The population of New York City was 515,547 at the beginning of 1849. When a cholera epidemic broke out that spring, about 100,000 people fled the city. Of those who remained, 5,071 succumbed to the disease. The July 8 issue of The Christian Intelligencer reported that 358 New Yorkers died of cholera in the week of June 30 through July 7. Also on July 7, Edgar Allan Poe wrote his mother-in-law, “I have been so ill — have had the cholera, or spasms quiet as bad, and can now hardly hold the pen…The very instant you get this, come to me. The joy of seeing you will almost compensate for our sorrows. We can but die together. It is no use to reason with me now; I must die…For your sake it would be sweet to live, but we must die together.” Poe wrote “New York” at the top of the page, but he probably wrote it in nearby Philadelphia, which was also suffering from a cholera epidemic. Twelve days later, he wrote his friend E.H.N. Patterson that he had “barely escaped with my life” from the cholera epidemic.
On August 7, Poe wrote Patterson that he had “suffered worse than death — not so much from the Cholera as from its long-continued consequences in debility and congestion of the brain — the latter, possibly, attributable to the calomel taken.” Calomel was a medicine derived from toxic mercury. One of many potentially dangerous “remedies” doctors of the time often prescribed to those suffering from a variety of maladies.
At a time before the acceptance of germ theory, doctors had little understanding of the causes of diseases and virtually no comprehension of how to cure them. Various quack remedies for cholera included prescribing opium, mercury pills, and oil of turpentine. If these failed to produce results, the doctor might perform tobacco smoke enemas or administer beeswax plugs to stop the diarrhea associated with the disease. The following article from the New York lists a few other proposed “cures.”
Unknown to North America before 1832, cholera tore a path of destruction across the continent that year as part of a worldwide pandemic that had begun in India and swept westward through Europe before crossing the Atlantic. In an April 9, 1832 letter, the German poet Henirich Heine described the arrival of cholera in Paris.
On March 29th, the night of mi-careme, a masked ball was in progress, the chabut in full swing. Suddenly, the gayest of the harlequins collapsed, cold in the limbs, and, underneath his mask, “violet-blue” in the face. Laughter died out, dancing ceased, and in a short while carriage-loads of people were hurried from the redoute to the Hotel Dieu to die, and to prevent a panic among the patients, were thrust into rude graves in their dominoes. Soon the public halls were filled with dead bodies, sewed in sacks for want of coffins. Long lines of hearses stood en queue outside Pere Lachaise. Everybody wore flannel bandages. The rich gathered up their belongings and fled the town. Over 120,000 passports were issued at the Hotel de Ville.
Out of a population of 650,000 Paris lost 20,000 of its citizens to cholera during the 1832 epidemic. In London, another 6,536 died. Cholera claimed 100,000 in France; 55,000 in the United Kingdom; 130,000 in Egypt; 100,000 in Hungary; and even more elsewhere during that pandemic. In New York City, which had a population of about 250,000 at the time, 3,000 people died, and an estimated 100,000 fled the city.
Poe was in Baltimore in 1832 and would have seen the panic brought about by the arrival of the disease. He also lost one of his closest friends Ebenezer Burling, who succumbed to cholera in Richmond. The best doctors of the time were unable to arrest the progress of the disease. It would be years before they would realize it was carried in the water. Unsuspecting victims contracted the germs from drinking water. Once they displayed symptoms, sufferers could expect about a fifty percent mortality rate.
Without a proper understanding of the causes of cholera, residents could do little to prepare for it. Writing twenty years later, Dr. George B. Wood seemed dumbfounded about how to stop it when he wrote, “No barriers are sufficient to obstruct its progress. It crosses mountains, deserts, and oceans. Opposing winds do not check it. All classes of persons, male and female, young and old, the robust and the feeble, are exposed to its assault; and even those whom it has once visited are not always subsequently exempt.”
Former New York mayor Phillip Horne was among many who thought they knew the real cause of the disease—the Irish. These immigrants, “filthy, intemperate, unused to the comforts of life and regardless of its proprieties…flock to the populous towns of the great West, with disease contracted on shipboard, and increased by bad habits on shore,” he wrote in his diary.
By the end of the 1849 epidemic, cholera had claimed 150,000 American lives. While this disease struck terror wherever it visited, cholera was not unique among the deadly pandemics that threatened Poe’s world. Yellow fever epidemics broke out multiple times in the early nineteenth century, forcing Poe’s mother to flee from an outbreak in New York and overtaking his grandmother in Charleston. His cousin George William Poe succumbed to yellow fever in Baltimore. Virginia experienced thirteen yellow fever epidemics in the 1800s. The worst of these took place in Norfolk in 1855, six years after Poe’s death. Of the city’s population of 16,000, about 6,000 fled the area, and 2,000 died.
