Countless artists have been inspired to translate Edgar Allan Poe’s works into visual art, music, sculpture, film, ballet, and opera; but few know his works have inspired landscape gardens. This will be no surprise to those who have read his short story “The Domain of Arnheim” or his many poems celebrating the beauty of gardens.
When the founders of Richmond’s Poe Museum decided to memorialize Poe with a garden based on one of his works, they chose the relatively obscure poem “To One in Paradise.” Poe was about twenty-four when he wrote the poem, which first appeared in the January 1834 issue of the Lady’s Book as part of the short story “The Visionary.” In this early story, a young man based on Poe’s boyhood idol, the British poet Lord Byron, falls in love with the young wife of a much older man. Suffering from his unrequited love for her, the young man writes the following poem on paper in a book with pages “blotted with fresh tears.”
Thou wast that all to me, love,
For which my soul did pine —
A green isle in the sea, love,
A fountain and a shrine,
All wreathed with fairy fruits and flowers;
And all the flowers were mine.
Ah, dream too bright to last!
Ah, starry Hope, that didst arise
But to be overcast!
A voice from out the Future cries,
“Onward!” — but o’er the Past
(Dim gulf!) my spirit hovering lies,
Mute — motionless — aghast!
For alas! alas! with me
The light of life is o’er.
“No more — no more — no more,”
(Such language holds the solemn sea
To the sands upon the shore,)
Shall bloom the thunder-blasted tree,
Or the stricken eagle soar!
Now all my hours are trances;
And all my nightly dreams
Are where the dark eye glances,
And where thy footstep gleams,
In what ethereal dances,
By what Italian streams.
Alas! far that accursed time
They bore thee o’er the billow,
From Love, to titled age and crime,
And an unholy pillow! —
From me, and from our misty clime.
Where weeps the silver willow!
After reading the poem, the young man’s friend answers the door to discover the lady has poisoned herself. The friend rushes to tell the young man, who has also just committed suicide. In the context of the story, the poem reads almost like a suicide note written by a man who believes “the light of life is [over].” The poem begins with a description of Paradise as “green isle in the sea” with a fountain and shrine. The garden is filled with “fruits and flowers,” possibly symbolizing ideal and carnal love. Then the narrator writes that this dream is too bright to last. The garden dies. The tree is struck by lightning and killed. He lives his days as if in a trance and spends his nights dreaming of his lost love.
Given the poem’s melancholy tone, one might wonder why it would have been chosen as the model for the Poe Museum’s garden. The answer likely lies with Museum founder and Poe collector James H. Whitty, who believed the poem references a real Richmond garden in which a teenage Poe courted his first fiancée Sarah Elmira Royster. Much like the plot of “The Visionary,” Royster married an older man in 1828, five years before Poe wrote the story and poem. Given the poem’s autobiographical nature and its connection to a lost Richmond garden Poe himself once frequented, “To One in Paradise” seemed the perfect poem for Poe Museum to recreate in its garden.
Not everyone, however, agreed with Whitty. An alternate theory, recorded in Thomas Ollive Mabbott’s edition of Poe’s poems, holds that Poe was inspired by Lord Byron. According to Thomas Moore’s biography of the poet, the day before Byron’s early love was to marry another man, Byron wrote a similar poem to her in one of her books. Since the baron in “The Visionary” very likely based on Byron, this theory makes sense. As a young man, Poe identified closely with Byron and modeled both his early poetry and his public image after the British poet. Poe went so far as to tell people he had tried to join the Greek Wars of Independence just as Byron had done.
Poe reprinted “The Visionary” in 1835 in the Southern Literary Messenger, in 1840 in Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, and in 1845 in The Broadway Journal (under the title “The Assignation.” Eventually, he decided the poem was strong enough to stand on its own. Removing the last stanza, Poe published the poem (without the story) in 1839 under the title “To Ianthe in Heaven.” In 1841, he changed the title to “To One Beloved.” Poe first printed the poem under its current title, “To One in Paradise,” in 1843.
Whether the first stanza describes Paradise, Heaven, an island in the sea, the garden in which Poe courted his first love, none of these, or a combination of the above; the vivid description provided rich inspiration for the Poe Museum’s founders who built their garden around a central green isle featuring a fountain and shrine. The perimeter of the garden is planted with flowers and shrubs mentioned in Poe’s poems and short stories. Enclosing the entire garden is a tall brick wall recalling the walled garden in which Poe and Royster spent time. Among the many building materials salvaged and repurposed for use in the Poe Museum’s garden are granite paving stones taken from the paths of the garden Poe knew. At one point, the Poe Museum’s garden also featured a stone urn and a gate latch taken from that garden.
Just as Poe inspired the Poe Museum’s garden, the garden itself has inspired generations of writers, artists, and gardeners. You can see some 1924 paintings of the garden here, and you can learn about this month’s exhibit of new paintings of the garden here. National Poetry Month is the perfect time to find your own inspiration in the Poe Museum’s Enchanted Garden. When you visit, be sure to bring a copy of “To One in Paradise.” Until then, you can listen to it here.
To learn more about some of our other favorite Poe poems, click here and here.
You can be a part of the Poe Museum’s next exhibit. After the success of last year’s Painting the Enchanted Garden, the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia is calling on artists to visit the Museum’s legendary Enchanted Garden to sketch, paint, collage, or photograph the site for a the exhibit Painting the Enchanted Garden 2, which will run from April 23 until June 21, 2015. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the artwork will benefit the Poe Museum’s educational programming.
The exhibit is open to all artists, including ones who participated last year. Since the first call for artists was so well received, the Museum will be displaying this year’s exhibit in a larger gallery on the first floor of the changing exhibits building.
If the weather permits, artists can begin working in the Garden on March 15 and must have their completed works ready for display by April 19. In order to avoid conflict with the Museum’s special events and facility rentals, artists must schedule their painting or sketching visits with the Museum’s curator Chris Semtner by writing him a [email protected] or by calling 804-648-5523. For those interested in joining a group painting session, the Museum will host one on Sunday, April 12 from 2-5 p.m. with artist Chris Semtner.
