With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, we thought the Poe Museum’s Object of the Month for February should be a memento of Poe’s “first and last love.”
Shelton’s CDV of Poe
Edgar Allan Poe was a distasteful subject in Elmira Royster Shelton’s home. In fact, her daughter forbade her to mention his name in her presence. For decades, the widow Shelton refused requests for interviews about her famous fiancée, and, when she finally agreed to answer some questions from Richmond historian Edward Valentine in 1874, she denied that she and Poe had ever been engaged. Scholars eventually questioned whether they had been or if the engagement was just one of the many legends that have grown up about Poe’s love life. After all, a number of women had emerged to claim their place as inspirations for his poetry. While one of Poe’s lady friends legally changed her name to match the nickname Poe had given her and while yet another held séances to communicate with his spirit, Elmira Shelton lived a quiet life in Virginia, attended church regularly, and revered the memory of her late husband. But, to her death, she kept this tiny photograph of the author as a memento of the poet.
Elmira Royster Shelton
The facts of Poe’s relationship with Shelton are already well known, even if some of the details have been obscured by time or disputed by historians. It is known that they first met in Richmond when Poe was fifteen and Shelton, about fifteen. James Whitty, a Poe collector who interviewed her in her later years, told Poe biographer Mary Phillps that Shelton been a “beautiful girl” who “was fond of all the boys, but liked Edgar best, while he was interested in all the girls but lingered longest with Elmira.” Her father was the merchant James Royster, who disapproved of the attention the orphan Poe was paying his daughter. Shelton later told Valentine, “He was a beautiful boy — Not very talkative. When he did talk though he was pleasant but his general manner was sad…” In an 1884 interview with John Moran, she related, “We spent much of our time together when we were children. They play the same piano, sang songs, and took walks through a neighbor’s walled garden together. By one account, the Presbyterian Elmira accompanied Poe and his foster mother Frances Allan to Sunday services at Monumental Episcopal Church.
It is believed that Poe and Elmira became secretly engaged before he left to attend the University of Virginia. One source, Shelton descendant Belle Fitzhugh, wrote the Poe Museum in the 1940s that she owned a letter Elmira had written to her own mother telling her about the engagement. That letter, however, disappeared after Fitzhugh’s death.
“Our acquaintance was kept up until he left to go to the University,” Shelton later told Valentine, “and during the time he was at the University he wrote to me frequently, but my father intercepted the letters because we were too young — no other reason.”
By the time Poe returned to Richmond after his first—and only—term at the University, she had engaged herself to the wealthy Alexander Barrett Shelton who had a shipping business on the canal. They were married a year later, in 1828, when he was twenty-one and she was eighteen. After their marriage, Mrs. Shelton was baptized at St. John’s Episcopal Church at the age of twenty-four.
The break from Elmira had sent Poe on a different path. Having accumulated so much debt at the University that he was unable to continue his studies, Poe went to work in an unpaid position at his foster father John Allan’s export business. After three months of increasingly heated arguments with Allan, Poe stormed out of his guardian’s house in a quest “to find some place in this wide world, where I will be treated — not as you have treated me.” The following day, Poe wrote Allan for money to facilitate this quest.
When Poe finally returned to Richmond in 1835, the twenty-six year old writer had published three books of poetry and had seen his poems and short stories published in newspapers and magazines. In fact, his first story to be printed in a nationally circulated magazine was “The Visionary,” which told of a young man hopelessly in love with a beautiful young woman who is married to a much older man she does not really love.
Poe had also met one of Elmira’s close friends, Mary Winfree of Chesterfield County, Virginia. She is said to have assured Poe that Elmira did not really love Alexander Shelton.
While in Richmond, Poe found employment at the Southern Literary Messenger and married his cousin Virginia. Shortly after the marriage, Mr. and Mrs. Poe attended a party where they encountered Mr. and Mrs. Shelton. Elmira later wrote to Poe’s aunt Mara Clemm that “I remember seeing Edgar, & his lovely wife, very soon after they were married — I met them — I never shall forget my feelings at the time — They were indescribable, almost agonizing— ‘However in an instant,’ I remembered that I was a married woman, and banished them from me, as I would a poisonous reptile…”
Within a year, Poe and his bride moved to New York, not to return to Richmond for over a decade. The Sheltons had four children, two of whom died young. The surviving children, Ann Elizabeth and Alexander, did not have much time to know their father before his death in 1843 at the age of thirty-seven. He is said to have died from pneumonia after having leapt into the freezing James River to rescue a drowning man. The only problem is that he died on July 12, in the middle of a hot Richmond summer, so his exact cause of death is unknown.
Alexander Shelton’s Grave in Shockoe Hill Cemetery, Richmond
Alexander’s death forced Elmira into a period of Victorian mourning. A proper lady like Elmira was expected to follow the etiquette of mourning, which dictated her behavior, clothing, and even her stationery for the next four five years. As her period of mourning drew to a close in 1848, she wrote a cousin, Philip Fitzhugh, “I am fearful Cousin Philip, that I shall never be a happy woman again…” Shelton had certainly changed since Poe had known her. One of their mutual acquaintances, Susan Archer Talley Weiss, described her as “a tall, rather masculine-looking woman, who drew her veil over her face as she passed us on the porch, though I caught a glimpse of large, shadowy, light blue eyes which must once have been handsome.”
Edward Alfriend, who knew Shelton, had a very different view of her appearance:
When I knew Mrs. Shelton she had a lovely, almost saintly face. Her eyes were a deep blue, her hair dark brown, touched with grey, her nose thin and patrician, her forehead high and well developed, her chin finely modeled, projecting and firm, and her cheeks round and full. Her voice was very low, soft and sweet, her manners exquisitely refined, and intellectually she was a woman of education and force of character. Her distinguishing qualities were gentleness and womanliness. She was just the woman in which such a perturbed spirit as that of Poe would have sought rest and found it.
Shelton was also gifted in business. In the six years since her husband’s death she had increased her $60,000 inheritance to about $70,000 at a time when American women still had few rights.
Then Poe reentered her life. As she told Valentine,
I was ready to go to church and a servant told me that a gentleman in the parlour wanted to see me. I went down and was amazed to see him — but knew him instantly — He came up to me in the most enthusiastic manner and said: “Oh! Elmira, is this you?” That very morning I told him I was going to church, that I never let anything interfere with that, that he must call again and when he did call again he renewed his addresses.
