The Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia is proud to announce that the Virginia Association of Museums has named the museum’s newly acquired portraits of Rufus and Caroline Griswold to 20i6’s list of Virginia’s Top Ten Endangered Artifacts. The program is designed to create awareness of the conservation needs of artifacts in the care of collecting institutions such as museums, historical societies, libraries, and archives throughout Virginia.
The Poe Museum recently purchased these important portraits of Edgar Allan Poe’s enemy and biographer Rufus Griswold and Griswold’s first wife Caroline with the help of a Gofundme campaign. Thirty-seven donors from across the country contributed to the fund because they believed these artifacts and the set of related letters that came with them will contribute greatly to the public’s understanding of Poe’s life. It was Griswold who wrote Poe’s first biography and fabricated many of the accounts of Poe’s addiction and madness that have since become widely accepted as facts. Only by identifying and discrediting the source of these fabrications can the Poe Museum hope to uncover the truth about Poe’s life and literary contributions. Click here to learn more about these artifacts.
Rufus Griswold portrait before conservation
The designation of the portraits as Virginia’s Top Ten Most Endangered Artifacts acknowledges both the historical significance of the objects and their critical need for conservation. Since the portraits arrived at the museum in July 2016, they have been examined by conservators who assessed their condition and recommended plans for treatment. Click here to learn more about the condition of these portraits. Click here to see detail photographs of the portraits’ condition. The portrait of Rufus Griswold is now on display in the Poe Museum’s Elizabeth Arnold Poe Memorial Building until October 16 when it will undergo a months-long conservation treatment.
Detail of damage to Caroline Griswold portrait as seen under raking light
ABOUT THE PROGRAM
Virginia’s Top 10 Endangered Artifacts is a project of the Virginia Association of Museums. This public outreach campaign for collections care was launched in 2011 with support from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).
Virginia’s Top 10 Endangered Artifacts program is in its fifth year of building awareness for the important role that museums and cultural organization play in caring for our historic and cultural treasures. It has inspired numerous positive outcomes such as pairing donors with artifacts in need of conservation support, helping participating museums learn more about the provenance of their artifacts, and supporting successful grant applications for conservation care.
While the results of public voting was a factor in the final decision, the “Top 10” honorees were selected by an independent review panel of collections and conservation experts from the Library of Virginia, Preservation Virginia, Virginia Conservation Association, Virginia Department of Historic Resources, as well as an independent conservator. The panel gives particular weight to the historical or cultural significance of the item, its conservation needs, whether it has been assessed, as well as future plans and continued preservation.
Damage to Rufus Griswold portrait as seen under UV illumination
THANKS TO GRISWOLD FUND DONORS
To raise the money for the acquisition of the Griswold portraits, the museum launched a Gofundme campaign which quickly raised the money thanks to generous gifts from Susan Jaffe Tane, Stephan Loewentheil, Abbe Ancell, Michael Brazda, Teresa Carter, Christine Clements, Christopher Davalos, Escape Room Live DC, Katrina Fontenla, Mary Lee Haase, Sarah Huffman, Magdalena Karol, L. L. Leland, Aimée Mahathy, Lizzie O., Neca Rocco, Robert Rosen, Jennifer and Joe Rougeau, Justin and Elizabeth Schauer, Ernst Schnell, John Spitzer, Wayne and Pat Stith, Kurt Strom, Amy H. Sturgis, Sara Tantlinger, Patrick Tsao, Ashleigh Williams, and Seven Anonymous Donors.
[The Poe Museum is always glad to learn of poets Poe has inspired. We recently received an email from Vik Shirley, a poet based in Bristol in the UK. Vik writes, “I recently completed a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in English Literature (with Creative Writing) and was awarded First-class honours. For my final project I wrote a poetry sequence called Death: The Human Experience, based on an exhibition at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, which featured various artefacts and symbols of death from around the world and throughout history. I based each poem in the sequence on a different exhibit and one of those was the death mask of Edgar Allan Poe…When I was carrying out research for my poem, I came across the museum website, in addition to an online 2014 article of yours in Biography.com, which I found fascinating and very useful. My poem is in the voice of Edgar’s cat Catterina. I was inspired to learn that she died shortly after the death of Edgar.” Here is the poem for your enjoyment.]
I always clawed the walls when he left,
sank into a fantastic gloom. Fetched
presents to his empty room, licked
my paws, preened myself, waiting, waiting.
But this time, there was something more;
one develops a feeling for these things,
a hunch, a penchant for the peculiar
in this house. My tortoiseshell pelt prickled
from that very first day, from the moment
he departed. I remember it well. I slunk
around his trunks – circling his doomed
luggage, brushing up, pressing against
his legs, weaving eights, provoking,
coaxing for one final caress. To explain:
we were close. I would sit on his shoulder
while he wrote, everybody knew I adored
him. I learned from the master; was wise
to the clues, the omens, symbols. The days
went by. I was wondering, wondering,
fearing the worst. My stomach churned,
I yearned to nibble his finger, flip the tip
of my tail in his presence, issue him with
a slow blink, a purr, but no, still, nothing,
nothing. Then yesterday the news bludgeoned
us without mercy or warning and confirmed
the unthinkable. It was an enigma, a conundrum,
and not, as I was hoping, a hoax. So, now it’s time
for me to go. My tell-tale heart is tired of talking.
I will follow my soulmate into the shadows, trace
his footsteps with paws, all the way to Nevermore.
One hundred and eighty years ago Edgar Allan Poe married his cousin Virginia Clemm in a small ceremony in Richmond.
For a very awkward moment, try explaining to a group of thirteen-year-old middle school students that they are the same age Edgar Allan Poe’s wife was when he married her—and that her husband was twenty-seven at the time. (To learn more about the wedding ceremony, click here.) Even though Virginia Clemm Poe lived until the age of twenty-four, she is still frequently referred to as Poe’s “child-wife,” as if she were forever thirteen.