Interested artists can learn more about this opportunity by contacting [email protected] or calling 804-648-5534. In order to participate, please register for the show by April 1.
The world of Poe scholarship has produced countless books, papers, and scholarly articles; but rarely has it produced a work of art. While the written works of Poe scholars like Burton Pollin (1916-2009) and Thomas Ollive Mabbott (1898-1968) have contributed greatly to our understanding of Poe’s life and work, the sculpture of Richmond schoolteacher Edith Ragland (1890-1989) has provided posterity an invaluable resource for understanding Poe’s life in Richmond. As meticulously researched as some academic papers, Ragland’s model reconstructs the city Poe knew in a way words alone cannot. That is why the model is the Poe Museum’s Object of the Month for March 2015.
According to an undated manuscript written by Poe Foundation co-founder Annie Boyd Jones (d. 1947), the sculptor Edward Valentine (1838-1930) proposed the project. Valentine studied sculpture with August Kiss in Germany before enjoying a celebrated career in Richmond. In addition to sculpting the statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis for Richmond’s Monument Avenue and the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee for the National Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol, Valentine produced “The Recumbent Lee” for Washington and Lee University. Valentine was also a historian with a special interest in Edgar Allan Poe. In 1875, he became one of the privileged few to be able to interview Poe’s last fiancée Elmira Royster Shelton. In 1898, he and his brother, Mann S. Valentine II, founded the Valentine Museum, which owned a number of Edgar Allan Poe letters in addition to a portrait of Poe’s foster mother Frances Allan. After retiring from sculpting in 1910, he devoted much of his remaining years to the study of Richmond history and the presidency of the Valentine Museum. By 1922, the eighty-four-year-old Valentine took an interest in the newly opened Edgar Allan Poe Museum, speaking at its opening ceremony as well as donating a portrait of Poe’s foster mother to the Museum’s collection.
Mr. and Mrs. Archer Jones
One evening in 1924 or 1925, Mrs. Jones spent several hours talking about old Richmond in Mr. Valentine’s parlor. He told her he had spent the last sixty years researching a book about Richmond history but had accumulated so much information he could not edit it sufficiently to publish it. As she was leaving, he pointed out a photograph of a photograph of a model of old Paris and exclaimed, “Wait a minute girl; here’s what you do. Make a model of Richmond in Poe’s Time and place it in the [Poe Museum’s] Old Stone House!”
Edward Virginius Valentine in his studio
Mrs. Jones offered to manage the project if he would sculpt it, but he replied, “Oh go away girl, you know I can’t work anymore, but you are an enthusiast—you will get it done…Now go ‘long and make it.”
As soon as she returned home, she told her husband, Archer G. Jones, who enthusiastically supported the idea. She later recounted, “I could see his inventive mood creeping into his eyes.”
The first obstacle to constructing the model was finding an artist to do the work. The solution came one day when Gutzon Borglum (1867-1941) visited the Poe Museum. Borglum was an accomplished sculptor who would later rise to fame for his carving of the presidential monument at Mount Rushmore. The party accompanying Borglum to the Poe Museum included Julia Sully (1870-1948, granddaughter of Poe’s friend, the painter Robert Matthew Sully, 1803-1855) and the young teacher Edith Ragland. During the course of the afternoon, Mrs. Jones mentioned her idea for the model of Richmond to Sully, who recommended Ragland for the project. Jones asked Ragland to build the model, but Ragland replied, “I would not know the first or the remotest way to go about.”
“Nonsense,” Sully answered, “You model beautifully. None of us knows how to go about it, so will all learn together.”
In this spirit of collaboration, Edward Valentine and City Hall supplied Ragland Photostats of maps at no charge, and the Poe Museum paid the Virginia State Library for Photostats of more maps. Valentine provided his notes on Richmond history, city directories, and Virginia Mutual Insurance records. Ragland also consulted Samuel Mordecai’s (1786-1865) 1856 book Richmond in By-Gone Days, an account of life in the city during the first half of the nineteenth century.
Ragland Sculpting the Model
Archer Jones insisted that a model of Richmond needed to accurately reflect the city’s hills, so he suggested carving the topography out of wood. According to the Poe Foundation board minutes for March 18, 1925, “Miss Ragland found that she needed some knowledge of engineering in order to make the correct elevations in her model so she set to work to study that subject.” She built the model on three connected stretcher tables covered with blocks of wood nine inches thick. With the assistance of surveyors, she chiseled those blocks into the hills and valleys of 1840s Richmond.
She also wrote to artists to determine which materials to use. Because she had been advised the technique would waterproof the model, Ragland covered the piece with asphaltum, a substance similar to tar. To this, she added a thin layer of plaster. When the plaster dried, she applied a layer of lead white gesso. She modeled the houses and churches from clay and let them air dry rather than firing them. She fashioned trees from pieces of sponge and wire. She then colored them with oil paint.
Ragland built the model in the Poe Museum’s Old Stone House. Upon completion, the model measured approximately eighteen feet wide and six feet deep and represented the city from about Fifth Street to Twenty-Eighth Street and from the James River to Marshall Street. This includes depictions of such sites as Poe’s boyhood home Moldavia, Poe’s mother’s grave at St. John’s Church, and the Virginia State Capitol. The most impressive aspect of the model’s creation is that it was constructed in a room measuring only nine feet wide, leaving the artist about one and a half feet of clearance on each side. Ragland, herself, was self-deprecating when speaking of her accomplishment. In a 1976 interview with Denise Bethel, Ragland humbly recalled that the work was fairly easy because the insurance records and maps told her exactly what structures to place on each block. She boasted that some old-timers told her she had even reproduced the correct trees in the right places.
In 1926, tragedy struck when Annie Jones’s husband committed suicide for financial reasons. Mrs. Jones decided that, once complete, the model would be presented to the Museum in his memory.
