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.
Those who visited the Poe Museum last month to see the exhibit Poe’s Cabinet of Curiosities might have noticed, among the hair art and Poe portraits, a little pressed flower in a large leather-bound album. They may not realize it, but this humble book is one of the Museum’s most important pieces, not only because it contains hundreds of autographs and letters from Poe’s prominent contemporaries but also because it tells the story of one woman’s love of literature and her dedication to collecting mementos of her favorite writers. Her name is Lucy Dorothea Henry (1822-1898).
Lucy Dorothea Henry Laighton
There was always something different about Lucy. Growing up on a Virginia plantation, she was not interested in learning to sew or to manage the household servants. When her sisters were busy with their embroidery, Lucy hid behind the boxwood hedge to read. Literature was her escape from the monotony of country life in 1840s Virginia. As the granddaughter of the famed Revolutionary War orator and Virginia Governor Patrick Henry, Lucy lived on her grandfather’s plantation Red Hill, about twenty-seven miles from the nearest town. So isolated was the family’s home that they only received mail once a week, and her mother provided the delivery boy lunch that day to thank him for making the trip. Just as literature was her escape from the boredom of country life, that weekly delivery was Lucy’s connection to the outside world. As a young girl, she began writing her favorite authors to solicit autographs, advice, and poems.
Lucy’s daughter, Fayetta Laighton, would later recall,
Her early life on a Virginia plantation was spent in the usual way, carefree, surrounded by a cultivated social class, and many servants. But this did not satisfy the active mind of Lucy Henry. She projected herself into the outer world of literature, which she loved, by means of correspondence with John A. Thompson, N. P. Willis, Rufus Griswold, [John] Keese, [Charles Fenno] Hoffman, [Henry Wadsworth] Longfellow, and others. She was especially interested in obtaining autographs of the writers of the day.
Lucy Henry was only twenty-one when she received a note from the rising literary critic and poet Edgar A. Poe who, at thirty-four, had written some of what would be remembered as some of his greatest tales, including “The Black Cat,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” but he was probably better known to Miss Henry as the former editor of the Southern Literary Messenger and as a poet who had been featured in Rufus W. Griswold’s 1842 anthology The Poets and Poetry of America. This was about to change. A few months earlier, in February 1843, the Saturday Museum had printed a profile of Poe along with his portrait. The same month Poe wrote Henry, he published “The Gold-Bug,” which would soon be his most widely reprinted tale. In fewer than two years, he would become a celebrity with the publication of “The Raven.”
Henry pasted Poe’s note into her big leather album with sealing wax. This album would eventually include letters, poems, and autographs from over 250 mid-nineteenth century celebrities including Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, and Samuel Houston, but her main focus was accumulating the autographs of writers. Among the many authors whose letters, autographs, or manuscripts she was able to acquire are William Cullen Bryant, Lord Byron, Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore S. Fay, Horace Greeley, Rufus Griswold, Sarah J. Hale, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Anna Lynch, John P. Kennedy, John Keese, John Neal, Frances Osgood, Richard Henry Stoddard, William Makepeace Thackery, N.P. Willis, John G. Whittier, and William Wordsworth. Several of these pieces came directly from the authors.
Sonnet to Anna Lynch by J. R. Thompson
New York book and autograph dealer John Keese assisted her by requesting autographs from his fellow literati on her behalf. Many American authors were glad to oblige the granddaughter of the “orator of the Revolution,” but British poet William Wordsworth replied with a testy letter refusing to send the requested autograph. Wordsworth, however, signed the letter. Keese also supplied Henry with the papers of Virginia statesman John Randolph of Roanoke. These included letters from politician Henry Clay and author Washington Irving.
Detail of Washington Irving Letter
Henry and Keese got to know each other well enough that she visited him in New York and stayed at his home. During her New York trip, the country girl saw the famous singer Jenny Lind and the violinist Ole Bull (from whom she secured an autograph). Thereafter, Henry would keep a daguerreotype of Keese. His own fondness for her is evident in a gift he sent her, an autograph album containing a poem addressed to her by Knickerbocker poet and editor Charles Fenno Hoffman.
Another literary friend, Southern Literary Messenger editor and Poe’s friend John Ruben Thompson of Richmond also provided several pieces, including two Poe manuscripts and a pressed flower picked from the grave of poet John Keats in 1854.
Flower from the Grave of John Keats
Henry’s quest for autographs eventually brought her into contact with New Hampshire poet Octave Laighton, who had just returned from an unsuccessful attempt to strike it rich in the California Gold Rush. Not long afterwards, he struck up a correspondence with Lucy Henry, and they were married on July 18, 1857. At last, she had the opportunity to escape her family farm when she moved with her new husband to Fulton City, Illinois to start a temperance newspaper. Although Lucy thought she would have an opportunity to practice her literary talents by writing for the paper, she was disappointed to find that she was stuck cooking and cleaning for her husband. The paper failed within a few months of its inception, so the couple moved back Octave Laighton’s family home in New Hampshire in 1857. They finally settled, in 1859, at a small farm called Springdale near Petersburg, Virginia. Her daughter would later describe it as “a flat little house, with precious earth around it, to grow white pinks and honey suckle.”
Then the Civil War broke out, the Laightons’ farm was caught between the Confederate and Union lines. During these perilous times, Lucy gave birth to two daughters, Fayetta and Alberta. Given the increasing difficulty of maintaining her literary correspondences, Lucy devoted herself to her farm and family. She started a garden to raise vegetables to feed the soldiers.
In the final days of the conflict, Lucy fled to the safety of Red Hill with her most prized possessions—her daughters and her autograph collection—while her husband stayed in Petersburg. As a native of New England, Laighton believed he could convince any invading Union soldiers not to burn down his house. His efforts were at least partially successful; he saved the house but not the outbuildings.
Lucy returned to Springdale after the War and would have settled into a comfortable life if her husband had not died shortly afterwards. For the next thirty-two years, Lucy remained at Springdale with her daughters. Her daughters recalled that she was such a “striking” woman that daguerreotypists “jumped” at the chance to take her picture, free of charge.
