Museum News

New Exhibit Examines Poe’s Secret Code

Illustration for the first printing of "The Gold-Bug"

Illustration for the first printing of “The Gold-Bug”

Armies have been sending sensitive information through encoded messages for thousands of years to protect that information from falling into enemy hands, but it was Edgar Allan Poe who popularized the use of these cryptograms as a form of entertainment and in fiction with his story “The Gold-Bug.” Even before the publication of this trailblazing treasure-hunt mystery, Poe was so interested in cryptograms that he challenged the readers of his magazine to send him codes to solve. From September 24 until December 31, the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia will explore Poe’s love of cryptography in the new exhibit The Poe Code: Cryptograms and Puzzles in the Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Visitors to the exhibit will learn how to decode a simple cryptogram and how to hide a name in plain sight by composing an acrostic poem.

While you are here, be sure not to miss the special exhibit Buried Alive, which closes on October 18.

The Gold-Bug

The Gold-Bug

Collection of Literary Autographs is Poe Museum’s Object of the Month

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

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.

Red Hill

Red Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Poe Scholar Decodes Poe’s Gold-Bug

Illustration for the 1843 first printing of "The Gold-Bug"

Illustration for the 1843 first printing of “The Gold-Bug”

Poe was much more than the Master of the Macabre. He was also the Master of Mystery, the inventor of detective fiction, and an avid cryptographer who introduced puzzles and codes into his poems and short stories. His short story “The Gold-Bug” features an encrypted treasure map and a search for clues and codes that set the standard for such popular films as National Treasure and The Da Vinci Code. This spring the Poe Museum planted a new Gold-Bug Garden modeled after this setting of this important story. In honor of the opening of the new Gold-Bug Garden at the Poe Museum in Richmond, on Tuesday, June 23 at 6 p.m., Poe scholar Richard Kopley will deliver “Decoding the Gold-Bug,” a talk about Edgar Allan Poe’s influential treasure hunt mystery “The Gold-Bug.” Admission is free.

Richard Kopley

Richard Kopley

About Richard Kopley:

Richard Kopley is Distinguished Professor of English, Emeritus, at Penn State DuBois. He is the author of Edgar Allan Poe and the Dupin Mysteries, as well as numerous articles, chapters, and reviews on Poe. He is the editor of Poe’s Pym: Critical Explorations and the co-editor, with Jana Argersinger, of Poe Writing, Writing Poe. He has spoken on Poe widely in the United States, and he has given papers on Poe in Spain, Italy, Poland, Russia, and (by DVD) Japan.. He is a former president of the Poe Studies Association, organizer of several Poe conferences, co-organizer of the recent Fourth International Edgar Allan Poe Conference in New York City, and a member of the program committee for the next international Poe-Hawthorne Conference, scheduled for June 21-24, 2018, in Kyoto, Japan.

May 5 2015 Low Country Garden-web

About the Poe Museum’s Gold-Bug Garden:

Designed by Riely and Associates, the firm that restored the gardens at the Virginia Executive Mansion, Monticello, and the University of Virginia, the Poe Museum’s Gold-Bug Garden recreates the Low Country setting of “The Gold-Bug” with an unusual combination of palms, umbrella plants, fatsia, and banana shrubs. This garden is only one stage in the Garden Club of Virginia’s restoration of the Poe Museum’s gardens, which date back to 1922.


Richmond’s Strange Stories Reveal the Hidden History of Poe’s Hometown

What mysteries are lurking in your own backyard? What made Richmond the weird place we know and love? Why would anybody ride a sturgeon?