The nature of the relationship between Poe and his bride has long been a matter of speculation. To make matters more confusing, in the same August 1835 letter, he called her a sister, a cousin, and a “darling little wifey.” His nickname for her was Sissy (sister), and he called her mother, Maria Poe Clemm, Muddy (mother). Virginia sometimes referred to Edgar as Buddy (brother).
In letters to his mother-in-law, Poe speaks of Virginia in affectionate terms. During an 1844 trip to New York with Virginia, Edgar wrote Maria, “Sis is delighted, and we are both in excellent spirits. She has coughed hardly any and had no night sweat. She is now busy mending my pants which I tore against a nail…You can’t imagine how much we both to miss you. Sissy had a hearty cry last night, because you and Catterina [their cat] weren‘t here.”
Unfortunately, when she was nineteen, Virginia displayed symptoms of tuberculosis, a wasting disease that robbed her of her strength, her energy, and eventually her life. In a January 4, 1848 letter to G. W. Eveleth, Poe describes the agony of seeing her suffer and die from the disease.
Six years ago, a wife, whom I loved as no man ever laved before, ruptured a blood-vessel in singing. Her life was despaired of. I took leave of her forever, and underwent all the agonies of her death. She recovered partially, and I again hoped. At the end of a year, the vessel broke again. I went through precisely the same scene. . . . Then again — again — and even once again, at varying intervals. Each time I felt all the agonies of her death — and at each accession of the disorder I loved her more dearly and clung to her life with more desperate pertinacity. But I am constitutionally sensitive — nervous in a very unusual degree. I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity. During these fits of absolute unconsciousness, I drank — God only knows how often or how much. As a matter of course, my enemies referred the insanity to the drink, rather than the drink to the insanity. I had, indeed, nearly abandoned all hope of a permanent cure, when I found one in the death of my wife. This I can and do endure as becomes a man. It was the horrible never-ending oscillation between hope and despair which I could not longer have endured, without total loss of reason. In the death of what was my life, then, I receive a new, but — Oh God! — how melancholy an existence.
Aside from his mentions of her in letters like these, scholars have also tried to find traces of Virginia in Poe’s literary productions. While it is tempting to learn about Poe’s feeling for Virginia in his poems like “Eulalie” and “Annabel Lee,” the poem in which he mentions her by name is “To My Mother,” which is addressed not to his mother but to his mother-in-law, Virginia’s mother. Written after Virginia’s death, the poem describes how much she meant to him in the lines,
You who are more than mother unto me,
Filling my heart of hearts, where God installed you,
In setting my Virginia’s spirit free.
My mother — my own mother, who died early,
Was but the mother of myself; but you
Are mother to the dead I loved so dearly,
Are thus more precious than the one I knew,
By that infinity with which my wife
Was dearer to my soul than its soul-life.
Of the relationship between Edgar and Virginia, one of their mutual acquaintances Frances Osgood wrote, “Of the charming love and confidence that existed between his wife and himself, always delightfully apparent to me, in spite of the many little poetical episodes, in which the impassioned romance of his temperament impelled him to indulge; of this I cannot speak too earnestly — too warmly. I believe she was the only woman whom he ever truly loved.”
Another of their friends, Lambert A. Wilmer, recalled,
I could mention several striking examples of Poe’s sensibility if my limits would permit. He was unquestionably of an affectionate disposition; of which he gave the best kind of proof when he labored cheerfully for the maintenance of his aunt and cousin, before his marriage with the latter. While he was editor of the Southern Literary Messenger he devoted a large part of his salary to Virginia’s education, and she was instructed in every elegant accomplishment at his expense. He himself became her tutor at another time, when his income was not sufficient to provide for a more regular course of instruction. I remember once finding him engaged, on a certain Sunday, in giving Virginia lessons in Algebra.
One of his severe chroniclers says: “It is believed by some that he really loved his wife; if he did, he had a strange way of showing his affection.” Now it appears to me that he showed his affection in the right way, by endeavoring to make his companion happy. According to the opportunities he possessed, he supplied her with the comforts and luxuries of life. He kept a piano to gratify her taste for music, at a time when his income could scarcely afford such an indulgence. I never knew him to give her an unkind word, and doubt if they ever had any disagreement. That Virginia loved him, I am quite certain, for she was by far too artless to assume the appearance of an affection which she did not feel.
Casting aside nineteenth century propriety, Virginia is said to have run to the sidewalk to embrace her husband when she saw him returning home from work. Other accounts tell of them playing music together or playing games in their yard. Witnesses describe their marriage as a cheerful one. Describing her love for her husband, the twenty-three year old Virginia wrote in 1846,
Ever with thee I wish to roam —
Dearest my life is thine.
Give me a cottage for my home
And a rich old cypress vine,
Removed from the world with its sin and care
And the tattling of many tongues.
Love alone shall guide us when we are there —
Love shall heal my weakened lungs;
And Oh, the tranquil hours we’ll spend,
Never wishing that others may see!
Perfect ease we’ll enjoy, without thinking to lend
Ourselves to the world and its glee —
Ever peaceful and blissful we’ll be.
In her short life, Virginia grew into a lovely young woman described by one of her houseguests Mary Gove Nichols as looking “very young” with “large black eyes, and a pearly whiteness of complexion, which was a perfect pallor. Her pale face, her brilliant eyes, and her raven hair gave her an unearthly look.” Nichols believed she looked “almost [like] a disrobed spirit, and when she coughed it was made certain that she was rapidly passing away.” By this time, Virginia had been suffering for the past few years from tuberculosis, which would have caused her to be very thin and pale—a look considered very attractive at the time. In the words of Poe’s friend Mayne Reid, “I well knew the rose tint upon her cheek was too bright, too pure to be of the earth. It was consumption’s color—that sadly beautiful light which beckons to an earth tomb.”
