He had just made the greatest discovery in his long career of Poe collecting. This was the kind of find that could change the face of Poe studies and instantly transform the popular image of Edgar Allan Poe. By the end of the nineteenth century, Richmond historian Robert Lee Traylor (1864-1907) had been fortunate enough to acquire some truly important artifacts for his collection. Among these was the very last photograph ever taken of the author, a priceless daguerreotype once owned by none other than Poe’s last fiancée Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton. But Traylor’s latest discovery topped even that. In 1905, he announced to George E. Woodberry that he was now the owner of “the earliest known portrait of Poe,” a long-lost miniature on ivory mentioned as a “lost portrait” of a young Poe in Woodberry’s recent edition of Poe’s works.
Traylor’s Miniature of Poe
Even more than a century ago, Poe’s face was best known through the few daguerreotypes taken in the last two years of his life when he was frequently in ill-health, struggling against poverty, and close to despair. The most popular of these photographs shows the haggard poet just four days after a suicide attempt. Such portraits seemed to support the public’s caricatured image of Poe as a melancholy, haunted artist. But those who met him describe Poe as a handsome, elegant gentleman who was both a gifted athlete and a witty, amusing companion. Surely, scholars hoped, the author must have sat for his portrait before his final illness and the death of his beloved wife. Such a picture would show the young, healthy Poe—the promising young editor in the prime of his life. Locating this missing artifact would represent a major addition to Poe studies. Biographers would include it in their books. Students would analyze it. The public would finally have a chance to see Poe as his friends knew him.
That is exactly what happened with Traylor’s new portrait. Within a few years, it appeared in Benjamin Blake Minor’s book History of the Southern Literary Messenger, and James Harrison reproduced it in Last Letters of Edgar Allan Poe to Sarah Helen Whitman. Harrison declared the miniature “the earliest known portrait of [Poe].” The Valentine Museum included the portrait in it 1949 exhibit and catalog Richmond Portraits in an Exhibition of Makers of Richmond 1737-1860. In the 1926 booklet Facts About Poe: Portraits & Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe with a Sketch of the Life of Poe, Amanda Pogue Schulte writes that the miniature “represents the poet at twenty-six years of age and is evidently the earliest known portrait of him.”
The tiny painting on an ivory oval shows a youthful, clean-shaven Poe with the faintest hint of a smile. He is dressed in a grey coat with a black vest and cravat. Although the portrait is finely detailed, the expression appears slightly vacant. The piece is unsigned, and there is no indication of when or where it was painted. What is obvious from the portrait’s resemblance to authentic portraits of the author is that the subject was intended to be Poe, but it is not known whether this is truly a portrait painted of the author while he sat in a room with the artist or later copy or forgery.
James H. Whitty
It did not take long for doubts to arise about the portrait’s authenticity. In 1914, Poe collector James H. Whitty wrote Poe biographer Mary Phillips, “I was well acquainted with Mr. Traylor, and often met him during his lifetime. One day he showed me a miniature of Poe enclosed in an old time case. He told me that he had obtained it from a lady in Baltimore . . . that she was a friend of the Poe family and that the miniature had been owned by Poe himself. It was unsigned, had an unusual new appearance to me and looked like it might have been made up from two portraits of Poe I knew.”
Whitty thought Traylor’s account of the piece’s history sounded a little too good to be true, so he conducted his own investigation. One of his first discoveries was that Traylor had bought an antique case after purchasing the picture, suggesting the piece could have been installed in an old case to make it look older than it really was. Whitty later told Phillips, “I first wrote and asked Mr. Traylor for the history of the miniature in writing and have his response declining to do so.”
Traylor died just two years after announcing the discovery, so Whitty would have to continue his investigation with his help. Whitty’s account continues,
I discovered that the bare miniature was offered for sale here by an art salesman from Baltimore to Mr. English of Bell Book & Staty. Co. Mr. English told me that he knew Traylor was interested in Poe and showed him the painting and afterwards purchased it for him for $50. The art establishment wrote me that they sold the miniature but knew nothing of its history. The salesman was not then with them, but in Europe. I have a letter from the salesman in which he states that the painting came from Annapolis, Md., but that was all he knew.