From May 29 until October 30, 2015, the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond and Richmond Discoveries will be teaming up to offer Richmond’s Strange Stories, a series of neighborhood walking tours profiling Richmond’s hidden history—the weird people and bizarre (but true) events from history that made Richmond what it is today. The tours meet at the Poe Museum at 1914 East Main Street at 5:30 and last until 7 p.m. Three different tours will be offered: Capitol District (May 29, June 19, July 10, July 31, August 21, September 11, October 2, & October 23), Church Hill (June 5, June 26, July 17, August 7, August 28, September 18, October 9, & October 30), and Shockoe and the River (May 22, June 12, July 3, July 24, August 14, September 4, September 25, & October 16). These fascinating tours will be fun for adults and children eight and older. The price is $12 for adults and $10 for senior citizens and military personnel, $6 for Poe Museum members, and $6 for children under twelve. Preregistration is required, and tickets can be purchased through the Richmond Discoveries website, by calling (804) 222-8595 OR (804) 648-5523, or in person at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum. Click here to book today.

Meet the Poe You May Not Know

Think you know Poe? Think again. On June 4 at noon, Barbara Anne Cantalupo will deliver a Banner Lecture entitled “The Poe You May Not Know” at the Virginia Historical Society at 428 North Boulevard in Richmond.

Although Edgar Allan Poe’s name is most often identified with stories of horror and fear, Barbara Cantalupo’s talk will reveal the less familiar Poe—the one who often goes unrecognized or forgotten—the Poe whose early love of beauty was a strong and enduring draw. Poe’s “deep worship of all beauty,” expressed in an 1829 letter to John Neal when Poe was just twenty, never entirely faded, despite the demands of his commercial writing and editorial career. “The Poe You May Not Know” gives us a look at Poe’s connection to such visual beauty, his commitment to “graphicality” (a word he coined), and his knowledge of the visual arts.

Click here for more information.

Barbara Cantalupo, associate professor of English at Penn State Lehigh Valley, is the editor of The Edgar Allan Poe Review and author of Poe and the Visual Arts. Copies of her latest book Poe and the Visual Arts will be available for signing at the event. You can preorder your copy here.

While you are in Richmond to hear Barbara Cantalupo’s talk, you will want to stay in town a few more hours to see her husband poet Charles Cantalupo’s performance of his new poetry series “Poe in Place” at 6 p.m. at the Poe Museum. Click here to learn more about Charles Cantalupo and his fascinating performance.

Hundreds Celebrate Edgar Allan Poe’s Birthday

Over nine hundred people gathered at the Poe Museum for its annual Poe Birthday Bash, which featured twelve hours of entertainment and tours. One of the days highlights was the Poe Birthday Cake (pictured above). Below is a shot the people lining up for a slice of cake.

Kids enjoyed fun and games throughout the day. Here is a photo of the craft table staffed by historical interpreter Debbie Phillips, dressed as Poe’s last fiancée Elmira Royster Shelton.

One little girl came dressed as a raven.

Some kids enjoyed the model of Poe’s Richmond.

Some liked the Richard Corben exhibit.

Others just liked the hitching post.

Adults also got into the act by making their own Poe mustaches.

Three bands performed, including The Embalmers.

Actors Michael Fawcett, Davide Michero, Dean Knight, and Debbie Phillips performed Poe’s works including “The Raven,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “Berenice.”

Guests also enjoyed walking tours of Poe sites in the neighborhood. Here is one of the groups visiting the Church Hill Overlook.

Here they are at St. John’s Church.

The Sisters in Crime discussed the art of mystery writing.

Professor M. Thomas Inge from Randolph-Macon College gave an interesting presentation about the Poe illustrations of Richard Corben, whose work is now on display in the Poe Museum’s Exhibit Building.

Poe’s last fiancée returned from the dead to give a performance and tour of the sites she and Edgar used to visit together.

The evening culminated with the midnight toast to Poe in the Poe Shrine.

The Poe Museum would like to thank everyone who joined us for Poe’s Birthday Bash, and we look forward to seeing everybody back here next year.