Tuberculosis also claimed thousands of lives each year. Among those he knew, Poe’s mother, foster mother, brother, wife, and literary executor died from the extremely widespread and very contagious killer. He likely carried a latent form of the disease.
His first published short story “Metzengerstein” reflects the age’s tendency to romanticize the wasting disease, then called “consumption.” In the tale, the narrator says, “The beautiful Lady Mary! — how could she die? — and of consumption! But it is a path I have prayed to follow. I would wish all I love to perish of that gentle disease. How glorious! to depart in the hey-day of the young blood — the heart of all passion — the imagination all fire — amid the remembrances of happier days — in the fall of the year, and so be buried up forever in the gorgeous, autumnal leaves.”
Fifteen years later, Poe would watch his wife waste away from tuberculosis over the course of five agonizing years.
“King Pest” illustration by Harry Clarke
In the face of all these real-life terrors, Poe turned to his writing. The cholera pandemic of 1832 inspired his short stories “King Pest” and “The Masque of the Red Death” and provided a setting for his tale “The Sphinx.” The beautiful young women who succumb to wasting deaths in so many of his stories might be suffering from the same consumption that had claimed many of his loved ones.
Poe’s brother William Henry Leonard Poe, also wrote about yellow fever, setting his story “The Pirate” during an outbreak. Virginia Poe, Edgar’s wife, also wrote, in her only surviving poem, about the consumption that ravaged her lungs and how she wanted to move to a cottage in the country to “heal my weakened lungs.”
It was not until well after Poe’s death that doctors were finally able to effectively combat these illnesses. With greater understanding of the causes and cures of these diseases, the public gradually became less prone to live in fear of the next plague or to panic at the first sight of disease. That is why it is sometimes difficult to understand just how terrifying a story like “The Masque of the Red Death” might have been to the author’s contemporaries or to comprehend how deeply offensive Robert Louis Stevenson found Poe’s plague comedy “King Pest,” written just three years after the 1832 cholera pandemic. (Stevenson went so far as to write that the author of that story had “ceased to be a human being.”) This is why from June 23 through August 21, the Poe Museum will host the special exhibit Pandemics and Poe exploring the ways deadly diseases like yellow fever, cholera, and tuberculosis touched Edgar Allan Poe’s life and inspired some of his greatest work. The exhibit features rare first printings and original documents, including a Poe family bible, that trace the impact of disease and death on Poe’s world.
“The Masque of the Red Death” illustrated by Harry Clarke
British Broadsheet warning about Cholera
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Broadsheet warning about Indian cholera symptons and recommending remedies, issued in Clerkenwell, London, by Thos. Key and Geo. Tindall: Church wardens. London, 1831.
1831 Published: –
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
On Thursday, April 28 from 6-9 p.m. the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia will celebrate its 94th Birthday with an Unhappy Hour featuring live music by The Folly, the opening of the new exhibit The Unknown Poes: Edgar Allan Poe’s Talented Family, poetry readings, games, and a cash bar. Admission for the evening is just $5. Every Unhappy Hour has a special theme, so this month’s will be “A Dream Within a Dream.” For more information, call the Poe Museum at 804-648-5523 or write [email protected].
The event will kick off the 2016 Unhappy Hour season. Each Unhappy Hour features live music, games, a new exhibit, and a cash bar. This year’s Unhappy Hour lineup will continue as follows:
May 26 Unhappy Hour
Theme: The Oval Portrait
The Poe Museum’s new exhibit Painting the Enchanted Garden 3 featuring the works of twenty local artists will open this evening.
June 23 Unhappy Hour
Theme: Masque of the Red Death
The plague visits the Poe Museum with the opening of our new exhibit Pandemics and Poe.
July 28 Unhappy Hour
In celebration of the opening of the Poe Museum’s new exhibit Fakes and Forgeries, the Unhappy Hour will feature a scavenger hunt.
August 25 Unhappy Hour
Theme: The Murders in the Rue Morgue
In conjunction with the opening of the Poe Museum’s exhibit CSI POE: Crime Scene Investigation in Poe’s Time, we will have a murder mystery for our guests to solve.
September 22 Unhappy Hour
Theme: Poe Goes Hollywood
Kick off the Poe Film Festival with a Holly-meets-Poe evening at the Poe Museum.
October 27 Unhappy Hour
Theme: Some Words with a Mummy
America in Poe’s day was obsessed with Ancient Egypt, so we will open a new exhibit about Poe’s short story “Some Words with a Mummy” about a mummy who comes back to life.
