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.
Time Travelers: A Free Weekend of Richmond History
Featuring 10 Historic Houses of Greater Richmond
Richmond’s most renowned historic homes and museums offer visitors a “passport” to time-travel during a special admission-free weekend on Saturday and Sunday, September 13 and 14. Tourists and locals alike are invited to discover the City’s treasures, spanning 400 years of fascinating history and including the homes of John Marshall, Jefferson Davis, John Wickham, Major James Dooley and other important Virginians. Ten participating sites – Agecroft Hall, Dabbs House Museum, The John Marshall House, Magnolia Grange, Maymont, Meadow Farm Museum, Poe Museum, White House of the Confederacy, Wickham House and Wilton House Museum – will offer complimentary admission to visitors who show a Time Travelers Passport, available via download here. This special offer equates to savings of more than $55 per person. (Some restrictions may apply.)
Agecroft Hall was first built in England in the 1500s, then transported across the ocean and rebuilt in Richmond in the 1920s. Today it is a museum furnished with art and artifacts from 17th century England. Guests can take a guided tour, stroll the manicured gardens overlooking the James River, explore the architectural exhibit, and shop in the museum store. Agecroft Hall will be open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday and 12:30 to 5 p.m. on Sunday and is located just west of Carytown at 4305 Sulgrave Road in Richmond. For more information, call (804) 353-4241 or visit www.agecrofthall.com.
Dabbs House Museum
The Dabbs House, built in rural eastern Henrico in 1820, gained attention as Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s field headquarters during the summer of 1862. The museum provides a place to learn about the history of the house from its use as a residence for the Dabbs family to its tenure as Henrico’s police headquarters from 1941 to 2005. Visitors can tour the 1862 field headquarters, browse the exhibit galleries and gift shop, and view a video on the history of the house. On September 17, 2010, Henrico County opened its first Tourist Information Center, which is located inside the Dabbs House Museum and provides visitors with resources on many other Richmond area attractions. This facility is owned by the County of Henrico Division of Recreation and Parks. Dabbs House Museum will be open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday and is located at 3812 Nine Mile Road in eastern Henrico. For more information, call (804) 652-3406 or visit www.dabbshouse.henricorecandparks.com.
The John Marshall House
The John Marshall House, built in 1790 in the fashionable Court End neighborhood of Richmond was the home of the “Great Chief Justice” for forty-five years. Listed on the National and Virginia historic registers, the John Marshall House has undergone remarkably few changes since Marshall’s lifetime. The property remained in the Marshall family until 1911. It is currently owned and operated by Preservation Virginia. Visitors can enjoy a guided tour of the house, stroll the garden, and visit the Museum Shop. The John Marshall House will be open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and 12 to 5 p.m. on Sunday and is located at 818 East Marshall Street in Richmond. For more information, call (804) 648-7998 or visit www.preservationvirginia.org.
Built in 1822 by William Winfree, Magnolia Grange is a handsome Federal-style plantation house named for the circle of magnolia trees that once graced its front lawn. Noted for its distinctive architecture, the mansion contains elaborate ceiling medallions, as well as sophisticated carvings on mantels, doorways and window frames. The house has been carefully restored to its 1820s look and feel. The Chesterfield Museum is a reproduction of the colonial courthouse of 1750. Its collections tell the history of Chesterfield County from prehistoric times through the 20th century. Exhibits include early Indian culture, artifacts from the first iron and coal mines in America, which were in Chesterfield County, early household and farming tools and a country store of the late 19th century. The Old Jail, built in 1892, houses historical exhibits from the county’s Police and Fire departments that are displayed downstairs. Upstairs, visitors may view cells as they were when they housed their last prisoners in 1962. Magnolia Grange will be open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday and is located at 10020 Iron Bridge Road in Chesterfield. For more information, call (804) 796-1479 or visit www.chesterfieldhistory.com.
Maymont, a 100-acre American estate, was the home of New South business leader James Dooley and his wife Sallie from 1893 through 1925. During Time Travelers weekend at Maymont Mansion, costumed ladies, gentlemen, children and servants invite you to enjoy family-friendly activities and tours as you marvel at the 21 restored rooms that offer an unusually complete depiction of upstairs-downstairs life in the Gilded Age. The opulent upstairs interiors are adorned with Tiffany stained glass, frescoed ceilings and other sumptuous detailing and filled with original furnishings and artwork. Downstairs service rooms tell the story of household tasks and technology and the challenges of working in domestic service during the Jim Crow era. The surrounding landscape features Italian and Japanese gardens, magnificent trees, and a carriage display as well as Virginia wildlife exhibits, a Children’s Farm and the Robins Nature & Visitor Center. Maymont Mansion will be open 12 to 5 p.m on Saturday and Sunday and is located at 1700 Hampton Street in the heart of Richmond. (Grounds are open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.) For more information, call (804) 358-7166, ext. 310.
Meadow Farm Museum
Meadow Farm, one of the last remaining 19th century farms in Henrico County, is now an 1860 living historical farm focusing on middle-class rural life just before the upheaval of the Civil War. Costumed interpreters provide insights into the lives of Dr. John Mosby Sheppard, the owner of Meadow Farm, and his family. Daily and seasonal activities are portrayed in the farmhouse, barn, doctor’s office, blacksmith’s forge, kitchen, fields and pastures. The Museum also offers a schedule of special events, living history programs, and volunteer opportunities throughout the year. The Meadow Farm Museum Orientation Center features a reception area for visitors, two exhibit galleries and a gift shop. This facility is owned and operated by the County of Henrico Division of Recreation and Parks. Meadow Farm Museum will be open 12 to 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday and is located at 3400 Mountain Road in old Glen Allen. (Grounds are open from dawn to dusk.) For more information, call (804) 501-2130 or visit www.henricorecandparks.com.
Opened in 1922, Virginia’s only literary museum, the Poe Museum in Richmond, boasts the world’s finest collection of Edgar Allan Poe’s manuscripts, letters, first editions, memorabilia and personal belongings. The Poe Museum provides a retreat into early nineteenth century Richmond where the author of “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” lived and worked. The museum explores Poe’s life and career by documenting his accomplishments with pictures, relics, and verse, and focusing on his many years in Richmond. One of the structures in the museum’s four-building complex is the ca.1754 Old Stone House, the oldest residential structure in the original city limits of Richmond. The Poe Museum will be open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday and is located at 1914 East Main Street in Richmond. For more information, call (804) 648-5523 or visit www.poemuseum.org.