Lecture Explores Four Decades of Poe Illustrations

The Poe Museum is proud to announce that M. Thomas Inge of Randolph-Macon College will deliver a presentation about Richard Corben’s Poe illustrations at 5p.m. at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia in conjunction with the opening of a new exhibit exploring four decades of the illustrator Richard Corben’s Poe-inspired artwork. The event will be part of the Poe Museum’s annual Poe Birthday Bash, which features twelve hours of Poe performances, historical interpreters, live music, walking tours, and more. Admission for the day is five dollars.

The subject of Dr. Inge’s presentation is “Masters of the Macabre: Edgar Allan Poe and Richard Corben.” According to Dr. Inge:

Without Edgar Allan Poe and some of his fellow popular writers, there might not have been a comic book or a graphic novel. That is to say, in the early days of the comic book industry, desperate to meet the insistent and inevitable monthly publication deadlines, writers and artists turned for inspiration, or outright piracy, to the popular short fiction of such authors as O. Henry, Stephen Crane, Ambrose Bierce, or Guy de Maupassant. Before them, the nature and structure of the short story had been fully defined by Poe in his reviews and critical essays in the nineteenth century. Poe did not invent the short story, but he so successfully outlined what an effective piece of short fiction should be that everyone used his standards by which to measure their own work. Reading Poe was like taking a master class in writing fiction.

Little wonder then that the early pioneers of a new art form more frequently turned to Poe than any other author for source material and inspiration. It has been estimated that over 300 adaptations of Poe’s stories and poems have appeared in comic books and graphic novels from 1943 to the present. While nearly every major and most of the minor comic book authors and artists have turned to Poe at one time or another in their careers, only one has dedicated a major part of his life’s work to adapting his poems and tales—Richard Corben. Emerging from the underground comix movement in the 1960s, he quickly became a major force on the larger comic book scene with his work for Heavy Metal magazine and the Warren publications. Those who picked up copies of his early work like Den, Rowlf, or Fantagor, were immediately absorbed by the maturity and beauty of his style. Readers knew that they were in the presence of an extraordinary talent. Corben’s imagination pushed the boundaries of the visual possibilities of aesthetics in comic art in amazing new directions.

Beginning with his adaptations of Poe for Creepy , Eerie, and other Warren titles, especially the brilliantly rendered version of “The Raven” in Creepy No. 67 (December 1974), Corben has proven to be the most acute and creative interpreter of Poe in comics history. All of his comic book work, in fact, has been imbued with the same gothic sensibility and keen eye for the grotesque that possessed Poe himself. Thus his alliance with Poe has been a fortuitous and productive one. It is a marriage made in …, well one hesitates to say heaven. Time and again Corben has turned, or returned, to his favorite poems and stories, each demonstrating an original vision, a new way to interpret or understand Poe’s themes. This paper will provide an appreciative overview of Corben’s fascination with Poe throughout his career and what his vision has added to our general understanding of Poe’s cultural importance. Quite likely Poe would have loved these graphic versions of his work and recognized in Richard Corben a soul-mate.

About Dr. Inge:

M. Thomas Inge is the Robert Emory Blackwell Professor of Humanities at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, where he teaches and writes about American humor and comic art, film and animation, Southern literature and culture, William Faulkner, and Asian literature.
Inge has been writing about the comics and animation for over thirty years. He has written essays for fan publications, popular periodicals, reference works, and scholarly journals. He contributed for over twenty five years a chronology of the history of the comic book to the annual editions of Robert M. Overstreet’s Comic Book Price Guide. His books on the subject include Comics as Culture (1990), Great American Comics (1990), Dark Laughter: The Satiric Art of Oliver W. Harrington (1993), Anything Can Happen in a Comic Strip (1995), Charles M. Schulz: Conversations (2000), The Incredible Mr. Poe: Comic Book Adaptations of the Works of Edgar Allan Poe (2008), and Mark Twain in the Comics (2009). Most recently he edited the collected essays of Charles M. Schulz which appeared as My Life with Charlie Brown (2010). Inge is serving as General Editor of the “Conversations with Comic Artists” and the “Great Comic Artists” series for the University Press of Mississippi.
His publications on animation include “Walt Disney’s Snow White: Art, Adaptation, and Ideology,” Journal of Popular Film and Television, 32 (Fall 2004); “Mickey Mouse” in American Icons (Greenwood 2006); “Bing Crosby, Walt Disney, and Ichabod Crane” in Going My Way: Bing Crosby in American Culture (Hofstra/Rochester 2007); and “Mark Twain, Chuck Jones, and the Art of Animation,” Studies in American Humor, N.S. No. 17 (2008). He wrote the biography of Walt Disney for the Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 22 (Gale 1983) and is working on a book-length study of Disney and adaptation.
Inge wanted to be cartoonist but was diverted into academic work. He would rather draw and considers himself a failed comic artist who became a professor because he couldn’t do any better.