While most who knew her described Virginia, as Reid did, as “angelically beautiful in person and not less in spirit,” Susan Archer Talley Weiss, a Poe groupie who never actually met Virginia, thought she was “small for her age, but very plump; pretty, but not especially so…[with a] round, ever smiling face.”
There are no known photographs of Virginia to help us determine whether Reid or Weiss was closer to the truth, and the popular post mortem portrait of Virginia hardly gives us a sense of how this cheerful, loving woman must have looked in life.
Post Mortem Portrait of Virginia Poe
After Virginia succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four, her mother saved some of her cherished possessions. Among those items she felt worthy of saving, for their sentimental value or for some other reason, was a simple red trinket box covered in red leatherette with little brass flowers on top. Two years later, Edgar Poe also died, and Maria Clemm became dependent on the support of friends and relatives in New York, Alexandria, and Baltimore. In Baltimore, she found Poe relatives who offered some assistance before she ended up in one of the city’s charity homes.
Virginia Poe’s Trinket Box
One of the friendly relatives was Virginia’s half-sister, Josephine Clemm Poe. To her, Maria Clemm bequeathed some of Virginia’s possessions, including her little red trinket box. Josephine, in turn, left the items to her daughter, who gave some of them to her niece Josephine Poe January.
Virginia’s Half-Sister Josephine Clemm Poe
Josephine Poe January had grown up revering the memory of her great aunt Virginia Poe and, in 1909, wrote the article “Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Child Wife’” about her for the October 1909 issue of The Century. In the account, January describes Virginia’s “unchanging love” for Edgar. The article concludes with the lines, “One sees it now, and thinks of the poverty, the sorrow, the renunciation, of those two, and at first it seems so pitifully little that life gave to them. But is it little? To him the gift of song, to her the gift of love.”
Bottom of Virginia Poe’s Trinket Box
At some point, January met the Richmond-born diplomat Alexander W. Weddell whose wife was from Saint Louis, where January was living. Mr. Weddell had been born in St. John’s Church, a short distance from Poe’s mother’s grave in the adjoining cemetery. After passing his Foreign Service exam in 1909, he traveled on diplomatic assignments to Zanzibar, Catania, Sicily, Athens, Beirut, Cairo, Calcutta, Mexico City, and Montreal before returning to Richmond, where he used materials salvaged from an eleventh century English priory to build a grand mansion called Virginia House.
During a meeting with the Weddells, January must have told them about her relation to Edgar Allan Poe, and the Weddells informed her that they were supporters of the newly formed Edgar Allan Poe Shrine (now the Poe Museum) in Richmond. As a result of the conversation, January wrote Pultizer Prize-winning editor, historian, and Poe Shrine president Douglas Southall Freeman on September 5, 1927,
My Dear Dr. Freeman,
My friend and yours Alexander W. Weddell told me he thought you would be interested to have for the Poe Shrine in Richmond a little possession that was once Virginia Clemm Poe’s. My grandmother Josephine Clemm Poe was her sister and this little red box came with the other little relics of Virginia’s bitter-sweet life.
It is in the form of a little chest of red wood or hard card board perhaps with a brass ring on the lid and may well have held some of her own little trinkets in the Fordham days. At least it is completely authentic and has never been in any other than her family’s hands. We were brought up as children to share my grandmother’s sense of loyalty and to know the inside truth of their wishing to have Virginia go to school and live with them a little longer before marrying Edgar. So we loved everything about her and my aunt who became custodian after her parents’ death loved everything about E.A.P.
I hope very much to come to Richmond when the dear Weddells are in “Virginia House” and to see the Shrine. Meanwhile I feel that it is the place Virginia’s little box should go to as nobody after me would value it as much as I have. If you care to have it and will let me know here where I shall be until October I will post it to you when I return to St. Louis.
Josephine Poe January
Josephine Poe January’s Letter to the Poe Museum
The Poe Shrine jumped at the chance to accept the donation of this priceless relic of Poe’s wife. The chairman of the executive committee, museum co-founder Annie Boyd Jones wrote her, “As the children say, we just can’t wait to see the little red box.”
Decoration on Top of Trinket Box
Since 1927, Virginia Poe’s trinket box, one of her very few surviving possessions, has been on display at the museum for the public to study and appreciate, imagining how Virginia must have kept her few, modest trinkets in it and how she, Edgar, and Maria survived in genteel poverty while Edgar wrote for a succession of magazines in Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York. One wonders what miniature treasures Virginia kept in the box and what became of them. Maybe the box held the portrait of her husband she supposedly kissed and gave to her nurse Marie Louise Shew shortly before dying. Maybe it held a ring or a letter from Edgar. We may never know. Another question we may never answer is precisely why, out of all Virginia’s possessions, Maria Clemm chose to save this box. Maybe it had been a favorite of Virginia’s, a gift from a good friend, or just a reminder of happier times. Like most great artifacts, it makes us ask far more questions than it answers.
The Trinket Box Getting Scanned
Earlier this year, Virginia Commonwealth University’s Virtual Curation Laboratory visited the Poe Museum to make a 3D scan of the trinket box so that a three dimensional replica could be printed. Such a replica would allow museum visitors to see the actual trinket box locked safely in its case while handling the nearly identical replica. This new printing technology will offer new ways for the public to experience the museum’s collection, bringing us just a little closer to understanding what this box meant to the most important woman in Poe’s life.
Digital Image of the Trinket Box During Scanning
Now displayed alongside Virginia’s mirror in the Poe Museum’s Model Building, the box is a favorite among the museum’s many guests. Museum visitors this summer also have the rare opportunity to see two fragments of Virginia Poe’s trousseau (on loan from Dr. Richard Kopley) in the same exhibit case.
In honor of Poe’s 180th wedding anniversary, Virginia Poe’s trinket box is the Poe Museum Object of the Month. Click here to find out more about some of the other Objects of the Month.