White House of the Confederacy (Museum of the Confederacy)
The house was home to Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, and his family from August 1861 until the evacuation of Richmond on April 2, 1865. It served as the political and social epicenter of wartime Richmond. The White House currently holds a large number of furnishings and artifacts that were in the house with the Davis family. All of the remaining items are original to the period, except for the textiles which are reproductions based on original fabrics or period patterns. All tours are guided. The White House of the Confederacy will be open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is located at 1201 East Clay Street in Richmond. For more information, call (855) 649-1861 or visit www.moc.org. Please note: Time Travelers Passport Holders will only receive free admission to the house tour. The Museum of the Confederacy entrance fee is $10 and will not be free for the promotional weekend.
Wickham House (Valentine Richmond History Center)
The Wickham House, built in 1812, is a spectacular example of 19th-century Federal architecture and displays some of the country’s finest examples of interior decorative painting. Listed as a National Historic Landmark, the Wickham House, built by John Wickham, illustrates the lives of one of Richmond’s most prominent families. The Wickham House was purchased by Mann Valentine, Jr., and in 1898 became the first home of the Valentine Museum. It is operated by the Valentine Richmond History Center. The Wickham House will be open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and 12 to 5 p.m. on Sunday and is located at 1015 East Clay Street in Richmond. For more information, call (804) 649-0711 or visit www.richmondhistorycenter.com.
Wilton House Museum
Overlooking a placid stretch of the James River, Wilton House has been welcoming guests since constructed in the 1750s as the centerpiece of a sprawling tobacco plantation by the prominent Randolph Family of Virginia. Here, friends, relations, and weary travelers such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and the Marquise de Lafayette were welcomed. An impressive example of 18th-century Georgian Style architecture, Wilton House boasts its original and richly detailed paneling and an exquisite collection of fine and decorative arts from the Colonial and early Federal eras. When development threatened Wilton House in the 1930s, The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the Commonwealth of Virginia purchased and restored the property. Wilton House Museum will be open 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Saturday and 1 to 4:30 p.m. pm on Sunday and is located at 215 South Wilton Road in Richmond. For more information, call (804) 282-5936 or visit www.wiltonhousemuseum.org.
On the anniversary of Poe’s final departure from Richmond (just ten days before his death), September 27, 2014 at 7P.M., the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia will honor this grim anniversary with unique dramatization of Poe’s works by historic interpreter Anne Louise Williams. An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe features dramatic recitations from memory of several writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Selections will include “The Black Cat,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Oval Portrait,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” “Morella,” “The Raven,” “Annabel Lee,” “The Bells,” “For Annie,” “A Dream within a Dream,” “Eldorado,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The recitations are framed in the context of the author’s life, interspersed with readings of excerpts from newspapers, letters, and observations of contemporaries. Admission is $5. Poe Museum members will be admitted free.
About the Presenter:
Anne Louise Williams is a historic interpreter certified with the National Association of Interpreters. Anne is a volunteer with the National Park Service at Whitehaven (Grant Home) and the Old Court House for special events (since 2009) and a volunteer with the historic Daniel Boone Home (since 1996) in St. Louis, Missouri. Anne integrates her passion for history, literature, and drama to perform literature in the context of the author’s life. She is experienced in first person interpretation as well. She has portrayed Virginia Minor, recreating her testimony on Suffrage before the US Senate Committee. In 2011, Anne researched and reconstructed the testimonies in the infamous Lemp Divorce which were re-enacted at the Old Court House where the trial occurred in 1909, with a Lemp descendant portraying William Lemp and the audiences taking the roles of witnesses. Anne performed at the Poe Visitor Center in Fordham (Bronx) in January 2014. Anne will be performing at several venues in September and October, including the Poe Museum in Richmond, the Free Library of Philadelphia, the Poe Visitor Center in Fordham, and the Lyndhurst Castle in Tarrytown, the Daniel Boone Home in Defiance MO, and the Lemp Mansion in St. Louis MO.
Now one of the most valuable books in American literature, this humble volume could have easily ended up in a trash heap or floating down the Hudson River along with several other copies. Ben Hardin, Jr. (1784-1852), the first owner of this first edition of Poe’s third book Poems, scrawled abusive language on the end pages. Ben Hardin, Jr. was a Kentucky lawyer who had likely received the book from his son John Pendleton Hardin (1810-1842, Class of 1832, resigned 1832), one of Poe’s fellow cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point. John Hardin would have been one of the 131 out of the 232 cadets who contributed $1.25 toward the work’s publication in April 1831. Fewer than 1,000 copies were printed, and, judging by the cadets’ response to the book, it is not surprising that only about twenty survive. (Some of those cadets are said to have thrown their copies into the river in disgust.)
Dedication Page of Poems
One of the cadets, Allan B. Magruder, later recalled, “[The book] was a miserable production mechanically, bound in green boards and printed on inferior paper, evidently gotten up on the cheapest scale. The subscription was not fully paid until the book was delivered, and I remember a general expression of indignation at the inferior quality and condition of the book.”
Another cadet, Thomas W. Gibson, added, “The book was received with a general expression of disgust. It was a puny volume, of about fifty pages, bound in boards and badly printed on coarse paper, and worse than all, it contained not one of the squibs and satires upon which his reputation at the Academy had been built up.”
Ben Hardin, Jr., the owner of the Poe Museum’s copy, wrote on the front page, “This book is a damn cheat. All that fills 124 pages could have been compiled in 36.” Beneath this, someone wrote “lie.” Below that is written, “Calliope [the Greek muse of epic poetry] is a cheat/ any how–.”