Rival Editor Skewers Poe in the Pages of Contemporary Magazine

December Object of the Month: The John-Donkey

Most of what we know about Poe is wrong. It has long been well known that his literary executor Rufus W. Griswold fabricated stories about him in a successful effort to damage Poe’s reputation. When considering Poe’s literary enemies, one must not forget Thomas Dunn English, a rival editor Poe referred to in a January 4, 1848 letter to George Evelyth as “the Autocrat of all the Asses.” Poe and English even came to blows in 1846. According to Poe (in a June 27, 1846 letter to Henry B. Hirst), “I gave E. a flogging which he will remember to the day of his death — and, luckily, in the presence of witnesses. He thinks to avenge himself by lies — by [sic] I shall be a match for him by means of simple truth.”

English’s own account of that “flogging” (written fifty years after the fact), tells a different story:

One word led to another, and he rushed toward me in a menacing manner. I threw out my fist to stop him, and the impetus of his rush, rather than any force of mine, made the extension of my arm a blow. He grasped me while falling backward over a lounge, and I on top of him. My blood was up by this time, and I dealt him some smart raps on the face. As I happened to have a heavy seal ring on my little finger, I unintentionally cut him very severely, and broke the stone in the ring, an intaglio cut by Lovatt, which I valued highly. Tyler tried to call me off, but this did not succeed; and finally the racket of the scuffle, which only lasted a few moments, brought Professor Ackerman from the front room, and he separated us. He then led Poe away. The latter, in going up the street, met a friend of mine, who asked him how he had cut his face so terribly. His reply was that an Irishman carrying a beam on his shoulder had accidentally struck him.

During Poe’s lifetime, Thomas Dunn English ridiculed the author in the novels Walter Woolfe, or the Doom of the Drinker and 1844, or the Power of S.F., in which the character Marmaduke Hammerhead, the drunken author of “The Black Crow,” was based on Poe. English also attacked Poe in the press, and Poe even sued a magazine for libel (and won) after it printed some of English’s unfounded accusations. Even the lawsuit did not stop English from publicly ridiculing Poe, and the Poe Museum’s Object of the Month for December is English’s short-lived magazine The John-Donkey, which regularly printed jokes at Poe’s expense.

The first issue, dated January 1, 1848 contains the following notice alluding to Poe’s drinking.

A week later, in the January 8 issue, English responded to a Pennsylvania magazine that had written a positive notice of Poe.

The January 29 issue contained “Sophia Maria,” a parody of Poe’s new poem “Ulalume.”

The February 5 issue of the Saturday Evening Post calls “Sophia Maria” “a capital parody on a poem recently published in the [American Review], and supposed to have been written by E. A. Poe — at least it is decidedly Poe-ish.”

In the February 5 issue of the John-Donkey, English jokes about the announcement that Poe will be delivering a lecture about the universe.

Contrary to English’s opinion, Poe’s lecture on the universe received favorable reviews. The Morning Express for February 4 reported, “The conclusion of this brilliant effort was greeted with warm applause by the audience, who had listened with enchained attention throughout.”