How would you like to have your worst enemy’s portrait hanging in your living room? Although a few people half-jokingly advised us that Edgar Allan Poe would not approve of having a portrait of Rufus Griswold in the Poe Museum, we decided there was no better place for such an artifact than here in the center of the Poe-verse. Griswold, after all, is the one responsible for defaming Poe and creating the dark myth which far too many people have mistaken for fact. If it hadn’t been for Griswold, people wouldn’t still believe Poe was a drug addicted madman whose horror stories were merely based on his disturbed life.
Photograph of the Rufus Griswold portrait printed in the 1943 book Rufus Wilmot Griswold by Joy Bayless
Here is just a sample from Griswold’s obituary of Poe:
He walked the streets, in madness or melancholy, with lips moving in indistinct curses, or with eyes upturned in passionate prayers, (never for himself, for he felt, or professed to feel, that he was already damned), but for their happiness who at the moment were objects of his idolatry — or, with his glances introverted to a heart gnawed with anguish, and with a face shrouded in gloom, he would brave the wildest storms; and all night, with drenched garments and arms wildly beating the winds and rains, he would speak as if to spirits that at such times only could be evoked by him from the Aidenn close by whose portals his disturbed soul sought to forget the ills to which his constitution subjugated him — close by that Aidenn where were those he loved — the Aidenn which he might never see, but in fitful glimpses, as its gates opened to receive the less fiery and more happy natures whose destiny to sin did not involve the doom of death.
If that description sounds about right to you, it’s because of Griswold. This is the caricature of Poe he created, and, although it has long since been reputed, it is still the myth some of us learn in English class and from popular culture. It’s also the hopelessly drunk and depressed Poe portrayed by John Cusack in the 2012 film The Raven. When reading such a description it’s easy to see why most people think Poe only wrote horror stories when he actually wrote more comedies and science fiction tales.
This distorted view of Poe is so popular that a few people think we are either mistaken or lying when we at the Poe Museum tell them the true story of Poe’s life. That is when we have to inform them about Rufus Wilmot Griswold, the rival editor, anthologist, and failed poet who, to avenge some wrong Poe had done him, wrote such a libelous obituary of the author that, at first, he chose to sign it with a pseudonym. Published two days after Poe’s death, it begins, “EDGAR ALLAN POE is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.”
As if that were not enough, Griswold continued his smear campaign with a biography of Poe that portrayed the dead man as a vile, despicable human being, a liar, a blackmailer, a madman and a womanizer. Griswold even implied Poe had made a pass at his foster father’s mother and forged some of Poe’s letters to quote in the memoir. While some of Poe’s friends came forward with articles defending Poe’s good name, many were afraid to speak out until after the influential anthologist Griswold was dead. Three years after Griswold’s death, Poe’s former fiancée Sarah Helen Whitman published her own biography of Poe, and several others followed. With a few notable exceptions, most of them portrayed Poe in a much better light. Now any objective biographer can safely dismiss the popular view of Poe as an insane opium addict.
When the Poe Museum tries to provide its visitors a fair and objective view of Poe’s life and work it is helpful to distinguish the facts from the fictions associated with his biography. A big part of this involves examining the man who started these myths and the reasons he did it. That’s why most Poe Museum tours end with at least some mention of Rufus Griswold’s infamous biography of Poe.
Rufus Griswold’s Wife Caroline
A few months ago, an antique dealer contacted the Poe Museum with an offer to sell a collection of Rufus Griswold artifacts including oil paintings of Rufus Griswold and his wife Caroline as well as about forty-five letters to and from Griswold, members of his family, and the poet (and enemy of both Poe and Griswold) Elizabeth Ellet. As soon as the collections committee heard about the opportunity, it voted to acquire the items. To raise the money, the museum launched a Gofundme campaign which quickly raised the money thanks to generous gifts from Susan Jaffe Tane, Stephan Loewentheil, Abbe Ancell, Michael Brazda, Teresa Carter, Christine Clements, Christopher Davalos, Escape Room Live DC, Katrina Fontenla, Mary Lee Haase, Sarah Huffman, Magdalena Karol, L. L. Leland, Aimée Mahathy, Lizzie O., Neca Rocco, Robert Rosen, Jennifer and Joe Rougeau, Justin and Elizabeth Schauer, Ernst Schnell, John Spitzer, Wayne and Pat Stith, Kurt Strom, Amy H. Sturgis, Sara Tantlinger, Patrick Tsao, Ashleigh Williams, and Seven Anonymous Donors.
Now, after years in the possession of descendants of Rufus Griswold’s daughter Emily, this collection is finally in a public collection where anyone can see and study it. Although the portraits were printed once in a 1943 biography of Rufus Griswold, the small black-and-white reproductions in that book only provided the slightest hint of the face of Griswold we will see when we have finished conserving the original paintings. For the first time ever, the public will be able to see Rufus and Caroline Griswold as they appeared when Griswold himself owned the paintings.
Portrait of Griswold printed in 1943 book by Joy Bayless
While seeing the portraits will be like traveling back in time to meet the man, reading his private letters in this collection will be like having a conversation with him. This will be our chance to learn about Griswold’s private struggles, his aspirations, and his motivations.
Griswold descendant Benjamin Wakeman Hartley with the portrait in background ca. 1960
The paintings’ trip to the Poe Museum is just one step on their decades-long journey. Painted in 1840, they went from Griswold (1815-1857) to his daughter Emily Griswold Hartley (1838-1906, a missionary) to her son Randolph Hartley (1870-1931, a librettist and theatrical agent) to Wakeman Hartley to a Massachusetts antique dealer. The next step is a visit to the conservator to repair the damage caused by decades of neglect. Now obscured by dark varnish, dust, smoke, and grime and covered with cracks, holes, and restorers’ over-painting, these 176 year old artifacts need to be cleaned and repaired in order for us to finally see them as they would have appeared in Griswold’s time. You will learn more about that in next week’s installment.
If you would like to help take care of the Poe Museum’s artifacts, please make a contribution here.
