Text: Susan Archer Weiss, “The Sister of Edgar A. Poe,” Continent, vol. III, June 27, 1883, pp. 816-819


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THE SISTER OF EDGAR A. POE.

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To the readers of the numerous biographies of Edgar A. Poe it must have occurred as singular that they contain so slight mention of his only sister, Rosalie. The fact is briefly stated that he had a sister of this name, who was adopted by Mrs. Mackenzie at the time when he himself found a home with Mr. Allan; but thenceforth Rosalie Poe wholly disappears from the horizon of her brother’s life. In no one of his letters is she alluded to, and the only mention of her is in a letter of N. P. Willis to Poe, wherein he says: “I had a letter from your sister not long since, inquiring your whereabouts. . . . You seem as neglectful of your sister as I am of mine,” alluding to the well-known estrangement between himself and Mrs. Parton.

Still, in reading the life of Poe, as of most men of genius, the inquiry is suggested to the reflective mind: “Of what stamp and character were his nearest relatives? Were they marked by any trait or peculiarity of the poet? or did he stand alone among his kindred, isolated in character as in genius? What were his relations with them? What sympathy or affection existed between them?” An investigation into points such as these will often cast upon the character and history of a man of genius a clearer light than is attainable by all the researches of philosophers and physiologists. Wherefore, I consider that in presenting this slight sketch of the sister of Edgar A. Poe I am affording a key to much that has been regarded as strange and inexplicable in the poet’s own character.

The earliest existing mention of Edgar A. Poe and his sister I have from my own mother,* in whose words I will here give it:

“In 1811, when I was ten years old, there came a fine company of players to Norfolk, and, as a special treat, we children were taken to see them act “Macbeth.” I remember Mr. and Mrs. Placide, Mr. and Mrs. Young, Mr. and Mrs. Green and Mr. Poe and his wife. These were all very handsome couples. Mr. Poe was tall and fine-looking and younger than his wife, who had been a widow Hopkins, formerly Elizabeth Arnold. She was remarkably pretty, fair and delicate-looking, with a round, laughing face, beautiful large eyes and regular features. She was called vain and coquettish, and was not considered a clever actress, though much admired for her grace and beauty. Mr. and Mrs. Poe occupied a garret room in a house adjoining that of my Aunt Butt, on Bermuda Street. There was only a wooden partition between the two garrets, and through a hole in this we children used to peep at and talk to Mrs. Poe’s children and their nurse. The latter was an old Welsh woman, whose odd dress and speech greatly amused us. The children were very pretty, lively and playful. The little boy was about four years old, and his sister two years younger. In the evenings the nurse would take them out and sit on a bench at the front door while they played on the pavement. The boy was her favorite. I remember how once a horse nearly ran over him, when she threw down the little girl whom she had in her arms, and rushed to save him, screaming, ‘Ho! Hedgar! Hedgar!’ ”

“This company of players were very handsomely entertained by Colonel Hamilton, the then British Consul [column 2:] at Norfolk, who lived opposite my father, on Main Street. Front there they went to Richmond, and it was shortly after that we heard of the burning of the Richmond Theatre.”

A few weeks subsequent to this glimpse of the Poe family in Norfolk, we have another view of them in Richmond; and this time from the lips of Mrs. Mackenzie, who adopted Rosalie. The company above mentioned, under the management of Mr. Placide, were acting at the Richmond Theatre; all save Mr. and Mrs. Poe, who were prevented by illness. Thus, on the night of the burning of the theatre they were fortunately absent; and when, after that disastrous occurrence, the company left Richmond — Mr. Poe and his family were unable to accompany them, Soon there was a report that the actors, Mr. and Mrs. Poe, were ill and in great destitution, and Mrs. Jean Mackenzie, a benevolent Scotch lady, went to see them. She found them occupying a wretched, damp basement room, where Mrs. Poe lay ill with pneumonia, and her husband with rapid consumption. Two little children, thin, pale and half clad, were in the room, and an old Welsh woman was, with the most assiduous attention, devoting herself to the four. Struck with compassion, Mrs. Mackenzie had the children removed to her own home, and she and her equally kind-hearted husband exerted themselves to provide for the comfort of the family. In this they were assisted by Mr. John Allan and his wife, whose handsome residence stood opposite their own. Both Mr. Allan and Mr. Mackenzie were Scotch gentlemen and intimate friends.

The children, under the influence of kind care, improved rapidly, and attracted much attention and interest. They were remarkably pretty, and equally bright and lively. Mrs. Allan became especially interested in the boy, while the girl was the chosen playmate of Mrs. Mackenzie’s little daughter, Mary, of the same age. On the death of the parents their relatives manifested so little interest in the children that Mrs. Mackenzie proposed to adopt Rosalie if Mrs. Allan would do the same by Edgar. Mr. Allan at first opposed the plan, but finally yielded to the wishes of his wife, and soon became much attached to the boy. This couple was rich and childless, while the Mackenzies had a large family, and were at this time in only moderate circumstances. The little orphans were legally adopted and baptized by the names of Edgar Allan and Rosalie Mackenzie.