TIME TRAVELERS: A FREE WEEKEND OF RICHMOND HISTORY FEATURING 13 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, March 12 and 13. 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. Thirteen participating sites – Agecroft Hall, The Branch Museum of Architecture and Design, Chesterfield County Historical Society, Chimborazo Medical Museum, Dabbs House Museum, The John Marshall House, Maymont, Meadow Farm Museum, Museum & White House of the Confederacy, Poe Museum, The 1812 Wickham House, The Valentine First Freedom Center and Wilton House Museum – will offer complimentary admission to visitors who show a Time Travelers Passport, available via download by clicking here. This special offer equates to savings of more than $65 per person. (Some restrictions may apply.)
Agecroft Hall, home to Richmond’s Tudor house, 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. Located just west of Carytown at 4305 Sulgrave Road, visitors are encouraged to take a guided tour, stroll the manicured gardens overlooking the James River, explore the architectural exhibit, and shop in our museum store. Open Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday 12:30 to 5 p.m. For more information, click here or call (804)353-4241.
The Branch House (The Branch Museum of Architecture and Design)
Imagine a design museum housed in an architectural masterpiece. Designed in 1916 by John Russell Pope as the private residence of the Branch family, this Tudor Revival structure was built to serve as a social and cultural destination for the community. Located at 2501 Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia’s historic Fan District, the 27,000 sq. ft. house is listed on the national register of historic places. As a museum, the mission of The Branch is to reveal the inherent beauty of the created form and space, igniting a passion for design. The Branch will be open from 1 to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Tours are available. Learn more here.
Chimborazo Medical Museum (Richmond National Battlefield Park)
Chimborazo became one of the Civil War’s largest military hospitals. When completed it contained more than 100 wards, a bakery and even a brewery. Although the hospital no longer exists, a museum on the same grounds contains original medical instruments and personal artifacts. Other displays include a scale model of the hospital and a short film on medical and surgical practices and the caregivers that comforted the sick and wounded. The site is located at 3215 East Broad Street in Richmond, Virginia, is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and is free. For more information, click here or call (804) 226-1981.
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 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, click here or call (804) 652-3406.
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, click here or call (804) 648-7998.
Magnolia Grange, Chesterfield County Museum and 1892 Historic Jail
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 department that are displayed downstairs. Upstairs, visitors may view cells as they were when they housed their last prisoners in 1962. Magnolia Grange, the County Museum and Historic Jail will be open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Magnolia Grange is located at 10020 Iron Bridge Road; the County Museum and Jail are located nearby at 6813 Mimms Loop in Chesterfield. For more information, click here or call (804) 796-1479.
Maymont, a 100-acre American estate, was the home of New South business leader James Dooley and his wife Sallie from 1893 through 1925 and an extraordinary gift to the city of Richmond. 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, click here or call (804) 358-7166, ext. 310.
Meadow Farm Museum at Crump Park
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, click here or call (804) 501-2130.
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, click here or call (804) 648-5523.
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, click here or call (855) 649-1861.
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.
The 1812 Wickham House (The Valentine)
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 and Elizabeth 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 managed and operated by the Valentine. The 1812 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. Guided tours of the home are given every 45 minutes. For more information, click here or call (804) 649-0711.
The Valentine First Freedom Center
The Valentine First Freedom Center houses 2,200 square feet of exhibits that delve into America’s experience of religious liberty from its European antecedents through today. It is located on the site where Thomas Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom was enacted into law by the Virginia General Assembly in 1786. Outside, a 27-foot spire, a limestone wall etched with the enacting paragraph of the Statute, and a 34-foot banner of a seminal Jefferson quote imprint the importance of the “first freedom” on all who come upon that busy corner. The Valentine First Freedom Center is located on the corner of South 14th & Cary Streets and will be open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Parking is available on the street or in public pay lots. For more information, click here or call (804) 649-0711.
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 Marquis 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, click here or call (804) 282-5936.
Click this link for you Time Traveler’s Passport:
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.
Did Edgar Allan Poe paint this little watercolor?
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
Walking Tour with Poe’s Fiancee Elmira Shelton
Begins and ends at Poe Museum and includes a stop at St. John’s Church.
Noon to 1:30 p.m.
With Margot MacDonald
“The Conqueror Worm”
Performed by Dean Knight
Walking Tour of Shockoe Bottom with Poe’s Mother
Begins and ends at Poe Museum with a stop at the oldest continuously used Masonic Lodge in the country.
Sisters in Crime
Talk and Book Signing
Talk by the Poe Museum’s curator
Birthday Cake Served
See some little known oddities and rarities from the collection taken out of the vault just for this event!