The population of New York City was 515,547 at the beginning of 1849. When a cholera epidemic broke out that spring, about 100,000 people fled the city. Of those who remained, 5,071 succumbed to the disease. The July 8 issue of The Christian Intelligencer reported that 358 New Yorkers died of cholera in the week of June 30 through July 7. Also on July 7, Edgar Allan Poe wrote his mother-in-law, “I have been so ill — have had the cholera, or spasms quiet as bad, and can now hardly hold the pen…The very instant you get this, come to me. The joy of seeing you will almost compensate for our sorrows. We can but die together. It is no use to reason with me now; I must die…For your sake it would be sweet to live, but we must die together.” Poe wrote “New York” at the top of the page, but he probably wrote it in nearby Philadelphia, which was also suffering from a cholera epidemic. Twelve days later, he wrote his friend E.H.N. Patterson that he had “barely escaped with my life” from the cholera epidemic.
On August 7, Poe wrote Patterson that he had “suffered worse than death — not so much from the Cholera as from its long-continued consequences in debility and congestion of the brain — the latter, possibly, attributable to the calomel taken.” Calomel was a medicine derived from toxic mercury. One of many potentially dangerous “remedies” doctors of the time often prescribed to those suffering from a variety of maladies.
At a time before the acceptance of germ theory, doctors had little understanding of the causes of diseases and virtually no comprehension of how to cure them. Various quack remedies for cholera included prescribing opium, mercury pills, and oil of turpentine. If these failed to produce results, the doctor might perform tobacco smoke enemas or administer beeswax plugs to stop the diarrhea associated with the disease. The following article from the New York lists a few other proposed “cures.”
Unknown to North America before 1832, cholera tore a path of destruction across the continent that year as part of a worldwide pandemic that had begun in India and swept westward through Europe before crossing the Atlantic. In an April 9, 1832 letter, the German poet Henirich Heine described the arrival of cholera in Paris.
On March 29th, the night of mi-careme, a masked ball was in progress, the chabut in full swing. Suddenly, the gayest of the harlequins collapsed, cold in the limbs, and, underneath his mask, “violet-blue” in the face. Laughter died out, dancing ceased, and in a short while carriage-loads of people were hurried from the redoute to the Hotel Dieu to die, and to prevent a panic among the patients, were thrust into rude graves in their dominoes. Soon the public halls were filled with dead bodies, sewed in sacks for want of coffins. Long lines of hearses stood en queue outside Pere Lachaise. Everybody wore flannel bandages. The rich gathered up their belongings and fled the town. Over 120,000 passports were issued at the Hotel de Ville.
Out of a population of 650,000 Paris lost 20,000 of its citizens to cholera during the 1832 epidemic. In London, another 6,536 died. Cholera claimed 100,000 in France; 55,000 in the United Kingdom; 130,000 in Egypt; 100,000 in Hungary; and even more elsewhere during that pandemic. In New York City, which had a population of about 250,000 at the time, 3,000 people died, and an estimated 100,000 fled the city.
Poe was in Baltimore in 1832 and would have seen the panic brought about by the arrival of the disease. He also lost one of his closest friends Ebenezer Burling, who succumbed to cholera in Richmond. The best doctors of the time were unable to arrest the progress of the disease. It would be years before they would realize it was carried in the water. Unsuspecting victims contracted the germs from drinking water. Once they displayed symptoms, sufferers could expect about a fifty percent mortality rate.
Without a proper understanding of the causes of cholera, residents could do little to prepare for it. Writing twenty years later, Dr. George B. Wood seemed dumbfounded about how to stop it when he wrote, “No barriers are sufficient to obstruct its progress. It crosses mountains, deserts, and oceans. Opposing winds do not check it. All classes of persons, male and female, young and old, the robust and the feeble, are exposed to its assault; and even those whom it has once visited are not always subsequently exempt.”
Former New York mayor Phillip Horne was among many who thought they knew the real cause of the disease—the Irish. These immigrants, “filthy, intemperate, unused to the comforts of life and regardless of its proprieties…flock to the populous towns of the great West, with disease contracted on shipboard, and increased by bad habits on shore,” he wrote in his diary.
By the end of the 1849 epidemic, cholera had claimed 150,000 American lives. While this disease struck terror wherever it visited, cholera was not unique among the deadly pandemics that threatened Poe’s world. Yellow fever epidemics broke out multiple times in the early nineteenth century, forcing Poe’s mother to flee from an outbreak in New York and overtaking his grandmother in Charleston. His cousin George William Poe succumbed to yellow fever in Baltimore. Virginia experienced thirteen yellow fever epidemics in the 1800s. The worst of these took place in Norfolk in 1855, six years after Poe’s death. Of the city’s population of 16,000, about 6,000 fled the area, and 2,000 died.
Tuberculosis also claimed thousands of lives each year. Among those he knew, Poe’s mother, foster mother, brother, wife, and literary executor died from the extremely widespread and very contagious killer. He likely carried a latent form of the disease.
His first published short story “Metzengerstein” reflects the age’s tendency to romanticize the wasting disease, then called “consumption.” In the tale, the narrator says, “The beautiful Lady Mary! — how could she die? — and of consumption! But it is a path I have prayed to follow. I would wish all I love to perish of that gentle disease. How glorious! to depart in the hey-day of the young blood — the heart of all passion — the imagination all fire — amid the remembrances of happier days — in the fall of the year, and so be buried up forever in the gorgeous, autumnal leaves.”
Fifteen years later, Poe would watch his wife waste away from tuberculosis over the course of five agonizing years.
“King Pest” illustration by Harry Clarke
In the face of all these real-life terrors, Poe turned to his writing. The cholera pandemic of 1832 inspired his short stories “King Pest” and “The Masque of the Red Death” and provided a setting for his tale “The Sphinx.” The beautiful young women who succumb to wasting deaths in so many of his stories might be suffering from the same consumption that had claimed many of his loved ones.