What little critical notice the book attracted was not overwhelmingly favorable, either. In the May 7, 1831 issue of the New-York Mirror, the reviewer (probably George P. Morris), complains that Poe’s poetry is incomprehensible:
The poetry of this little volume has a plausible air of imagination, inconsistent with the general indefinitiveness of the ideas. Every think in the language betokens poetic inspiration, but it rather resembles the leaves of the sybil when scattered by the wind. The annexed lines, which close a short poem, entitled the “Doomed City,” are less incomprehensible than most in the book, although the meaning is by no means perfectly clear…It sometimes happens that poetry, at first sight unintelligible, is discovered, upon a repeated and more careful examination, to be fraught with the treasure of thought and fancy. The “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” belongs to this class; but we cannot flatter Mr. Poe with any similar hopes respecting his own composition, although it occasionally sparkles with a true poetic expression, and sometimes a conflict of ¬beauty and nonsense takes place, in which the latter seems to have the best of it. It is indeed encumbered by numerous obscurities, which we should be pleased to see either very much brightened or entirely expunged. What is the meaning of this?
In anticipation that the meaning of his poetry would confound some critics, Poe wrote in the volume’s introduction,
Poetry, above all things, is a beautiful painting whose tints, to minute inspection, are confusion worse confounded, but start boldly out to the cursory glance of the connoisseur…A poem, in my opinion, is opposed to a work of science by having, for its immediate object, pleasure, not truth; to romance, by having for its object an indefinite instead of a definite pleasure, being a poem only so far as this object is attained; romance presenting perceptible images with definite, poetry with indefinite sensations, to which end music is an essential, since the comprehension of sweet sound is our most indefinite conception. Music, when combined with a pleasurable idea, is poetry; music without the idea is simply music; the idea without the music is prose from its very definitiveness.
By the time Poems was released in April 1831, Poe was living in New York after having been expelled from West Point in February. Even though Poe was no longer at the academy, he remained the subject of the cadets’ scorn and ridicule for some time after his departure. As Gibson recalled, “For months afterward quotations from Poe formed the standing material for jests in the corps, and his reputation for genius went down at once to zero. I doubt if even the ‘Raven’ of his after-years ever entirely effaced from the minds of his class the impression received from that volume.”
After the commercial failure of Poems, Poe still considered himself primarily a poet and continued to write poetry, but he would not publish another volume of his poetry for fourteen years when he issued The Raven and Other Poems in 1845.
Listing from Chamberlain Catalog
The Poe Museum’s copy of Poems eventually entered the collection of scientist Jacob Chester Chamberlain (1860-1905) who worked in Thomas Edison’s laboratory during the early 1880s and contributed to Edison’s pioneering work with electric lighting. The book was #706 in the auction of Chamberlain’s collection on February 16, 1909 at the Anderson Auction Company in New York when the formerly $1.25 book sold for $315. The piece next entered the library of book collector Walter Thomas Wallace of South Orange, New Jersey. He sold his collection at auction on March 22-24, 1920 at the American Art Galleries in New York. This time, the book sold for only $140. The next owner was the California psychologist John Wooster Robertson, whose special interest in Poe led him to compile a bibliography of Poe first printings and to write the book Edgar A. Poe: A Psychopathic Study. Robertson donated Poems, along with the rest of his large collection of Poe first editions, to the Poe Museum in 1927.
Listing from Wallace Catalog
Although some readers in the author’s time could not appreciate it, Poems is now considered one of Poe’s most important collections. Among the soon-to-be classic poems first printed in this volume are early versions of Poe’s classics “To Helen,” “Lenore” (under its original title “A Paean”) and “Israfel.” Poe’s biographer Arthur Hobson Quinn summed up the significance of the book as follows:
If the volume of 1829 [Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems] contained poetry unlike any that had as yet appeared in the United States, the volume of 1831 gave us in “To Helen,” “Israfel,” “The Doomed City,” “The Valley Nis” and “Irene,” poetry of a kind that had not yet been written in the English language.
The Poe Museum is fortunate Ben Hardin, Jr. decided not to discard his copy of Poems. Thanks to collectors like Robertson, Wallace, and Chamberlain, the book has been preserved for future generations to study and enjoy. That is why this first edition of Poems is the Poe Museum’s Object of the Month.
Walter Wallace Bookplate in Poems
Edgar Allan Poe lived at the perfect time in history to be able to observe and to write about many of the most dramatic technological changes that had taken place in world history. Scientist Sir Alfred Russell Wallace called the nineteenth century “The Wonderful Century” because of its “marvelous inventions and discoveries,” which he regarded as immensely superior to anything which had been developed up until that time by “our comparatively ignorant forefathers”(1). Suddenly, within the span of a few decades, the introduction of new Industrial Age technologies such as electricity, telegraphic communications, cross-country railroads, photography, astronomy, and high- speed printing presses dramatically altered the culture and lifestyle of the American public in ways in which few people who lived at the time could ever have expected. In 1903, Sir Norman Lockyer, the then President of the British Association echoed Wallace’s remarks, stating that, “The nineteenth century will ever be known as the one which the influence of science was first fully realized in western countries; the scientific progress was so gigantic that it seems rash to predict that any of its successors can be more important in the life of a nation” (Nature). By the time that Poe started writing professionally (in the early 1830s), the literacy rate was higher than it had previously ever been in America, and the average person could read and understand most articles written in the newspaper. A person could travel to distant parts of the country by rail, and communicate almost instantly via the telegraph to almost anyone in the United States. Through the development of the daguerreotype (an early prototype of photography), people could obtain realistic and long lasting images of their family members to remember for generations. Many of those taken at that time may still be clearly visible today. The introduction of a new class of highly powerful telescopes and microscopes also demonstrated that the Universe of space and the unseen space within objects are much more expansive than anyone had previously imagined.
Peter Swirski argues that it is essential for our present understanding of nineteenth century culture to explore popular writers like Edgar Allan Poe because his “writing may be a suitable barometer of the role that science and philosophy had on nineteenth century society. Poe’s science narratives are perhaps most important because he was the first American authors who was able to distill the important information and ideas that were developed by professional scientists and publish them to a national and international audience in the form imaginative poems, non-fiction essays and journalistic stories, fiction, and science fiction stories.
The next entry of the “Poe and Science” blog will discuss how a studying the stories of the non-professional science writer helps us to have a better understanding of nineteenth-century society. Please send comments or questions to [email protected] or [email protected]
Lockyer, Sir Norman. “Inaugural Address as President of the British Association.” Nature. 10 September 1903: 439.
Swirski, Peter. Between Literature and Science: Poe, Lem, and Explorations in Aesthetics, Cognitive Science, and Literary Knowledge. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2000.