When Ragland completed her model in 1927, the Poe Foundation’s president, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and journalist Douglas S. Freemen reported to the Foundation’s board, “This is undoubtedly a work of charm, art and beauty. It is the creation and expression of experts—in invention, engineering, research and execution—but as a map of Richmond complete accuracy is most desirable.” He stressed that the gift would not be accepted by the Poe Foundation “until its accuracy at every point is beyond question.”
The minutes of the January 1928 meeting of the Poe Foundation’s board state that the model’s “accuracy is now vouched for by City engineers and surveyors, by Mr. E. V. Valentine, Dr. Stanard [editor of The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography] and other authorities, and that it ties up with Mordecai—except where he himself is inaccurate.” Dr. Freeman moved that the board formally accept the model into the Poe Museum’s collection, and the motion passed. So accurate was the model that Richmond historian Mary Wingfield Scott was able to create a key that identified most of the houses and buildings. In all, the model contains twenty-two identifiable taverns and hotels, fifteen churches, at least twelve public buildings, and the homes of several “distinguished citizens.”
The Model in 1937
The model was on continuous display in the room of it construction for forty years. In 1963, the Poe Museum renovated a neighboring building for the display of the model. In order to move the model, city workmen cut it into three pieces. Then six off-duty Richmond policemen, five off-duty firemen, and four other city employees volunteered to move the pieces to their new exhibit space. Several buildings and trees detached from the model in the six-hour process.
Ragland returned to the work on her model, reconnecting the three segments and reattaching the fallen houses. The Poe Foundation agreed to pay her $600 for her work in addition to cab fare from her home to the Museum three days a week for three months. Mrs. R. S. Reynolds donated a custom-built glass case for the model. The work was complete (for a second time) by December 6, 1964 when she appeared in a Richmond Times-Dispatch photograph (below) with her freshly restored masterpiece nearly four decades after she began work on it. To protect the work from further damage, Mrs. R. S. Reynolds donated a large glass case to protect it.
Ragland with Repaired Model in 1964
The model’s story continued well after Ragland completed her work. In 1981, an anonymous donor concerned by the object’s apparent state of deterioration offered to pay for its restoration. President of the Richmond Jaycees and graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts, Sergei Troubetzkoy conducted the repairs and repainting. Because the model remained on display during this process, he was only able to work on it while the Museum was closed and when he was not working at his day job. As a friend of Edith Ragland’s, Troubetzkoy knew of some details she had intended to include if time had allowed, so he added fences and other buildings he could document. Although he planned to do so, he was unable to add the fence around Capitol Square.
In 1999, the model was almost lost when a fire started in the room housing it. In fact, much of the room was destroyed. The tables underneath the piece were severely damaged, and firemen shattered its glass case. Smoke and water caused additional harm. In the wake of the fire, the Museum called conservators to assess the damage. The wood and paint had cracked. Several houses had again become detached. Additionally, a thick layer of dust and spiders had built up on the model in the years before the fire.
In consultation with 1717 Design Group, the Museum decided to reinstall the model in a new case facing the opposite direction. In order to rotate the model, a volunteer cut it into two pieces using the 1964 cuts as a guide.
With the guidance of historic object conservation specialist Russell Bernabo, artist Chris Semtner and art historian Michelle Dell’Aria cleaned and repaired the model over the course of six months. They first divided the surface into a grid of twelve-inch squares. Each square was carefully dusted into a tiny vacuum attachment. Pieces of rubber sponge were then used to remove grime that was not loosened by the dusting. Only when needed and when it could be performed without damaging the paint layer, wet cleaning was performed using a mixture of alcohol and water. In the course of their work, the conservators found that the original paint was often too unstable to clean but that a previous restorer’s applications of acrylic paint could be cleaned without damaging the surface. Additionally, they observed that the base layer of asphaltum had bled through the plaster and paint to discolor the topcoat. They glued houses back in place and reattached flaking paint and plaster using a solution of B-72 and xylene. In painting was conducted only sparingly. When this work was complete, they reattached the two halves of the model and filled and in-painted the seam.
Carpenters carefully removed the model from its damaged original tables and attached it to a new custom-made table and built a new case around it. In order to make the piece easier for guests to view, the Museum enlisted a team of volunteers from Open High to tilt the model to a twenty degree angle while the carpenters secured it in place. The model was then displayed with one side against the wall. Because the long ends of the model were not perpendicular, the Museum added extensions to allow the long end to sit flush against the back wall.
Museum guests were able to watch the entire conservation process through a large window in the gallery and to ask the conservators questions. Seeing a large dead spider perched atop one of the houses, a guest commented, “If the spiders were that big in Poe’s time, no wonder he wrote the kind of stories he did.”
After this major conservation project, the model received occasional cleanings using soft brushes and vacuums. The most notable of these was conducted in 2008 with the help of volunteers from Hampton Hotels’ Save-a-Landmark program.
Over ninety years after Edith Ragland began her masterpiece, this model of Poe’s Richmond remains a highlight of the Poe Museum’s collection—a resource to visiting historians as well as a favorite with the Museum’s youngest visitors. Like few other historical documents, Ragland’s model helps the viewer visualize the city, its topography, and its structures as Poe would have known them.
One hundred seventy years ago, the most famous poem in American literature made its first appearance in print. Edgar Allan Poe had initially shown his poem “The Raven” to the staff of Graham’s Magazine, which rejected it. Afterward, George Colton agreed to publish the poem in his magazine, The American Review, a Whig Party publication. Colton probably paid Poe about fifteen dollars, which was standard based on space rates for the magazine. That would be about $468.75 in today’s money. Different sources relate that Poe might have been paid $9, $10, or even $30 for the piece.
“The Raven” appeared in the February issue, which came out in the middle of January. The editor prefaced the poem with this comment:
Although the poem first appeared under the pseudonym “____ Quarles” instead of under Poe’s own name, the identity of the author was soon revealed when the Evening Mirror reprinted “The Raven” in the January 29 issue. The editor, N.P. Willis, provided the following introduction:
We are permitted to copy (in advance of publication) from the 2d No. of the American Review, the following remarkable poem by EDGAR POE. In our opinion, it is the most effective single example of “fugitive poetry” ever published in this country; and unsurpassed in English poetry for subtle conception, masterly ingenuity of versification, and consistent, sustaining of imaginative lift and “pokerishness.” It is one of these “dainties bred in a book” which we feed on. It will stick to the memory of everybody who reads it.