After Lucy’s death, her daughter Alberta moved to Dutchess County, New York, and Fayetta eventually became the principal of the D.M. Brown School in Petersburg. Fayetta recalled that she burned about twenty of her mother’s albums to avoid paying to ship them during a move. The daughters did, however, preserve a few of Lucy’s things, including the present autograph album, the small album given her by John Keese, a daguerreotype of their mother, and their mother’s daguerreotype of Keese.
Word of Lucy’s album spread from Petersburg to Richmond, where Poe collector and Poe Museum co-founder James H. Whitty decided to acquire the Poe manuscripts for the Museum’s growing collection. On December 1, 1923, Whitty wrote Fayetta Laighton to ask about the documents. Over the next few years, the Museum sent a series of letters expressing its desire to borrow or purchase the Poe pieces “for the enjoyment of the public.”
James H. Whitty
Another Poe Museum founder, Mrs. Archer Jones, befriended Ms. Laighton, visiting her in Petersburg to discuss flowers, gardens, and Lucy Henry. Laighton’s interest in Poe and the Poe Museum grew until she was leading book clubs devoted to the poet and sending flowers from her garden to be planted at the Poe Museum.
Mrs. Archer Jones
The Laighton sisters debated over what to do with their mother’s Poe manuscripts until May 29, 1926 when Fayetta wrote the Poe Museum, “My sister and I have talked about the final disposition of these papers, and they will find their way to [the] ‘Poe Shrine’ some time I think.”
The Poe Museum’s secretary Mrs. Ford responded with a letter thanking her and assuring her they “were much interested in the Poe items” and expressing the wish that the items could be donated because the tiny museum “would never be able to compete with the dealers for such rare things.”
When, another year later, the Laighton sisters finally agreed to donate the manuscripts, Mrs. Ford wrote them, “I can assure you that these manuscripts will nowhere be more appreciated than here at the Edgar Allan Poe Shrine…”
Fayetta replied, “I am glad they will repose in such an appropriate place as ‘The Shrine.’”
Four years after the Poe Museum first contacted them, Fayetta and Alberta Laighton formally donated their mother’s album to the Museum. Mrs. Jones personally drove to Petersburg to retrieve them just in time to be displayed on Poe’s birthday, January 19, 1928.
The three Poe documents contained in the album were carefully removed from the book and became among the most important pieces in the Poe Museum’s collection. One of these, the manuscript for “The Rationale of Verse,” is Poe’s history of English poetry. Another is the manuscript for an article Poe wrote about the poet Frances S. Osgood, and the third document is the autograph Poe sent Lucy Henry.
Detail of Essay about Frances Osgood
While these three Poe documents have long attracted most of the attention—as well as inclusion in multiple exhibits—the rest of Lucy Henry’s album certainly deserves further study. In a surprising act of generosity, the Laighton sisters gave the Poe Museum not only the Poe manuscripts but the entire album, as a memorial to their mother. This collection of literary letters and autographs is both a document of one woman’s love of literature and a priceless snapshot of the American literary scene in Poe’s time. For a fledgling museum beginning its sixth year of existence, this was a transformative gift—the kind that instantly provided it a world-class manuscript collection which would continue to grow over the course of the next nine decades. That is why Lucy Dorothea Henry’s album is the Poe Museum’s Object of the Month for August 2015. You can see it on display on the first floor of the Exhibit Building until August 23. Poe’s manuscripts for “The Rationale of Verse” and “Frances Sargent Osgood” (both long-since removed from the album) are also currently on view in the Elizabeth Arnold Poe Memorial Building.
Learn about the Poe Museum’s newest garden, its strangest artifacts, and upcoming visits by Charles Cantalupo and Richard Kopley. The latest issue of the Poe Museum’s newsletter Evermore is now online. Click here to find out more about the Poe Museum’s new exhibits, events, and acquisitions.
Since 1922, the Poe Museum has collected thousands of pieces of Poeana, but, with so many items, some have rarely or never been displayed. Now is your chance to see some of these hidden treasures. From June 25 until August 23, 2015, the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia will host Poe’s Cabinet of Curiosities, an exhibit focusing on the unusual, unseen, and uncanny items in the Poe Museum’s massive collection of Poe artifacts and memorabilia. While most of the Poe Museum temporary exhibits focus on certain Poe stories or aspects of the author’s life, this show focuses on the act of collecting and some of the strange acquisitions the Poe Museum has made over the course of its ninety-three year history. These include Victorian hair art, plaster heads taken from the crown molding in Poe’s sister’s house, bricks from various homes in which Poe lived, a replica skull with the verses of “The Raven” carved into it, and a pressed flower taken from the grave of poet John Keats (1795-1821) back in 1854.
Victorian Hair Art
The term “cabinet of curiosities” refers to the encyclopedic collections that were the ancestors of modern museums. The Poe Museum’s exhibit will emulate one of these densely packed rooms or cabinets displaying a wide variety of artifacts and art.
Skull Carving by Zane Wylie
Poe’s Cabinet of Curiosities will open on Thursday, June 25 with an Unhappy Hour featuring live music by Fool’s Errand.
Coffin placed in the Poe Shrine, Richmond on the anniversary of Poe's funeral
Edgar Allan Poe is so famous he shows up almost everywhere. Whether it’s a Beatles album cover, an episode of South Park, or on the side of Raven Beer bottle; his face is so familiar, many people likely think they know him. Especially around this time of year, students across the country are learning about Poe’s life and work. So how is it that we still know so little about someone this famous? Maybe it began with his death.
This October 7 marked the 165th anniversary of the death of Edgar Allan Poe. After all these years scholars are still debating what caused his untimely demise at the age of forty. In fact, there are dozens of published theories, and the number continues to grow. Why the mystery? In today’s age of modern medicine, it is difficult to understand how little doctors in Poe’s time knew about internal medicine. Many diseases that medicine has since controlled were still unidentified or misunderstood. Poe died in Washington College Hospital where his attending physician John Moran paid close attention to the author’s condition, but Poe still died after four days in his care. According to the below record of 1849 Baltimore deaths, Poe’s cause of death is listed as “Phrenitis.” On this list, the date, name, and age are correct, but Poe’s occupation is incorrectly listed as “Physician” by whoever transcribed the information. (We are grateful to Sabrina Ricketts for finding and providing the Poe Museum a scan of this document.)