Wallace, Alfred Russell. The Wonderful Century: Its Successes and Failures. Toronto: George N. Morang, 1898 (digital reproduction).
Last Sunday, the Poe Museum was proud to host a talk by award-winning authors Mary SanGiovanni and Brian Keene. Guests came from as far away as Pennsylvania and Illinois to meet the authors and hear their insights into the continuing relevance of Poe’s fiction.
Since the Poe Museum’s mission is to “interpret the life and influence of Edgar Allan Poe for the education and enjoyment” of the public, Keene and SanGiovanni helped support this mission by speaking about Poe’s influence on today’s writers. SanGiovanni began by discussing the impact of Poe’s short story “The Masque of the Red Death” on horror fiction. She provided a fascinating overview of the themes and imagery of the story and drew parallels between these and the recurrent themes found in modern psychological horror and cosmic horror.
After SanGiovanni’s talk, Keene spoke about Poe’s novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, its inspiration for his own writing, and its influence on later writers. He traced the influence of this novel on Herman Melville, Jules Verne (who wrote a sequel to it), and H.P. Lovecraft (whose novel At the Mountains of Madness borrows from it). Keene continued by describing how At the Mountains of Madness helped inspire John W. Campbell’s novel Who Goes There which has been adapted into three films, the second of which is John Carpenter’s 1982 movie The Thing, which Keene considers the most important horror film of the 1980s. The Thing topped Boston Globe’s list of the Fifty Scariest Movies of All Time and was ranked #2 on Moving Arts Film Journal’s list of the Twenty-Five Greatest Horror Films. The film, in turn, was a great inspiration to Keene himself.
The talks were followed by a question-and-answer period in which the authors discussed their own work as well as the international significance of Poe’s literary contributions. A sizeable crowd gathered afterwards to have the authors sign copies of their books. Keene and SanGiovanni also donated some copies of their books to the museum’s gift shop to help support the museum’s educational mission. The Poe Museum would like to thank SanGiovanni and Keene for sharing their insights with our audience.
Our next author talk will take place on October 15 at 6 P.M. when the Virginia Literary Festival Presents: An Evening with Clay McLeod Chapman. Click here for a complete list of upcoming events.
Clay McLeod Chapman, our October speaker
Edgar Allan Poe had many enemies during his life–there is no questioning this—but only one man held the significant title of being Poe’s “bitterest enemy.” Was it Rufus Griswold, Poe’s literary executor, you may ask? No. Maybe, John Allan, Edgar’s foster father who butted heads with the poet until Allan’s death? Not quite. Who, you may inquire, was named Edgar Poe’s bitterest enemy? His own cousin, Neilson Poe.
Born with his twin sister, Amelia, to Jacob and Bridget Poe, in Baltimore on August 11, 1809, Neilson (pronounced “Nelson”) was grandson of George Poe Sr.(Frank 278, 281; Silverman 82; Thomas xxxviii, 6). Although there are no significant accounts of Neilson’s childhood, we know that at age eighteen he joined the staff of William Gwynn’s Baltimore Gazette and Daily Advertiser, beginning a three year apprenticeship as a journalist (Thomas xxxviii). Two years later, in 1829, made acquaintances with his second cousin, Edgar.
Later Neilson became the owner and editor of the Frederick Examiner, a semiweekly newspaper in Frederick, Maryland, where Edgar applied for a job in 1831 after Neilson had left. In 1834, Neilson acquired the Baltimore Chronicle, an influential Whig daily. The next year marked the beginning of the Neilson and Edgar rivalry (Thomas xxxviii).
In 1835, Edgar received word that Virginia Clemm, his future wife, was to be taken in by her cousin, Neilson and his wife, her half-sister, Josephine. This struck a deep chord in Edgar’s heart and he frantically pleaded with his Aunt, Maria Clemm, to not send Virginia to his second cousin’s residence, regarded Neilson as a rival for Virginia’s affection. He allegedly thought the plan was “cruel” and a betrayal that “wound[ed him] to the soul” (Frank 280, 281; World of Poe). Edgar went on to explain to Maria in his letter,
Oh think for me for I am incapable of thinking. Al[l of my] thoughts are occupied with the supposition that both you & she will prefer to go with N. [Neilson] Poe. I do sincerely believe that your comforts will for the present be secured — I cannot speak as regards your peace — your happiness. You have both tender hearts — and you will always have the reflection that my agony is more than I can bear — that you have driven me to the grave — for love like mine can never be gotten over. It is useless to disguise the truth that when Virginia goes with N. P. that I shall never behold her again — that is absolutely sure. Pity me, my dear Aunty, pity me. I have no one now to fly to. I am among strangers, and my wretchedness is more than I can bear. It is useless to expect advice from me — what can I say? Can I, in honour & in truth say — Virginia! do not go! — do not go where you can be comfortable & perhaps happy — and on the other hand can I calmly resign my — life itself. If she had truly loved me would she not have rejected the offer with scorn? Oh God have mercy on me! If she goes with N. P. what are you to do, my own Aunty? (You can read the rest of the letter here.)
Edgar won the dispute and successfully “saved” Virginia from their cousin Neilson. It is said Neilson had not known why Virginia and Maria turned down his offer until years later when he was shown, by Maria, the letter Edgar had written (World of Poe). Also, according to Kenneth Silverman in Edgar A. Poe: A Biography, Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance, “…Neilson meant to rescue Muddy from her poverty, but he also reportedly hoped to prevent Virginia from marrying at so young an age, keeping open the possibility of her marriage to Edgar a few years later, if they both still desired it.” For some reason, Edgar believed he would never see Virginia again had she gone to stay with Neilson and Josephine (104).
The cousins did not keep in close contact after this. In 1833, Neilson’s daughter, Amelia Fitzgerald, was born. This particular Poe child, out of seven siblings, was significant in relaying information to Poe scholars later on in her life, giving information about Edgar to biographers, John Ingram and George Woodberry (Frank 278).
