Last year, we shared part one of Eliza Poe’s life. Follow the rest of her journey as David, Edgar, and Edgar’s siblings are introduced.
Following Eliza’s marriage, she and her husband, Charles, arrived in Alexandria, Virginia, and were set to perform at Liberty Hall for six weeks in August 1802 (Smith 59-60). When Eliza began rehearsals there, the hall was the newest theatre in Virginia, having been only three years old. According to Smith, a tragic accident had befallen during the summer of its opening, as the company lost Thomas Wade West, the manager of the company. His wife, Margaret, took over and successfully kept the company alive. Under new management, Eliza was working alongside old, fellow actors, and together the company performed operas, ballets, melodramas, and pantomimes during their six week season (60).
Eliza was a skillful dancer and was featured in a triple hornpipe, a lively dance performed in sailor costume and accompanied by hornpipes, according to Smith (61). She also danced a Spanish Fandango in The Mountaineers (61). After their engagement, the couple traveled to Fredericksburg, Virginia, in the “land of hog, hominey, and hoe-cake” (61). The couple opened September 18 under the same group they had worked with in Alexandria, performing a little over a month with the company. At the end of that engagement, the company disbanded and Charles and Eliza traveled to Petersburg to join the Virginia Company (62).
In November 1802, Eliza and Charles arrived in Petersburg, Virginia, which then had a population of less than four thousand (63). According to Smith, the Virginia Company was well established in this city of equestrian races, carnivals, and a prominent shipping port (63). Eliza and Charles found themselves with their previous fellow members, and Eliza began learning new parts immediately. For their first performance, she performed as Zelina in Oberon. Although the reviewers for that opening night bemoaned the other actors, Eliza and Charles received good reviews: “The pleasing manner in which Mrs. Hopkins performed the part and sung the songs of Zelina had a very good effect…Mr. Hopkin’s performance of Ratta and Caustic, were in the best style of acting” (64).
The New Market, Corner of Market and Sixth Street
The troupe then proceeded on to Richmond, where Eliza had performed just four years earlier. The city, although having increased in population, remained familiar and nearly unchanged. The old Academy Theatre had burned in 1798, however, and the new theatre was located in the Market Hall on 17th Street, around the corner from the Bell Tavern (65).
Opening night was December 14, and shortly after the company received news that Thomas Wignell, who had supported and influenced Eliza, passed away suddenly. Despite this sad news, Eliza moved on to Norfolk, where she was to make one of her greatest and most important debuts. Scheduled for opening night, Eliza performed in leading roles Louisa in August von Kotzebue’s Sighs and Rosina in William Shield’s opera Rosina (65-66). Following her dramatic performances, she switched to comedic roles, including Moggy McGilpin in The Highland Reel (67).
After various engagements between Norfolk and Petersburg, their Norfolk season ended July 13, and Eliza had successfully completed her first tour with the Virginia Company (68). She had made “important gains with this management” and began playing more challenging roles (69). Over all, things seemed to be in her favor.
Eliza and Charles traveled back to Richmond in August 1803, where they appeared in a concert at the Bell Tavern (70). A reviewer had the following to say about her:
Mrs. Hopkins…is amply compensated by the loud plaudits with which she is always received, which evince, that of all the ladies of the theatre, she is at least a second favorite with the public – though perhaps incapable of ever arriving at the eminence of a Siddons or a Merry. Mrs. Hopkins’ interesting figure, her correct performance, and the accuracy with which she always commits her part, together with her sweetly melodious voice when she charms us with a song, have deservedly raised her to that respectable rank which she indisputably holds in the public favor (70).
The summer of 1804 marked a notable season for Eliza. The company was in Richmond and Eliza and Charles were cast as Susan Ashfield and Sir Abel Handy in Speed the Plow (72). Cast as the hero, Henry, was a young actor making his Richmond debut, nineteen year old David Poe (72). Poe, an avid theatregoer was from Baltimore, and the son of Irish-born Revolutionary War figure, Major David Poe, or “General Poe,” and his wife, Elizabeth Carnes Poe. David left his family while studying law and sought an acting career, joining the Charleston Theatre company in December 1803. Having no experience, the beginning of his career was rocky, and he was called out for being diffident, timid, and paralyzed with stage fright (72-73). However, according to Smith, because of his good looks and fine voice, he was able to get along well.
That summer, the three worked together, and Charles began co-managing the theatre. The new managers chose George Colman II’s The Heir at Law for their new season, with Eliza playing Caroline Dormer and David Poe playing Dormer’s lover, Henry Morland. Eliza found herself benefiting from the roles her co-manager husband chose for her, which expanded her repertoire and allowed her to play more dramatic roles, including Stella in James Boaden’s The Maid of Bristol. According to Geddeth, “At this time of her career the vivaciousness of Moggy McGilpin or the predictability of Caroline Dormer were far less challenging than portraying the bitterness and despair of this leading character. It was a difficult role with long speeches and scenes of sustained tension…” (73).
