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!