Since leaving Richmond, Poe had moved from New York to Philadelphia and back to New York, working at some of the nation’s leading periodicals and becoming a literary celebrity along the way. While living outside New York, in the village of Fordham, his wife died after a prolonged battle with tuberculosis. The only alleviation from the crippling depression that ensued seemed to be the friendly admirers who came to Fordham to visit the famous poet. By the time he resumed his lecture tour in 1848, he was desperate to find a new wife to fill the void left by Virginia’s absence. His travels brought him from Fordham to Richmond to Providence and back to Richmond. Along the way, he became fixated on Nancy Richmond of Lowell, Massachusetts. Unfortunately, she was happily married at the time, so he turned his attention to Providence, Rhode Island where an eccentric widow named Sarah Helen Whitman had addressed a Valentine’s Day poem to him. She closed the poem by expressing her desire to share a “lofty eyrie” with the “raven.” When he read a copy of her Valentine, Poe dropped everything to visit her in Providence, and proposed to her on their first meeting. She declined, and he attempted suicide. About two weeks later, she accepted his proposal on the condition that he abstain from drinking. The engagement only lasted a month.
Elmira Shelton’s House on Church Hill, Richmond
Less than a year later, Poe showed up on Elmira Shelton’s doorstep. He was in town to lecture at the Exchange Hotel and to sell his essays to the Southern Literary Messenger, which was by then under new ownership. Although she had initially refused to receive him, Poe soon became a frequent visitor. On one such visit, Shelton later recalled, “he looked very serious and said he was in earnest and had been thinking about it for a long time. Then I found out that he was very serious and I became serious. I told him if he would not take a positive denial he must give me time to consider of it. And he said a love that hesitated was not a love for him.”
On August 29, Poe wrote his aunt Maria Clemm, “And now let me tell you all about Elmira as well as I can in a letter. — We are solemnly engaged to be married within the coming month (Septr) — but I make no doubt that in a week or 10 days, all will be over.”
According to the letter, Shelton tried to postpone the wedding until January, so Poe stormed out and went to his sister’s house in the country. Then Shelton “went out to Mackenzie’s after me & all about town — so that every body knows of our engagement. It was reported, indeed, that we were married last Thursday.”
Ann Elizabeth Shelton on left
But there was some strong opposition to the match. Poe’s sister Rosalie Poe disliked Shelton, who had tried to discourage her from annoying Edgar by following him everywhere he went. Additionally, Shelton’s married daughter opposed the marriage because, in Poe’s opinion, Ann Elizabeth’s “pecuniary interests will be injured…” The problem was a stipulation in Shelton’s late husband’s will stating that, if she ever remarried, she would lose three quarters of her inheritance, which would still leave her more money than Poe had made from his entire twenty-two year career as a writer. Poe, of course, had struggled with poverty his entire adult life and made plans to save $500 a year by educating her son Southall himself at home. The ten-year-old would have probably hated the idea. He is known to have mocked Poe behind his back while Ann Elizabeth giggled uncontrollably.
Poe had other plans for the marriage. In addition to expressing his intention to move with Elmira to a cottage in the country, he also wanted to bring Maria Clemm to Richmond to live with them. She accepted the plan, writing Clemm, “I am fully prepared to love you, and I do sincerely hope that our spirits may be congenial — There shall be nothing wanting on my part to make them so…”
If Elmira was looking forward to the wedding, Poe still had doubts. He wrote Maria Clemm, “There is one other thing, too, dear mother, which drives me frantic — my love for Annie — I worship her beyond all human love. My passion for her grows stronger every day. I dare not, at this crisis, either speak or think of her — if I did I should go mad…Indeed, indeed, there is no expressing or conceiving the devotion I have for her. My love for her will never, never cease, either in this world or the next.”
A couple weeks later, Poe wrote Clemm, “I confess that my heart sinks at the idea of this marriage. I think, however, that it will certainly take place & that immediately.” Just eight days after writing that letter, Poe wrote Clemm again, this time making plans to meet her in New York to bring her back to Richmond for the wedding. By then, he expressed his renewed devotion to Elmira, writing, “I think she loves me more devotedly than any one I ever knew & I cannot help loving her in return.” In spite of his poverty, Poe bought Elmira extravagant gifts including a gold locket containing a lock of his hair, a gold wedding ring, and a daguerreotype of himself. Meanwhile, the hotel in which he had been staying confiscated his luggage until he could pay his bill.
Shelton’s Daguerreotype of Poe ruined during a cleaning attempt
Regardless, Poe was in good spirits. He visited the office of the Southern Literary Messenger, where, as the editor John Rueben Thompson recalled, “The evening before his departure from Richmond he was with me and spoke in the highest spirits of his resolves and prospects for the future. He had become a Son of Temperance and was soon to be married to a lady here.” By joining the Sons of Temperance, Poe pledged to abstain from drinking alcohol.
On his last night in Richmond, Poe spent the evening with Elmira. He complained of feeling sick, and she thought he seemed “very sad.” The next morning, he caught a steamship to Baltimore, where he died ten days later.
Poe spent his last four days in a Baltimore hospital under the care of Dr. John J. Moran who noted a month later in a letter to Maria Clemm, “He told me…he had a wife in Richmond (which, I have since learned was not the fact).” The “wife” to whom Poe referred could have been Elmira.
Elmira was stunned to read about Poe’s death in the newspaper and frantically wrote Maria Clemm, “Oh! how shall I address you, my dear, and deeply afflicted friend under such heart-rending circumstances? I have no doubt, ere this, you have heard of the death of our dear Edgar! yes, he was the dearest object on earth to me… Oh! my dearest friend! I cannot begin to tell you what my feelings were, as the horrible truth forced itself upon me! It was the most severe trial I have ever had; and God alone knows how I can bear it!”
By the time of Poe’s death, word had already spread about his engagement. The day after Poe’s funeral, his friend John Pendleton Kennedy wrote in his diary, that Poe “was soon to be married to a lady in Richmond of quite good fortune.” Poe’s acquaintance and editor of the Richmond Semi-Weekly Examiner John Moncure Daniel, wrote, “It was universally reported that [Poe] was engaged to be married. The lady was a widow, of wealth and beauty, who was an old flame of his, and whom he declared to be the ideal and original of his Lenore.”
Others believed the engagement had been broken before Poe left Richmond. Dr. John Carter, whose house Poe visited immediately after his last evening at the Shelton house, wrote in 1902, “I had not seen Poe for some days, when he one evening, about half-past nine o’clock, called at my office, which, being on Seventeenth and Broad Streets, had afforded him a half-way resting-place between Duncan Lodge and the residence of Mrs. Shelton, on Church Hill, during his brief engagement to that lady. As was well known to his intimate friends, the engagement was broken off before he left Richmond, though whether afterwards resumed is not certain.”