In the April 15 issue, English announces that Poe is planning a new version of The Literati of New York City, a popular series of opinions on New York authors. In The Literati Poe praises some of the writers, including Frances Osgood, while ridiculing others, including English. In the July 1846 installment, Poe points out English’s deficiencies as the editor of The Aristidean:

No spectacle can be more pitiable than that of a man without the commonest school education busying himself in attempts to instruct mankind on topics of polite literature. The absurdity in such cases does not lie merely in the ignorance displayed by the would-be instructor, but in the transparency of the shifts by which he endeavours to keep this ignorance concealed…he was not, I say, laughed at so much for his excusable deficiencies in English grammar (although an editor should certainly be able to write his own name) as that, in the hope of disguising such deficiency, he was perpetually lamenting the “typographical blunders” that “in the most unaccountable manner” would creep into his work. Nobody was so stupid as to suppose for a moment that there existed in New York a single proof-reader — or even a single printer’s devil — who would have permitted such errors to escape. By the excuses offered, therefore, the errors were only the more obviously nailed to the counter as Mr. English’s own.

In the same article, Poe pokes fun at English’s poetry, writing, “The inexcusable sin of Mr. E. is imitation — if this be not too mild a term. Barry Cornwall and others of the bizarre school are his especial favorites. He has taken, too, most unwarrantable liberties, in the way of downright plagiarism, from a Philadelphian poet whose high merits have not been properly appreciated — Mr. Henry B. Hirst.”

This is English’s April 1848 response to learning that Poe is planning a new series of similar articles:

English was sure he would be featured if the article were to be printed. Fortunately for him, the new series, Literary America, did not appear until after Poe’s death. The entry about English was given the name “Thomas Dunn Brown” although much of the entry was taken from earlier entry for English printed in The Literati. Among the additions to the Literary America entry was the following passage:

Mr Brown had, for the motto on his magazine cover, the words of Richelieu,

–Men call me cruel;
I am not: –I am just.

Here the two monosyllables “an ass” should have been appended. They were no doubt omitted through “one of those d——d typographical blunders” which, through life, have been at once the bane and the antidote of Mr Brown.

Poe’s most enduring response to English’s attacks was the short story “The Cask of Amontillado,” which ridicules English while making reference to English’s novel 1844, or The Power of S.F.

Although Poe was a favorite target, The John-Donkey also took aim at other literary and political figures of the day. Here is a notice about Poe’s rival Rufus Griswold.

Here is a review of some female poets.

This is one of the political cartoons to appear in the magazine.

The John-Donkey ceased publication after about a year. Thomas Dunn English lived until 1902. In his later years, his interests turned to politics. He served on the New Jersey General Assembly in 1863 and 1864 and was elected to Congress from 1891 until 1895. He chaired the Committee on Alcoholic Liquor Traffic during the Fifty-Third Congress.

English harbored a dislike of Poe for years after the author’s 1849 death, and English supplied the critic E.C. Stedman with negatively biased information about Poe. (Here is a letter from English to Stedman in the Poe Museum’s collection.) English also responded to Poe’s biographers who he thought either were either overlooking Poe’s faults or libeling Poe’s biographer Rufus Griswold. In 1896, English wrote for the Independent the series Reminiscences of Poe, a supposedly frank account of his relationship with the poet. According to English, he finally wrote the series, nearly fifty years after Poe’s death, to defend himself against the attacks on his and Griswold’s character made by Poe’s biographers. The series opens with English’s own attacks on Poe’s biographers William Gill, John Henry Ingram, and George Woodberry. English continues by portraying Poe as a drunk, a liar, and a cheat. He also hints at an affair between Poe and the poet Frances Osgood.

On one point, however, English actually defends Poe’s reputation against the rumors surrounding him. In response to accusations about Poe’s use of drugs, English writes, “Had Poe the opium habit when I knew him (before 1846) I should both as a physician and a man of observation, have discovered it during his frequent visits to my rooms, my visits at his house, and our meetings elsewhere — I saw no signs of it and believe the charge to be a baseless slander.”