In the summer of 1838, Edgar contacted his cousin, imploring for financial assistance, to which Neilson declined. He, too, was having monetary issues during this time. He sold his Chronicle on December 2 of that next year, due to financial debt. In 1840, he left the business he had been practicing since eighteen and commenced the practice of law, where he remained the rest of his life (Thomas xxxviii). It is said Neilson corresponded with Edgar in August 1845 in one surviving letter, which, according to “The World of Poe” online,
…is very civil, but decidedly cool. He [Edgar] responded to his cousin’s evident friendly overtures with a bland courtesy, assenting that it was indeed a pity that their two families were estranged, but he showed no sincere desire to amend that situation. The letter also indicated that Neilson and his family were unaware that for the past three years, Virginia had been battling a hopeless illness (which Poe always mysteriously called “the accident”)–a striking sign of just how alienated they were from her life. (You can read this letter here.)
Edgar’s death four years later would come as a shock and blow to Neilson who, despite not being on the best of terms with his cousin throughout their lives, still maintained concern for Edgar during his dying days. When word reached him that his cousin was in the hospital, Neilson visited Edgar and, despite being considered “the little dog” by his writer cousin, sent a change of linens and called again the next day to check on Edgar (Silverman 434). Despite the efforts to help Edgar, Poe died and Neilson began preparing for the funeral. He attended Edgar’s funeral on October 8, 1849, and provided the hack and hearse (Thomas 848).
After his cousin’s death, and despite their rivalry (which, may have been more on Edgar’s part than Neilson’s) Neilson spoke well of his cousin with supportive comments. Going back to just after the release of Edgar’s 1829 volume, Neilson predicted that “Our name will be a great one yet,” because of Edgar’s writings (World of Poe; Silverman 82). Despite their quarreling at times, Neilson never seemed to hold such hatred against his cousin as one may perceive. In fact, Neilson attended Poe’s November 17, 1875 memorial tribute and eulogized him. He also paid for an Italian marble headstone; however, this was destroyed in an accident transporting it to the cemetery (Frank 281; Thomas xxxviii; Find A Grave). He also intended to write a memoir of his cousin in 1860, but it is said,
…[he] made some collection of facts, but never wrote anything. He belongs, so his friends say, to the class of dilatory men, who plan and never do…He talks very freely about his cousin. I have not found him reticent; but I do not think the Poes [sic] fully appreciate the genius of Edgar (Miller 52).
Despite this “unappreciative” nature, it seems Neilson did genuinely hold some reverence for his cousin.
The rest of Neilson’s life seems straightforward regarding his family and career. In 1878, he was appointed Chief Judge of the Orphans’ Court of Baltimore, a position he held until two months before his death, January 3, 1884. He had seven children living at the time of his death; two daughters and five sons (Thomas xxxviii). He also was, notably, the grandfather of the six Poe brothers who played football at Princeton University between 1882 and 1903 (Find A Grave). Neilson’s other notable achievements include being director of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, as well as director of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad for a short time (Find A Grave). He was associated with the Baltimore Chronicle, and had accomplished being a journalist, publisher, editor and lawyer (Frank 281).
Whether now you see Neilson as Poe’s “bitterest enemy”, or believe that he was a misunderstood journalist and lawyer, Neilson Poe goes down as being one of the most curious Poe relatives. What made Edgar despise his cousin? Was it jealousy, greed, or a great misunderstanding leaving a stubborn Eddy loathing his cousin until his death? You decide!
Like many businesses, the Poe Museum was closed on July 4th for Independence Day. As we observe the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, we might not realize that Poe would have celebrated the holiday, too.
At the time of Poe’s birth in 1809, only thirty-three years had passed since America had declared its independence from England. Such Founding Fathers as the author of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson and the nation’s second president John Adams were still alive. In fact, Poe would enter Jefferson’s University of Virginia while its founder was still residing at nearby Monticello. (Jefferson’s death occurred while Poe was at the University–on July 4.)
David Poe's Grave
The spirit of the American Revolution was ever present during Poe’s childhood. His grandfather, David Poe, Sr. had been honorary Quartermaster General of Baltimore during the Revolution and a friend of the Marquis de Lafayette. In Richmond, Poe would have attended Sunday services at Monumental Church with John Marshall, who had served in the Continental Army long before becoming Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Poe would have also seen the “Virginia Giant” Peter Francisco, who fought the British with distinction at the Battle of Brandywine, the Battle of Germantown, the Battle of Stony Point, and other battles before witnessing Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. Both Marshall and Francisco are buried at Richmond’s Shockoe Hill Cemetery along with Poe’s foster parents and a number of his friends. Another Revolutionary War hero living in Richmond during Poe’s time was the “Hero of Stony Point” Major James Gibbon.
When Poe was fifteen, he was honored to serve on the honor guard selected to escort the Marquis de Lafayette on the latter’s 1824 tour of Richmond. Poe must have known about the friendship between his grandfather (who had died in 1816) and the Frenchman. While in Baltimore during the same United States tour, Lafayette visited Poe’s grandfather’s grave. According to J. Thomas Scharf’s Chronicles of Baltimore (1874):
“The next day he [Lafayette] received visitors at the Exchange and dined with the corporation, &c., &c., and in the evening visited the Grand Lodge; after which he attended the splendid ball given in Holliday Street Theatre, which had been fitted up for the occasion. After the introduction of the surviving officers and soldiers of the Revolution who resided in and near Baltimore, to General Lafayette on Friday [October 8, 1824], he observed to one of the gentlemen near, ‘I have not seen among these my friendly and patriotic commissary, Mr. David Poe, who resided in Baltimore when I was here, and of his own very limited means supplied me with five hundred dollars to aid in clothing my troops, and whose wife, with her own hands, cut out five hundred pairs of pantaloons, and superintended the making of them for the use of my men.’ The General was informed that Mr. Poe was dead but that his widow [Elizabeth Cairnes Poe] was still living. He expressed an anxious wish to see her.
“The good old lady heard the intelligence with tears of joy, and the next day [October 9, 1824] visited the General, by whom she was received most affectionately; he spoke in grateful terms of the friendly assistance he had received from her and her husband: ‘Your husband,’ said he, pressing his hand on his breast, ‘was my friend, and the aid I received from you both was greatly beneficial to me and my troops.’ The effect of such an interview as this may be imagined but cannot be described. On the 11th General LaFayette left the city with an escort for Washington.”
Being surrounded by reminders of the American Revolution during his childhood might have influenced his decision to enlist in the United States Army when he was eighteen, but he hired a substitute to serve the remainder of enlistment after just two years.