A friend of Poe’s sister’s, Susan Archer Talley Weiss, wrote in 1904, “He himself always denied, even in public, that any engagement existed between himself and Mrs. Shelton, and spoke of the schoolboy love affair with her as a case of ‘measles.’” Weiss believed that Poe could only been interested in marrying Shelton for her money because Shelton was “not gifted with those traits which might be supposed capable of attracting one of his peculiar taste and temperament.” But Weiss does mention in the same account that “Mrs. Shelton, on Poe’s death, donned ‘widow’s weeds’ of the deepest mourning.”
Weiss also reported that Shelton’s neighbor, the former Civil War spy Elizabeth Van Lew, told her, “I used at first to often see Mr. Poe enter there, but never during the latter part of his stay in Richmond. It seemed to be known about here that the engagement was off. . . . Gossip had it that Mrs. Shelton discarded him because persuaded by friends that he was after her money. All her relatives are said to be opposed to the match.”
If Poe had been a celebrity during his lifetime, he became a legend after his death. Countless newspapers printed his obituary, and magazines carried accounts of his life. Rufus Griswold printed a memoir of the author, and Sarah Helen Whitman wrote her own Poe biography a few years later. John Rueben Thompson started deliver a lecture about “The Genius and Character of Edgar Allan Poe.” It seems almost everyone who had ever met the author started telling their story to any journalist who would listen. A number of women from Poe’s life were eager to alert the media that they were the inspiration for “Annabel Lee,” “Lenore,” or some other Poe poem. Elmira, however, refused to speak about her former fiancé. When she finally did answer a few questions from Edward Valentine, she insisted, “He never addressed any poems to me.”
After Poe’s death, Shelton continued to live in her Church Hill home, spurning the advances of potential suitors. Southall fought and lost an eye in the Civil War. Ann Elizabeth moved with her husband John Henry Leftwich to Ashland, Virginia. After the War, Elmira fell on hard times, eventually selling the locket, mother-of-pearl purse, drawing, and daguerreotype Poe had given her. At some point, she gave her wedding ring—with Poe’s name inscribed inside the band—to Poe’s sister Rosalie MacKenzie Poe.
Ann Elizabeth Shelton Leftwich
Around 1870, Shelton left Richmond to move in with her daughter in Ashland. After all those years, Ann Elizabeth still detested Poe, forbidding her mother to mention his name in her presence. Ann Elizabeth’s daughter Jennie Leftwich Wright later recalled, “The feeling of my mother was so strong against Mr. Poe and any association of his name with my grandmother’s that even as an old lady my mother would become incensed whenever their names were linked.”
By 1875, Shelton was living in a house on Clay Street in Richmond. She revered the memory of her husband and rarely spoke of Poe. The only person permitted to mention the poet was her favorite grandson, Southall’s son Alexander F. Shelton, who occasionally called out, “Well, Lost Lenore?” when she returned from visiting friends. To this she insisted she was most certainly not the “Lost Lenore.” Incidentally, the home in which she briefly lived in Ashland is listed on the National Record of Historic Places as the “Lost Lenore” House.
When she finally agreed to speak with Valentine, she insisted she had never been engaged to Poe: “He [continued] to visit me frequently but I never engaged myself to him. He begged me when he was going away to marry him. Promised he would be everything I could desire.”
In 1884, when Poe’s attending physician John J. Moran was preparing his own biography of Poe, he requested an interview, and Elmira accepted. On meeting her, he observed that “though in feeble health and well advanced in years, her face indicates a peaceful mind and a joyous hope of the rest beyond.”
He spoke with her for four hours during which “she talked freely with me of their childhood and riper years when they were in each other’s company.” He later quoted her as telling him, “I am lost in wonder and amazement at the singular drama now being enacted. Oh, sir, you can have no idea of the thoughts that have so crowded upon my memory and occupied my mind. How often I have wished to see his physician, so that I could learn from his own lips Mr. Poe’s dying words. And to think that so many years after his death, we are face to face, reviewing his life, from his childhood to his grave. All this I have anxiously hoped for before I should die, and it is now fulfilled.” She wept the tears with her handkerchief as she spoke.
Four years later, Elmira was dead. Her February 12, 1888 obituary in the Richmond Whig, entitled “Poe’s First and Last Love,” began, “One more of the few ties that prominently connect the name of Edgar Allan Poe to earth has been broken.” The article’s eleven paragraphs told of Poe’s life, his engagement to Sarah Helen Whitman, his marriage to Virginia Clemm, and nothing about Shelton’s life apart from him. Her granddaughter had grown up with no idea that her grandmother had once known a famous writer, but there was no missing the fact after the publication of that obituary.
Although Elmira Shelton had long-since sold almost all her mementos of Poe, she kept a tiny albumen print photograph of him until her death. It is unknown when or where she got the picture, but she must have acquired it at least twenty years after Poe’s death because the pastel portrait depicted in the photo was not created until 1868 and probably not reproduced until 1870.
The photograph is stamped “Lee Gallery, Richmond VA,” so she could have received it from any of her friends in the city or even from Poe’s sister, who resorted to selling photographs of her famous brother in the lean times after the Civil War. Rosalie Poe is said to have considered this portrait the best likeness of Poe, so copies of it could be among those she sold.
After Shelton’s death, the photograph was among her possessions that passed to her daughter Ann Elizabeth Shelton to Ann Elizabeth’s daughter Lou Newton Leftwich Coghill to her son daughter Bessie Coghill Cobb to her sons Maj. William Magruder Cobb and Thomas Tracy Cobb. William and Thomas Cobb donated their collection of Shelton family photographs and portraits to the Poe Museum in 1979. In addition to the photograph of Poe, the group includes two photographs of Ann Elizabeth Shelton Leftwich, a miniature of James Royster, a photograph of John Henry Leftwich, two photographs of Elmira Shelton’s sister, and one of two known daguerreotypes of Elmira Shelton.
Daguerreotype of Elmira Shelton donated by the Cobbs
Ever since Poe’s death, various scholars have tried to dismiss the possibility that Poe and Elmira were engaged at the time of his death, but evidence has emerged to lend support to claims made by Poe, Thompson, Kennedy, Daniel, and Shelton herself that they really were engaged and very likely would have married if his life had not been cut short just days before the ceremony was to have taken place. The truth is we can never be certain whether or not Poe would have married Shelton and finally settled down into a comfortable upper-class life for the first time in his adult life. All that remains as evidence of their relationship are some second-hand accounts, a couple letters, and a few scattered artifacts, among which is the Poe Museum’s photograph.
The albumen print carte-de-visite is slightly smaller than a baseball card. Poe’s image emerges in slightly faded sepia tones on one side. On the back of the photograph, Elmira wrote the name “Edgar Allan Poe” in handwriting clearly recognizable from her letters. Above her signature is written in a different handwriting, “Poe’s picture kept by Elmira Royster/ WMC [William M. Cobb] 1950/ Writing below probably/ Elmira Royster’s.” There is no other evidence to suggest what this photograph—or its subject—meant to her.