Thomas Dunn English

As an editor and author, Thomas Dunn English helped shape the public’s perception of Poe as a drunken scoundrel. Even though Poe himself discredited English by successfully suing his for libel, English’s image of Poe is still widely accepted as fact. This Poe myth English, Griswold, and others created has long concealed the truth about Poe’s life and character. The Poe Museum’s issues of The John-Donkey document these literary rivalries so that today’s biographers can paint a more complete picture of the genesis of the Poe myth and the literary feuds that promoted it.

Get the Latest Poe Museum News

Find out about Poe to Go, the Edgar Allan Poe Young Writers’ Conference, and the 2015 Unhappy Hour Season and more Poe Museum news in the Fall 2014/Winter 2015 of the Museum’s newsletter Evermore. Click here to read more.


Poe Museum’s New Exhibit is Mesmerizing

The Facts behind “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”

Now showing until December 31 at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond is an intriguing exhibit devoted to Poe’s short story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” a tale of the power of mesmerism to suspend the process of death. Made possible by a loan of items from the collection of James Vacca, Mesmerized: The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar explores the popularity of mesmerism in Poe’s time and belief among his contemporaries that this gruesome story might be true.

Mesmerism in the Nineteenth Century

Mesmerism, originally called animal magnetism, was developed by German physician and astronomer Franz Anton Mesmer (1734 – 1815) who theorized that a natural energetic transference occurred between all living creatures. Though he failed to receive scientific recognition for his theories, Mesmer believed this force could have healing properties.


While experiments in mesmerism abounded from 1780 until 1850, many quack mesmerists staged performances and published sensationalized accounts of their powers. By Poe’s time, in the 1840s, some practitioners even believed that mesmerized people could demonstrate clairvoyant abilities. The November 18, 1843 issue of the New York Brother Johnathon carried the following notice:

ANIMAL MAGNETISM! — A series of experiments are now going forward in different parts of this Country, with different subjects, by different magnetisers — wholly ignorant of what others are doing — and by people who have not direct communication with one another; all of which go to prove that the Moon is inhabited — that the people have a written language — and make war. The most miraculous coincidences have happened. We are quite serious.

Poe and Mesmerism

“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” was Poe’s third tale on the subject of mesmerism. “A Tales of the Ragged Mountains” (1844) and “Mesmeric Revelation” (1844) also dealt with the theme. The latter would be the first of Poe’s tales translated into French by the poet and critic Charles Baudelaire. The French Romantic painter Eugene Delacroix declared the story “a bizarre and profound piece of writing which throws you into a state of contemplation.”

In addition to his fictionalized accounts of the controversial pseudoscience, Poe also wrote reviews of other authors’ books on the subject. In the April 5, 1845 issue of the Broadway Journal, Poe called Chauncey Hare Townshend’s book Facts in Mesmerism (London, 1840) “one of the most truly profound and philosophical works of the day — a work to be valued properly only in a day to come.” How seriously Poe actually regarded mesmerism is debatable. In some works, he poked fun at the mesmerist Andrew Jackson Davis, who gave a number of public demonstrations in New York while Poe was living there.


Poe’s writings about mesmerism caused some of his contemporaries to believe he had special knowledge of the subject. Mary Hill Hewitt wrote in an 1846 letter to Poe’s future fiancée Sarah Helen Whitman, “People seem to think there is something uncanny about him, and the strangest stories are told, what is more, believed, about his mesmeric experiences, at the mention of which he always smiles.”

Poe’s Hoaxes

“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” was not Poe’s first hoax. In 1838, he published The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, an account of a trip to Antarctica, thought to be true by English readers. Six years later, in 1844, he convinced New Yorkers that scientists had successfully crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a hot air steering balloon in a story now known as “The Balloon Hoax.”

The Balloon Hoax

Also dealing with the theme of mesmerism, Poe’s story “Mesmeric Revelation” was so realistic it was reprinted in the November 29, 1845 issue of the London Popular Record of Modern Science.