Sad Poetry Reading Contest, Reading Activities
“Poe Inspired” Contest Presentation with Poe Museum and James River Writers
Poe’s Greatest Hit Countdown Announcement
6:30 p.m. Walking Tour
Poe’s Last Night in Richmond
Retrace Poe’s path during his final night in Richmond, just over a week before his death.
6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.
With Ocean Versus Daughter
7:00 p.m. Museum Tour
“Berenice” Reading by Dean Knight
“The Raven” Reading by Michael Fawcett
8:00 p.m. – 9:15 p.m.
9:30 p.m. Museum Tour
10:00 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.
Live Music by Embalmers and Silent Films
Champagne Toast in the Poe Shrine
This Halloween night at 6 p.m. the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia will premiere the new animated Poe adaptation Extraordinary Tales featuring the voice talents of film legends Christopher Lee (in one of his very last roles), Roger Corman (director of series of Poe films), Guillermo del Toro (director of Crimson Peak and Pan’s Labyrinth) and Bela Lugosi (the original Dracula from the 1931 film of that name). The film, directed by Raul Garcia, features adaptations of five of Poe’s greatest short stories. Click here to see a preview of the film.
Admission is just five dollars. The film will be shown on the big inflatable screen in the Poe Museum’s legendary Enchanted Garden. For more information, please call the Poe Museum at 804.648.5523 or [email protected]
Halloween just isn’t Halloween without Edgar Allan Poe. In addition to inventing the detective story and revolutionizing science fiction, Poe developed the modern tale of psychological terror. Readings of “The Tell-Tale Heart” and screenings of the countless screen adaptations of Poe’s works are staples of the Halloween season—guaranteed to send shivers down your spine. This October, the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond is the place to get your Poe fix with a selection of events for the whole family. Here is a schedule.
October 9 at 5:30 p.m. at the Poe Museum, Richmond
Richmond Strange Stories Walking Tour
See the forgotten places and meet the overlooked people who represent the dark side of Richmond history. This week’s tour will visit Church Hill where you will learn about “Crazy Bette” Van Lew, George Wythe, and Poe’s first love. Click here for more information.
Bowman Body Hosts House on Haunted Hill and City of the Dead
October 10 at noon at the Byrd Theatre in Richmond
The Bowman Body, legendary horror movie host from Channel 8’s Shock Theater, will host an afternoon of classic horror featuring House on Haunted Hill and City of the Dead. One dollar from each ticket sold will go to support the Poe Museum’s educational programs. Click here for more information.
Richmond Strange Stories Walking Tour
October 16 at 5:30 p.m. at the Poe Museum, Richmond
Follow Richmond’s historic canal to learn the role it played in making Richmond the center of weirdness it is today. Click here for more information. Click here for more information.
Fancy Me Mad
October 17 at 6:30 p.m. at St. John’s Church, Richmond
Join us for a walking tour of the graveyard, meet some of our most famous spirits, and then join Edgar Allan Poe in the church for ghostly tales.
Among the spirits represented: Edgar’s mother Eliza Poe, George Wythe and his murderous nephew, Daniel Denoon, who shares the story of his death at the hands of his employer James McNaught, and hear from a Confederate Soldier looking for Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew.
The cost is $5. You may pay at the gate or purchase advance tickets at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2074296 or go to browpapertickets.com and search Fancy Me Mad
5:00 pm Gates open for self-guided tour
6:00 pm Church doors open and music begins seating is first come, first served basis
6:30 pm Poe tells stories in the church
The Visitor Center will be open for shopping featuring items from The Poe Museum and St. John’s Church – and serving refreshments.
Click here for more information.
October Unhappy Hour: “The Cask of Amontillado”
October 22 from 6-9 p.m. at the Poe Museum, Richmond
Join us in the Poe Museum’s Enchanted Garden for the final Unhappy Hour of the year. This is also the spookiest one of the season and will feature live music by Connor Wood, a cash bar, food, and performances. Halloween costumes are encouraged, although not required! The theme for this Unhappy Hour is Poe’s story “The Cask of Amontillado.” Cost: $5 Click here to see photos from our Unhappy Hour Poe Photo Booth.
Exhibit: The Cask of Amontillado
October 22 at the Poe Museum, Richmond
Poe’s classic comes to life as you learn the story behind the story in this chilling exhibit.
Richmond Strange Stories Walking Tour
October 23 at 5:30 p.m. at the Poe Museum, Richmond
Learn the dark history of Capitol Square. Click here for more information.