Back of CDV
Today the Poe Museum devotes a case to Elmira Royster Shelton. In it are displayed a handful of items donated by Shelton’s descendants. Her spectacles, a daguerreotype of her, a miniature of her father, a copy of a drawing Poe made of her, a photograph of her daughter, and a selection of other artifacts serve to tell the story of a love that could have been.
On February 11 from 7-9 p.m. at the Patrick Henry Pub and Grille in Richmond, the Poe Museum will team up with James River Writers to bring back the grand tradition of the salon, an intimate setting to meet & fraternize with local authors as they in turn guide you in your own writing practice. Whatever your genre, this will be a great way to connect, to learn, and to philosophize. There is no cover charge. We welcome writerly types of all experience levels and readers, thinkers, and artists of every sort. To top it off, the building in which we will be meeting was the home of J.W. Fergusson, Poe’s assistant at the Southern Literary Messenger and one of the few people to attend Poe’s wedding. The theme for the first salon will be “The Secret Heart–Considering the Dark Side of Romance” with speaker Slash Coleman.
Here are the Details:
February Topic: The Secret Heart – Considering the Dark Side of Romance
Speaker: Slash Coleman
Thursday, February 11, 7:00-9:00 p.m.
Patrick Henry Pub & Grille, in the upstairs salon
2300 East Broad Street (free street parking)
About the Speaker:
NPR calls award-winning storyteller Slash Coleman “Extremely provocative and entertaining,” and WGBH says the NYC based author, “has the power to change the way people think.”
The author of The Bohemian Love Diaries, the personal perspectives blogger for Psychology Today, and an advice columnist at howdoidate.com (Ask Uncle Slash), Slash is best known for his PBS Special The Neon Man and Me and is currently creating The New American Storyteller for PBS. Slash’s performances have been featured in American Theatre Magazine, Backstage Magazine, The Washington Post, and most recently on the NPR series How Artists Make Money.
For more than a century, Edgar Allan Poe’s works have inspired countless writers, visual artists, musicians, and filmmakers; but now his works will inspire a ballet, which will be performed in the Poe Museum of Richmond’s legendary Enchanted Garden on March 19 at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and on March 20 at 3 p.m.
The Latin Ballet of Virginia is proud to announce the world premiere of POEMAS, a dance theatre production inspired by the life and poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, Alfonsina Storni, Pablo Neruda and Federico Garcia Lorca. Latin Ballet of Virginia’s Artistic Director, Ana Ines King in collaboration with international artists and choreographers, Antonio Hidalgo Paz and Domingo Ortega of Spain and Ana Patricia Nuckols of El Salvador, produced the works and interpretations seen in POEMAS. As part of the performance, the Poe Museum’s curator Chris Semtner will be reading Poe’s poetry.
POEMAS is choreographed in dance theatre, contemporary dance, contemporary and traditional Flamenco, Latino American dance and Spanish classical dance forms to give each poet an accurate character illustration in the most traditional and cultural interpretation.
POEMAS supports Latin Ballet of Virginia’s scholastic initiatives Everybody READS!, an educational component of the Be Proud of Yourself program, which promotes a love of reading, writing and literature through performances, lectures and workshops.
The Latin Ballet of Virginia is honored to be partnering with The Edgar Allan Poe Museum, to aid in their mission of interpreting the life and influence of Edgar Allan Poe for a global audience. POEMAS will be just one in a series of “Poe Inspires” events and exhibits through which the Poe Museum will showcase Poe’s continuing legacy of inspiration for today’s artists. This is will be the first time a ballet has ever been performed at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum.
The Poets whose works will be featured in POEMAS are:
Edgar Allan Poe’s work has had a profound impact on American and international literature. His stories mark him as one of the originators of both detective fiction and the modern tale of psychological terror. Today, Poe is remembered as one of the first American writers to become a major figure in world literature.
Federico García Lorca is one of the most prominent Spanish cultural figures of the twentieth century. His lyrical work incorporates elements of Spanish folklore, Andalusian flamenco and gypsy culture while exploring themes of romantic love and tragedy
Alfonsina Storni is considered one of the most prominent Latino American women poets of the twentieth century. Inspired by her own personal experiences, Storni courageously wrote about the struggles of women in modern urban society, advocating equality for women and bemoaning the inadequacies of romantic relationships in a male-dominated culture.
Pablo Neruda led a life charged with poetic and political activity, whose most notable collection of poetry was written at the young age of 19. The book, Veinte Poemas de Amor y una Canción Desesperada (“Twenty Poems of Love and a Song Despair”) made a celebrity of Neruda, who gave up his studies to devote himself to his craft.
Click here for more information about this innovative performance.
March 17-18 at Gottwald Playhouse (Richmond CenterStage)
Thursday 10:30 am & 12:30 pm, Friday 10:30 am, 12:30 pm and 7:30 pm
March 19-20 at The Edgar Allan Poe Museum:
Saturday 3:00 pm & 7:30 pm, Sunday at 3:00 pm
Tickets available for purchase at:
www.latinballet.com/tickets or through The Edgar Allan Poe Museum at www.poemuseum.org/shop
$20 Adults | $15 Students & Seniors | $10 Groups and Fieldtrips
FREE for Children 6 years old and under.
Thanks to a generous loan from film director Raul Garcia, the Poe Museum in Richmond is proud to host an exhibit of artwork from Garcia’s new Poe-inspired animated film Extraordinary Tales. Included in the exhibit are intricate paper sculptures by Jack Mircala as well as concept sketches, story boards, and posters for each of the film’s six segments. The film features adaptations of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” and “The Raven.” The exhibit will continue until February 28, 2016.
Below are some of Jack Mircala’s paper sculptures.
Looking for a place to park when you visit the Poe Birthday Bash this Saturday? In addition to on-street parking and limited spaces in the Poe Museum lot, you can also find abundant parking one block south of the Poe Museum at the Virginia Holocaust Museum’s Lower Lot at 21st and Canal. Many thanks to the Virginia Holocaust Museum for their generosity. Click here for directions.
Ever want to feel what it’s like to get bricked up behind a wall or buried under the floorboards? Here is your chance to step inside Edgar Allan Poe’s greatest terror tales in the Poe Museum of Richmond’s chilling new exhibit “Poe’s Greatest Hits.” Visitors to the exhibit will be able to interact with life-size recreations of iconic scenes from Poe’s popular stories “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Black Cat,” and “The Cask of Amontillado.”