The same J. T. English of the Bell Book and Stationery Company wrote, in a slightly different account, that “a Mr. W.E. Jones, representing Bendan Brothers of Baltimore, Md. Came to Bell Book and Stationery Company…making his annual visit…Mr. Jones showed the writer a medallion portrait of Poe that he wished to sell, stating that the Bendan Brothers bought it of a person said to be a representative or connection of the Poe family.”
It is unknown which Poe relative (or friend of the Poe family) in either Baltimore or Annapolis might have once owned this portrait, and there is no evidence that Edgar Allan Poe ever did. In fact, there is a good possibility that it did not even exist during Poe’s lifetime since the portrait bears a striking resemblance to a mezzotint engraving of Poe published a year after his death. This print, produced by Poe’s friend John Sartain, is based on an 1846 oil painting of Poe by Samuel Osgood. As early as the 1920s, James Southall Wilson deemed the Traylor miniature a “synthetic” portrait rather than an authentic one made from a live sitter. In The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe, Michael Deas points out that, although the facial hair has been removed and the clothing has been changed in the Traylor miniature, the shadow under the nose and the curl of hair on the forehead are identical to those in the Sartain print. Having been dismissed as a forgery, the Traylor miniature gradually declined in popularity.
Detail of John Sartain’s 1850 mezzotint of Poe
Detail of John Sartain’s 1885 mezzotint of Poe showing strong resemblance to Traylor’s miniature
Meanwhile, James Whitty, who had been one of the first and most vocal critics of the Traylor portrait’s authenticity, announced in 1909 his own discovery of “the earliest authentic portrait” of Poe, which he believed had once belonged to Poe’s sister Rosalie Mackenzie Poe. Anticipating the high demand for reproductions of the piece, Whitty quickly copyrighted the image that same year. He then published it in an edition of Poe’s poems that he edited. When the Poe Museum opened, he made a copy of his important image for the new institution to display with the caption, “This crayon portrait of Poe is from a miniature in oil painted by the Virginia artist Hubard, about 1836. It was in the possession of Rosalie Poe, the poet’s sister and copied by Davies, the old-time Richmond photographer. This picture was reproduced from Davies original negative, owned by J. H. Whitty of Richmond.”
Whitty’s Portrait of Poe
Whitty’s portrait, however, turned out to be an even more blatant forgery than Traylor’s had been. The Whitty portrait, it seems, is merely a copy of a wood engraving of Poe made about six years after the author’s death. Once of Whitty’s acquaintances, Thomas Ollive Mabbott, later wrote that he was not certain Whitty had had ever seen anything more than a photographic negative of the portrait before (or after) authenticating it.
1855 wood engraving of Poe on which Whitty’s portrait was based
This would not be the last forged Poe portrait to appear over the past century. Scores of silhouettes, watercolors, pencil sketches, and daguerreotypes have fooled some of the best Poe scholars. Today only two watercolors, one oil painting, and eight photographs of Poe are widely accepted as genuine; and the original plates of five of those daguerreotypes are missing. While it is possible there are more portraits of Poe in existence, we never when one of them might resurface. Collectors occasionally show the Poe Museum portraits and daguerreotypes they have inherited and wish to have examined, and a few of these long lost images prove very interesting. About a year ago, a lady appeared at the museum with a hand-painted photograph of Poe that had been missing for decades. Believing such an important piece should be shared with the public for the benefit of this and future generations, she said she might consider donating it to the museum but would need to consult her children on the matter. Later this week it will sell at a major auction house for far more than the museum can hope to pay.
Luckily, the Traylor miniature did not suffer the same fate. After Robert Traylor’s death in 1907, his daguerreotype of Poe (long-since ruined during a cleaning attempt) disappeared, and ownership of his miniature of Poe passed to his daughter Anne Traylor Larus, wife of Lewis G. Larus, vice-president of a tobacco manufacturing company that also founded WRVA, a radio station still serving Richmond to this day. The Laruses lived in beautiful estate called Stony Point, situated outside Richmond on a bluff so high they could supposedly see the Blue Ridge Mountains from their bedroom window.