Poe would have observed the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence during his lifetime. Celebrations of one kind or another had been taking place since 1776 when, on July 8, Philadelphians hearing a public reading of the Declaration of Independence started shooting into the air, lighting bonfires, and exploding fireworks (although the name Independence Day was not used until 1791). Before long, similar celebrations were being held throughout the young nation, and they increased in popularity after the War of 1812. By Poe’s time, Independence Day celebrations could include parades, cannon fire, bonfires, the ringing of bells, drinking, and fireworks, but the day did not become a national holiday until 1870. Unlike the Poe Museum’s employees, Poe worked on Independence Day. We know this because there are business letters written by him dated July 4.
The Poe Museum will reopen at 10 A.M. on July 5 and will be open its regular hours the rest of the weekend.
One night a theater critic answered his door to find an actor so angry over a review that he threatened the critic. The actor was a twenty-three year old David Poe, Jr. (1784-?), future father of Edgar Allan Poe. That review is the Poe Museum’s Object of the Month for June.
Although little is known of David Poe’s life, most of what is documented concerns his acting career. Several museums and libraries, including the Poe Museum, hold important collections of newspapers containing notices of his performances in major East Coast cities. These documents provide information about his whereabouts and his uneven acting ability. (In September 1809, the reviewer for The Ramblers’ Magazine and New-York Theatrical Register wrote that David Poe “was never destined for the high walks of the drama; — a footman is the extent of what he ought to attempt: and if by accident like that of this evening he is compelled to walk without his sphere, it would bespeak more of sense in him to read the part than attempt to act it; — his person, voice, and non-expression of countenance, all combine to stamp him — poh! et praeterea nihil.”)
Concerning David Poe’s personal life, we know he was born in 1784 in Baltimore, to David Poe, Sr., who had been an honorary Quartermaster General of Baltimore during the American Revolution as well as a personal friend of the Revolutionary War General Lafayette. David Poe, Sr. had gone deep into debt during the Revolution, but his son intended to rise out of that poverty by becoming a lawyer. Then David Poe, Jr. saw the English-born actress Eliza Hopkins (1787-1811) (pictured below) perform on the Baltimore stage and, according to legend, was so smitten with the young married young woman that he gave up the study of law take up the precarious existence of an actor. After her husband died, David married Eliza in Richmond in 1806, and the couple had three children, William Henry Leonard (1807-1831), Edgar (1809-1849), and Rosalie (1810-1874).
The couple moved to Boston in 1806. Judging by the variety of roles David and Eliza performed, they were both popular with the public, but Eliza, in particular, was a crowd favorite. She specialized in comedic roles, especially tomboys and other children. One of these characters was a young boy named Little Pickle in the farce The Spoiled Child. She had been playing the part since 1796, when she was nine years old, but, as she entered her twenties, she was beginning to get a little old for the part.
The Poe Museum’s Object of the Month, The Polyanthos, was a Boston magazine edited by Joseph T. Buckingham (1779-1861) (pictured above), who also wrote the theater reviews. One of his pithy notices (pictured below) of David Poe reads, “From Mr. Poe’s Barnwell we expected little satisfaction, and of course we were not disappointed.”
Buckingham gives Eliza Poe a more favorable notice (pictured below) for her performance as Jenny in John Vanbrugh’s play The Provoked Husband. He writes, “Miss Jenny by Mrs. Poe was well. The hoyden is Mrs. Poe’s forte.”
Although she had built her reputation playing comedies, Mrs. Poe worked to prove herself in more serious roles. When she he played Cordelia in William Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear. Buckingham did not think she was up for the part. His notice in The Polyanthos reads, “We know not which is more laughable, the absurd, preposterous conduct of the managers in giving the character of Cordelia to a lady who is so totally inadequate to its representation: or to the ridiculous vanity which prompted her to accept it…Mrs. Poe as Cordelia, has once received our approbation, and has again deserved it. But we notwithstanding prefer her comedy.”
The reviewer for Columbian Centinel also thought Mrs. Poe better suited for comedies when he wrote, “Of Mrs. Poe in Cordelia we would speak with the strictest delicacy and tenderness. Her amiable timidity evidently betrayed her own apprehension, that she had wandered from the sphere of her appropriate talent; while her lovely gentleness pleaded strongly for protection against the rigid justice of criticism. She was so obviously exiled from her own element by the mere humor of authority that we cannot in charity attempt any analysis of her performance.” He at least added, “Mrs. Poe had one credit and that of no mean value—she did not mutilate the language of Shakespeare.”
The Emerald’s theater critic wrote, “Cordelia by Mrs. Poe, was interesting but the part was not suited to her voice.” Despite the critics’ opinions, the play was a hit. She was soon cast as Ariel in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
The same season, Buckingham wrote the review that would prompt an angry visit from David Poe. Eliza Poe had been working hard to outgrow the juvenile roles that had made her famous, but she was asked to play on March 4, 1807 Little Pickle in The Spoiled Child, a part she had outgrown years earlier. Not only was the twenty-year-old Eliza playing a child, but the child just happened to be a boy. In the pages of The Polyanthos, Buckingham indelicately pointed out the inappropriateness of the casting by writing, “Mrs. Poe was a very green Little Pickle. We never knew before that the Spoiled Child belonged to that class of being termed hermaphroditical, as the uncouthness of his costume seemed to indicate.”
This joke at his wife’s expense drove David Poe to action. According to Buckingham’s much later account in his 1852 book Personal Memoirs and Recollections of Editorial Life, “The theatrical criticisms are all my own. Some of them are severe, but I am not aware that any were unjust. The players, however, at least some of them, were of a different opinion. One of them, during a representation of Sheridan’s farce, — The Critic — paid off the score, by invoking the mercy of the editor of the Polyanthos! Mr. Poe — the father of the late Edgar A. Poe, — took offence at a remark on his wife’s acting, and called at my house to chastise my impertinence, but went away without effecting his purpose. Both he and his wife were performers of considerable merit, but somewhat vain of their personal accomplishments.”