Phrenitis is an archaic medical term that means inflammation of the brain. The term was later replaced with the word delirium, and the symptoms are now most commonly associated with meningitis or encephalitis. The cause of these conditions may be attributable to a variety of different viral and bacterial sources. This means scholars are still not much closer to unraveling the mystery of Poe’s death.
Knowing what happened to Poe in the days immediately preceding his admission to the hospital might help determine the cause of his condition, but that information is also missing. We know that Poe had survived a bout of cholera in the summer of 1849 and that he was ill during his time in Richmond between July and September. On September 26, he visited his fiancée Elmira Shelton who later recalled, “He was very sad, and complained of being quite sick; I felt his pulse, and found he had considerable fever, and did not think it probable that he would be able to start the next morning, (Thursday) as he anticipated.”
Poe left Richmond on the morning of September 27 on a trip to Philadelphia, but his whereabouts are unknown until he was found in a Baltimore polling place on October 3. He was already very ill and was asked if he knew anyone who could help him, so he called for magazine editor Joseph Snodgrass.
Poe was delirious and unable to tell what had happened to him or why he seemed to be dressed in someone else’s clothes. That’s right–he appeared to be dressed in ill-fitting clothes that looked nothing like his usual mode of dress, so some people speculated he may have been beaten and robbed of his clothing. When he entered the bar-room of the tavern in which the voting was taking place, Snodgrass recounted he “instantly recognized the face of one whom I had often seen and knew well, although it wore an aspect of vacant stupidity which made me shudder…But perhaps I would not have so readily recognized him had I not been notified of his apparel. His hat — or rather the hat of somebody else, for he had evidently been robbed of his clothing, or cheated in exchange — was a cheap palm leaf one, without a band, and soiled; his coat, of commonest alpaca, and evidently “second hand”; and his pants of gray-mixed cassimere, dingy and badly fitting. He wore neither vest nor neckcloth, if I remember aright, while his shirt was badly crumpled and soiled. He was so utterly stupefied with liquor that I thought it best not to seek recognition or conversation…So insensible was he, that we had to carry him to the carriage as if a corpse. The muscles of articulation seemed paralyzed to speechlessness, and mere incoherent mutterings were all that were heard.”
After Poe’s death, Snodgrass clipped the small lock of Poe’s hair now in the collection of the Poe Museum. Snodgrass also wrote lectures and articles about Poe’s death to promote his agenda to ban alcohol in America.
At the same time, Poe’s attending physician wrote articles and a book contradicting Snodgrass’s account. If Snodgrass’s retellings were distorted in order to portray Poe as a hopeless drunk, Moran’s were skewed in order to show the poet as a perfect saint.
Both versions grew more colorful with each retelling. As just one example, we can cite Moran’s recollection of Poe’s last words. In a November 1849 letter, Moran said they were “Lord, help my poor soul.” In an 1875 article, Moran said they were “Self-murderer, there is a gulf beyond the stream Where is the buoy, lifeboat, ship of fire, sea of brass. Test, shore no more!” In his 1885 book, A Defense of Edgar Allan Poe, Moran recorded them as, “He who arched the heavens and upholds the universe, has His decrees legibly written upon the frontlet of every human being, and upon demons incarnate.”
If these accounts did not do enough to spread confusion about Poe’s death, Poe’s rival Rufus Griswold attempted to defame Poe’s character in a scathing obituary and memoir of the author. Griswold’s obituary begins, “…This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.” His memoir of Poe became the first widely distributed biography of Poe but was so riddled with distortions and fabrications that some of those who had known Poe felt the need to come to the poet’s defense. Among these were John Moran and Poe’s fiancée Sarah Helen Whitman.
We will probably never know the exact cause of Poe’s death, but scholars will continue to try to solve Poe’s last mystery. If you would like to propose your own theory, you can read more about Poe’s death and submit your ideas here.
Do you love a good book? Do you want to help a new generation of readers share your love of literature? Here’s something you can do about it:
For the next day and a half the Poe Museum will be competing in the Amazing Raise, a 36-hour challenge in which Central Virginia non-profits try to see how many donations they can collect between 6 A.M. on September 17 and 6 P.M. on September 18. And you can help. Your donation of $50 or more helps the Poe Museum compete for thousands of dollars in bonus prizes, so even a small gift can make a big difference.
Why support the Poe Museum? Your donation will help the Poe Museum foster a love or reading and writing in future generations. For over ninety years the Poe Museum has been an invaluable resource to teachers and students around the globe. Through our educational programs, website, and educator information packets, we support teachers in their efforts to both educate and inspire their students.
What will we do with your gift? Fifty dollars pays for enough tour guides to give a guided tour for one hundred students. One hundred dollars buys the latest books for our ever expanding reference library. Five hundred dollars pays for plaster repair for one of our exhibit galleries. One thousand dollars helps conserve a small painting. Five thousand dollars buys a new heat pump for one of our buildings. Eight thousand dollars pays the expenses associated with our annual Edgar Allan Poe Young Writers’ Conference.
If you believe in the work the Poe Museum is doing, please consider making a donation today using this form. If you are reaching this page after the competition has ended, you can still contribute to the Poe Museum here.
Mathew Brady was perhaps the leading American photographer of the nineteenth century. Among the prominent figures who sat for his studio are eighteen United States Presidents including Abraham Lincoln. It has long been known that the Mathew Brady Studio sold copies of a “Brady Photo” of Poe in the early 1860s, but now a previously unpublished Brady photo of Poe’s mother-in-law Maria Clemm has been found and will soon be on public display for the first time.