The New York Express claimed the poem “far surpasses anything that has been done even by the best poets of the age…In power and originality of versification the whole is no less remarkable than it is, psychologically, a wonder.”
The poem soon caused a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. Elizabeth Barrett (now know as Elizabeth Barrett Browning) wrote Poe, “Your ‘Raven’ has produced a sensation, a ‘fit horror,’ here in England. Some of my friends are taken by the fear of it and some by the music. I hear of persons haunted by the ‘Nevermore,’ and one acquaintance of mine who has the misfortune of possessing a ‘bust of Pallas’ never can bear to look at it in the twilight.” Poe would proudly show this letter to guests to his home.
When Poe issued the book The Raven and Other Poems in 1845, he dedicated it to Elizabeth Barrett. Having just read Poe’s terror tale “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” she wrote her future husband Robert Browning, “I send you besides a most frightful extract from an American magazine sent to me yesterday…no, the day before…on the subject of mesmerism—& you are to understand, if you please, that the Mr. Edgar Poe who stands committed in it, is my dedicator…whose dedication I forgot, by the way, with the rest—so, while I am sending, you shall have his poems with his mesmeric experience & decide whether the outrageous compliment to me EBB or the experiment on M. Vandeleur [sic] goes furthest to prove him mad.”
Around the same time, the young British artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti read “The Raven” and drew some illustrations for it. He also wrote a poem, “The Blessed Damosel,” inspired by it. This became Rossetti’s first popular poem, and he went on to become a prominent poet and painter.
A month after its first printing, “The Raven” was parodied when the Mirror printed “The Owl: A Capital Parody on Mr. Poe’s ‘The Raven’” by “Sarles.” This was followed by “The Veto” by “Snarles” in the February 22 New York World, “The Craven” by “Poh!” in the March 25 Evening Mirror, “A Vision” by “Snarles” in the April 15 New World, “The Gazelle” by C.C. Cooke in the May 3 Weekly Mirror, “The Whippoorwill” by “I” in the June 7 Weekly Mirror and “The Turkey” in the June 25 Alexander’s Weekly Messenger.
The popularity of “The Raven” allowed Poe to perform his poetry to large audiences in the nation’s major cities. He became so associated with the poem that his nickname became “The Raven.” In spite of its success, the poem made Poe very little money. Without effective copyright laws, his works were reprinted multiple times without Poe being paid.
After seventeen decades, “The Raven” remains a favorite with readers, it is read countless times at Halloween, and even has an NFL team named after it. In honor of the anniversary of the first printing of Poe’s greatest poem, we will end this post with a reading by that master interpreter of Poe’s works, Vincent Price.
It all began with a high school yearbook. Believe it or not, the Edgar Allan Poe Museum’s world renowned collection of Poe artifacts and memorabilia began in 1921 with the donation of a 1917 Collegiate School yearbook containing a parody of “The Raven.” Since then, thousands more items have entered the collection. Within a decade of opening, the Poe Museum outgrew its first building and expanded to occupy a complex of four buildings of Poeana surrounding a garden constructed from even more Poe memorabilia—the salvaged materials from buildings in which Poe lived and worked from Richmond to New York. With a mission to “interpret the life and influence of Edgar Allan Poe for the education and enjoyment of a global audience,” the Poe Museum has amassed a diverse collection that tells the story of Poe’s life, documents his literary contributions, and showcases the ways his legacy continues to inspire today’s culture. This means the Poe Museum is charged with preserving and sharing thousands of objects including Poe’s possessions, first editions, manuscripts, and pop culture ephemera like movie posters and comic books.
How did the Poe Museum get such a great collection? James H. Whitty became the Museum’s first donor when he presented that yearbook in 1921, the year before the Museum opened. He went on to donate scores of Poe illustrations, documents, portraits, and objects including a lock of Poe’s hair. Since then, hundreds of generous donors have contributed everything from Poe’s tiny nail file (a gift of Kenneth Bengel in 1964) to Poe’s vest (a gift of Mrs. Antoinette Suiter in 1997). Even those who did not have artifacts to donate helped build the collection by making financial contributions of all sizes. In 1930, for instance, twenty benefactors gave towards the fund that allowed the Poe Museum to purchase the Cornwell Daguerreotype that is now prominently displayed in the Memorial Building. Similar initiatives allowed the Poe Museum to purchase Poe’s letter to Samuel Kettell in 2005 and George Julian Zolnay’s bronze bust of Poe in 2010. Other benefactors have contributed to the Poe Museum’s historic collections preservation fund or supported its annual fund drive. The Poe Museum’s outstanding collection would not have been possible without all these gifts. If you would like to join the Museum in collecting, preserving, and exhibiting the life and work of Edgar Allan Poe, just click here or contact us at [email protected]
Below are a few of the excellent items donated to the Poe Museum in 2014.
The James A. Michener Museum donated the plaster model for Charles Rudy’s 1956 statue of Poe, the first full-length statue of Poe in Virginia. The same size as the finished bronze that now adorns Capitol Square, this model is now on display in the Elizabeth Arnold Poe Memorial Building.
Gregory Lorris donated twelve pages from the 1811 edition of Institutes of Natural Philosophy, Theoretical and Practical by William Enfield . .. . And the addition of an Appendix to the Astronomical Part by Samuel Webber, a text book Poe might have used while a student at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Though we have not been able to authenticate the writing, each page bears Poe’s signature. These pages of diagrams deal with such sciences as optics and astronomy, and they give us a good idea of the material Poe studied at West Point. One of the twelve pages is now on display in the Model Building.
After hearing that we needed to borrow the book Mesmerism in Articulo Mortis for an exhibit, Susan Jaffe Tane donated a copy of the pamphlet to the Museum. Tane had already made several generous loans from her collection for the Poe Museum’s exhibits.