Anne Larus’s sister Mary Gavin Traylor was a Richmond newspaper columnist as well as the secretary, curator, librarian, hostess, and tour guide at the Poe Museum during the 1930s. Mary G. Traylor devoted her time and energy to keeping the museum in business during the darkest days of the Great Depression while still making major acquisitions for the institution including a rare daguerreotype of Poe and a complete set of original illustrations for Poe’s poem “The Raven” drawn by James Carling. She must have had little difficulty convincing her sister to donate the Traylor miniature (authentic or not) to the Poe Museum, where it remains today. By the time of its acquisition, the portrait was no longer considered a life portrait of the author, but it has never been determined whether it was a forgery intended to deceive a potential buyer or if it was simply painted as a later tribute to Poe to be sold to someone who knew it had been produced after the subject’s death. It was not uncommon for portraitists well into the twentieth century to produce hand-painted replicas of earlier portraits to sell to those who cannot acquire the originals. Through no fault of the artist, such a portrait might later be mistaken for an original long after the artist and the person who commissioned the artwork have died. It is also fairly common for artists to paint pictures of Poe–like ones available today in the Poe Museum’s gift shop.
A 2016 portrait of Poe that a century from now might be mistaken for a much older picture.
Although the museum cannot claim the Traylor miniature is an authentic life portrait, it is still on display in the Model Building—not as a historical artifact from Poe’s lifetime but as an approximate illustration of Poe’s appearance as a young man. It is also an artifact related to the turn-of-the-century surge in Poe collecting and the competition to make the next great discovery at a time when the supposed missing portrait of a young Poe was the Poe researcher’s “Holy Grail.”
Since Poe is most often remembered as the caricature of the melancholy poet depicted in the museum’s late daguerreotype (above), it is important to show a more complete view of Poe’s personality by also showing the Traylor miniature as a representation of how Poe many have looked for most of his life—before that final, difficult year leading up to his early death. One might wonder if the people who knew Poe best would choose the Traylor miniature or the below daguerreotype as the best representation of how they remember the poet.
Thanks to Traylor’s devotion to collecting and researching Poe, to Mary Gavin Traylor’s dedication to building the Poe Museum’s collection, and to Anne Traylor Larus’s generosity, this stunning Poe portrait will be preserved and displayed for all to see. That is why it is the Poe Museum’s Object of the Month. Click here to read about more Objects of the Month.
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.
What in the world happened to Caroline Griswold’s face? Rest assured, she still looks the same as she did last week. We just photographed her under different lighting conditions. By lighting the portrait from an angle, the conservator is better able to see the surface cracks that need to be repaired. Below is the portrait under normal illumination. The cracks are not quite as easy to see this time.
Now look at this photograph taken under ultraviolet illumination.
This lighting causes organic substances to fluoresce while inorganic substances absorb the light and look black. The organic resin varnish added as a protective layer over the finished painting is fluorescing, but there are also dark splotches that show the presence of paint applied on top of the varnish. This is the result of restorers covering up areas of missing or damaged paint with matching paint. The only problem is that, because they didn’t clean the painting before adding the patches, the patches match the color of the dirty paint. These means that, when the painting is cleaned, the patches will no longer match the painting. Figuring out which parts of the painting are original and which are not helps our conservator get a better understanding of how the painting originally appeared. This provides him a kind of road map to follow during the conservation process.
Notice that some of the patches are lighter than others. These are likely older patches painted by a previous restorer. The light spots on the painting appear to be another organic residue, maybe splattered food or mold.
This detail of the lower edge of the portrait shows the presence of organic residue that dripped down the paint surface.
Now let’s take a look at some of the conservator’s photos of the Rufus Griswold portrait. This is a photograph under normal illumination. Under this light, one can already see how dirty the painting is, but looking at it with different lighting will show us even more.
Here is one taken with raking light to show the cracks. Especially evident is a bulge on the lower edge of the canvas caused by the accumulation of dust and debris between the back of the canvas and the stretcher. This will have to be repaired by removing the canvas from the stretcher and flattening it before restretching it.
Here is one taken under ultraviolet illumination. (Notice the varnish on the easel is also fluorescing.) You can see some large areas where missing paint was restored.
A detail of the lower left corner of the portrait taken under raking light shows the bulge, a vertical crack with missing paint, and a major hole in the canvas.
The same area shown under ultraviolet illumination reveals extensive repairs made by a past restorer.