Poe Alive! The Cask of Amontillado
October 23 at 8 p.m. at the Poe Museum, Richmond
The entire Poe Museum garden becomes the stage, and the audience must travel through it to experience this unique interpretation of Poe’s classic horror story “The Cask of Amontillado” presented by Free Jambalaya. Click here for more information.
Richmond’s Strange Stories Walking Tour
October 30 at 5:30 p.m. at the Poe Museum, Richmond
Catch the last Strange Stories walking tour of 2015. Click here for more information.
Poe Alive! The Cask of Amontillado
October 30 at 8 p.m. at the Poe Museum, Richmond
The entire Poe Museum garden becomes the stage, and the audience must travel through it to experience this unique interpretation of Poe’s classic horror story “The Cask of Amontillado” presented by Free Jambalaya. Click here for more information.
Poe’s Pumpkin Patch
October 31 from noon to 4 p.m. at the Poe Museum, Richmond
Make sure your kids grow up weird by taking them to this fun-filled afternoon of Poe-themed games and crafts. Included with Poe Museum admission.
Poe Goes to the Movies: Extraordinary Tales
October 31 from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Poe Museum, Richmond
See the Richmond premiere of the new animated Poe adaptation featuring the voice talents of the legendary Christopher Lee, Roger Corman, and Bela Lugosi. Admission is $5. Here is the preview. Click here for more information.
Poe Alive! The Cask of Amontillado
November 1 at 8 p.m. at the Poe Museum, Richmond
The entire Poe Museum garden becomes the stage, and the audience must travel through it to experience this unique interpretation of Poe’s classic horror story “The Cask of Amontillado” presented by Free Jambalaya. Click here for more information.
On October 10 at the Byrd Theater in Richmond VA, fans of legendary horror movie host, the Bowman Body, will have a unique opportunity to see both newly shot footage and surviving footage from the popular local show “Shock Theatre” and help a worthy cause at the same time.
Director Sean Kotz of Horse Archer Productions produced new episodes of Shock Theater in August featuring an upgraded set, familiar characters and Colonial Heights’ own Bill Bowman as the Bowman Body. The episodes are wrapped around two classic horror films, “House on Haunted Hill” and “City of the Dead” and available on DVD but Kotz said he wanted to provide something very special for the longtime fans.
“Back in 2011, we did a documentary on the Bowman Body called ‘Hi There Horror Movie Fans’ and tracked down the surviving footage from the WXEX days,” Kotz stated, “but we cut up most of the footage for the documentary leaving a lot of it unseen by the fans.”
“So we decided to put together something we are calling, ‘Them’s the Breaks, Bowman Body’ that lets folks see what remains of the old show’s breaks as well as what Bowman is doing now.”
Fans can expect to see the Bowman Body clowning with guests, playing his ukulele and the famous “basketball incident” in which Bowman was accidentally knocked out of his trademark coffin by a wayward basketball. Other rarities and bloopers will be part of the show too and Bill Bowman will be in attendance.
Tickets are $10 at the door and one dollar of every sale goes to the Poe Museum to help support its educational outreach programs.
Afterward, fans wanting to meet Bill Bowman in person are invited to a public party at The Bucket Trade in Chester at 5 pm on the 10th where they can sample special Bowman inspired brews from Isley Brewing, get autographs and check out the new DVDs.
More information is available at www.thebowmanbody.com.
The Poe Museum and St. John’s Church have teamed up to bring Edgar Allan Poe back to life in the very place he often came to visit his beloved mother’s grave. Join us on Saturday, October 17 at 5 p.m. at St. John’s Church at 2401 East Broad Street in Richmond, Virginia for a walking tour of the historic graveyard where you will meet some of our most famous spirit before you join Edgar Allan Poe in the church for a performance of some of his ghostly tales. Among the spirits represented are Edgar’s mother Eliza Poe, George Wythe and his murderous nephew, Daniel Denoon and his killer James McNaught, and a Confederate Soldier looking for Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew.
The cost is $5. You may pay at the gate or purchase advance tickets here or go to browpapertickets.com and search Fancy Me Mad.
Fancy Me Mad – Tales from Edgar Allan Poe and Graveyard Tours
Saturday, October 17, 2016
5:00 – 7:00 PM
St. John’s Church
2401 E. Broad Street
Richmond VA 23223
Sponsored by: St. John’s Church Foundation and The Poe Museum
5:00 p.m. Gates open for self-guided tour
6:00 p.m. Church doors open and music begins seating is first come, first served basis
6:30 p.m. Poe tells stories in the church
(The Visitor Center will be open for shopping featuring items from The Poe Museum and St. John’s Church – and serving refreshments.)