The Public’s Response

“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” was rejected by at least one magazine before the American Review printed it in its December 1845 issue. Within months, the story was reprinted in The Broadway Journal (New York), Spirit of the Times (Philadelphia), Sunday Times (London), the Morning Post (London), the Popular Record of Modern Science (London), and the Boston Museum. The following year it was published as a pamphlet in London. Although many readers believed “Valdemar” to be a true story, the editor of the New York Herald wrote, “whoever thought it a veracious recital must have the bump of Faith large, very large indeed.”

To this, Poe answered in the Broadway Journal,

For our parts we find it difficult to understand how any dispassionate transcendentalist can doubt the facts as we state them; they are by no means so incredible as the marvels which are hourly narrated, and believed, on the topic of Mesmerism. Why cannot a man’s death be postponed indefinitely by Mesmerism? Why cannot a man talk after he is dead? Why? — Why? — that is the question; and as soon as the Tribune has answered it to our satisfaction we will talk to it farther.

Poe’s statement cannot, however, be taken entirely seriously since he frequently ridiculed the Transcendentalists. When asked by a London pharmacist if “Valdemar” was true, Poe responded, “‘Hoax’ is precisely the word suited to M. Valdemar’s case . . . The article . . . is now circulating in France. Some few persons believe it — but I do not — and don’t you.”

Poe was so amused by the receipt of a letter from a believer in the story’s veracity that he printed it in the Broadway Journal:

Collection of James Vacca

The story’s popularity was such that he reprinted it in the Broadway Journal, adding the following note:

In London, the story was reprinted as a true account of the powers of mesmerism, and the London publisher Short and Little issued it as a pamphlet, Mesmerism in Articulo Mortis in 1846.

Collection of James Vacca

Collection of James Vacca

At least one British poet was not a fan of “Valdemar,” Elizabeth Barrett (the future Elizabeth Barrett Browning) sent Robert Browning a copy of the story and wrote:

I send you besides a most frightful extract from an American magazine sent to me yesterday…no, the day before…on the subject of mesmerism—& you are to understand, if you please, that the Mr. Edgar Poe who stands committed in it, is my dedicator…whose dedication I forgot, by the way, with the rest—so, while I am sending, you shall have his poems with his mesmeric experience & decide whether the outrageous compliment to me EBB or the experiment on M. Vandeleur [sic] goes furthest to prove him mad.

Valdemar’s Legacy

Collection of James Vacca

Thanks in part to Poe’s story, the Spiritualist movement associated mesmerism with communication with the dead and used it for that purpose. One of Poe’s fiancées, Sarah Helen Whitman, was a devout Spiritualist who held séances while in a mesmeric trance.


Over time, popularity of both Spiritualism and mesmerism declined. The meaning of the word mesmerism has also evolved. In 1843, the Scottish physician James Braid proposed the term hypnosis, which is now the usual meaning of word mesmerism.

Poe’s use of realistic and scientifically based details made “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” an early and influential example of modern science fiction. The story’s gruesome conclusion in which the mesmerized patient suddenly “rots” into “a nearly liquid mass of loathsome — of detestable putridity” has been an inspiration to modern horror writers concerned with shock and gore. Since Poe’s time, the story has been reprinted countless times and translated into several languages. It has been adapted to comics and movies, most notably the 1963 Roger Corman film Tales of Terror starring Vincent Price and the 2002 black comedy The Mesmerist starring Neil Patrick Harris.

Vincent Price as Valdemar

Mesmerized: The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar will be on display on the first floor gallery of the Poe Museum’s Exhibits Building until December 31, 2014. On display on the second floor galleries of the Exhibits Building are The Halloween Gang Presents: The Black Cat (until December 31) and The Raven Room. The Poe Museum’s other three buildings contain permanent exhibits of the Museum’s renowned collection of Edgar Allan Poe personal belongings and memorabilia.