecstatic death-
Fell on the upturn’d faces of these roses
That smiled and died in this parterre, enchanted
By thee, and by the poetry of thy presence.
Clad all in white, upon a violet bank
I saw thee half reclining; while the moon
Fell on the upturn’d faces of the roses,
And on thine own, upturn’d -alas, in sorrow! (Mabbott 445)
Throughout this lengthy poem, Poe alludes to her eyes,
…the divine light in thine eyes-
Save but the soul in thine uplifted eyes.
I saw but them-they were the world to me.
I saw but them-saw only them for hours-
Saw only them until the moon went down.
What wild heart-histories seemed to lie unwritten
Upon those crystalline, celestial spheres!
How dark a wo! yet how sublime a hope!
How silently serene a sea of pride!
How daring an ambition! yet how deep-
How fathomless a capacity for love!” (446).
The ethereal and “divine” qualities of Whitman-almost spiritual qualities-seemed to have invoked in Poe a mature form of love.
Although Poe saw his Helen “once-once only years ago,” according to this poem, he and the poet continued to keep in touch through numerous letters thereafter, which display their evolving love for one another. They would eventually meet again in person and, that same night, Poe would propose to her in a graveyard. This impulsive gesture showcases the themes of death and beauty and love colliding through the morbid act. Although she did not agree initially, she finally accepted Poe’s proposal at a later date; however, their marriage would be called off for numerous reasons.
As we have gathered insight into these five individual women who influenced Poe not only through their beauty but also through their character, we also see that they influenced his writing. The writings chosen for most of these women seem to have an air of melancholy about them, thus proving that although their beauty and muse could bring him happiness, loving a woman could also bring despair, whether it be through the literal deaths of his wife and first love, or the figurative deaths of his other relationships. It should come as no surprise then that Poe felt that “[a] certain taint of sadness is inseparably connected with all the higher manifestations of true Beauty” (The Poetic Principle).
In August of 2014, we covered the scandal between Poe and Rufus Griswold, Poe’s defamer. We went in depth into the situation and analyzed the happenstances leading up to Griswold’s scheme. However, it should be recognized that Griswold was more than just a villainous character in the life of Poe.
Rufus Wilmot Griswold was born February 13, 1815, in Benson, Vermont. He and his ten siblings lived on a small farm with their parents, Deborah and Rufus Griswold. According to biographer Jacob Neu in his article, “Rufus Wilmot Griswold,” not a lot of information is known about his childhood. Neu paints Rufus’ modest childhood:
…no doubt [Rufus] performed such chores as are incident to the duties of a boy on a small farm. Very likely he took a boy’s part in the husking-bees, the sugar-making, and the fur-trapping. He attended such church services as were held in the church of his parents. His diversions he found in the companionship of other boys at the ‘bees’ of the neighborhood, in occasional visits to the banks of the Hudson or to Benson’s Landing, both but a few miles…from his home, or to the lumbering camps near the Westhaven settlement south of his home (102).
According to his son, William, in Passages from the Correspondence and Other Papers of Rufus W. Griswold, Rufus attended the Rensselaer school at Troy, thanks to the graciousness of his brother, Heman, who was a well known business man in that town. Just fifteen, he was kicked out of the school because of a school prank, and was sent to live in Heman’s counting-room (7). According to William, Rufus became acquainted with George G. Foster, writer of New-York by Gaslight, and abandoned his family to move in with Foster in Albany, New York.
Although it is believed that Griswold spent his later teenage years voyaging the world, according to Neu for example, many modern biographers since have discovered the fallacy in this part of his biography. What is known is that, according to the Vergennes Vermonter, he spent time in the South during this time (Neu 104).
In October of 1834, he began working for the office of the Constitutionalist in Syracuse, New York. After his brother, Silas, brought to his attention another job, it is presumed that Rufus began editing for the Chautauqua Whig, officially establishing himself as an editor (104). His success continued with the editorships of both the Western Democratand Literary Inquirer in 1835 and the Olean Advocate in 1836 (105). It was just before he took the Olean Advocate job when he found his first love and future wife, Caroline Searles.