Poe’s brother William Henry Leonard Poe, also wrote about yellow fever, setting his story “The Pirate” during an outbreak. Virginia Poe, Edgar’s wife, also wrote, in her only surviving poem, about the consumption that ravaged her lungs and how she wanted to move to a cottage in the country to “heal my weakened lungs.”
It was not until well after Poe’s death that doctors were finally able to effectively combat these illnesses. With greater understanding of the causes and cures of these diseases, the public gradually became less prone to live in fear of the next plague or to panic at the first sight of disease. That is why it is sometimes difficult to understand just how terrifying a story like “The Masque of the Red Death” might have been to the author’s contemporaries or to comprehend how deeply offensive Robert Louis Stevenson found Poe’s plague comedy “King Pest,” written just three years after the 1832 cholera pandemic. (Stevenson went so far as to write that the author of that story had “ceased to be a human being.”) This is why from June 23 through August 21, the Poe Museum will host the special exhibit Pandemics and Poe exploring the ways deadly diseases like yellow fever, cholera, and tuberculosis touched Edgar Allan Poe’s life and inspired some of his greatest work. The exhibit features rare first printings and original documents, including a Poe family bible, that trace the impact of disease and death on Poe’s world.
“The Masque of the Red Death” illustrated by Harry Clarke
British Broadsheet warning about Cholera Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images [email protected] http://wellcomeimages.org Broadsheet warning about Indian cholera symptons and recommending remedies, issued in Clerkenwell, London, by Thos. Key and Geo. Tindall: Church wardens. London, 1831. 1831 Published: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
In spite of being reared by a frugal businessman who discouraged his writing, Edgar Allan Poe became one of the world’s greatest authors. Why did a boy who grew up in such a home decide to devote himself to a life in the arts? Was Poe born gifted, or was his genius the result of his upbringing? Maybe we can find some of the answers by learning about the family from which Poe was separated when he was orphaned at the age of two.
Above: Handkerchief Case Painted by Rosalie Mackenzie Poe
Talent runs in Edgar Allan Poe’s family. Not only was Edgar a talented writer, but so was his brother William Henry Leonard Poe. His sister was a gifted musician and an art teacher. His mother was a popular actress and singer. In order to shed some light on these forgotten members of Edgar Allan Poe’s family, the Poe Museum in Richmond will host a new exhibit The Unknown Poes: Edgar Allan Poe’s talented Family from April 28 until June 19, 2016. The display will feature a number of Poe family artifacts including clothing, documents, and a Poe family bible. The highlight of the exhibit will be a piece of original artwork painted by Poe’s sister Rosalie. The exhibit will place Poe’s talent in the context of a gifted family of artists, writers, and performers.
Above: Negative review of a performance by Poe’s father from 1806
The exhibit will open on April 28 from 6-9 p.m. with a special Unhappy Hour in the Poe Museum’s Enchanted Garden featuring live music by The Folly.
Above: Bridget Poe’s Dancing Shoes from 1805
Above: Chest of drawers given by Poe’s uncle Henry Herring to his daughter
Above: Poe family bible opened to a page containing a diagram of a Poe burial plot
Carl Laemmle, Jr. needed a monster. The twenty-three year old president of Universal Pictures had produced a string of successful features since inheriting the company as his twenty-first birthday present. It was the depths of the Great Depression. Thousands were unemployed. More than ever, Americans needed an escape, and it came in the form of movies. This was an age of screwball comedies, lavish musicals, and westerns. It was also the time when Universal Pictures introduced its classic monsters — Dracula, the Mummy, and Frankenstein’s Monster. These monsters starred in the horror films that saved Universal and made stars of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. In its quest for the next great monster, Universal searched the works of Edgar Allan Poe and found Erik. If you’ve never heard of Erik that is because it is the name they gave the previously unnamed orangutan from Poe’s mystery “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” In the process of converting Poe’s detective story into one of Universal’s gothic monster movies, the producers transformed the orangutan into a classic movie monster and threw in a mad scientist for good measure.
Filming on Murders in the Rue Morgue (the studio dropped the first “The” from the title.) wrapped on December 23, 1931 at the cost of $190,099.45, far less than it had spend the previous year on Dracula. In January 1932, Universal Pictures’ publicist P. L. Hickey visited Richmond’s Poe Museum, where the Museum’s Acting Secretary Catherine Campbell led him on a guided tour of the complex. In addition to working for Universal, Hickey wrote fiction, true stories, and poetry for the pulp magazines True Detective Magazine and Weird Tales. Even though the Poe Museum had closed two of its buildings to conserve energy during the Depression, Hickey was sufficiently impressed with his visit that he told Universal’s Head of Exploitation Joe Weil.
Weil specialized in finding unique ways to promote Universal’s films. For the premiere of Dracula, Weil plastered New York City with cryptic messages like “Beware! Friday the 13th—Dracula,” “I’ll be on your neck Friday the 13th—Dracula,” and “Good to the last gasp! Dracula.” He wrote advertising copy and leaked a fake telegram in which the film’s director supposedly begged the studio not to release the movie on Friday the 13th because he was superstitious. Weil also worked with local businesses, convincing department stores have special Dracula-themed displays in their windows. Some studios of the era went so far as to station ambulances outside theaters just in case Universal’s movies frightened anyone to death.
For Murders in the Rue Morgue, Weil probably thought the Poe Museum was a natural fit to help him promote the Poe-inspired film. On January 23, 1932, he wrote Campbell, telling her how much Hickey had enjoyed his visit and promising to send her publicity stills from the film “with the compliments of Mr. Laemmle.” He also promised to send her 1,000 rotogravure heralds to distribute on the film’s behalf. Campbell wrote Weil on February 9, thanking him for the “very interesting pictures of The Murders in the Rue Morgue which your President was kind enough to send us.”
She assured him she would “certainly see the picture if it ever comes to Richmond and will try and have some of [his] pictures in a conspicuous place.” While there is no record of the stills having ever been displayed in the Poe Museum, they have remained in the museum’s collection for the past eighty-four years.