Sculptor Zane Wylie donated an unusual casting of a skull (above) with the verses of “The Raven” carved into it while painter Anelecia Hannah donated a painting (below) of the bust of Poe in the Museum’s garden.
Judy Rash donated a copy of the beautiful 1884 edition of “The Raven” featuring illustrations by Gustave Dore.
An anonymous donor sent a copy of the edition of Poe’s Works edited by his literary executor Rufus Griswold.
The Garden Club of Virginia provided several new plants for the Enchanted Garden in addition to the research, design, and planting that have already gone into the restoration of the site.
As the Poe Museum’s collection continues to grow, we would like to thank all those who helped build that collection. You can click here to see selections from the collection, or you can click here to learn about our Object of the Month.
Bring the whole family to the Poe Museum on Friday, December 5 to discover what Christmas was like in Poe’s time. Singer and historical interpreter Debbie Phillips will perform the traditional Christmas songs Poe would have enjoyed. When not listening to music, you can enjoy hot drinks, make traditional crafts, and see the illumination of the Poe Museum’s Enchanted Garden. Don’t forget to see the new Raven Room and the Mesmerized exhibit before it closes. Admission is free. For more information, call the Poe Museum at 804-648-5523.
November is the time for Thanksgiving, football, and Black Friday shopping. With the Christmas shopping season now underway, visitors to the Poe Museum often ask what kinds of gifts Poe gave his own family and friends. The answer is November’s Object of the Month, Poe’s gift to Louisa Anna Lynch—a copy of The New Year’s Gift and Juvenile Souvenir for 1836.
In Poe’s day, Christmas was regaining popularity in the United States thanks to the influx of European immigrants bringing with them their winter holiday customs. Many of the customs Americans now associate with the holiday were introduced at this time. Among these are Christmas trees, poinsettias, mistletoe, Christmas cards, and the popular poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which begins “T’was the night before Christmas…” You can read more about Christmas in Poe’s time here.
Gift giving was also fashionable, but, unlike today’s elaborate displays, presents in Poe’s time often consisted of small items like gloves or candy. Another popular present was the gift book. In the 1830s, American publishers started issuing these deluxe gift books each year around Christmas. Poe contributed to several installments (1836, 1840, 1842, 1843, 1845) of the most popular of these, The Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present. None of these stories, which include “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “William Wilson,” and “The Purloined Letter,” had a Christmas theme. His stories also appeared in The Baltimore Book: A Christmas and New Year’s Present in 1838, The Opal in 1844 and 1845, The Missionary Memorial in 1846, and the May Flower in 1846. The Irving Offering and the American Keepsake published his works immediately after his death.
Poe did not contribute a story to The New Year’s Gift and Juvenile Souvenir for 1836, a collection of children’s stories. On the first page of the Poe Museum’s copy, he inscribed the present in his tiny handwriting, “To Miss Louisa Ann Lynch with the compliments of her sincere friend Edgar A. Poe.” The recipient of the present was a young girl named Louisa Ann Lynch (1825-1891). Her father, Peyton Lynch (1787-1832) died when she was just seven years old, and she grew up with her mother and three brothers in Petersburg, Virginia. She would have been about ten years old when this book was published.
Like most gift books of its kind, The New Year’s Gift and Juvenile Souvenir was likely published in the fall of 1835 for the 1836 New Year. Poe could have given it to Lynch if she and her family visited Richmond in late 1835 or as late as early 1837, when Poe left Richmond for New York. He could have also given the book to Miss Lynch in Petersburg, which is about thirty miles south of Richmond. The donor recalled Poe presenting it during a visit to Petersburg, which could have been during his honeymoon in May 1836 (a little late for a Christmas present). He must certainly have given her the piece before July 23, 1844, when she married the commission merchant James C. Deaton in Petersburg, because Poe would have written her married name instead of her maiden name.
In addition to the inscription on the first page, Poe also wrote in pencil on page 67, “To L.A. Lynch.” The reason for the second inscription is unknown, but it is tempting to speculate it might have something to do with the story on that page “Days at My Grandfather’s,” which references Ralph the Raven, but Poe did not publish his own poem “The Raven” until 1845.
By the early 1850s, Mr. and Mrs. Deaton had moved to Richmond, where they settled in a brick house at the northeast corner of 1st and Cary Streets (pictured below). On January 6, 1854, the funeral of the Deaton’s son Walter was held in this house. (Daily Dispatch, January 7, 1854) Another son, James C. Deaton, Jr., became a prominent Richmond physician. Louisa Ann Deaton passed away on July 23, 1891 at the age of sixty-six.
Her descendant, Mary Elizabeth Morton, who inherited the book, gave both it and Deaton’s album, filled with poems written for her by her friends, to the Poe Museum in 1979. This month, the gift Poe gave his friend is on display in the Poe Museum’s Model Building as a reminder of Poe’s generosity and his fondness for inspiring young readers. Maybe this Christmas you will be inspired by Poe’s example to give someone special the gift of a good book.
Every year, the Poe Museum celebrates the holiday season with the Poe Illumination in which visitors can experience Victorian Christmas music and crafts that Edgar Allan Poe himself would have enjoyed. In fact, the people in Poe’s time were largely responsible for shaping the way Americans celebrate Christmas today. Without them, Christmas would lack poinsettias, mistletoe, and the names of Santa’s flying reindeer. You might be surprised to discover some of the ways the holidays evolved during Poe’s lifetime (1809-1849).
Christmas Comes to America
Christmas was one of the English holidays many Americans chose not to observe immediately after the Revolution because Americans wanted to break away from English traditions, but European immigrants brought their various traditions of the rowdy, licentious winter holiday with them. In Northern Europe, this was traditionally a twelve-night party at the end of harvest. In the early days, people ate well during this time because they had to slaughter some of their animals rather than try to feed them all winter. By the 1820s, the immigrants and lower classes in urban America still got rowdy at Christmas time and even rioted. In 1828, the New York City Council established its police force after an especially rowdy Christmas season, so the high Christmas crime rate is the reason we have the NYPD.