From September 25 until November 30, 2014, the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia will exhibit a newly discovered photograph of Edgar Allan Poe’s mother-in-law from the studio of famed nineteenth century photographer Mathew Brady (1822-1896), best known for his iconic photographs of Abraham Lincoln and his documentation of Civil War battlefields. This is only the third image of Poe’s aunt/mother-in-law Maria Poe Clemm to come to light. Although Edgar Allan Poe’s face is well-known through photographs and paintings made during his lifetime, there are very few surviving images of the two people closest to him—his wife and mother-in-law. Maria Clemm helped support Poe by helping sell his poems and by taking on sewing work for extra money. Poe paid tribute to her in his poem “To My Mother.” After Poe’s death, Clemm depended upon the charity of Poe’s many admirers. Charles Dickens is among those who contributed to her care.
Newly Discovered Image
Stephen Montgomery, the owner of the photograph, an albumen print carte de visite, found the previously unpublished image in an album of nineteenth century photographs and contacted the Poe Museum to help him verify the discovery. The logo of the Mathew Brady studio is printed on the back of the photo with the words “Maria Clemm/ Edgar Allen [sic] Poe Aunt” written in pencil above it. Although the image was previously unknown to scholars, it bears a remarkable resemblance to the two other known photographs of Maria Clemm, one of which is in the collection of the Poe Museum. The newly identified image will be displayed alongside the Poe Museum’s fully authenticated photograph for comparison.
Authentic Images of Maria Clemm and the Newly Discovered Image
Face of 1868 Photo Superimposed Over Face of Montgomery Photo
For this exhibition, Montgomery has also loaned the Poe Museum two other photographs—Matthew Brady’s photograph of Poe (a retouched version of an 1848 photograph taken by another photographer sold from Brady’s studio in the early 1860s) and an albumen print photograph of the daguerreotype taken of Poe in Richmond a few weeks before his death.
Brady Photo of Poe
Now one of the most valuable books in American literature, this humble volume could have easily ended up in a trash heap or floating down the Hudson River along with several other copies. Ben Hardin, Jr. (1784-1852), the first owner of this first edition of Poe’s third book Poems, scrawled abusive language on the end pages. Ben Hardin, Jr. was a Kentucky lawyer who had likely received the book from his son John Pendleton Hardin (1810-1842, Class of 1832, resigned 1832), one of Poe’s fellow cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point. John Hardin would have been one of the 131 out of the 232 cadets who contributed $1.25 toward the work’s publication in April 1831. Fewer than 1,000 copies were printed, and, judging by the cadets’ response to the book, it is not surprising that only about twenty survive. (Some of those cadets are said to have thrown their copies into the river in disgust.)
Dedication Page of Poems
One of the cadets, Allan B. Magruder, later recalled, “[The book] was a miserable production mechanically, bound in green boards and printed on inferior paper, evidently gotten up on the cheapest scale. The subscription was not fully paid until the book was delivered, and I remember a general expression of indignation at the inferior quality and condition of the book.”
Another cadet, Thomas W. Gibson, added, “The book was received with a general expression of disgust. It was a puny volume, of about fifty pages, bound in boards and badly printed on coarse paper, and worse than all, it contained not one of the squibs and satires upon which his reputation at the Academy had been built up.”
Ben Hardin, Jr., the owner of the Poe Museum’s copy, wrote on the front page, “This book is a damn cheat. All that fills 124 pages could have been compiled in 36.” Beneath this, someone wrote “lie.” Below that is written, “Calliope [the Greek muse of epic poetry] is a cheat/ any how–.”
What little critical notice the book attracted was not overwhelmingly favorable, either. In the May 7, 1831 issue of the New-York Mirror, the reviewer (probably George P. Morris), complains that Poe’s poetry is incomprehensible:
The poetry of this little volume has a plausible air of imagination, inconsistent with the general indefinitiveness of the ideas. Every think in the language betokens poetic inspiration, but it rather resembles the leaves of the sybil when scattered by the wind. The annexed lines, which close a short poem, entitled the “Doomed City,” are less incomprehensible than most in the book, although the meaning is by no means perfectly clear…It sometimes happens that poetry, at first sight unintelligible, is discovered, upon a repeated and more careful examination, to be fraught with the treasure of thought and fancy. The “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” belongs to this class; but we cannot flatter Mr. Poe with any similar hopes respecting his own composition, although it occasionally sparkles with a true poetic expression, and sometimes a conflict of ¬beauty and nonsense takes place, in which the latter seems to have the best of it. It is indeed encumbered by numerous obscurities, which we should be pleased to see either very much brightened or entirely expunged. What is the meaning of this?
In anticipation that the meaning of his poetry would confound some critics, Poe wrote in the volume’s introduction,
Poetry, above all things, is a beautiful painting whose tints, to minute inspection, are confusion worse confounded, but start boldly out to the cursory glance of the connoisseur…A poem, in my opinion, is opposed to a work of science by having, for its immediate object, pleasure, not truth; to romance, by having for its object an indefinite instead of a definite pleasure, being a poem only so far as this object is attained; romance presenting perceptible images with definite, poetry with indefinite sensations, to which end music is an essential, since the comprehension of sweet sound is our most indefinite conception. Music, when combined with a pleasurable idea, is poetry; music without the idea is simply music; the idea without the music is prose from its very definitiveness.
By the time Poems was released in April 1831, Poe was living in New York after having been expelled from West Point in February. Even though Poe was no longer at the academy, he remained the subject of the cadets’ scorn and ridicule for some time after his departure. As Gibson recalled, “For months afterward quotations from Poe formed the standing material for jests in the corps, and his reputation for genius went down at once to zero. I doubt if even the ‘Raven’ of his after-years ever entirely effaced from the minds of his class the impression received from that volume.”
After the commercial failure of Poems, Poe still considered himself primarily a poet and continued to write poetry, but he would not publish another volume of his poetry for fourteen years when he issued The Raven and Other Poems in 1845.