On January 16, 2016, the Poe Museum in Richmond’s new exhibit “Poe’s Greatest Hits” will open, allowing museum visitors to walk inside and interact with Edgar Allan Poe’s popular short stories “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Black Cat,” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.” (Click here to see people enjoying our current exhibit.) After exploring life-size recreations of iconic scenes from each story, museum visitors will vote for their choice for Poe’s Greatest Short Story. The exhibit opening will take place during Poe’s Birthday Bash on January 16 from noon-midnight, the world’s largest Edgar Allan Poe birthday celebration. The exhibit will be on view until April 24.
Poe certainly showed an interest in visual art and even tried his hand at drawing. In one of his letters he mentions having a drawing he made of his childhood sweetheart Elmira Royster, and he may also have sketched on his dorm room walls at the University of Virginia. It is certainly possible that some of Poe’s drawings could still be in existence. Over the years, however, a series have forgeries and misattributions have been the only pieces of “Poe artwork” to come to light. The most famous of these are three pencil sketches supposedly representing Poe, Royster, and Poe’s wife Virginia. These appeared in Italy in the 1930s and have since entered the collection of the Lilly Library in Indiana.
The Poe Museum owns a drawing (pictured below) said to have been made from a negative of a photograph of a sketch Poe made of Elmira Royster. Nora Houston (1883-1942), the artist who made the Poe Museum’s sketch later recalled the original drawing was only about the size of a silver dollar, but she enlarged it to roughly the dimensions of a sheet of typing paper. Additionally, Houston was not a very skilled draftsman, so her copy is likely only a very vague approximation of whatever she was trying to copy.
Another piece of Poe artwork in the Poe Museum’s collection is an oil painting (pictured below) on canvas entitled The Falls of the James (even though it bears no resemblance to the actual Falls of the James). The Museum purchased it for $50 in 1924 because the acquisitions committee was convinced it was an authentic painting by Poe. The only basis for this attribution seems to have been the fact that the piece is signed “POE” on the lower right corner. There is, however, no evidence of Poe taking up oil painting, and there is no link between this painting and Edgar Poe. It is more likely some other Poe painted it. On close inspection, the signature, on which the attribution rests, appears to have been added at a later date to an already old painting. One of the oldest tricks in the forger’s book is signing old paintings of suitable content with the name of a well-known artist like Rembrandt or Vermeer. In this case, someone found an appropriately moody painting and wrote Poe’s name on it. When seen under magnification, however, the paint surface shows signs of abrasion, but the signature does not—indicating the signature is not as old as the rest of the painting.
That brings us to the Poe Museum’s painting The Fatal Letter. It first came to light among the papers left by the artist Robert Matthew Sully (1803-1855) after his early death. Born in Petersburg, Virginia, Robert Sully was the nephew of the famous artist Thomas Sully, whose portrait of Andrew Jackson appears on the twenty dollar bill. As a boy, Robert befriended a young Edgar Allan Poe. Sully first studied with his uncle in Philadelphia before training in London from 1824 until 1828. In London, Robert copied the paintings of famous artists and developed a fondness for the work of Thomas Gainsborough and a number of other British artists. After his return to the United States, Sully opened a studio in Richmond, Virginia where he hosted Poe in 1848 and 1849. Sully was working on a painting based on Poe’s poem “Lenore” when the poet died in October 1849. Sully also painted a portrait of Poe and made at least two copies of it, but, despite the best efforts of Poe collectors to find them, all three are missing. In 1855, Sully began a journey to Wisconsin but fell ill and died on the way.
Robert Matthew Sully
Robert Sully’s granddaughter, the art critic Julia Sully, found The Fatal Letter among his papers. In 1926, the watercolor was reproduced in two different Poe biographies, Hervey Allen’s Israfel and Mary Phillips’s Edgar Allan Poe: The Man.
According to Hervey Allen,
To Robert Sully, his old boyhood friend, of whom he now once more saw a great deal, spending hours with him in his studio, he gave the picture, called the “Fatal Letter,” which Mrs. Osgood had noticed hanging over his desk at 85 Amity Street. It seems to have been an illustration for one of Byron’s poems, and to Poe represented the despair of Elmira when she had discovered one of his own love letters after her engagement to Mr. Shelton. There was an inscription on the back, now obliterated, with some reference to the Lost Lenore in The Raven, and his signature.
Following Allen’s reasoning, Poe painted the picture to illustrate on of Lord Byron’s poems which represented, to Poe, Elmira Royster discovering a letter from Poe that her father had hidden from her in order to break off their engagement. This is also supposed to represent Lenore from the poem “The Raven.” Allen also believed the painting is the very same one the poet Frances S. Osgood mentioned when she described seeing him “at his desk beneath the romantic picture of his loved and lost Lenore…”
Mary Phillips had a similar theory about the picture, which she decided to call The Farewell Letter rather than The Fatal Letter.
Another tribute to this lost love seems conclusive in a seeming Poe-copy — somewhat varied, perhaps for his purpose — of Gilbert Stuart Newton’s oil painting, “Forsaken,” of which Poe’s copy was entitled, with some strong significance, “The Farewell Letter.” This copy, with another, was found among effects of Poe’s devoted friend Robert M. Sully by his granddaughter, Miss Julia Sully, who gives the grace of its reprint. On the reverse of Poe’s copy, in his dim pencil hand, appears, — “Edgar A. Poe”; and in Robert Sully’s faint pencil hand is, — “From Edgar A. Poe.” No other clue to this gift-picture is known; but it follows the drawn conclusions mentioned. It seems a drop-curtain on one of his young life’s tragedies. The original painting Miss Sully found in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. There are various records of Poe’s drawings and among them were several sketches of Miss Royster. Newton’s picture may have presented her as Poe saw her in his visions as given by his copy and new title.
Unlike Allen, Phillips correctly identifies the watercolor as a copy of Gilbert Stuart Newton’s painting The Forsaken. Newton’s painting depicts a seated woman weeping over a letter which is resting at her feet. To Phillips, the letter in the painting held a special meaning for Poe because it reminded him of an episode from his failed romance with Royster.