Whether David Poe had wanted to challenge the critic or merely to argue with him, he left without achieving his goal. David and Eliza Poe would continue to perform on the Boston stage for a couple more years, and their second son Edgar was born there on January 19, 1809. A few months later, David made another one of his nocturnal visits, this time to his cousin George Poe, Jr., who would write about it in a letter dated March 6, 1809:
[David Poe] did not behave so well. One evening he came out to our house — having seen one of our servants…he had me called out to the door where he told me the most awful moment of his life was arrived, begged me to come and see him the next day at 11 o’clock at the Mansion house, [s]aid he came not to beg, & with a tragedy stride walked off after I had without reflection promised I would call — in obedience to my promise I went there the next day but found him not nor did I hear of him until yesterday, when a dirty little boy came to the door & said a man down at the tavern desired him to bring that paper and fetch back the answer — it is only necessary for me to copy the note here that you may see the impertinence it contains
Sir, You promised me on your honor to meet me at the Mansion house on the 23d — I promise you on my word of honor that if you will lend me 30, 20, 15 or even 10$ I will remit it to you immediately on my arrival in Baltimore. Be assured I will keep my promise at least as well as you did yours and that nothing but extreem [sic] distress would have forc’d me to make this application — Your answer by the bearer will prove whether I yet have “favour in your eyes” or whether I am to be despised by (as I understand) a rich relation because when a wild boy I join’d a profession which I then thought and now think an honorable one. But which I would most willingly quit tomorrow if it gave satisfaction to your family provided I could do any thing else that would give bread to mine — Yr. politeness will no doubt enduce you to answer this note from Yrs &c
D. POE JR.
To this impertinent note it is hardly necessary to tell you my answer — it merely went to assure him that he [need] not look to me for any countenance or support more especially after having written me such a letter as that and thus for the f[uture] I desired to hear not from or of him — so adieu to Davy —
In spite of the desperate tone of his letter, David Poe, Jr. did not give up the acting profession at the time. He continued to keep up a busy schedule of performances, and his reviews were gradually improving. Eliza Poe was winning over audiences with her mature dramatic performances by the time the growing family moved to New York in 1809. The then twenty-two year old actress even played Little Pickle again.
David Poe’s last notice, in the October 20, 1809 issue of The Ramblers’ Magazine, reads, “It was not until the curtain was ready to rise that the audience was informed that, owing to the sudden indisposition of Mr. Robertson and Mr. Poe, the Castle Spectre was necessarily substituted for Grieving’s a Folly.” His whereabouts after his “sudden indisposition” are unknown. He seems to have abandoned his wife and children sometime between then and July 26, 1811 when a letter in the Norfolk Herald reported that Eliza Poe had been “left alone, the only support of herself and several small children — Friendless and unprotected…” The place and time of David’s death are unknown, but a number of different dates and locations appear in Poe family records and elsewhere.
Poe’s mother continued to win over audiences until her death in Richmond at the age of twenty-four in 1811. Though Poe could barely remember his mother, he grew up bearing the stigma of having been the son of an actress, a disreputable profession at the time. Even his foster father John Allan referred to Poe in a letter as “that devil actress’s son.” Poe, however, was proud of his mother’s accomplishments and wrote in the July 19, 1845 issue of the Broadway Journal, “The writer of this article is himself the son of an actress — has invariably made it his boast– and no earl was ever prouder of his earldom than he of his descent from a woman who, although well born, hesitated not to consecrate to the drama her brief career of genius and of beauty.”
The Polyanthos ceased publication in 1814, but J.T. Buckingham continued to edit other literary magazines including The New-England Magazine. In 1833, he received a letter from a young writer named Edgar Allan Poe which reads,
I send you an original tale in hope of your accepting it for the N. E. Magazine. It is one of a number of similar pieces which I have contemplated publishing under the title of ‘Eleven Tales of the Arabesque‘. They are supposed to be read at table by the eleven members of a literary club, and are followed by the remarks of the company upon each. These remarks are intended as a burlesque upon criticism. In the whole, originality more than any thing else has been attempted. I have said this much with a view of offering you the entire M.S. If you like the specimen which I have sent I will forward the rest at your suggestion — but if you decide upon publishing all the tales, it would not be proper to print the one I now send until it can be printed in its place with the others. It is however optional with you either to accept them all, or publish ‘Epimanes’ and reject the rest — if indeed you do not reject them altogether.
Buckingham must not have thought much more of Edgar Poe’s story than he did of Edgar’s father’s acting. He declined to publish “Epimanes,” which would not appear in print until the Southern Literary Messenger published it three years later. Edgar Poe probably never knew how Buckingham had insulted his mother and incurred the wrath of his father. Today the Poe Museum’s issues of The Polyanthos serve as evidence of the acting talent of Poe’s mother and of the fiery temper of his father.
Like many businesses, the Poe Museum will be closed Monday in observance of Memorial Day to give our employees a chance to honor those brave men and women who died serving in the US Armed Forces. Monday will also be the 187th anniversary of Poe’s enlistment in the US Army, so this weekend is a great time to visit the Poe Museum to learn more about Poe’s military career. Active duty military will receive $1 off their admission to the Museum.
Poe enlisted in Boston on May 26, 1827, when he was eighteen. Seven months earlier, mounting debt had forced the young author to drop out of the University of Virginia and return to his boyhood home with his foster father John Allan in Richmond. On March 19, Mr. Allan quarreled with Poe and threw him out of the house, so Poe decided to sail for Boston to seek his fortune. It was there he published his first book, a small volume entitled Tamerlane, in June. Only about fifty copies were printed, and they were not distributed.
The above engraving shows Boston Harbor as it would have appeared when Poe was there.
Opinions differ as to why Poe decided to enlist. He may have been inspired by his service, three years earlier, on the Junior Morgan Riflemen entrusted with escorting the Marquis de Lafayette around Richmond during the Revolutionary War hero’s 1824 tour of America. Poe could have been inspired by his childhood hero, the British poet Lord Byron, who joined the Greeks in their battle for independence.
What is certain is that Poe enlisted for five years under the alias Edgar A. Perry. Maybe Poe used this name because he was still hiding from debt collectors. Maybe he was ashamed because the class-conscious young gentleman considered himself to be of the class of people who be officers rather than enlisted men (who, in Poe’s time tended to be immigrants and the poor). We may never know because Poe did not publicly admit to enlisting. In his autobiographical memo, he fabricates a story about trying to join the Greek Wars of Independence.