Christmas in Popular Culture
While living in England in 1821, America’s most popular writer Washington Irving wrote the serialized novel Bracebridge Hall about life in an English manor house including descriptions of an English Christmas. This helped expose the average American to English Christmas traditions. In 1823, the New York theologian Clement Clarke Moore wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which we now call “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” and it became a hit. In 1843, Charles Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol,” which was popular on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Christmas Tree
The Germans had long decorated evergreens as part of winter celebrations. In 1840 Victoria and her German cousin Albert married, and he brought German Christmas traditions with him to England. In 1846, the London Illustrated News carried a picture of a Christmas tree in Victoria’s home, and that started the fad in both England and America. People decorated trees with lemon slices, pine cones, and other stuff they could find. They also put Christmas presents in the trees. When presents started getting too big, we had to put them under the tree.
In 1825, Joel R. Poinsett, America’s ambassador to Mexico, brought to the United States a green and red flower from Mexico, where it had already been a part of celebrations. Its association with Christmas began in the 16th century in Mexico where there is a legend about a girl too poor to get a present for Jesus’s birthday. An angel told her to pick some weeds, so she picked them and put them in front of the altar, where they sprouted red blossoms.
In 1843 in England J.C. Horsely printed the first Christmas card.
Mistletoe is carryover from earlier, rowdy Christmas. Its presence at Victorian celebrations allowed proper people to engage in behavior that would have been otherwise unacceptable.
Protestants started attending Christmas services in Catholic and Episcopal churches until other denominations came around.
The modern Santa Claus developed in America. The Dutch brought traditions of St. Nicolas to the New World. In 1823, the Professor of Oriental and Greek Literature, as well as Divinity and Biblical Learning, at the General Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Churchan Episcopal minister in New York, Clement Clarke Moore, wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (better known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”) to entertain his children. He came up with the names of the reindeer and the idea of Santa coming down the chimney. At first, he didn’t reveal his authorship because the church didn’t approve of secular Christmas celebrations—especially from someone teaching at their seminary—but he later confessed. Even after the poem, people still didn’t know what Santa looked like, so depictions of him gave him the appearance of anything from an elf to a skinny old man. In 1863, Thomas Nast, a cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly, was the first to draw the modern Santa, and he made modeled Santa after a robber baron.
Christmas Eve Services
When Christmas started getting popular in America, most American Protestant churches, which didn’t care much for saints or feast days, did not want to celebrate the winter carnival, so members of their congregations started attending Christmas Eve services at Catholic and Episcopal churches until the others broke down and decided to get in on the action. Of course, some Protestant denominations still don’t celebrate Christmas.
Poe and Christmas
Poe experienced Christmas in a variety of different ways throughout his life. Coming from England, Poe’s mother would have known the English Christmas traditions. Although he owned a pew in Richmond’s Monumental Episcopal Church, Poe’s Scottish-born foster father John Allan was likely either a Presbyterian or a free thinker, but he did observe the holiday by spending it with friends. Within a few weeks of moving in with the Allans, the two-year-old Poe joined them in taking a Christmas vacation to his foster parents’ friend’s plantation on Turkey Island. Incidentally, this is why the Allans weren’t in the Richmond Theater the night it burned—taking with it the lives of seventy-two prominent Richmonders. Learn more about the Richmond Theater Fire here.
Poe was with the Allans in England for five years (1815-1820), so he would have seen English Christmases first-hand during that time. On December 25, 1818 Allan received a bill for Poe’s tuition and expenses at the Manor House School. At the end of the bill, there is a note that the vacation will terminate on January 25, so it appears Poe was on Christmas vacation from this boarding school for about a month. Returning to Richmond in 1820, the Allans spent Christmas that year with the Ellis family at their home at Second and Franklin Streets. It is likely the Allans would have spent most Christmas
As an adult, Poe, like a lot of people, worked on Christmas Day, so there are some business letters written by him dated December 25. Christmas was also a good time for Poe to sell his stories to gift books. In the 1830s, American publishers started issuing deluxe gift books each year around Christmas. Poe contributed to several installments (1836, 1840, 1842, 1843, 1845) of the most popular of these, The Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present. He also contributed to The Baltimore Book: A Christmas and New Year’s Present in 1838, The Opal in 1844 and 1845, The Missionary Memorial in 1846, and the May Flower in 1846. The Irving Offering and the American Keepsake published his works immediately after his death.
On Christmas Eve 1847, Poe attended a church service with his nurse Marie Louise Shew and another lady to a midnight service conducted by Reverend William Augustus Muhlenberg. (She had been Virginia’s nurse before Virginia died in January of that year.) Mrs. Shew recalls:
He [Poe] went with us, followed the service like a “churchman”, looking directly towards the chancel, and holding one side of my prayer book, sang the psalms with us, and to my astonishment struck up a tenor to our sopranos and, got along nicely during the first part of the sermon, which was on the subject of the sympathies of our Lord, to our wants. The passage being often repeated, “He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” He begged me to stay quiet that he would wait for me outside, and he rushed out, too excited to stay. I knew he would not leave us to return home alone, (altho’ my friend thought it doubtful), and so after the sermon as I began to feel anxious (as we were in a strange church) I looked back and saw his pale face, and as the congregation rose to sing the Hymn, “Jesus Saviour of my soul,” he appeared at my side, and sang the Hymn, without looking at the book, in a fine clear tenor. . . . I did not dare to ask him why he left, but he mentioned after we got home, that the subject “was marvelously handled, and ought to have melted many hard hearts” and ever after this he never passed Doctor Muhlenbergs 20th St. Free Church without going in (letter to J. H. Ingram, ca. 15 April 1875, Miller , pp. 132-33).
A year later, in 1848, Poe intended to marry the Providence, Rhode Island poet Sarah Helen Whitman on Christmas Day, which was on a Monday, but she broke off the engagement on December 23. This would be Poe’s last Christmas. He died October 7, 1849.