According to Joy Bayless in her book, Rufus Wilmot Griswold, Griswold was walking with a friend when a downpour occurred sending the two men to take shelter in a home at 51 1/2 Clinton Street. Griswold’s friend, Butler, was well known by the owner of that home, Mrs. Angell, who was the mother of Hamilton Randolph Searles and Caroline Searles, who was then nineteen (15). According to Bayless, “This beautiful girl, with her dark, shy eyes and her glossy auburn hair, immediately became the center of Griswold’s world; and he learned later that from the moment she saw him her heart was his” (15).
Caroline Searles Griswold
The two were separated for a time when Griswold accepted a job as editor for the Olean Advocate in Olean, New York, however he left the paper Christmas 1836, and rejoined Caroline. The two married March 20, 1837, and, according to Bayless, “…[he], romanticizing himself into the rôle of tragic outcast rescued from his exile by a good angel, was happier than he had ever been in his life” (20).
Griswold’s life was improving and seemed promising with his new wife. According to Bayless,
He was smooth and suave as if he had lived in metropolitan cities all his twenty-two years. His slender physique carried his fashionable dress gracefully; and his glib tongue discoursed easily of books he had read, of sights he had seen, and of literary and political happenings of the day….He was intelligent looking, with a high broad forehead and large gray eyes, sharp, trenchant nose, and an expression of cocksure defiance…Griswold’s best asset, however, was his ability to attract friends…(22).
It may have been this charming demeanor which gained him a friend, Horace Greeley, founder of The New-Yorker. Greeley became Griswold’s mentor and sponsored the young man as he endeavored to become a successful literary historian.
In 1837, Griswold become a Baptist preacher, which must have been a contradiction with his religious stance, as he was not devout at this point in his life. It is possible that Caroline influenced him to become a preacher (24). By late 1837 to early 1838, Caroline was expecting their first child, and Griswold left for work in Vergennes, Vermont, to work for The Vergennes Vermonter (25).
According to Bayless, Griswold’s first daughter, Emily Elizabeth, was born four days after he began publishing for this paper. Caroline joined her husband three months later, and the three lived in a rented house (25). However, the family moved back to New York in 1839, where he rejoined Greeley to work for his Daily Whig paper (28).
By July, he was acquainted with both Park Benjamin, editor of The New England Magazine, and Charles Fenno Hoffman, founder of The Knickerbocker (28). Griswold and Benjamin began working together for the Evening Tattler, which featured Edgar Allan Poe as the butt of a joke in their July 19, 1839 issue (29-30). Greeley did not see any promise or true benefit for Griswold working with Benjamin, and he attempted to obtain a position for him with Thomas W. White, publisher of The Southern Literary Messenger; however, he was not given the position and looked for work in Boston. He was unable to find work there and accepted an assistant editorship position for The New-Yorker (32).
During this time, another daughter was born, Caroline, and Emily was two-years-old. He became closer to Hoffman, whom he greatly admired, and “fairly worshipped,” according to Bayless. He also began working on his first gift book, The Biographical Annual (33). The book was printed and, unfortunately, flopped. His next anthology was entitled The Poets and Poetry of America, and would be one of his most successful volumes.
By 1840, Griswold was in Boston, and his family remained in New York (36).
He worked for the Boston Notion, where he demonstrated his enthusiastic support of Hoffman’s poetry by publishing thirty-six of his poems. He would print these and nine more in his anthology, ThePoets and Poetry of America, which was published by Carey and Hart on April 18, 1842 (44). The anthology features ninety-one writers, selected verses, and brief biographical sketches of each writer. Edgar Allan Poe was given an inaccurate portrayal and only had three of his poems featured (45). Regardless, the book was given a fair and positive critique, considered as, “…the best collection of American poetry that has yet been made,” although, “…the author, without being aware of it himself, has unduly favored the writers of New England.” Another editor agreed with the latter statement by stating, “We protest against this injustice. The Southern states will be degraded in the eyes of the foreigners, by the course which this partial and prejudiced compiler has pursued” (46).
The volume did wonders for Griswold’s career and aided him in receiving an editorship job for Graham’s Magazine, taking Edgar Allan Poe’s place (49). By May 1842, he was in Philadelphia (50). In November 1842, however, his world seemingly ended. On the ninth of November, while staying in a hotel in Philadelphia, he received word that his wife, who had just given birth to their third child, a son, had died from an unknown cause. His son passed as well (64).