The first thing one might notice when scanning these photos is that the star of the film, the legendary horror film star Bela Lugosi does not appear in any of them. The second is that a lesser known actress named Sidney Fox appears in every one. The average fan of classic horror films might be shocked to discover that, in the film’s opening credits, Fox’s name appears before Lugosi’s—even though she was still a relative newcomer while he was at the height of a long and distinguished career. The rumor at the time attributed her sudden rise to fame to her having an affair with studio boss Carl Laemmle (or even his sixty-four year old father). The truth might be that she was seen as a promising young Hollywood star after having garnered praise on Broadway and beating out Bette Davis for the coveted role of the bad sister in 1931’s Bad Sister.
Also in 1931, Bela Lugosi’s title role in the film Dracula saved Universal from financial ruin and launched the studio’s cycle of horror films. This was the film in which Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi introduced the tuxedo- and cape-wearing interpretation of a suave Count Dracula to the silver screen. Having starred for decades at the Hungarian Royal National Theater and on Broadway, Lugosi believed he would inevitably become a leading man in Hollywood, but his thick accent and inability to master the English language doomed him to be typecast as a foreign villain.
Shortly after he starred in Dracula, Lugosi was offered the role of the monster in Universal’s upcoming adaptation of Frankenstein. Worried that the monster makeup required for the role would obscure his handsome face and that the monster did not have any dialog to showcase his acting, Lugosi declined the offer.
Meanwhile, French Expressionist Robert Florey expected to direct Frankenstein, but Universal awarded the job to British director James Whale. Without Lugosi, the studio was in need of a new monster, and Whale found him, in the form of forty-one year old British actor Boris Karloff.
With the release of Frankenstein on November 21, 1931, Karloff was a star, Whale was a respected director, Lugosi was regretting his decision, and Florey still needed a showcase for his talents. Universal followed up on the success of Frankenstein with The Old Dark House (directed by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff) and The Mummy (also starring Boris Karloff).
While Karloff was claiming the spotlight, Lugosi appeared in minor roles in a series of long-since forgotten B-movies like 50 Million Frenchmen, Women of all Nations, The Black Camel, and Broadminded. By 1932, both Lugosi and Florey needed a chance to shine, and Universal gave it to them with Murders in the Rue Morgue.
Murders in the Rue Morgue premiered on February 21, 1932. Although it made a profit, the film helped launch the careers of many of those involved. The director Florey left Universal for Paramount and Warner Brothers where he specialized in B-movies, making about fifty of them before his death in 1979. His best-known film is probably the Marx Brothers comedy The Cocoanuts (1939).
Bela Lugosi clearly relished the part of the mad Dr. Mirakle, who abducted women to inject them with ape’s blood in order to prove the theory of evolution. When the injection invariably kills them, he dumps them into the River Seine through a trapdoor conveniently located in his laboratory floor. By the way, he is also fluent in whatever language apes speak. As implausible as that may sound, it absolutely works in the context of the unreal atmosphere of the film.
Four years later, when it came time to cast the sequel to his hit film Dracula, Universal replaced Lugosi with a dummy, which is burned at the beginning of the movie. He would, however, reprise his vampire role in films like Mark of the Vampire (1935), Return of the Vampire (1944), Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), and Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire (1951). Over the course of his prolific career, he displayed a great versatility, playing everything the Frankenstein monster’s sinister sidekick Ygor in The Son of Frankenstein and The Ghost of Frankenstein to a gangster in Black Friday (1940). He even obscured his face and grunted to perform the previously rejected role of Frankenstein’s Monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). Universal eventually released Lugosi from his contract, and the actor spent his remaining years playing villains in low-budget films until his death in 1959. His last film was Plan 9 from Outer Space, which has been named the “Worst Film Ever Made.” Per his request, he was buried in his Dracula cape.
Leon Ames portrays the hero of Murders in the Rue Morgue, the medical student Pierre (not Auguste) Dupin. His character is responsible for delivering such corny lines as “You’re like a song the girls of Provence sing on May Day. And like the dancing in Normandy on May Day. And like the wine in Burgundy on May Day.” After Murders in the Rue Morgue Ames found steady acting work until his retirement in 1986. His best known role was that of D.A. Kyle Sackett in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).
His co-star Sidney Fox was only nineteen when she filmed Murders in the Rue Morgue, and he only made a few more films. The persistent rumors of her affair with Carl Laemmle were among the factors that caused her to move to Europe. Her career never recovered. Her poor acting and grating, high-pitched voice have been blamed (a little unfairly, considering the writing) for ruining Murders in the Rue Morgue. She died from an overdose of sleeping pills ten years later.
The cinematographer, Karl Freund, went on to a celebrated career. By the time he made Murders he had already been the cinematographer for Dracula and the director for The Mummy. After working on several films, he became the cinematographer for the television comedy I Love Lucy in 1951. In so doing, he innovated television by introducing flat lighting, a technique that illuminates all parts of the scene evenly so that three different cameras can be used at the same time from different angles without having to adjust the lighting for each camera.
The producer, Carl Laemmle, saved Universal with his series of monster movies and defined pop culture depictions of Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Mummy for decades. Regrettably, he lost control of the studio in 1936 and retired a few years later. His influence on later horror films is incalculable.
The real star of the film, Erik the Ape, dies in the film, and he would not be resurrected to appear in any sequels like his fellow Universal monsters Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Mummy. The chimp who portrayed Erik in close-ups lived out his remaining years in the Selig Zoo, which provided animals for films. Joe Bonoma, who wore the ape suit in action shots, went on to a career as a stuntman. Charlie Gemora, who designed the ape suit and wore if for stationary shots, became renowned for his “realistic” ape costumes and would wear them in several films including The Monster and the Girl (1941), the Marx Brothers movie At the Circus (1939), the Laurel and Hardy comedy Swiss Miss (1938), and the Marlene Dietrich feature Blonde Venus (1932). He also found success as a special effects artist at Paramount Studios.