Listing from Chamberlain Catalog
The Poe Museum’s copy of Poems eventually entered the collection of scientist Jacob Chester Chamberlain (1860-1905) who worked in Thomas Edison’s laboratory during the early 1880s and contributed to Edison’s pioneering work with electric lighting. The book was #706 in the auction of Chamberlain’s collection on February 16, 1909 at the Anderson Auction Company in New York when the formerly $1.25 book sold for $315. The piece next entered the library of book collector Walter Thomas Wallace of South Orange, New Jersey. He sold his collection at auction on March 22-24, 1920 at the American Art Galleries in New York. This time, the book sold for only $140. The next owner was the California psychologist John Wooster Robertson, whose special interest in Poe led him to compile a bibliography of Poe first printings and to write the book Edgar A. Poe: A Psychopathic Study. Robertson donated Poems, along with the rest of his large collection of Poe first editions, to the Poe Museum in 1927.
Listing from Wallace Catalog
Although some readers in the author’s time could not appreciate it, Poems is now considered one of Poe’s most important collections. Among the soon-to-be classic poems first printed in this volume are early versions of Poe’s classics “To Helen,” “Lenore” (under its original title “A Paean”) and “Israfel.” Poe’s biographer Arthur Hobson Quinn summed up the significance of the book as follows:
If the volume of 1829 [Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems] contained poetry unlike any that had as yet appeared in the United States, the volume of 1831 gave us in “To Helen,” “Israfel,” “The Doomed City,” “The Valley Nis” and “Irene,” poetry of a kind that had not yet been written in the English language.
The Poe Museum is fortunate Ben Hardin, Jr. decided not to discard his copy of Poems. Thanks to collectors like Robertson, Wallace, and Chamberlain, the book has been preserved for future generations to study and enjoy. That is why this first edition of Poems is the Poe Museum’s Object of the Month.
Walter Wallace Bookplate in Poems
One night a theater critic answered his door to find an actor so angry over a review that he threatened the critic. The actor was a twenty-three year old David Poe, Jr. (1784-?), future father of Edgar Allan Poe. That review is the Poe Museum’s Object of the Month for June.
Although little is known of David Poe’s life, most of what is documented concerns his acting career. Several museums and libraries, including the Poe Museum, hold important collections of newspapers containing notices of his performances in major East Coast cities. These documents provide information about his whereabouts and his uneven acting ability. (In September 1809, the reviewer for The Ramblers’ Magazine and New-York Theatrical Register wrote that David Poe “was never destined for the high walks of the drama; — a footman is the extent of what he ought to attempt: and if by accident like that of this evening he is compelled to walk without his sphere, it would bespeak more of sense in him to read the part than attempt to act it; — his person, voice, and non-expression of countenance, all combine to stamp him — poh! et praeterea nihil.”)
Concerning David Poe’s personal life, we know he was born in 1784 in Baltimore, to David Poe, Sr., who had been an honorary Quartermaster General of Baltimore during the American Revolution as well as a personal friend of the Revolutionary War General Lafayette. David Poe, Sr. had gone deep into debt during the Revolution, but his son intended to rise out of that poverty by becoming a lawyer. Then David Poe, Jr. saw the English-born actress Eliza Hopkins (1787-1811) (pictured below) perform on the Baltimore stage and, according to legend, was so smitten with the young married young woman that he gave up the study of law take up the precarious existence of an actor. After her husband died, David married Eliza in Richmond in 1806, and the couple had three children, William Henry Leonard (1807-1831), Edgar (1809-1849), and Rosalie (1810-1874).
The couple moved to Boston in 1806. Judging by the variety of roles David and Eliza performed, they were both popular with the public, but Eliza, in particular, was a crowd favorite. She specialized in comedic roles, especially tomboys and other children. One of these characters was a young boy named Little Pickle in the farce The Spoiled Child. She had been playing the part since 1796, when she was nine years old, but, as she entered her twenties, she was beginning to get a little old for the part.
The Poe Museum’s Object of the Month, The Polyanthos, was a Boston magazine edited by Joseph T. Buckingham (1779-1861) (pictured above), who also wrote the theater reviews. One of his pithy notices (pictured below) of David Poe reads, “From Mr. Poe’s Barnwell we expected little satisfaction, and of course we were not disappointed.”
Buckingham gives Eliza Poe a more favorable notice (pictured below) for her performance as Jenny in John Vanbrugh’s play The Provoked Husband. He writes, “Miss Jenny by Mrs. Poe was well. The hoyden is Mrs. Poe’s forte.”
Although she had built her reputation playing comedies, Mrs. Poe worked to prove herself in more serious roles. When she he played Cordelia in William Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear. Buckingham did not think she was up for the part. His notice in The Polyanthos reads, “We know not which is more laughable, the absurd, preposterous conduct of the managers in giving the character of Cordelia to a lady who is so totally inadequate to its representation: or to the ridiculous vanity which prompted her to accept it…Mrs. Poe as Cordelia, has once received our approbation, and has again deserved it. But we notwithstanding prefer her comedy.”
The reviewer for Columbian Centinel also thought Mrs. Poe better suited for comedies when he wrote, “Of Mrs. Poe in Cordelia we would speak with the strictest delicacy and tenderness. Her amiable timidity evidently betrayed her own apprehension, that she had wandered from the sphere of her appropriate talent; while her lovely gentleness pleaded strongly for protection against the rigid justice of criticism. She was so obviously exiled from her own element by the mere humor of authority that we cannot in charity attempt any analysis of her performance.” He at least added, “Mrs. Poe had one credit and that of no mean value—she did not mutilate the language of Shakespeare.”
The Emerald’s theater critic wrote, “Cordelia by Mrs. Poe, was interesting but the part was not suited to her voice.” Despite the critics’ opinions, the play was a hit. She was soon cast as Ariel in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
The same season, Buckingham wrote the review that would prompt an angry visit from David Poe. Eliza Poe had been working hard to outgrow the juvenile roles that had made her famous, but she was asked to play on March 4, 1807 Little Pickle in The Spoiled Child, a part she had outgrown years earlier. Not only was the twenty-year-old Eliza playing a child, but the child just happened to be a boy. In the pages of The Polyanthos, Buckingham indelicately pointed out the inappropriateness of the casting by writing, “Mrs. Poe was a very green Little Pickle. We never knew before that the Spoiled Child belonged to that class of being termed hermaphroditical, as the uncouthness of his costume seemed to indicate.”