Bayless describes the scene after Griswold heard the news powerfully,
Hysterically he rushed on the night train to New York, where he took a seat near Caroline’s coffin and for thirty hours refused to leave her side. The watchers urged him to try to sleep, but he answered them by kissing the cold lips of his dead wife and embracing her. His two little children came to him, clung to him, and cried for their mother; and he, as much a motherless child as they, showed them ‘her soulless clay’ (64-65).
Griswold heartbreakingly wrote to his friend James T. Fields,
You knew her my friend—she was my good angel—she was the first to lead me from a cheerless, lonely life, to society…She was not only the best of wives, but the best of mothers. You have seen our dear children—she taught them as children are rarely taught, and when she went her way they were left by her at the feet of Christ, at the very gate of heaven…They will bury her then [11:00 that day]—bury my dear Caroline and my child from my sight!…then I must set about tearing up the foundations of my home. Alas for me, I shall never more have a home to fly to in my sorrows—never more a comforter in my afflictions—never more a partner to share in all my woes or to be a source and author of all my pleasures…May God forever keep you from all such sorrow—farewell (65).
The funeral took place on November 11, with the procession moving to Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn. According to Bayless, “When the body was placed in the tomb, Griswold uttered a shriek, fell upon the coffin, and burst into agonized weeping” (65).
Those standing by, including Caroline’s brother, Hamilton Randolph Searles, and his wife, gently urged Griswold to leave the tomb. After seeing they couldn’t console the reverend’s throbbing heart, they let him be to make peace with Caroline’s death. Captain Waring, Caroline’s uncle, finally had to pry Rufus from her grave, stating, “In Heaven’s name, Rufus, have done with this nonsense and come along home with me,” to which Rufus obliged and followed (65).
The night after Caroline’s death, Rufus wrote his most heart-wrenching poem, “Five Days,” which was printed anonymously in The New-York Tribune on November 16, 1842. The poem can be found here. Forty days after Caroline’s death, Griswold went to her tomb, inspiring his account given below: I could not think that my dear wife was dead. I dreamed night after night of our reunion. In a fit of madness I went to New York. The vault where she is sleeping is nine miles from the city. I went to it: the sexton unclosed it: and I went down alone into that silent chamber. I kneeled by her side and prayed, and then, with my own hand, unfastened the coffin lid, turned aside the drapery that hid her face, and saw the terrible changes made by Death and Time. I kissed for the last time her cold black forehead—I cut off locks of her beautiful hair, damp with the death dews, and sunk down in senseless agony beside the ruin of all that was dearest in the world. In the evening, a friend from the city, who had learned where I was gone, found me there, my face still resting on her own, and my body as lifeless and cold as that before me. In all this I know I have acted against reason; but as I look back upon it it seems that I have been influenced by some power too strong to be opposed. Through the terrible scenes of the week I have been wonderfully calm, and my strength has not failed me, though it is long since I have slept. It is four o’clock in the morning—I am alone—in the house that while my angel was by my side was the scene of happiness too great to be surpassed even in heaven. I go forth today a changed man. I realize at length that she is dead. I turn my gaze from the past to the future (67).
Despite his broken heart, Griswold persevered knowing that he had to take care of his little girls and continue working.
Because of an overblown feud with Poe, Griswold resigned from Graham’s, and remained in Philadelphia (78). He continued compiling and publishing anthological volumes of poetry and stories, compiled from both American and English writers. Ironically, he also became one of the strongest advocates for copyright laws in the 1840s, organizing the American Copyright Club with other writers and friends, including Charles Fenno Hoffman (83).
Charles Fenno Hoffman
Despite keeping busy, Griswold found himself in need of a woman by his side. The emptiness of Caroline’s loss and loneliness of being without a partner may have left him seeking companionship-although it has been said that he enjoyed his bachelorhood for a time. It was in the summer of 1844 when he met his second wife, Charlotte Meyers, a wealthy Jewess from Charleston, South Carolina, according to Bayless (104). Griswold, aged twenty-nine, and Meyers, aged fifty-five, married August 20, 1845 (107).