By taking multiple photographs using different kinds of light, our conservator will determine which parts of the painting are original and which are not as well as which parts should be cleaned and which should be removed. This guided him when he performed a test cleaning on Rufus Griswold’s face.
These kinds of tests will help the conservator get a better idea of how the portraits underneath 176 years of grime and dirty varnish should look after a successful cleaning. Only after careful study, planning, and testing, will the conservator be able to begin the treatment process, which may take months to complete.
Since the portraits of Rufus and Caroline Griswold arrived at the Poe Museum a couple months ago, we have had several visitors ask about them. If you would like to see the portrait of Rufus Griswold in its current state, please visit the Poe Museum’s Elizabeth Arnold Poe Memorial Building where it is hanging above Edgar Allan Poe’s trunk.
If you are interested in helping out with the conservation process, please vote for the Rufus Griswold portrait to be Virginia’s Most Endangered Artifact for 2016. Just click here to vote.
HP Lovecraft by Semtner
Last Saturday, August 20, would have been the 126th birthday of H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), author of such influential horror, science fiction, and fantasy tales as The Call of Cthulhu, The Dunwich Horror, and At the Mountains of Madness (which was inspired by Poe’s novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym). Lovecraft’s influence on both horror fiction and popular culture has been vast. Several of his works have been adapted to film, music, and even games. In his tales of cosmic horror he created a shared fictional universe known as the Cthulhu Mythos, which continues to live on in the works of legions of later authors.
Lovecraft was also a great admirer of Poe’s works and devoted an entire chapter of his 1935 book Supernatural Horror in Literature to him. In that chapter, Lovecraft writes,
Before Poe the bulk of weird writers had worked largely in the dark; without an understanding of the psychological basis of the horror appeal, and hampered by more or legs of conformity to certain empty literary conventions such as the happy ending, virtue rewarded, and in general a hollow moral didacticism, acceptance of popular standards and values, and striving of the author to obtrude his own emotions into the story and take sides with the partisans of the majority’s artificial ideas. Poe, on the other hand, perceived the essential impersonality of the real artist; and knew that the function of creative fiction is merely to express and interpret events and sensations as they are, regardless of how they tend or what they prove — good or evil, attractive or repulsive, stimulating or depressing, with the author always acting as a vivid and detached chronicler rather than as a teacher, sympathizer, or vendor of opinion. He saw clearly that all phases of life and thought are equally eligible as a subject matter for the artist, and being inclined by temperament to strangeness and gloom, decided to be the interpreter of those powerful feelings and frequent happenings which attend pain rather than pleasure, decay rather than growth, terror rather than tranquility, and which are fundamentally either adverse or indifferent to the tastes and traditional outward sentiments of mankind, and to the health, sanity, and normal expansive welfare of the species.
Never a terribly famous writer during his lifetime, Lovecraft would likely not have been recognized by the staff when he visited the Poe Museum in Richmond in May 1929. On May 4, he wrote Elizabeth Toldridge, “In Richmond the chief object of interest for me is the Poe Shrine—an old stone house with two adjoining houses connected as wings & used as a storehouse of Poe reliques. Here I have spent much time examining the objects associated with my supreme literary favourite—to say nothing of the marvelous model of Richmond in 1820, housed in one of the wings.”
The Poe Museum’s Old Stone House, Enchanted Garden, and model of Richmond remain much as they were in 1929, so today’s guests can still feel much of the atmosphere that must have inspired Lovecraft during his visit. The following photographs date to about that time.
The Poe Museum in June 1929.
The Enchanted Garden in early spring of 1929.
Elizabeth Arnold Poe Memorial Building in about 1928
Lovecraft was not the only famous cultural figure to make a trip to the Poe Museum. Vincent Price, Salvador Dali, and Gertrude Stein also visited. Click their names to read about their Poe Museum experiences.
Each year, the Virginia Association of Museum’s accepts nominations for Virginia’s Most Endangered Artifacts, and this time the Poe Museum’s newly acquired portraits of Edgar Allan Poe’s worst enemy Rufus W. Griswold and his wife Caroline made the list of nominees. This honor means that people realize the significance of these historical artifacts and how important it is to preserve them. As we have seen in a previous blog post, these portrait have not been cleaned since they were painted back in 1840. The 176 years of accumulated dust and tobacco smoke have almost completely obscured the surfaces to the point that it is difficult to tell there are even portraits under there. The paintings also suffered from severe cracks and paint loss resulting from being removed from their frames and stored rolled up for years.