This joke at his wife’s expense drove David Poe to action. According to Buckingham’s much later account in his 1852 book Personal Memoirs and Recollections of Editorial Life, “The theatrical criticisms are all my own. Some of them are severe, but I am not aware that any were unjust. The players, however, at least some of them, were of a different opinion. One of them, during a representation of Sheridan’s farce, — The Critic — paid off the score, by invoking the mercy of the editor of the Polyanthos! Mr. Poe — the father of the late Edgar A. Poe, — took offence at a remark on his wife’s acting, and called at my house to chastise my impertinence, but went away without effecting his purpose. Both he and his wife were performers of considerable merit, but somewhat vain of their personal accomplishments.”
Whether David Poe had wanted to challenge the critic or merely to argue with him, he left without achieving his goal. David and Eliza Poe would continue to perform on the Boston stage for a couple more years, and their second son Edgar was born there on January 19, 1809. A few months later, David made another one of his nocturnal visits, this time to his cousin George Poe, Jr., who would write about it in a letter dated March 6, 1809:
[David Poe] did not behave so well. One evening he came out to our house — having seen one of our servants…he had me called out to the door where he told me the most awful moment of his life was arrived, begged me to come and see him the next day at 11 o’clock at the Mansion house, [s]aid he came not to beg, & with a tragedy stride walked off after I had without reflection promised I would call — in obedience to my promise I went there the next day but found him not nor did I hear of him until yesterday, when a dirty little boy came to the door & said a man down at the tavern desired him to bring that paper and fetch back the answer — it is only necessary for me to copy the note here that you may see the impertinence it contains
Sir, You promised me on your honor to meet me at the Mansion house on the 23d — I promise you on my word of honor that if you will lend me 30, 20, 15 or even 10$ I will remit it to you immediately on my arrival in Baltimore. Be assured I will keep my promise at least as well as you did yours and that nothing but extreem [sic] distress would have forc’d me to make this application — Your answer by the bearer will prove whether I yet have “favour in your eyes” or whether I am to be despised by (as I understand) a rich relation because when a wild boy I join’d a profession which I then thought and now think an honorable one. But which I would most willingly quit tomorrow if it gave satisfaction to your family provided I could do any thing else that would give bread to mine — Yr. politeness will no doubt enduce you to answer this note from Yrs &c
D. POE JR.
To this impertinent note it is hardly necessary to tell you my answer — it merely went to assure him that he [need] not look to me for any countenance or support more especially after having written me such a letter as that and thus for the f[uture] I desired to hear not from or of him — so adieu to Davy —
In spite of the desperate tone of his letter, David Poe, Jr. did not give up the acting profession at the time. He continued to keep up a busy schedule of performances, and his reviews were gradually improving. Eliza Poe was winning over audiences with her mature dramatic performances by the time the growing family moved to New York in 1809. The then twenty-two year old actress even played Little Pickle again.
David Poe’s last notice, in the October 20, 1809 issue of The Ramblers’ Magazine, reads, “It was not until the curtain was ready to rise that the audience was informed that, owing to the sudden indisposition of Mr. Robertson and Mr. Poe, the Castle Spectre was necessarily substituted for Grieving’s a Folly.” His whereabouts after his “sudden indisposition” are unknown. He seems to have abandoned his wife and children sometime between then and July 26, 1811 when a letter in the Norfolk Herald reported that Eliza Poe had been “left alone, the only support of herself and several small children — Friendless and unprotected…” The place and time of David’s death are unknown, but a number of different dates and locations appear in Poe family records and elsewhere.
Poe’s mother continued to win over audiences until her death in Richmond at the age of twenty-four in 1811. Though Poe could barely remember his mother, he grew up bearing the stigma of having been the son of an actress, a disreputable profession at the time. Even his foster father John Allan referred to Poe in a letter as “that devil actress’s son.” Poe, however, was proud of his mother’s accomplishments and wrote in the July 19, 1845 issue of the Broadway Journal, “The writer of this article is himself the son of an actress — has invariably made it his boast– and no earl was ever prouder of his earldom than he of his descent from a woman who, although well born, hesitated not to consecrate to the drama her brief career of genius and of beauty.”
The Polyanthos ceased publication in 1814, but J.T. Buckingham continued to edit other literary magazines including The New-England Magazine. In 1833, he received a letter from a young writer named Edgar Allan Poe which reads,
I send you an original tale in hope of your accepting it for the N. E. Magazine. It is one of a number of similar pieces which I have contemplated publishing under the title of ‘Eleven Tales of the Arabesque‘. They are supposed to be read at table by the eleven members of a literary club, and are followed by the remarks of the company upon each. These remarks are intended as a burlesque upon criticism. In the whole, originality more than any thing else has been attempted. I have said this much with a view of offering you the entire M.S. If you like the specimen which I have sent I will forward the rest at your suggestion — but if you decide upon publishing all the tales, it would not be proper to print the one I now send until it can be printed in its place with the others. It is however optional with you either to accept them all, or publish ‘Epimanes’ and reject the rest — if indeed you do not reject them altogether.
Buckingham must not have thought much more of Edgar Poe’s story than he did of Edgar’s father’s acting. He declined to publish “Epimanes,” which would not appear in print until the Southern Literary Messenger published it three years later. Edgar Poe probably never knew how Buckingham had insulted his mother and incurred the wrath of his father. Today the Poe Museum’s issues of The Polyanthos serve as evidence of the acting talent of Poe’s mother and of the fiery temper of his father.
Just this morning I was asked how Poe would feel about the exaggerated image of himself in today’s popular culture. After all, the Poe Myth most people “know” bears only a passing resemblance to the hard-working, innovative author who changed the face of literature almost two centuries ago. Would he be offended that some of the less reputable text books and biographies portray him as a madman or that his ghost was a character on the cartoon Southpark?