Mr. Whitty [Poe collector and co-founder of the Poe Museum] notes that the old colored servitor of the Allan home said that both Mrs. Allan and Edgar were sad at heart the day he started for the University, and on the way Edgar hinted his wish to break away from Mr. Allan and seek his own living. It appears that his servant was entrusted with a letter to be given to his sweetheart Elmira and it seemed to be the last — but one — she received from her young lover — for many a year. It seems certain that Edgar at this time and with this letter sent, as a souvenir of their mutual devotion to Elmira the mother-of-pearl purse he never could have kept full…However, Mr. Royster, deeming his daughter “O‘er young to marry Poe” destroyed further letters but “one” from Edgar, until Elmira’s marriage, at seventeen, to Mr. Alexander B. Shelton. This “one” letter she found too late, excepting to make her mind on the subject unpleasantly clear to those most concerned in her loss of the others. This action at that time seems definitely to include her father and Mr. Shelton. Perhaps Poe’s treasured “Farewell Letter” picture, of later noting, was a reflex of a real or a dream one he wrote her in this connection. That the misgiving harbored in the heart of his beloved must have been in fact, or dreams, imparted to Edgar seems certain…
Even though both Phillips and Allen thought Poe had painted the picture, Julia Sully believed it to be the work of her grandfather. Since Robert Sully was a painter while Poe was not, it seems more likely that Sully made the painting. It is a copy of the painting The Forsaken by the British artist Gilbert Stuart Newton (1795-1835). Born in Nova Scotia, Newton (a nephew of Gilbert Stuart, who painted the portrait of George Washington that appears on the one dollar bill) went to Europe in 1817 and exhibited a portrait of Washington Irving at the Royal Academy in London in 1818. Irving, who printed an engraving of Newton’s portrait of him in his Sketch-Book, wrote in 1820, “Newton is busy with a brush in each hand, and his hair standing on end, turning Anne’s portraits into likenesses of Mary Queen of Scots, General Washington, and the Lord knows who.” The identity of Anne is unknown, but she was Newton’s unrequited love who probably lived on Sloane Street because Irving referred to her as “The Sloane Street Goddess.” It was about this time that Newton painted The Forsaken, which first brought him to public attention when he first exhibited it in 1821. It was so popular an engraving of it appeared in The Literary Souvenir, or Cabinet of Poetry and Romance in 1826. This version of The Forsaken was very different than the one reproduced in the Poe Museum’s picture. Adding to the confusion, the engraving from the Souvenir was reprinted with the title The English Girl in William Cosmo Monkhouse’s 1869 book Masterpieces of English Art.
First Version of The Forsaken
Newton soon attained distinction as a portraitist. He was elected an Honorary Academician of the National Academy of Design in 1827. He became an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1829 and an Academician in 1832. It was shortly after this that his mind began to fail, at which point he was institutionalized in an asylum at Chelsea in 1833. He died in London from consumption two years later. Newton’s brilliant but tragic life inspired Israel Zangwill’s novel The Master (1895).
The Forsaken from the Museum of Fine Art, Boston
(c) Glasgow Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Newton made at least two copies of the version of The Forsaken reproduced in the Poe Museum’s watercolor. One of these was eventually acquired by Thomas Gold Appleton, who bequeathed it to the Museum of Fine Art, Boston. The other, which is nearly identical, entered the collection of the Glasgow Museums, but it is entitled The Disconsolate. Since Robert Sully was living in London in 1824-1828, he could have seen this copy of Newton’s The Forsaken/The Disconsolate and made his own watercolor replica of it. It is even more likely that Sully copied it from Poe’s friend John Sartain’s (1808-1897) mezzotint copy which appeared in Volume 9 (1846) of The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art as well as in the October 16, 1847 issue of The Literary World.
The Disconsolate by Sartain
Poe might also have seen the mezzotint, and he could even have painted his copy of it. But, if he made this watercolor, he must have painted others, but there is no record of their existence. He does not mention his watercolors in any of his letters, and there is no contemporary description of him painting.
The mysterious origins of the painting stem from the inscription on the back: “The Raven/From Edgar A Poe.” Written over the second line, in what appears to be a different handwriting is the signature “Edgar A Poe.” On the lower left of the back is an indistinct pencil word which appears to be “Raven.” This is probably the handwriting of Robert Sully. When Julia Sully donated the piece to the Poe Museum in 1922, the accession book recorded it as Poe’s autograph.
Poe’s Name on the back of The Fatal Letter
Other writing on the back of The Fatal Letter
That is the extent of our knowledge concerning this picture. We are left to speculate about the meaning of the inscription. It could indicate that Poe gave Sully the painting and signed the back. If this were the case, someone other than Sully painted it. Poe knew several artists, including Sartain, Marie Louise Shew, and Felix O.C. Darley, who could have painted it if Sully did not. Given the poor quality of the drawing and the bad proportions, Marie Louise Shew, Poe’s nurse and an amateur artist, is the most likely of these three, but there is no way to verify this.
Alternatively, the inscription could mean that the inscriber (probably Robert Sully) thought the painting illustrated or should be used as an illustration for “The Raven” by (or “from”) Edgar A. Poe. This explanation does not take into account the fact that no scene similar to that of a woman weeping over a letter appears in “The Raven.” Robert Sully’s paintings are sometimes somewhat crude in their drawings and demonstrate a poor sense of proportion, particularly when it comes to the elongation of his subjects’ necks. His portrait of Frances Allan (itself a copy of his uncle Thomas Sully’s lovely portrait of the same subject) suffers from these deficiencies.
Frances Allan by Robert Sully
None of the theories concerning the origin of this picture is verifiable. In the end, we do not know if Poe ever owned it, if it could have been the “Lost Lenore” picture Frances Osgood saw hanging over Poe’s writing desk, or even who painted it. We know neither if the subject of the painting is Gilbert Stuart Newton’s mysterious “Sloane Street Goddess” nor what is written on the letter resting at her feet. There is not even a consensus on the meaning of the writing on the back of the painting or who wrote it.
Even though we have little solid information about the artifact, it still has tremendous value as a document of the relationship between Edgar Poe and Robert Sully. Since the portraits Robert Sully painted of Poe have been either lost or destroyed, this tiny watercolor may be one of the few surviving artifacts documenting the connection between the poet and the painter. Admittedly, it does not provide anything more than a suggestion that the painter was aware enough of the poet to own a watercolor with Poe’s name (or maybe his autograph) on the back. For more information on Edgar Allan Poe’s interest in the visual arts, be sure to find a copy of Barbara Cantalupo’s new book Poe and the Visual Arts.
The Fatal Letter/The Farewell Letter/The Forsaken/The Disconsolate is also a document of the evolution of Poe scholarship and the ways Poe’s biographers project their own creatively convoluted theories onto Poe and the artifacts associated with him. That is why it is the Poe Museum’s Object of the Month. You can find it on display all this month in the Museum’s Model Building.
Already the world’s largest celebration of author Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday, the Poe Museum of Richmond’s annual Poe Birthday Bash will outdo itself this January 16 from noon to midnight with twelve straight hours counting down Poe’s greatest hits with performance, film, music, readings, exhibits, and more for just $5 per person.