Unhappy in his new marriage, Griswold left Meyers with the agreement that she keep his little daughter, Caroline, whom she loved and cared for deeply. According to Bayless, “The action which Griswold finally took to terminate this unhappy alliance was to plunge him into the greatest disaster which ever befell him in his eventful, troubled career” (113). His young Caroline was with Meyers and his eight-year-old Emily was with a relative in New York.
Just as things were looking worse, he published another notable volume, The Prose Writers of America, on March 3, 1847 (117). He did not consider this work as being one of his strongest; however, it proved to be positive for Poe who received the greatest praise, along with Nathaniel Hawthorne (119). About Poe, Griswold said, “The tales of Mr. Poe are peculiar and impressive. He has a great deal of imagination and fancy, and his mind is in the highest degree analytical…The reader of Mr. Poe’s tales is compelled almost at the outset to surrender his mind to the author’s control…” (120).
Seventy-two writers were featured in the book; however, only five were women, including Margaret Fuller, who was treated with contempt, according to Bayless (121). Meanwhile, an eighth edition of The Poets and Poetry of America was issued, where he spoke well of Elizabeth Oakes Smith, Poe, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, revising previous statements he had printed in the seventh edition (127-128).
In fall of 1847, he was involved in a controversy with the Reverend Joel T. Headley. Both men were working on books about Washington, causing stress between the rival editors. Griswold published Washington and the Generals of the Revolution under Carey and Hart; whereas, Headley published Washington and His Generals under Baker and Scribner (132). Headley swore revenge against Griswold; the controversy became public and continued for about a month (133). According to Bayless, Headley won the battle by calling Griswold, “such a liar that even his friends replied to his statements with the query, ‘Is that a Griswold or a fact'” (134).
Headley was not the first person who would cause trouble for Griswold that year, however. During winter of 1847, Elizabeth Ellet, a well-known lady associated with the high circles of literary society, approached Griswold and proposed the idea of a book about American Revolutionary women. She inquired about being granted access to any information Griswold may have, to which he agreed. He gave her permission to enter his private library, of which she took full advantage. Once her book was published, Griswold was shocked to find she had neither thanked nor mentioned him. This was the first mark against her character (143-144). He avenged himself by including the following statement about her book in his own anthology, The Female Poets of America:
Her object was to illustrate the action and influence of her sex in the achievement of our national independence,….and with the assistance of a few gentlemen more familiar than herself with our public and domestic experience, she has made a valuable and interesting work (150-151).
This insult was quickly replaced by the kind friendship of Frances Sargent Osgood, whom he greatly admired and said of her, “She is in all things the most admirable woman I ever knew” (144). The two grew close, discussed poetry and prose, attended salons together, and Frances wrote an acrostic for him:
For one, whose being is to mine a star,
Trembling I weave in lines of love and fun
What Fame before has echoed near and far.
A sonnet if you like–I’ll give you one
To be cross-questioned ere it’s truth is solv’d.
Here veiled and hidden in a rhyming wreath
A name is turned with mine in cunning sheath,
And unless by some marvel rare evolved,
Forever folded from all idler eyes
Silent and secret still it treasured lies,
Whilst mine goes winding onward, as a rill
Thro’ a deep wood in unseen joyance dances,
Calling in melody’s bewildering thrill
Whilst thro’ dim leaves its partner dreams and glances (World of Poe).
From top to bottom on the left, the poem spells out Frances Osgood’s name. From top to bottom on the right, the poem spells out Griswold’s name.
Poe’s death on October 7, 1849, affected Griswold deeply, leaving him with conflicting emotions, yet he took full advantage of the writer’s death, and endeavored to destroy Poe’s image. You can read about the controversy here.
During this time, his dearest friend, Fanny Osgood, passed away and he was busy working on her memorial along with Mary Hewitt, while also working on multiple gift books, including Gift Leaves from American Poets (Bayless 202-203).