The Poe Museum’s Object of the Month might help shed some light on Poe’s own relationship with the mythmaking that continues to grow up around him. This month’s Object of the Month is Poe’s Autobiographical Memo.
The memo is only the lower half of a letter. The upper portion, now housed in the Boston Public Library, is addressed to the editor and anthologist Rufus W. Griswold (1815-1857) and dates to May 29, 1841. The half of the address on the back of the Boston letter matches perfectly with the half on the back of the Poe Museum’s fragment (below), confirming that they were once a single sheet. In the Boston half of the letter, Poe writes that he is sending a selection of his best poems, among which is “The Haunted Palace.” Griswold, the recipient, is preparing an important new anthology to highlight the best American poetry, so Poe has included not only some examples of his poetry for the collection but also this memo. Poe writes, “As I understood you to say chat you meant to preface each set of poems by some biographical notice, I have ventured to send you the above memo — the particulars of which (in a case where an author is so little known as myself) might not be easily obtained elsewhere.”
Verso of Memo
The Poe Museum’s half of the letter reads:
Memo. Born January 1811. Family one of the oldest and most respectable in Baltimore. Gen. David Poe, my paternal grandfather, was a quarter-master general, in the Maryland line, during the revolution, and the intimate friend of Lafayette, who, during his visit to the U.S., called personally upon the Gen’s widow, and tendered her in warmest acknowledgements for the services rendered him by her husband. His father, John Poe married, in England, Jane, a daughter of Admiral James McBride, noted in British naval history, and claiming kindred with many of the most illustrious houses of Great Britain. My father and mother died within a few weeks of each other of consumption, leaving me an orphan at 2 years of age. Mr. John Allan, a very wealthy gentleman of Richmond Va, took a fancy to me, and persuaded my grandfather Gen Poe to suffer him to adopt me. Was brought up in Mr. A’s family, and regarded always as his son and heir—he having no other children. In 1816 went with Mr. A’s family to G. Britain—visited every portion of it—went to school for 5 years to the Rev. Doctor Bransby, at Stoke Newington, then 4 miles from London. Returned to America in 1822. In 1825 went to Jefferson University at Charlottesville, Va, where for 3 years I led a very dissipated life—the college in that period being shamefully dissolute—D’Dunglison of Philadelphia; President. Took the first honors, however, and came home greatly in debt. Mr. A refused to pay some of the debts of honor, and I ran away from home without a dollar on a Quixotic expedition to join the Greeks, then struggling for liberty. Failed in reaching Greece, but made my way to St Petersburg, in Russia. Got into many difficulties, but was extricated by the kindness of Mr. H. Middleton, the American consul at St P. Came home safe in 1829, found Mrs. A. dead, and immediately went to West Point as a Cadet. In about 18 months afterwards Mr A. married a second time (a Miss Patterson, a near relative of Gen. Winfield Scott) – he being then 65 years of age. Mrs A and myself quarreled, and he, siding with her, wrote me an angry letter, to which I replied in the same spirit. Soon afterwards he died, having had a son by Mrs A. and, although leaving a vast property, bequeathed me nothing. The army does not suit a poor man—so I left West Point abruptly, and threw myself upon literature as a resource. I became first known to the literary world thus. A Baltimore weekly paper (The Visiter) offered two premiums—one for best prose story, one for best poem. The Committee awarded both to me, and took occasion to insert into the journal a card, signed by themselves, in which I was very highly flattered. The Committee were John P. Kennedy (author of Horse-Shoe Robinson) J.H.B. Latrobe, and Dr. J.H. Miller. Soon after this I was invited by Mr T.W. White proprietor of the South. Lit. Messenger, to edit it. Afterwards wrote for New York Review at the invitation of Dr Hawks and Professor Henry, its proprietors. Lately have written articles continuously for two British journals whose names I am not permitted to mention. In my engagement with Burton, it was not my design to let my name appear—but he tricked me into it.
This memo is evidence of Poe’s own process of mythmaking. He begins the account by saying he was born two years later than he really was. Then he emphasizes that his family was one of the “oldest and most respectable in Baltimore” when his grandfather was an Irish immigrant who had lost most of his money supporting the Patriots during the American Revolution. His boast of staying at the University of Virginia for three years and graduating with “first honors” is also a bit of a stretch. Although he was one of the top French students, he only stayed at the University one term before leaving because he could not afford to pay either his tuition and board or the gambling debts he incurred while trying to pay those expenses.
Poe continues with a fanciful account of a journey to Europe to join the Greek Wars of Independence that ends with Poe being imprisoned in St. Petersburg, Russia. By his account, Poe returned to the United States in 1829. In reality, Poe enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1827 in Boston and was stationed at Fort Independence, Fort Moultrie, and Fort Monroe before hiring a substitute in 1829.
Despite those fabrications, there are some facts in Poe’s account. He really did win a prize for Best Short Story from the Baltimore Visiter, but he was not awarded the prize for poetry. The judges decided that the same person should not be allowed to win both prizes in the contest, so they gave the poetry prize to someone else.