New exhibits opening that day include the interactive “Poe’s Greatest Hits” in which the visitor gets to be part of a Poe story. There will also be a display of original artwork from the new film Extraordinary Tales. Live music includes fan favorites The Embalmers and more great bands. There will be readings and performances throughout the day in addition to neighborhood tours, museum tours, and historical interpreters. We will be joined by James River Writers and Sisters in Crime for readings and the announcement of the winner of the inaugural Poe Inspires Award for flash fiction and poetry at 5:30 p.m. Guests will vote for Poe’s greatest short story, and the winner will be announced at 6 p.m.
There will be crafts and games for the kids, a sad poetry reading contest for all ages, and a midnight champagne toast for the adults. Other highlights of the day include a screening of the film Extraordinary Tales, The Embalmers playing live music to accompany screenings of silent Poe films, a walking tour the neighborhood by Poe’s mother, and readings by members of Sisters in Crime. A cash bar will be provided by Center of the Universe.
Here is the schedule so far:
11:00 a.m. to Dark Crafts
Walking Tour with Poe’s Fiancee Elmira Shelton
Begins and ends at Poe Museum and includes a stop at St. John’s Church.
From the man who sneaked into his dead wife’s crypt to spend the night on her corpse to the woman who believed she was in communication with Poe’s spirit after his death, colorful characters seemed to flock to Edgar Allan Poe. But Stella stands out even among this crowd. It is said that, when he saw her approaching his front door, Poe fled through the back door to avoid her. She may have even convinced her husband to pay Poe to write positive reviews of her work. In spite of that, she told Poe’s biographer John Henry Ingram she had been Poe’s good and trusted friend, and she boasted that she had been the inspiration for his poem “Annabel Lee.” The Poe Museum now owns a strange letter she wrote to one of Poe’s biographers. Because it reveals some entertaining insights in her personality and her relationship with Poe, we have named it the Poe Museum’s Object of the Month.
Estelle Anna “Stella” Lewis (1824-1880) was a moderately successful writer and the wife of lawyer Sylvanus Lewis. She first became acquainted with Poe around 1846. She soon joined a group of Poe’s female admirers in helping the poet, his mother-in-law Maria Clemm, and his gravely ill wife Virginia in a time of need. After Virginia’s death in January 1847, Stella continued to visit Poe and his mother-in-law. According to Stella, she became his trusted confidant, but other sources believed she was really trying to bribe him to write complimentary reviews. Meanwhile, Stella’s “trusted confidant” Poe wrote in a June 16, 1848 letter to Annie Richmond, “If she [Stella] comes here I shall refuse to see her.”
Poe was close enough to Stella to write the following acrostic poem for her. The first letter of the first line, the second of the second, and so forth spell out her name.
“Seldom we find,” says Solomon Don Dunce,
“Half an idea in the profoundest sonnet.
Through all the flimsy things we see at once
As easily as through a Naples bonnet—
Trash of all trash!—how can a lady don it?
Yet heavier far than your Petrarchan stuff—
Owl-downy nonsense that the faintest puff
Twirls into trunk-paper the while you con it.”
And, veritably, Sol is right enough.
The general tuckermanities are arrant
Bubbles—ephemeral and so transparent—
But this is, now,—you may depend upon it—
Stable, opaque, immortal—all by dint
Of the dear names that he concealed within’t.
Unlike many of the poems Poe addressed to women, there is no hint of romance in this one. He also had this daguerreotype of himself made for her.
He gave Annie Richmond another, very similar, daguerreotype taken at the same session.
Stella later told John Henry Ingram, “I saw much of Mr. Poe during the last year of his life. He was one of the most sensitive and refined gentlemen I ever met. My girlish poem — ‘The Forsaken’ — made us acquainted. He had seen it floating the rounds of the press, and wrote to tell me how much he liked it: ‘It is inexpressibly beautiful,’ he said, ‘and I should like much to know the young author.’ After the first call he frequently dined with us, and passed the evening in playing whist or in reading to me his last poem.”
On his last night in New York before starting his ill-fated trip to Richmond, Stella invited Poe and his mother-in-law to her home for dinner. As Stella told it, “The day before he left New York for Richmond,” continues Stella, “Mr. Poe came to dinner, and stayed the night. He seemed very sad and retired early. On leaving the next morning he took my hand in his, and, looking in my face, said, ‘Dear Stella, my much beloved friend. You truly understand and appreciate me — I have a presentiment that I shall never see you again. I must leave to-day for Richmond. If I never return, write my life. You can and will do me justice.’ ‘I will!’ I exclaimed. And we parted to meet no more in this life. That promise I have not yet felt equal to fulfil.” Poe died a few months afterwards. Stella died three decades later without fulfilling that promise.
In the years following Poe’s death, Stella invited his mother-in-law to live with her. It seems that, in order to endear herself to Stella, Mrs. Clemm told her she had been the inspiration for “Annabel Lee”—even though nothing in the poem suggests this. Stella almost immediately told her friends, and the rumor appeared in the papers not long after that. Another of Poe’s friends, Frances Osgood, responded in the December 8, 1849 issue of Saroni’s Musical Times that Poe’s wife was the only woman he had ever loved and was unquestionably the true subject of “Annabel Lee.” Osgood continues, “I have heard it said that it was intended to illustrate a love affair of the author; but they who believe this, have in their dullness, evidently misunderstood or missed the beautiful meaning latent in the most lovely of all its verses…” Most people now agree with Osgood.
Poe’s ex-fiancée Sarah Helen Whitman, however, (who also thought she had been the inspiration for “Annabel Lee”) was so insulted by Stella’s claim that she spread the rumor that a New York writer familiar with all the parties involved told her Maria Clemm had only been flattering Stella to repay some favors and that Osgood had invented the claim that Virginia was the real Annabel Lee solely to spite Stella. (In case you’re counting, that’s three possible Annabel Lees in this blog post.)
Just to make sure her role in Poe’s life was recorded for posterity, she befriended his enemy and biographer Rufus W. Griswold. She still failed to convince the public she could have been the real Annabel Lee.
In 1858, Stella divorced her husband, began a feud with Maria Clemm (who apparently sided with Sylvanus Lewis in the divorce), accused another writer of stealing from her, and headed for Europe. About this time, Martin Van Buren Moore (1837-1900), a young reporter from Tennessee, wrote her for assistance in writing an article about Edgar Allan Poe. In her response, she boasts that Poe himself had entrusted her to be his biographer, calls Maria Clemm the “black cat” of Poe’s life, talks about her divorce, and asks Moore if she should change her name to La Stella or Anna Stella. She eventually settled on the name Stella. Here is a photo of this note.