In 1852, he took steps to divorce Charlotte Myers Griswold, due to his disinterest in her and increasing interest in the poetess, Alice Cary (213). Cary, deeply smitten with Griswold, had been communicating with him long distance through letters, until their first meeting in the summer of 1850. She ultimately left dejected as Griswold found another woman more suitable for a married life, Harriet McCrillis (215-218). According to Bayless, she was domestic, religious, loving, socially important, but most importantly, very wealthy (219). Unfortunately, complications ensued.
Meyers did not want to divorce Griswold. Not only was the divorce denied, but Ellet and Ann Stephens, an ex-coworker of his and enemy, stepped in to plead against McCrillis marrying Griswold, “…telling her that she could be congratulated upon her escape from an illegal marriage, and informing her that she could not expect to be happy with a man who was undecided as to whether he should marry her or another lady,” according to Bayless (220-221).
Finally, there was an ultimatum. Charlotte agreed to the divorce if she could take full custody of little Caroline. After the divorce was finalized, Griswold did not see Charlotte or Caroline ever again (222). He and Harriet married on December 26, 1852.
Once again, Ellet intervened, causing Harriet to leave with Griswold’s daughter, Emily. Unfortunately, the train the two took to go to her brother’s house was in an accident which sent all the cars plunging into the water below. Harriet was slightly injured; however, fifteen-year-old Emily had to be resuscitated back to life after being pronounced dead (224-225). Another accident followed soon after. In October of 1853, a gas fire occurred in Griswold’s house, and he was badly burned while saving a twelve-year-old child’s life (227).
Finally, abandoned by Harriet over the great scandal perpetrated by Ellet and Stephens, Griswold took a small room at 239 Fourth Avenue. In early 1857, he became ill, and Alice Cary returned to make his last days comfortable (252). He attempted to visit the parents he had not seen in many years; however, he was too ill to do so and returned to New York.
He wrote to Harriet and requested to see her and their little son, William, one more time before he died. According to Bayless, “Harriet hastened to him and remained with him to the end. In the conversation the minister asked him if he had been a Christian. ‘Sir, I may not have been always a Christian, but I am very sure that I have been a gentleman,’ was the answer.” He passed away August 27, 1857.
In an empathetic anonymous obituary, the writer states,
That Rufus W. Griswold was a weak and ill-judging man, no one will deny. As a man, there was much in him to regret; but those who knew something of his last lonely years, his bed of solitary and uncheered suffering, will feel for him only pity, as one who was made to atone deeply for all the mistakes of his life. He left three children, and we much doubt if either of them were with him in his last moments (Emerson’s Magazine and Putnam’s Monthly).
Despite being Poe’s defamer, Griswold lived a varied and interesting life. He was an accomplished anthologist, publishing a great number of works, which you can view here. He was a father, a husband, and a loyal friend to many. Although his attacks on Poe were uncalled for, shameful and hurt Poe’s reputation, perhaps Griswold may also be remembered for his valuable achievements. Thanks to his support and aid, many nineteenth century writers and poets, who might not have been remembered, are remembered today.
You can view objects in the Poe Museum in Richmond by visiting the following links:
Millions of students have memorized Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” but what great work of literature did the author of that famous speech memorize? According to one of his friends, John T. Stuart, Lincoln “carried Poe around on the Circuit—read and loved ‘The Raven’—repeated it over & over.” How might Lincoln have sounded when reading Poe’s solemn poem of death and despair? William H. Herndon wrote in an 1887 letter that “Lincoln’s voice was, when he first began speaking, shrill, squeaking, piping, unpleasant.”
Ever since he was young, Lincoln loved reading. His biographer, Michael Burlingame, wrote that among Lincoln’s favorite works were Poe’s mystery “The Gold Bug” and his science fiction/horror tale “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.” Lincoln even tried his hand at writing his own true-crime story based on a murder trial for which he had served as the defense attorney. The story “Remarkable Case of Arrest for Murder” was reprinted over a century later in the March 1952 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.
He also wrote a number of poems. Here is one he wrote in his arithmetic book when he was about sixteen:
Abraham Lincoln is my nam[e]
And with my pen I wrote the same
I wrote in both hast and speed
and left it here for fools to read…
In 1858, Lincoln wrote this poem in his landlord’s daughter’s album:
You are young, and I am older;
You are hopeful, I am not—
Enjoy life, ere it grow colder—
Pluck the roses ere they rot.