The good news is that much of the original paint is still intact underneath all the grime. A conservator recently tested the paintings to determine just how bright the colors once were and how easily they can be returned their original appearance. Once the process is complete, we can be among the first see the paintings as Griswold himself would have seen them.
You can help bring these treasures out of the shadows and allow the public to see them for the first time. Just click here to cast your vote for the paintings of Rufus and Caroline Griswold to be Virginia’s Most Endangered Artifact for 2016. For more information about the program, click here. To donate to the conservation effort, please click here.
The other day someone brought me a top hat supposed to have once belonged to Edgar Allan Poe. I had never doubted that Poe would have worn a hat. Fashion plates from Graham’s Magazine (which Poe edited) and other popular magazines of the day showed men in top hats, and, as seen in the below illustration from an 1842 almanac, even a lawless gang wore top hats while murdering people.
In fact, the surviving photographs of Poe often show the tell-tale signs of “hat head” in which the hair is flattened down on top and sticks out, mullet-like, in the back. Of course, he took his hat off for his photos and portraits, and only one photo even shows what appears to be the edge of a hat. That does not provide a very clear picture of the kind of hat he would have worn, but we can probably make some educated guesses based on the fashions of Poe’s day.
Graham’s Magazine fashion plate from 1841
Another Graham’s Magazine fashion plate from 1841
A gentleman’s hat at the time might have been made of beaver fur or silk, which was gradually growing in popularity by the 1840s. During the 1840s and 1850s, hats were getting especially tall, as can be seen in the photo below.
Men in hats from 1857 photo via Wikipedia
Using a reproduction of one of William Abbott Pratt’s daguerreotypes, taken in Richmond in September 1849, I have envisioned how Poe may have looked in his top hat.
Top hats were not the only gentlemen’s hats available at the time. This illustration from the first printing of Poe’s story “The Gold-Bug” (1842) shows a man on the left wearing a broad-brimmed hat.
Some people who saw Poe on his summer 1849 visit to Richmond describe him wearing just such a hat to shield his eyes from the bright summer sun. A Richmonder at the time later wrote, “I was in Richmond in 1849, and remember Mr. Poe, with his white linen coat and trousers, black velvet vest, and broad Panama hat.” Here is a photograph showing how he would have looked wearing it.
I regret I cannot tell if Poe ever used the hat shown to me. The owner could tell me nothing of its provenance, so I had no evidence tying it to Poe. Although someone had written the name “Poe” on the inside of the hat, there are several people with than name. To make matters worse, someone wrote the date “1850” in the hat, and, if the date is correct, the piece dates to a year after Edgar Allan Poe’s death. Of course, we do not know who wrote that in the hat or why they wrote it. Maybe more evidence will become available to help us determine just whose hat this was.
There is no telling what ever happened to Poe’s hat. When he was found at a Baltimore polling place four days before his death, someone had already stolen it and replaced it with a cheaper one. As a witness, Dr. Joseph Snodgrass, later wrote, Poe’s “hat, or rather the hat of somebody else, for he had evidently been robbed of his clothing, or cheated in an exchange, was a cheap palm leaf one, without a band, and soiled.” It appears someone may have purloined Poe’s hat and likely disposed of it at some point without ever realizing (or caring) that it had once belonged to a famous poet.
Griswold portraits at the conservation studio
The Poe Museum’s newly acquired portraits of Rufus and Caroline Griswold have just returned from a visit to a conservator who examined them so that he can put together a proposal for treating them. We will post that information when it becomes available. To find out more about these portraits, click here.
The good news is that the paintings are in great shape. The bad news is that those great paintings are covered under layers of dirt, grime, and varnish. A quick examination revealed a little of what these paintings have endured over the past 176 years.
Rufus and Caroline Griswold meet George III at the conservation studio
The portraits were painted in 1840 when Rufus Griswold was twenty-five years old. Rufus and Caroline had married three years earlier, but he would leave her in New York in November 1840 in order to take a job in Philadelphia. She remained in New York, where she died just two years later. Griswold was devastated by her sudden death. He refused to leave her side until he was forced to do so by a relative thirty hours later. Then he returned to her crypt forty days later and spent the night with her corpse.