The text of the letter reads:
I had not time to reply to you [sic] letter which reached me the day before I sailed for Europe. I called at Mr. Scribner’s on my way to the vessel and told his brother to say to you that I would write the notice of Poe–I will if you can wait. It was his last request of me– “Write my life–you know better than anyone else.” he said. If any one else should write it do not permit the name of that old woman who calls herself his mother-in-law to appear in it. I have heard that she is not his mother-in-law–That she has something else on him. Any how. I believe that she was [the] black cat of his life. And that she strangled him to death. I will tell you about it when we meet. If you get the work out before I return to America put Poe first, and Stella next in the Poets of Maryland. You cannot get it out till next year as it ought to be– do wait–that is a good Van.
I intend to drop the name of Lewis–but cannot do it at once–What do you think of La Stella or Anna Stella. Call me Stella on all occasions–ring on it in biographical notice– You know that the Divorce was all in my favor–That is after trying for a year they could not get anything against me–and gave it up–say this in the notice–say that I stood unscathed against the treachery of a half dozen Lawyers. Let me hear from you the moment you get this. Direct to care of Mr. John Monroe, Banker, no 5, Rue de La Paix, Paris—
After leaving the United States, Stella meandered around Europe before settling in London around 1874. While there, she provided information about the poet to another of Poe’s biographers John Henry Ingram. At the same time, Poe’s nurse Marie Louise Shew and his fiancée Sarah Helen Whitman were also supplying Ingram sometimes contradictory accounts of their own relationships with Poe.
Stella still found time to write poetry and plays. Her major works include the tragedies Helémah, or the Fall of Montezuma (1864) and Sappho of Lesbos (1868). The latter was printed in seven editions and translated into Greek to be performed in Athens. The Poe Museum owns a autographed copy of this, her most celebrated work. In 1865 she composed a series of sonnets about Poe. Her other works include The Child of the Sea and other Poems (1848), The Myths of the Minstrel (1852), Poems (1866) and The King’s Stratagem(1869).
Stella died in London in 1880. By then, the French poet Alphonse de Lamartine deemed her the “Female Petrarch” while Ingram considered her merely a “harpy” who had preyed upon Poe in his final years.
Martin Van Buren Moore eventually wrote his essay about Poe. The manuscript for it is also in the Poe Museum’s collection. His grandson Otis D. Smith of Richmond, Virginia donated both the Stella letter and the manuscript to the Museum in 1979 but kept the envelope because he thought he might be able to sell it to a stamp collector.
On this page from Moore’s manuscript, he acknowledges the assistance of the “brilliant” Stella to whom he is “indebted for many of the facts in regards to Poe’s life” that were used in the essay. Among these facts, he continues, “She stated positively that Poe was born in Baltimore and not in Boston.” Click here to find out where Poe was really born. Fortunately, Moore’s essay makes no attempt to promote the discredited claims that Stella was the real Annabel Lee.
While the Poe Museum owns a number of Edgar Allan Poe’s letters, most visitors do not realize the collection also holds several rarely seen letters from the people in his life. While these are rarely anthologized and seldom read, they nevertheless provide value insights into Poe’s life and work as seen by his contemporaries. Since this Stella letter was written to a person researching an article about Poe, the document reveals the way in which Poe’s biography was shaped (or distorted) by the biases and self-interests of the people who knew him as they provided information of varying quality to his biographers.
The public’s fascination with crime and violence existed long before today’s cop shows and horror movies. Even in Edgar Allan Poe’s time, readers could not get enough true tales of murder and madness. Ample evidence of this fact is to be found in a curious little volume in the Poe Museum’s collection.
The Poe Museum’s next Object of the Month is The Tragic Almanack for 1843, published in 1842 by the New York Sun. Like many popular almanacs, this annual publication contains astronomical information, the dates of religious holidays, and weather predictions. Unlike those other almanacs, this one is full of facts about violent crimes and tragic deaths. One example is the case of Peter Robinson, who murdered a man and buried the corpse under his basement floor. The first time Robinson was hanged, the rope broke, so the executioner had to hang him a second time, after which, “in about two minutes [Robinson] died with great convulsions.” Another article tells of a servant who beheaded a man, was acquitted of the crime on the grounds of insanity, and went on to behead another man. Other accounts detail a steamboat fire, a “remarkable suicide,” and all manner of violent deaths. Some of the most gruesome articles are illustrated with engravings by C.P. Huestis.
One well known case is that of John Colt, brother of the future gun manufacturer Samuel Colt. John Colt murdered a man by the name of Samuel Adams in New York, stuffed his body in a box, and sent the box to New Orleans. When Adams’s friends started to miss him, they alerted the authorities, who soon found the decomposing corpse aboard a southbound ship. The sailors apparently ignored the stench of rotting flesh because they mistook it for the odor of rat poison. This story soon made headlines across the country and may have inspired a certain magazine writer named Poe to write “The Oblong Box,” a story about a man who carries his dead wife aboard a ship with him in a crate.
The cover story is the recent murder of Mary Rogers, a popular clerk in a New York cigar store. In 1841 she went to visit some relatives across town and never returned. A few days later, she was found floating in the Hudson River off the coast of Hoboken, New Jersey. The police suspected her fiancé, but, after interrogating him, they were convinced of his innocence. Not long afterwards, Payne took his own life on the very spot of her murder. The investigation stalled, so police blamed the crime on a gang of hoodlums. The caption for cover engraving reads, “A gang of lawless villains throwing MARY C ROGERS, from the cliff at Hoboken into the Hudson River, where she perished July 25, 1841.” The “villains” were never identified, and the unsolved mystery eventually caught the attention of the inventor of the detective story, Edgar Allan Poe.
Poe was never satisfied with the gang explanation because he believed Rogers’s body had been dragged and that a gang would have simply carried her to the river. Having decided that a lone murderer was responsible, Poe went to work trying to figure out just who could have done it. His investigation formed the basis of his detective story “The Mystery of Marie Roget.” In 1842, the same year of the Tragic Almanack’s publication, Poe sold the story to Snowden’s Ladies’ Companion, promising that his tale not only “indicated the assassin in a manner which will give renewed impetus to investigation” but also demonstrated a method of investigation that real police departments should emulate.
We will never know if Poe got it right. The name of the killer was withheld from the story when the final installment appeared in the February 1843 issue of Snowden’s. The case remains unsolved.
In 1844, Poe moved to New York, where he sold a sensational hoax about a balloon trip across the Atlantic to the New York Sun, the publishers of the Tragic Almanack.
While Halloween is often associated with supernatural horror, ghosts, and vampires, Poe’s most chilling tales dealt with more down-to-earth terrors inspired by the people around us and the madness that can lead them to commit horrible acts. Learning more about the crimes that commanded headlines and captured the public’s attention during Poe’s time can give us a better understanding the real-life horrors that may have inspired him.