Rufus W. Griswold
The year after Poe sent Griswold this memo, Griswold published the anthology The Poets and Poetry of America, which was a hit and went through numerous editions during the nineteenth century. Over eighty poets were featured in the collection. Griswold included three of Poe’s poems, “Coliseum,” “The Sleeper,” and “The Haunted Palace.” (This was still three years before Poe would publish “The Raven.”) Griswold’s introduction included much of the information Poe had provided him:
THE family of Mr. POE is one of the oldest and most respectable in Baltimore. DAVID POE, his paternal grandfather, was a quartermaster-general in the Maryland line during the Revolution, and the intimate friend of LAFAYETTE, who, during his last visit to the United States, called personally upon the general’s widow, and tendered her his acknowledgments for the services rendered to him by her husband. His great-grandfather, JOHN POE, married, in England, JANE, a daughter of Admiral JAMES McBRIDE, noted in British naval history, and claiming kindred with some of the most illustrious English families. His father and mother died within a few weeks of each other, of consumption, leaving him an orphan, at two years of age. Mr. JOHN ALLAN, a wealthy gentleman of Richmond, Virginia, took a fancy to him, and persuaded General POE, his grandfather, to suffer him to adopt him. He was brought up in Mr. ALLAN’s family; and as that gentleman had no other children, he was regarded as his son and heir. In 1816 he accompanied Mr. and Mrs. ALLAN to Great Britain, visited every portion of it, and afterward passed four or five years in a school kept at Stoke Newington, near London, by the Reverend Doctor BRANSBY. He returned to America in 1822, and in 1825 went to the Jefferson University, at Charlottesville, in Virginia, where he led a very dissipated life, the manners of the college being at that time extremely dissolute. He took the first honours, however, and went home greatly in debt. Mr. ALLAN refused to pay some of his debts of honour, and he hastily quitted the country on a Quixotic expedition to join the Greeks, then struggling for liberty. He did not reach his original destination, however, but made his way to St. Petersburg, in Russia, where he became involved in difficulties, from which he was extricated by Mr. MIDDLETON, the American consul at that place. He returned home in 1829, and immediately afterward entered the military academy at West Point. In about eighteen months from that time, Mr. ALLAN, who had lost his first wife while POE was in Russia, married again. He was sixty-five years of age, and the lady was young; POE quarrelled with her, and the veteran husband, taking the part of his wife, addressed him an angry letter, which was answered in the same spirit. He died soon after, leaving an infant son the heir to his vast property, and bequeathed POE nothing. The army, in the opinion of the young cadet, was not a place for a poor man, so he left West Point abruptly, and determined to maintain himself by authorship. The proprietor of a weekly literary gazette in Baltimore offered two premiums, one for the best prose story, and the other for the best poem. In due time POE sent in two articles, and the examining committee, of whom Mr. KENNEDAY, the author of “Horse-Shoe Robinson,” was one, awarded to him both the premiums, and took occasion to insert in the gazette a card under their signatures, in which he was very highly praised. Soon after this, he became associated with Mr. THOMAS W. WHITE in the conduct of the “Southern Literary Messenger,” and he subsequently wrote for the “New York Review,” and for several foreign periodicals. He is married, and now resides in Philadelphia, where he is connected with a popular monthly magazine.
The book launched Griswold’s career, and he would edit a number of anthologies including the first posthumous collection of Edgar Allan Poe’s complete works.
Poe, however, was not a fan of Griswold’s anthology. He thought too much space had been allotted to minor poets like Griswold’s friend Charles Fenno Hoffman, who had 45 of his poems included. In a November 1842 review in the Boston Miscellany, Poe complained that Griswold was biased in his selections in favor of New England authors, had left out a few important poets, and had included a few poets Poe would “ have treated with contempt.” This was fairly tame for one of Poe’s reviews. After all, he had attained national fame and earned himself the nickname “The Tomahawk Man” for his scathing literary criticisms.
Poe reserved his harshest condemnation of The Poets and Poetry of America for his lectures, beginning with a November 21, 1843 lecture in Philadelphia that would be repeated in other cities. The November 29 issue of the Citizen Soldier recalled of Poe’s lecture, “The subject, ‘American Poetry,’ was handled in a manner, that placed all the pseudo-critics, the Rev. Mr. Rufus Griswold, Esq. among others, to the blush, and showed the audience, how a man born a poet, could describe the true nature and object, [a]s well as the principles of poetry. The sentences of the Lecturer were vigorous, energetic and impassioned, his criticisms scathingly severe in some cases, and des[e]rvedly eulogistic in others.”
After a repeat of this lecture in Wilmington, Delaware, the Delaware State Journal reported that “the book and its author were handled by the critical Lecturer in not the most gentle manner” and that Poe had complained that “an extravagant proportion of space allotted to personal friends — altho’ inferior poets — (as in the case of Mr. Hoffman) — while superior merit has been put off with a single page.”
Poe in 1842
Poe’s lecture was a popular success, but this did not endear him to Griswold, who harbored resentment towards Poe that lasted long after the poet’s death. In fact, Griswold would write an obituary of Poe that was so harsh that he felt the need to publish it anonymously. It begins, “EDGAR ALLAN POE is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it. The poet was well known, personally or by reputation, in all this country; he had readers in England, and in several of the states of Continental Europe; but he had few or no friends; and the regrets for his death will be suggested principally by the consideration that in him literary art has lost one of its most brilliant but erratic stars.”
Without knowing Griswold had written the obituary, Poe’s mother-in-law appointed him Poe’s literary executor and tasked him with compiling Poe’s complete works. In a final act of vengeance, Griswold included in this anthology a memoir of Poe designed to portray Poe as a madman and drug addict, a false portrayal which has since formed the basis of Poe’s popular image. Among the falsehoods promoted in Griswold’s account was Poe’s own account of going to Europe to fight the Turks. Griswold assumed this memoir would destroy Poe’s reputation, but it made Poe even more popular than he had been during his lifetime. The legend of Poe, which the author played a part in shaping, has grown into a caricature that even he would scarcely recognize.
When asked this morning what Poe would think about his distorted posthumous reputation, I was reminded of Poe’s fictitious autobiography, of how proud he sounded in his letters home from West Point when he wrote that a rumor had spread that he was the grandson of Benedict Arnold, and of how many successful hoaxes he had perpetrated during his lifetime. Was Poe’s autobiographical memo just another of his literary hoaxes, like “The Balloon Hoax” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar?” Would Poe have been offended by Griswold’s smear campaign against him, or would he be just a little pleased to see how it helped him become an enduring literary legend? With or without the Poe legend, we would not remember him at all if it were not for the power of his stories and poems to captivate and inspire generations of readers to this day.
The Poe Museum’s manuscript was given to the Poe Museum by Griswold’s grandson, Roger Griswold, in 1949. It is on display this month in the Elizabeth Arnold Poe Memorial Building.