After the close of the season, another followed soon in September, when they traveled to Fredericksburg and then returned to Petersburg. While the trio performed in Adam Cherry’s The Soldier’s Daughter, they were featured in the next issue of The Intelligencer, which wrote about Eliza,
Among those who acquitted themselves with the greatest eclat, I cannot omit to mention the names of Mrs. West, Jr., in the character of the Widow Cheerly and Mrs. Hopkins in Mrs. Malfort–the sprightly vitality of the one, and the placid melancholy of the other, alternately awakened the opposite feelings of innocent hilarity, and heart-rending sorrow (75).
That winter, a cold wave swept through Richmond, causing the theatre to close and the death of one of the troop’s actresses, Anne West. West’s mother, who was involved in management with the group, left after her daughter’s death and the company was affected greatly. This proved to be good for Eliza, however, and she also found herself having to fill in the prominent shoes of West as an actress (76-77).
David returned to Baltimore for a benefit night, debuting in June 1805, while Eliza and Charles traveled to Washington to perform at a theatre they had not been to in five years (77-79). For their opening, two comedies were performed, Elizabeth Inchbald’s Wives as They Were and Maids as They Are and George Colman II’s Ways and Means. Charles performed the leading role in the first play, and Eliza in the second. During this time, David was cast in and was playing the role of Joseph Surface in The School of Scandal (80).
To Eliza’s dismay, a yellow fever epidemic had spread throughout Washington and infected Charles, who passed away on October 26. According to Geddeth, the Richmond Enquirer read, “He has left an affectionate wife to lament his loss,” and at eighteen Eliza was widowed (81). This did not stop her from continuing the show however, and a week later she had a benefit for herself, choosing Adelmorn the Outlaw, a play she and Charles had performed frequently together as the romantic duo Orilla and Herman (81).
She returned to Richmond where she was cast in multiple plays with David Poe, who also had returned. Although, according to Geddeth, “David was very handsome…nervous, highly strung, and had a volatile temper, there was an appealing sensitivity about him,” and Eliza was smitten. The feelings were mutual, and the nineteen and twenty-year-olds issued a marriage bond on March 14, 1806 (82-83). Eliza’s benefit night, performing in Douglas, was the last night she was listed as Mrs. Hopkins, and when the theatre reopened after Easter, she and David were married (83).
She and David returned to Boston, ten years after she had left, and performed among other thespians whom they barely knew. Actors and friends, Charlotte and Luke Usher were notable to Eliza however, and may have been the inspiration for Edgar Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher.
After opening night on October 13, a review for the play the couple performed in, Speed the Plow, stated,
The parts of Henry and Miss Blandford were filled by Mr. and Mrs. Poe from the Virginia theatres, their first appearance in Boston. Estimating the talents of this couple by comparison, we might say the same characters have been more ably sustained on our boards. A first performance however does not always afford a criterion by which merit may be estimated. Mr. Poe possess a full manly voice, of considerable extend; his utterance clear and distinct. The managers will undoubtedly find him a useful, and the town a pleasing, performer in the Henrys, Charles Stanleys, etc. Of the talents of Mrs. Poe we are disposed to judge favorably (The Polyanthos).
In the fourteen weeks of that season, Eliza and David played more than twenty parts before the critical crowd. According to Geddeth, she learned more than one new part a week for the next season, and her talent was not unnoticed. She was described as “excellent” in The Emerald and in a pleasing way deemed “truly laughable” in The Polyanthos (87).
David was not receiving the same reviews, however, and audiences were becoming displeased with his performances. This discouraged David and lead to jealousy between his and Eliza’s marriage, although his feelings may have been abated with a child on the way.
The couple’s first child, William Henry Leonard Poe, was born January 30, 1807. David continued on stage while Eliza remained at home, although she would return only three and a half weeks later to the stage. In the meantime, with David on stage, he was receiving criticism for his attempt to play the character of Charles Surface in The School for Scandal, which he had never played before and which he was forced to play. The Emerald, noted, “We are ready to make allowances for Mr. Poe’s deficiency in Sir Charles Surface, in manners, spirit, and orthoepy…The suddenness with which the character must have been assumed is a mantle, which like charity, covers a multitude of sins” (88-89).