Teach your beau to heed the lay—
That sunshine soon is lost in shade—
That now’s as good as any day—
To take thee, Rose, ere she fade.
Even though Poe and Lincoln were born a few weeks apart in 1809, they never met. One wonders what might have happened if they had.
Rare first Edition Versions of Eureka: A Prose Poem, Published in 1848
On Being Guided by Edgar Allan Poe—A Re-Introduction to the “Poe and Science Blog,” by Dr. Murray Ellison
Most people would most likely associate Edgar Allan Poe as a writer of some of the world’s scariest horror stories. At least, some of Poe’s short fictional stories must have sent shivers up many readers’ spines and caused others to have sleepless nights. His most famous poem, “The Raven” is unsurpassed in literature in creating moods of terror, as the hapless narrator begs the dark bird bring back his lost love, Lenore. However, the raven can only taunt him and endlessly repeat, “Nevermore.” It is inevitable that many have been terrified as they thought about the chopped-up man, and his beating heart, under the floor boards in the “Tell-Tale Heart.” For me, Poe’s most frightening tale is the “Premature Burial.” I don’t know of anything scarier than the thought of waking up and realizing that you are buried alive in a coffin? Do you?
As horrifying as several of Poe’s’ tales are, I am not frightened one bit by any of them. On the contrary, I am inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s works and his life story, and strongly believe that, though he is no longer living, he has been a significant personal guide and inspiration for me. His writing and life story helped lead me out of the shock of a forced early retirement and guided me, step by step, to my new identity as a lover, teacher, and writer of literature. Although, it may sound like the language spoken at séances that were popular in his lifetime, I believe that I have increasingly felt his direct and indirect presence in my life each step I have taken since I became aware and involved with the Poe community. These experiences have also helped me to gain a clearer understanding of his writing and life struggles. There too many details illustrating my positive experiences with Poe to include in this essay. However, I plan to elaborate more on my experiences with Eddie in my future columns on the Richmond Poe Museum’s, “Poe and Science” blog. In the present forum, I will also discuss why Poe in Science is important and why this topic has been particularly interesting to me.
Perhaps a few readers may remember that I introduced the “Poe in Science Blog” more than a year ago. I wrote several columns explaining why the nineteenth century, the period when Poe wrote about science, is often considered by historians, as one of the most important times in the world in the development of technology that we utilize today. Around Poe’s lifetime, electricity, and photography were invented. Improvements in the range of the telescope greatly expanded humanity’s awareness of the vastness of the Universe. The invention of the telegraph started the boom (or curse) of around the clock communications. Babbage’s mechanical computer was first introduced in in England and then displayed in the United States. Improvements in the printing press increased its capacity from dozens of books, newspapers, or journals a day to hundreds or thousands per hour. Improvements in rail and trans-Atlantic transportation helped to spread people, books, and literary trends faster around the world than it had ever been done in the past. Poe benefited by these trends first as student and then later a writer known all across the United States and Europe. He spent five very influential school years in London learning about literature, European languages, philosophy, science, and literature. As Poe’s fiction, poetry, and journalistic works became more well-known, they were spread all across the United States and Europe in a matter of days or weeks rather months and years. I realize that I would not have had the opportunity to write and distribute an article, such as this one, throughout the world in a few seconds if not for the benefit of these important nineteenth-century technologies. Most important to the present topic is that my friend and guide, Eddie Poe, lived and wrote about several of these seminal technological developments, and that they are still preserved in museums, libraries, bookstores, and perhaps in many of our homes. Today, we can learn a great deal about how nineteenth-century people experienced scientific trends. Some historians even believe that we can learn more about nineteenth-century science by reading Poe’s works than by reading the works of the notable scientists of that period. He lived at the perfect time in history to reflect on how science significantly changed the culture and lifestyles of America and Western culture. It may be easy to see how some of his fictional works reflected several emerging scientific trends. However many readers may not know that Poe’s interest in science is also reflected in his poetry, his journalistic works, and his technical and scientific writing. Some readers may already be wondering how my personal interest in Poe, or his science writing has improved the quality of my life. I will, at least, begin to explain how it all started in the present column and continue in the future.