The poet was assigned to Battery H of the First Artillery at Fort Independence, Boston Harbor. In July, Poe became a clerk and would spend much of his time filing paperwork. His desk job probably relieved him of many of the tasks required of other enlisted men, including guard duty and fort maintenance. Poe’s battery went to Fort Moultrie, South Carolina, in November. It was there that Poe advanced to the position of artificer, the most technically demanding job in the army of his day. It was also one of the most dangerous because he would be responsible for mixing explosives. Poe excelled and soon attained the rank of regimental sergeant major, an accomplishment which usually took about seventeen years.
By the time his battery was assigned to Fortress Monroe in Virginia (pictured above), Poe had already decided to end his enlistment early in order to study at the United States Military Academy at West Point. This would be a highly unusual move because no enlisted man in the previous decade had become a West Point Cadet. Fortunately, Poe had the support of his officers. He wrote John Allan that an officer had agreed to discharge him on the condition that he reconcile with Allan.
Back in Richmond, Poe’s devoted foster mother Mrs. Allan was dying. Poe was unable to reach the city until the night after her burial. During this visit, he was able to reconcile briefly with Allan, who would seek recommendations on Poe’s behalf in order to gain him admittance to West Point. Poe returned to Fortress Monroe and promptly hired a substitute to serve the remainder of his enlistment for him.
Poe’s officers provided Poe recommendations that attest to his exceptional service. J. Howard, Lieut. 1st Artillery wrote, “…he at once performed the duties of company clerk and assistant in the Subsistent Department, both of which duties were promptly and faithfully done. his habits are good, and intirely free from drinking…”
Bt. Capt. H. W. Griswold described Poe as “exemplary in his deportment, prompt & faithful in the discharge of his duties…” and “highly worthy of confidence…”
Lt. Col. W. J. Worth added Poe’s “deportment has been highly praise worthy & deserving of confidence. His education is of a very high order and he appears to be free from bad habits in fact the testimony of Lt. Howard & Adjt. Griswold is full to that point — Understanding he is thro’ his friends an applicant for cadets warrant, I unhesitatingly recommend him as promising to acquit himself of the obligations of that station studiously & faithfully.”
Among those writing recommendations for Poe was Andrew Stevenson, Speaker of the House of Representatives. Eventually they secured Poe an appointment to West Point (pictured below), and arrived there on June 20, 1830. Poe soon wrote Allan, “Upon arriving here I delivered my letters of recommn & was very politely received by Capn Hitchcock & Mr Ross — The examination for admission is just over — a great many cadets of good family &c have been rejected as deficient…James D Brown, son of Jas Brown Jr has also been dismissed for deficiency after staying here 3 years…Of 130 Cadets appointed every year only 30 or 35 ever graduate — the rest being dismissed for bad conduct or deficiency the Regulations are rigid in the extreme…”
Poe performed well in his classes, attaining the seventeenth highest score in Mathematics and third in French among the eighty-seven fourth-classmen; but he soon decided he did not belong there. Once again, he was deep in debt. Mr. Allan had never paid the substitute, who had written Allan on the subject, unfortunately enclosing a letter in which Poe blames Allan’s delay in paying on his drunkenness. Poe would later explain in his autobiographical memo, “The army does not suit a poor man—so I left West Point abruptly.”
In a January 3, 1831 letter to John Allan, Poe writes, “You sent me to W. Point like a beggar. The same difficulties are threatening me as before at Charlottesville — and I must resign… I have no energy left, nor health. If it was possible, to put up with the fatigues of this place, and the inconveniences which my absolute want of necessaries subject me to, and as I mentioned before it is my intention to resign. For this end it will be necessary that you (as my nominal guardian) enclose me your written permission. It will be useless to refuse me this last request — for I can leave the place without any permission — your refusal would only deprive me of the little pay which is now due as mileage…From the time of writing this I shall neglect my studies and duties at the institution — if I do not receive your answer in 10 days — I will leave the point without — for otherwise I should subject myself to dismission.” Poe had made up his mind to get himself expelled.
Poe’s roommates, Thomas Pickering Jones of Tennessee and Thomas W. Gibson of Indiana, would both be court martialed and expelled. Jones was charged with drunkenness while Gibson’s offenses included not only drunkenness but also setting fire to a building. Although Poe would also be expelled after only nine months, the list of charges does not include anything as dramatic as pyromania or drunkenness. He was charged with “gross neglect of duty” and “disobeyance of orders. The record recounts that Poe “did absent himself from all his Academical duties between the 15th & 27 Jan’y 1831, viz. absent from Mathematical recitation on the 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 24, 25 & 26th Jan’y 1831” and that “after having been directed by the officer of the day to attend church on the 23d January 1831, [Poe] did fail to obey such order…” He was found “Guilty.”
Poe left West Point on February 19, but his aspirations for a military career continued. Less than a month later, he wrote Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, Superintendent of the U. S. Military Academy, West Point, “I intend by the first opportunity to proceed to Paris with the view of obtaining, thro’ the interest of the Marquis de La Fayette, an appointment (if possible) in the Polish Army . . . . The object of this letter is . . . to request that you will give me such assistance as may lie in your power in furtherance of my views. A certificate of ‘standing’ in my class is all that I have any right to expect. Any thing farther — a letter to a friend in Paris — or to the Marquis — would be a kindness which I should never forget.”
Of course, Poe was unable to join the Polish Army, but, as mentioned earlier, he would tell his biographers he went to join the Greeks instead.
A month after writing Thayer, Poe published his third book of poetry. Poems of Edgar A. Poe is dedicated to the U.S. Corps of Cadets, and 139 of the 232 those Cadets paid $1.25 each to finance the book’s publication. Learn more about the Poe Museum’s copy of this book here.
Though his military career was over by the time he was twenty-two, Poe would proudly wear his West Point great coat for the rest of his life. He is wearing it in the below daguerreotype taken the year before his death.
Some scholars believe the highly technical training Poe received as an artificer may have inspired his disciplined and technical poetry. His knowledge of projectiles and the calculations required to make them hit their intended target may also have played a part in his science fiction tale “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall” and his cosmological essay Eureka.
For further reading about Poe’s time in the Army, we recommend the book Private Perry and Mister Poe by William F. Hecker. You can also visit the Casemate Museum at Fort Monroe near Hampton, Virginia.