Eliza’s return was not positive, either. She was to perform as Cordelia in King Lear; however, due to an actor’s sprained ankle, she performed as Little Pickle in The Spoiled Child, which she had not performed in two years (90). The Polyanthos gave Eliza harsh criticism, calling her “a very green Little Pickle” (91). David called on the critic, J. T. Buckingham, to avenge for Eliza; however, he left hurting both of their careers even more.
Finally, after the end of that season in May, Eliza and David were able to rest until the end of the year, and the couple, along with son Henry, took a vacation to Baltimore to visit David’s parents. David’s parents had rejected Eliza initially; however, they now accepted her and Henry into their home. Since Henry was General Poe’s first grandson, he had stolen his and Elizabeth’s hearts, and they would take him into their home after the death of his mother. David Poe’s sister, Maria Clemm, the Maria who was Edgar’s aunt and mother-in-law, said about Eliza, “She was a lovely little creature and highly talented. I loved her most devotedly” (93).
After returning to Boston in the fall, Eliza and David were delighted to hear that the infamous critic, J. T. Buckingham of The Polyanthos, would not be criticizing them any longer because the paper had shut down. During this season, David found more encouraging reviews, although the critic of The Emerald stated about his performance as Vernon in Henry IV, that he had “mutilated some of his speeches in a most shameful manner” (94). This review was in contrast to a positive review, which stated he “was courtly in manners, if he was not perfect in his delivery” (94).
Boston Harbor and East Boston
During a performance of Cinderella that the troupe put on, Eliza found time, according to Geddeth, to walk down to the Boston harbor where she sketched many of the vessels at bay, inscribing, “Morning 1808,” adding, “For my little son Edgar, who should ever love Boston the place of his birth and where his mother found her best and most sympathetic friends.” This gift would be given to Edgar later and cherished by the son greatly (96).
That Fall, and multiple performances later, Eliza found herself among new actors and actresses, and five months pregnant. Within two weeks after she had stopped performing that January, she gave birth on January 19, 1809, to their son Edgar. Three weeks later, she was back on the stage; however, nine weeks apparently show that David was not listed for any performances, and it is unclear where he was at. According to letters he had written to his cousin, he was in Pennsylvania on March 22 (100).
Geddeth describes Eliza’s situation while David is gone,
David was evidently still away, and she had a three-month-old baby at home. This meant that she was still probably unable to sleep through the night. If Henry was with her, she also had a two-year-old to be taken care of. Her hands were full to say the very least. The physical and nervous strain of the next six weeks of her life must have been enormous: along with the constant responsibility of her two small sons she faced a task at the theatre that demanded a superbly trained actress with leonine courage and nerve (104).
With David abandoning her briefly, Eliza’s world was probably spinning from the hectic stage life and motherhood. She gained a strong repertoire of roles and success despite these hardships, performing alongside a seventeen-year-old actor, John Howard Payne. To David’s regret, his wife had gained attention and success while he was elsewhere, causing a greater rift in their marriage and his increased jealously (107).
The Park Theatre Interior
When David returned, the couple hurried from Boston to New York to perform under new management at the Park Theatre. Despite the theatre’s grand interior and exterior, the audiences were less than attractive. Washington Irving had written, two years earlier, that the audience was “no inconsiderable part of the entertainment” (109). Unfortunately for the two, they found it difficult to establish themselves at first, and David had made a gaffe, which would haunt his career while there. Performing in Abaellino, Eliza played the Lady Rosamund and David performed as Dandoli. According to the critic for The Rambler, David persisted calling his character “Dan Dilly,” which would be his nickname in future reviews (111).
The negative reviews concerning David’s acting continued, with the same reviewer critiquing David’s performance in Pizarro stating, “…a more wretched Alonzo we have never witnessed. This man was never destined for the high walks of the drama…his person, voice, and non-expression of countenance, all combine to stamp him…” (111-112).
By the end of this season, after only six and a half weeks, David was either fired from or left the company, thus ending his acting career. According to Geddeth, his name no longer appeared in bills and all traces of him vanished (114).
Although it is unknown if David stayed with Eliza after he left the company or if he disappeared for good, Eliza remained vigilant and strong and continued working in the theatre group. She even received a good critique from the gentleman who had ridiculed David’s performances, potentially putting an end to his career (116).
That year, in July 1810, a benefit was held for Eliza. Geddeth explains that the New Yorkers wanted to help Eliza financially, although they were unaware, she was alone with her children, because David had left her permanently, and was expecting her third child (118-119).
She returned to Richmond later that month with Henry who was three, Edgar who was a year old, and expecting a third child who was due in four months. She was alone at twenty-three and had to support herself and her children.