As you celebrate the holidays this year, look out for some of the traditions Poe would have known that are still observed today. If you are going to be in Richmond, be sure to visit the Poe Museum’s Poe Illumination on December 5 from 6-9p.m.
The Facts behind “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”
Now showing until December 31 at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond is an intriguing exhibit devoted to Poe’s short story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” a tale of the power of mesmerism to suspend the process of death. Made possible by a loan of items from the collection of James Vacca, Mesmerized: The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar explores the popularity of mesmerism in Poe’s time and belief among his contemporaries that this gruesome story might be true.
Mesmerism in the Nineteenth Century
Mesmerism, originally called animal magnetism, was developed by German physician and astronomer Franz Anton Mesmer (1734 – 1815) who theorized that a natural energetic transference occurred between all living creatures. Though he failed to receive scientific recognition for his theories, Mesmer believed this force could have healing properties.
While experiments in mesmerism abounded from 1780 until 1850, many quack mesmerists staged performances and published sensationalized accounts of their powers. By Poe’s time, in the 1840s, some practitioners even believed that mesmerized people could demonstrate clairvoyant abilities. The November 18, 1843 issue of the New York Brother Johnathon carried the following notice:
ANIMAL MAGNETISM! — A series of experiments are now going forward in different parts of this Country, with different subjects, by different magnetisers — wholly ignorant of what others are doing — and by people who have not direct communication with one another; all of which go to prove that the Moon is inhabited — that the people have a written language — and make war. The most miraculous coincidences have happened. We are quite serious.
Poe and Mesmerism
“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” was Poe’s third tale on the subject of mesmerism. “A Tales of the Ragged Mountains” (1844) and “Mesmeric Revelation” (1844) also dealt with the theme. The latter would be the first of Poe’s tales translated into French by the poet and critic Charles Baudelaire. The French Romantic painter Eugene Delacroix declared the story “a bizarre and profound piece of writing which throws you into a state of contemplation.”
In addition to his fictionalized accounts of the controversial pseudoscience, Poe also wrote reviews of other authors’ books on the subject. In the April 5, 1845 issue of the Broadway Journal, Poe called Chauncey Hare Townshend’s book Facts in Mesmerism (London, 1840) “one of the most truly profound and philosophical works of the day — a work to be valued properly only in a day to come.” How seriously Poe actually regarded mesmerism is debatable. In some works, he poked fun at the mesmerist Andrew Jackson Davis, who gave a number of public demonstrations in New York while Poe was living there.
Poe’s writings about mesmerism caused some of his contemporaries to believe he had special knowledge of the subject. Mary Hill Hewitt wrote in an 1846 letter to Poe’s future fiancée Sarah Helen Whitman, “People seem to think there is something uncanny about him, and the strangest stories are told, what is more, believed, about his mesmeric experiences, at the mention of which he always smiles.”
“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” was not Poe’s first hoax. In 1838, he published The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, an account of a trip to Antarctica, thought to be true by English readers. Six years later, in 1844, he convinced New Yorkers that scientists had successfully crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a hot air steering balloon in a story now known as “The Balloon Hoax.”
The Balloon Hoax
Also dealing with the theme of mesmerism, Poe’s story “Mesmeric Revelation” was so realistic it was reprinted in the November 29, 1845 issue of the London Popular Record of Modern Science.
The Public’s Response
“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” was rejected by at least one magazine before the American Review printed it in its December 1845 issue. Within months, the story was reprinted in The Broadway Journal (New York), Spirit of the Times (Philadelphia), Sunday Times (London), the Morning Post (London), the Popular Record of Modern Science (London), and the Boston Museum. The following year it was published as a pamphlet in London. Although many readers believed “Valdemar” to be a true story, the editor of the New York Herald wrote, “whoever thought it a veracious recital must have the bump of Faith large, very large indeed.”
To this, Poe answered in the Broadway Journal,
For our parts we find it difficult to understand how any dispassionate transcendentalist can doubt the facts as we state them; they are by no means so incredible as the marvels which are hourly narrated, and believed, on the topic of Mesmerism. Why cannot a man’s death be postponed indefinitely by Mesmerism? Why cannot a man talk after he is dead? Why? — Why? — that is the question; and as soon as the Tribune has answered it to our satisfaction we will talk to it farther.
Poe’s statement cannot, however, be taken entirely seriously since he frequently ridiculed the Transcendentalists. When asked by a London pharmacist if “Valdemar” was true, Poe responded, “‘Hoax’ is precisely the word suited to M. Valdemar’s case . . . The article . . . is now circulating in France. Some few persons believe it — but I do not — and don’t you.”
Poe was so amused by the receipt of a letter from a believer in the story’s veracity that he printed it in the Broadway Journal:
Collection of James Vacca
The story’s popularity was such that he reprinted it in the Broadway Journal, adding the following note:
In London, the story was reprinted as a true account of the powers of mesmerism, and the London publisher Short and Little issued it as a pamphlet, Mesmerism in Articulo Mortis in 1846.
Collection of James Vacca
Collection of James Vacca
At least one British poet was not a fan of “Valdemar,” Elizabeth Barrett (the future Elizabeth Barrett Browning) sent Robert Browning a copy of the story and wrote:
I send you besides a most frightful extract from an American magazine sent to me yesterday…no, the day before…on the subject of mesmerism—& you are to understand, if you please, that the Mr. Edgar Poe who stands committed in it, is my dedicator…whose dedication I forgot, by the way, with the rest—so, while I am sending, you shall have his poems with his mesmeric experience & decide whether the outrageous compliment to me EBB or the experiment on M. Vandeleur [sic] goes furthest to prove him mad.
Collection of James Vacca
Thanks in part to Poe’s story, the Spiritualist movement associated mesmerism with communication with the dead and used it for that purpose. One of Poe’s fiancées, Sarah Helen Whitman, was a devout Spiritualist who held séances while in a mesmeric trance.
Over time, popularity of both Spiritualism and mesmerism declined. The meaning of the word mesmerism has also evolved. In 1843, the Scottish physician James Braid proposed the term hypnosis, which is now the usual meaning of word mesmerism.