Murders from the Rue Morgue gradually became a cult classic and is considered a fine example of Expressionist filmmaking in America. Universal decided Poe’s name was bankable enough that they added his name and the titles of his works to films like The Black Cat (1935) and The Raven (1935) that bear absolutely no relation to anything Poe ever wrote. This tradition of adding Poe’s names and the titles to unrelated horror films continues to this day.
This was not the last time Hollywood came to the Poe Museum. A decade after the release of Murders in the Rue Morgue, Twentieth Century Fox approached the museum for help with its upcoming romance The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe. The museum consulted the studio on the life of Poe in order to make the film as true to life as possible. Then the studio’s writers promptly ignored this advice and wrote a film that bore only a passing resemblance to the author’s life. Regrettably, the thoroughly historically inaccurate The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe (1942) remains one of the most accurate Poe biopics so far.
Even earlier, in 1928, director James Watson wrote the Poe Museum to see if the institution could assist him in getting the avant-garde film The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) shown in Richmond. The Museum’s secretary replied that she was not sure of any place in town that would be willing to screen it. In recent years, the Poe Museum has shown the film in its Enchanted Garden.
Even when the Poe Museum opened in 1922, Edgar Allan Poe and his works were no strangers to film. No less prestigious a director than D.W. Griffith had already made a Poe film. In fact, the first cinematic adaptation of a Poe story dates to 1907.
Over the years, the Poe Museum has had several visitors from Hollywood. In 1975, Vincent Price, star of several Poe adaptations, visited and toured the museum, Shockoe Hill Cemetery, and Talavera, where he recited some verses from “The Raven” on the spot on which Poe once stood when he recited the poem. Around 1990, writer/director/actor Sylvester Stallone visited the museum and spoke about his own desire to write a new Poe biopic. With the critical success of his recent film Creed, maybe he will find the support he needs to make his Poe film a reality.
While the Poe Museum is best known for its collection of rare Poe manuscripts and historical artifacts dating to the early nineteenth century, but the Museum also collects pop culture ephemera like movie posters and comic books. While the core of the Museum’s movie poster collection was donated by Dr. Harry Lee Poe in 2006, the collection of Poe movie memorabilia dates to the 1932 gift of these Murders in the Rue Morgue film stills. Items like these serve as evidence of Poe’s lasting impact and our culture and the ways writers, visual artists, filmmakers, musicians, and other creatives continue to be inspired by his works. That is why–just in time for this year’s Oscars– this set of publicity stills is the Poe Museum’s Object of the Month.
From March 18 until May 22, Art students from Petersburg, Virginia’s Appomattox Regional Governor’s School for the Arts and Technology will display their new Poe-inspired artwork at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond. Under the supervision of their instructors David Bartlett, Susanne Whittier, Jason Taylor, and Patty Lyons; the students have produced both 2-D and 3-D artwork in a variety of media. In addition to the visual art, the students will also provide live music at the March 18, 6-8p.m. opening reception in the form of the small ensemble Descendants of Tamerlane. The exhibit will be a great opportunity for the public to see the work of some of the great artists of tomorrow.
“Bits and Pieces” by Olivia Nash
The Appomattox Regional Governor’s School for the Arts and Technology provides gifted and talented students a differentiated and rigorous education, cultivates a supportive environment that inspires unique artistic and technological visions, promotes cultural tolerance, nurtures community partnerships, and produces active, engaged citizens.
“Emergence” by Branden Berkey
The exhibit is part of the Poe Museum’s “Poe Inspires” initiative to collaborate with a diverse variety of outside groups to interpret Poe’s influence through writing, visual art, performing art, gardening, and science. On March 19 and 20, the Latin Ballet of Virginia will perform the Poe-inspired ballet POEMAS at the Poe Museum.
Millions of students have memorized Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” but what great work of literature did the author of that famous speech memorize? According to one of his friends, John T. Stuart, Lincoln “carried Poe around on the Circuit—read and loved ‘The Raven’—repeated it over & over.” How might Lincoln have sounded when reading Poe’s solemn poem of death and despair? William H. Herndon wrote in an 1887 letter that “Lincoln’s voice was, when he first began speaking, shrill, squeaking, piping, unpleasant.”
Ever since he was young, Lincoln loved reading. His biographer, Michael Burlingame, wrote that among Lincoln’s favorite works were Poe’s mystery “The Gold Bug” and his science fiction/horror tale “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.” Lincoln even tried his hand at writing his own true-crime story based on a murder trial for which he had served as the defense attorney. The story “Remarkable Case of Arrest for Murder” was reprinted over a century later in the March 1952 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.
He also wrote a number of poems. Here is one he wrote in his arithmetic book when he was about sixteen:
Abraham Lincoln is my nam[e]
And with my pen I wrote the same
I wrote in both hast and speed
and left it here for fools to read…
In 1858, Lincoln wrote this poem in his landlord’s daughter’s album:
You are young, and I am older;
You are hopeful, I am not—
Enjoy life, ere it grow colder—
Pluck the roses ere they rot.
Teach your beau to heed the lay—
That sunshine soon is lost in shade—
That now’s as good as any day—
To take thee, Rose, ere she fade.
Even though Poe and Lincoln were born a few weeks apart in 1809, they never met. One wonders what might have happened if they had.
What’s your favorite Poe story? The Poe Museum is determined to find out which is Poe’s Greatest Hit, and you can help. Just vote right now for your favorite Poe story from the finalists on this list. Voting continues until January 16 at 5 p.m. Eastern. The winning story will be announced at 5:30 p.m. during Poe’s Birthday Bash on January 16 at the Poe Museum in Richmond, and we’ll post it on our blog and social media.
What will the winning short story receive? The Poe Museum will feature it in the new exhibit Poe’s Greatest Hits and will develop special programming around that story in the near future.
Here are the finalists. You can click each one to read or reread it.