In Richmond, Eliza’s new group was managed by William Green and Alexandre Placide, whom she had known from her work with Sollee’s company in 1797. Unfortunately, the Virginia Company she had worked with no longer existed (121). One of her most important roles in this new company was as Letitia Hardy in Hannah Cowley’s The Belle’s Stratagem. In this role, she acted, sang, and performed a double allemande with Placide, which Geddeth explains as being a, “courtly, somewhat serious dance” (121). She continued with the company to Fredericksburg in October and on to Norfolk, where she gave birth December 18 , 1810, to Rosalie at the Forrest home, a boarding house (123).
Now with five-year-old Henry, two-year-old Edgar, and baby Rosalie, Eliza had a lot to cope with and may have hired a nurse to help care for the children. Henry eventually was sent to Baltimore to live with his grandparents and Eliza continued traveling, most likely broken-hearted having had to part with her son (123).
Arriving in Charleston in 1811, she again played the parts of Priscilla Tomboy in The Romp and Angela in The Castle Spectre. She persisted, despite feeling emotionally, physically, and most likely mentally exhausted, and arrived in Norfolk March of that year. A benefit was to be held for her, and the following letter was printed in the Norfolk Herald:
Sir, permit me to call the attention of the public to the benefit of Mrs. Poe and Miss Thomas for this evening….The former of these ladies I remember (just as I was going in my teens) on her first appearance here met with the most unbounded applause–She was said to be one of the handsomest women in America; she was certainly the handsomest I had ever seen. She never came on the stage, but a general murmur ran through the house, “What an enchanting creature! Heavens what a form!–what an animated and expressive countenance!–and how well she performs! Her voice too! sure never any thing half so sweet!” –Year after year did she continue to extort these involuntary bursts of rapture from the Norfolk audience, and to deserve them too; for never did one of her profession take more pains to please than she. But now “the scene is changed.”–Misfortunes have pressed heavy on her. Left alone, the only support of herself and several young children–Friendless and unprotected, she no longer commands that admiration and attention she formerly did….And yet she is as assiduous to please as ever, and tho’ grief may have stolen a few of the roses from her cheeks, still she retains the same sweetness of expression and symmetry of form and feature (127).
She returned to Richmond, where she would perform her last role as Lady Santon in The Stranger. Her health, rapidly declining, forced her to bed rest. Geddeth states that Malaria was the cause of her death; however, most biographers list Tuberculosis as the cause. Regardless, a benefit was held on November 29, 1811. The Richmond Enquirer stated, “To the Humane Heart: On this night, Mrs. Poe, lingering on the bed of disease and surrounded by her children, asks your assistance; and asks it perhaps for the last time—The generosity of a Richmond Audience can need no other appeal…” (129).
She died Sunday, December 8, 1811, and was buried in an unmarked grave in St. John’s Churchyard that Tuesday. As the Richmond Enquirer stated in her obituary, “By the death of this lady the stage has been deprived of one of its chief ornaments” (129).
Following her death, Henry stayed with his grandparents, Edgar was taken into the Allan family, and Rosalie was received into the Mackenzie family. Most biographers state that David passed within two weeks of Eliza’s own death; however, it remains unknown. Henry and Edgar seemed to be most affected by her death, especially Edgar.
Henry wrote the following poem when he was fourteen, discussing his father and mother:
My Father’s!–I will bless it yet–
For thou hast given life to me:
Tho’ poor the boon–I’ll ne’er forget
The filial love I owe to thee.
My Mother’s too!–then let me press
This gift of her I loved so well,–
For I have had thy last caress,
And heard thy long, thy last farewell.
My Rosa’s! pain doth dim my eye,
When gazing on this pledge of thine–
Thou wer’t a dream–a falsity–
Alas!–’tis wrong to call thee mine!
A Father! he hath loved indeed!
A mother! she hath blessed her son,–
But Love is like the pois’ning weed,
That taints the air it lives upon.
Edgar received the painting of the Boston harbor Eliza had painted, and the inscription on the back would remain dear to his heart.
Geddeth perfectly describes Eliza, which may also be the way Edgar most likely would have seen the portrait of his mother:
Eliza’s beauty had always won her admirers, and when one studies the miniature of her dating from this period, it is easy to see why. The small portrait conveys a delicate beauty of feature–ivory skin tingled with a soft, talisman rose color at the cheeks and lips, a fine nose, tiny sensual mouth, and slightly dimpled, Cupid-like chin. The hair is light brown, fine, tightly curled, but not luxuriant. The artist has captured a warm, sweet, and sensitive expression in the eyes, which are light brown and project glowing vitality…(123)
And, it is without doubt that, just as in life, in death, throughout Henry, Edgar, and Rosalie’s lives, their mother may have been smiling down upon them with that delicate beauty and those sensitive, glowing eyes.