The loss of Caroline inspired Griswold to write poetry in her memory. Among these were “Five Days” and “To Elizabeth Waring—A Christmas Epistle.” The manuscript for the latter is in the collection of Griswold’s letters and manuscripts included with the above portraits. The poem begins,
A day of joy to all the world is this,
But unto me, alas! A day of gloom;
For she who was the fountain of my bliss
Is hid from me forever in the tomb.
“A happy Christmas!” comes from many a voice,–
‘Tis kindly meant,–it brings me only pain,–
She who alone could bid my soul rejoice,
Oh, wo is me! I ne’er shall see again!”
But fifty days ago,–she by my side,–
I knew no pleasure which was not mine own,–
Ah, cruel Death!—to take from me my bride!—
Thou hast the temple of my hopes o’erthrown.
With broken heart, my weary way I wend,
No stars henceforth upon my pathway shine,–
Alas, what stars like eyes of such a friend,
As thou to me, oh, sainted Caroline!
These portraits serve as a record of the young couple in the early years of their marriage. A year after this portrait was painted, Griswold met Edgar Allan Poe. Another year later, Griswold rose to literary fame with the publication of his anthology The Poets and Poetry of America. Poe faintly praised the book at first but later ridiculed it for placing too much emphasis on northern writers while overlooking southern poets. This was only the beginning of the literary feud that ended after Poe’s death with Griswold attacking him in print with a largely fabricated biography.
The painting has been attributed to the artist Charles Loring Elliott in the 1943 book Rufus Wilmot Griswold: Poe’s Literary Executor by Joy Bayless. Griswold is known to have commissioned more portraits from him, so it is possible the Poe Museum’s portraits could be Elliott’s work. These paintings are, however, so dirty that it is difficult to tell what they really look like or who might have painted them.
When Griswold died at the age of forty-two in 1857, his daughter Emily Griswold took ownership of the paintings. From her, they descended through her family until they arrived at the antique dealer who sold them to the Poe Museum. A quick look at the surface of the paintings tells us a little of what happened to them over the years.
The paintings were done with oil paint on canvas. The canvas was then nailed to a wooden frame called a stretcher. Then they were installed in frames to protect them. At some point, both canvases were removed from their stretchers and frames and rolled up to make them easier to transport. This left a series of horizontal cracks in the paint surface. You can see some of those cracks in this picture. Some of the cracks are difficult to see because a restorer painted them the same color as the surrounding paint.
Horizontal cracks in Rufus Griswold painting
When the paintings were attached to new stretchers, somebody decided to make them narrower, so he or she attached them to smaller stretchers and rolled the excess canvas around the side of the stretcher bar. Bare canvas along the bottom of Caroline’s portrait shows that the person who performed this procedure had trouble lining up the canvas on the new stretcher. Since they could not stretch Rufus’s canvas around the bottom edge of his stretcher, they just nailed the canvas through the front. That’s right. There is a nail sticking out of the picture. You can almost see it in this picture.
Lower edge of Rufus Griswold portrait
You might also notice a slight bulge in the lower edge of the canvas in that picture. The bulge was caused by the accumulation of junk between the back of the canvas and the front of the stretcher. The conservator found leaves, dust, and dead insects back there.
Then people smoked in front of the pictures, and the smoke gradually deposited on the surface of the paintings. Fortunately, the paintings had been varnished shortly after they were painted, so the smoke particles stuck to the varnish instead of adhering to the paint. Eventually, the varnish looked dull and brown from all the smoke and dust stuck to it, so somebody applied another layer of varnish on top of the first varnish. Naturally, more tobacco smoke and dust stuck to that layer.
By this time, the painting was so dark it was difficult to see, but it is still down there underneath all that dirty varnish. The conservator wanted to find out what the paint looks like under the varnish, so he used solvents to remove the tobacco smoke, dust, what appears to be some kind of liquid spilled on the surface, and both layers of varnish. The photos below show what he found.
Next time, we will post the conservator’s analysis of the paintings and what he thinks he can do for them.
Virginia Clemm Poe
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.
Virginia Poe’s trinket box animation by VCU Virtual Curation Laboratory
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
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/