Poe’s use of realistic and scientifically based details made “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” an early and influential example of modern science fiction. The story’s gruesome conclusion in which the mesmerized patient suddenly “rots” into “a nearly liquid mass of loathsome — of detestable putridity” has been an inspiration to modern horror writers concerned with shock and gore. Since Poe’s time, the story has been reprinted countless times and translated into several languages. It has been adapted to comics and movies, most notably the 1963 Roger Corman film Tales of Terror starring Vincent Price and the 2002 black comedy The Mesmerist starring Neil Patrick Harris.
Vincent Price as Valdemar
Mesmerized: The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar will be on display on the first floor gallery of the Poe Museum’s Exhibits Building until December 31, 2014. On display on the second floor galleries of the Exhibits Building are The Halloween Gang Presents: The Black Cat (until December 31) and The Raven Room. The Poe Museum’s other three buildings contain permanent exhibits of the Museum’s renowned collection of Edgar Allan Poe personal belongings and memorabilia.
Coffin placed in the Poe Shrine, Richmond on the anniversary of Poe's funeral
Edgar Allan Poe is so famous he shows up almost everywhere. Whether it’s a Beatles album cover, an episode of South Park, or on the side of Raven Beer bottle; his face is so familiar, many people likely think they know him. Especially around this time of year, students across the country are learning about Poe’s life and work. So how is it that we still know so little about someone this famous? Maybe it began with his death.
This October 7 marked the 165th anniversary of the death of Edgar Allan Poe. After all these years scholars are still debating what caused his untimely demise at the age of forty. In fact, there are dozens of published theories, and the number continues to grow. Why the mystery? In today’s age of modern medicine, it is difficult to understand how little doctors in Poe’s time knew about internal medicine. Many diseases that medicine has since controlled were still unidentified or misunderstood. Poe died in Washington College Hospital where his attending physician John Moran paid close attention to the author’s condition, but Poe still died after four days in his care. According to the below record of 1849 Baltimore deaths, Poe’s cause of death is listed as “Phrenitis.” On this list, the date, name, and age are correct, but Poe’s occupation is incorrectly listed as “Physician” by whoever transcribed the information. (We are grateful to Sabrina Ricketts for finding and providing the Poe Museum a scan of this document.)
Phrenitis is an archaic medical term that means inflammation of the brain. The term was later replaced with the word delirium, and the symptoms are now most commonly associated with meningitis or encephalitis. The cause of these conditions may be attributable to a variety of different viral and bacterial sources. This means scholars are still not much closer to unraveling the mystery of Poe’s death.
Knowing what happened to Poe in the days immediately preceding his admission to the hospital might help determine the cause of his condition, but that information is also missing. We know that Poe had survived a bout of cholera in the summer of 1849 and that he was ill during his time in Richmond between July and September. On September 26, he visited his fiancée Elmira Shelton who later recalled, “He was very sad, and complained of being quite sick; I felt his pulse, and found he had considerable fever, and did not think it probable that he would be able to start the next morning, (Thursday) as he anticipated.”
Poe left Richmond on the morning of September 27 on a trip to Philadelphia, but his whereabouts are unknown until he was found in a Baltimore polling place on October 3. He was already very ill and was asked if he knew anyone who could help him, so he called for magazine editor Joseph Snodgrass.
Poe was delirious and unable to tell what had happened to him or why he seemed to be dressed in someone else’s clothes. That’s right–he appeared to be dressed in ill-fitting clothes that looked nothing like his usual mode of dress, so some people speculated he may have been beaten and robbed of his clothing. When he entered the bar-room of the tavern in which the voting was taking place, Snodgrass recounted he “instantly recognized the face of one whom I had often seen and knew well, although it wore an aspect of vacant stupidity which made me shudder…But perhaps I would not have so readily recognized him had I not been notified of his apparel. His hat — or rather the hat of somebody else, for he had evidently been robbed of his clothing, or cheated in exchange — was a cheap palm leaf one, without a band, and soiled; his coat, of commonest alpaca, and evidently “second hand”; and his pants of gray-mixed cassimere, dingy and badly fitting. He wore neither vest nor neckcloth, if I remember aright, while his shirt was badly crumpled and soiled. He was so utterly stupefied with liquor that I thought it best not to seek recognition or conversation…So insensible was he, that we had to carry him to the carriage as if a corpse. The muscles of articulation seemed paralyzed to speechlessness, and mere incoherent mutterings were all that were heard.”
After Poe’s death, Snodgrass clipped the small lock of Poe’s hair now in the collection of the Poe Museum. Snodgrass also wrote lectures and articles about Poe’s death to promote his agenda to ban alcohol in America.
At the same time, Poe’s attending physician wrote articles and a book contradicting Snodgrass’s account. If Snodgrass’s retellings were distorted in order to portray Poe as a hopeless drunk, Moran’s were skewed in order to show the poet as a perfect saint.
Both versions grew more colorful with each retelling. As just one example, we can cite Moran’s recollection of Poe’s last words. In a November 1849 letter, Moran said they were “Lord, help my poor soul.” In an 1875 article, Moran said they were “Self-murderer, there is a gulf beyond the stream Where is the buoy, lifeboat, ship of fire, sea of brass. Test, shore no more!” In his 1885 book, A Defense of Edgar Allan Poe, Moran recorded them as, “He who arched the heavens and upholds the universe, has His decrees legibly written upon the frontlet of every human being, and upon demons incarnate.”
If these accounts did not do enough to spread confusion about Poe’s death, Poe’s rival Rufus Griswold attempted to defame Poe’s character in a scathing obituary and memoir of the author. Griswold’s obituary begins, “…This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.” His memoir of Poe became the first widely distributed biography of Poe but was so riddled with distortions and fabrications that some of those who had known Poe felt the need to come to the poet’s defense. Among these were John Moran and Poe’s fiancée Sarah Helen Whitman.
We will probably never know the exact cause of Poe’s death, but scholars will continue to try to solve Poe’s last mystery. If you would like to propose your own theory, you can read more about Poe’s death and submit your ideas here.