A few years before I “retired” from my full-time job, my wife and I hosted an international exchange student, Aurora Dallalio, from Bologna Italy to live with us for a year. Our youngest daughter, Leah, had requested that we try to locate and offer an exchange student the opportunity to share our home and to attend James River High School with her in both of their senior years. Right after the process was arranged and Aurora was settled, she asked us if she could visit the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond. I understood that Aurora was excited about living with a new host family and having a same-age female to bond with. But I was surprised that visiting the museum was even more important to her than seeing the Confederate statues all around town or the battlefields of our various wars, or the home of Thomas Jefferson not too far from Richmond. But not! She said she and her friends and family considered that the Poe Museum was the most notable feature in Richmond. Although we agreed to take her to the museum on our first international family outing, I had to concede that I had never been there before; that I knew only a little about Poe; and that I knew nothing about the museum. Our visit was very interesting informative, as Aurora engaged in most of the most discussions and asked the majority of the questions to our tour guide. The year was very productive and inspiring for our family and Aurora, as we have visited her and her family in various locations of Italy. We visited with her and her family for the second time last summer. On the last visit she reminded me that many people in Italy, and throughout much of Europe, consider Poe one of the most important American writers.
After Aurora had returned to Italy, I started reading more of Poe’s stories and getting more interested in both his life and what he had to write about. Although I was never an orphan, the fact that Poe’s father left his family and was never seen again, and that his mother died when he was about two years old, resonated very strongly with me. I was also deeply disturbed when I read that he sat in the same small and dark room of a boarding home to watch his mother slowly suffer from extreme poverty and tuberculosis. Several other of Poe’s loved ones died of this dreaded disease. It is, then, easy for me to understand how he had the inspiration to write horror stories. My natural mother abandoned me when I was about seven and “dropped” me off in the care of a loving set of grandparents. Since then, I never saw or heard from her again, or got any word about her whereabouts. Based on the fact that she would be well over a hundred years old now, I can only assume that she died many years ago. Eventually, I went to live with my natural father, Mark and his new wife Ethel (my step-mother) until I started college. I am thankful that they raised me and brought me up in a caring environment and encouraged me to go to college and strive to be successful. Attaining wisdom was, and still is a very big part of the Jewish culture that they raised me in. Consequently, I cringed even more when I read that young Eddie was a foster child who was never legally adopted by his foster parents, John and Frances Allan. This callous slight disturbed me more than reading any of Poe’s horror stories. I was also very upset when I heard that John Allan refused to pay for Eddie’s college expenses at the University of Virginia, even though records show are available at the Poe Museum that document that he was a brilliant student at that university.
In 2012, I decided to take a major step forward in hopes of finding some future direction in my new life as a retired man. I enrolled as a graduate student in English Literature at Virginia Commonwealth University. In one of my first classes, English Scholarship, I was assigned by the Professor, Joshua Eckhardt, to locate and prepare a report about a rare and first edition literary book; I thought about the Poe Museum. In looking at their website I noted that they had some rare copies of a Eureka: A Prose Poem. This book was listed as a treatise on science and philosophy that Poe had written in 1848. I found out that it was the last work that he wrote and published in his lifetime. Although the book is rare and almost unknown today among most Poe readers, he wrote that he thought that it was one of the most important science treatises in the history of the world. My exploration of Poe’s world, his life, and his interest in science had started with my exploration of Eureka. He wrote that his discoveries in Eureka were even more important than Newton’s discovery of gravity! But, it was a long road that took me from my initial research on this book to the completion of my Master’s Thesis on Edgar Allan Poe and Science: Unraveling the Secrets of the Universe. I hope you will accompany me on this journey as I attempt to write a monthly column on Poe and Science for the Richmond Edgar Allan Poe Museum.
Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education (1973) and in English Literature (2015). He earned a Doctorate in Education 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 the founder and chief editor of the literary blog, www.LitChatte.com. He is also an editor of the “Correctional Education Magazine,” and editing a book of poetry written by an Indian mystic and meditation teacher. Murray also serves a board member and occasional volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and all-around helper at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. You can write him at [email protected]
“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.