Of the subsequent destinies of the children thus strangely cast upon the benevolence of strangers, that of Edgar is already known to the world. Surrounded by luxury, flattered and indulged, his position was far less fortunate than that of his sister, who was exposed to no such unfavorable influences. Both children were self-willed and obstinate, and, as was evident, had never been taught obedience; but while Mr. Allan conscientiously sought to subdue Edgar by occasional severity, alternating with most injudicious indulgence, Rosalie was subject to the discipline of a true, motherly kindness, directed by rare good sense and Christian principle. The writer of this sketch knew Mrs. Mackenzie well, and delights in recalling her image of one whose loveliness of disposition and dignity of character made her loved and revered by all who knew her, and whose very presence seemed ever to carry with it sunshine and happiness. ­[page 817:]

Rosalie was also fortunate in other respects. Her guardian’s sister, Miss Mackenzie, was a lady of elegant manners and accomplishments, whose educational establishment for young ladies was one of the most celebrated of its time. From its exclusive circle had gone forth many a young girl to grace, as a brilliant belle or accomplished matron, the elegant society for which Virginia was then lamed. Rosalie, brought up under the special care of this lady, had all the opportunities of a first-class education, and, as she grew up, of the high social position occupied by the family of her guardian.

How did the sister of Edgar A. Poe develop under these favoring influences? The answer involves a curious condition of things calculated to strangely perplex the observer.

The children when first adopted were, in person as well as in general traits and disposition, so remarkably alike as to be generally mistaken for twins. Points of this strong resemblance remained conspicuous through life; and yet, as they grew toward youth, the two presented a contrast so extraordinary that in all biography a greater cannot be found to exist.

Edgar developed into a brilliant youth, as much noted for physical beauty, strength and activity, as for intellect and genius. Rosalie, as though some mysterious blight had fallen upon her, gradually drooped and faded into a languid, dull and uninteresting girlhood — apathetic in disposition and weak in body and mind. With features exactly those of her brother, and even possessed of his very peculiar phrenological developments, no two persons could yet have presented a more marked contrast. Her figure, naturally delicate and well-formed, drooped as lacking strength for its own support, her hands generally hanging listlessly at her side. Her eyes, dark gray, like those wonderful spiritual ones of her brother, were weak, dull and expressive only of utter vacuity. She was accustomed to sit for long intervals gazing upon vacancy, and when aroused, would answer to an inquiry: “ I wasn’t thinking at all; I was asleep with my eyes open.” She had an invincible dislike of any mental or physical exertion; and Miss Mackenzie was accustomed to state, as a remarkable fact, that after, as a child, progressing rapidly in her studies to a certain point, she at the age of eight or ten ceased absolutely to make farther progress, and at that point remained during her life. Beyond this the most assiduous care of the best instructors could not advance her, and she thenceforth always wrote, spelled and expressed herself like a child, while her musical performance was like that of a beginner. Previous to this time, said Miss Mackenzie, she had been a bright and lively child, and particularly fond of music and dancing; but when this new phase came upon her she went reluctantly to the piano, and could with difficulty be prevailed upon to join in a dance, observing that it was “too fatiguing.” She looked indeed as she often said that she felt, “but half alive,” and yet was rarely if ever sick. Her infirmity appeared to be not disease but a simple fading or wasting away of the vitality of mind and body. It resembled the sudden blight of a frosted flower — it might live on, but could never recover its freshness and vigor.

There was one peculiarity of Miss Poe which cannot be passed over in silence, and indeed demands special mention as being one of the curious points of resemblance between herself and her brother. This was, without any attempt to soften it, a constant morbid craving for stimulants, coupled with a most unfortunate susceptibility to their influence. She was accustomed to frankly avow her craving for wine, accompanied by the assertion that “she did not dare to touch it, because of her [column 2:] poor, weak head.” A mere taste of wine had the effect of dazing and confusing her, and an ordinary dinner-glass, which others could take with impunity, would throw her into a sort of stupor and heavy sleep of hours’ duration, from which she would arouse in a state of extreme nervous irritability, succeeded by deep depression and melancholy. This is precisely what Poe stated was the effect upon himself of the least indulgence in alcoholic drinks, and his intimate friends have corroborated his statement. One of these has told me that “a single glass of wine had more effect upon Poe than a whole bottle upon an ordinary man.” Mr. Poe always declared that he drank less upon occasion than his companions, but that it was his misfortune to be more susceptible to its influence; and this we can easily credit after seeing the same trait so strongly marked in his sister. How imperative, therefore, it is that allowance should be made for the infirmity which his enemies have seized upon as forming the darkest blot upon his character!

In regard to this peculiarity of Poe and his sister, Mrs. Mackenzie, who so well knew both, had a singular theory of her own. On occasion of her first visit to the Poes, she had observed that the children were thin and pale and very fretful. To quiet them, their old nurse — whom Mrs. Poe in her last days addressed as “Mother,” while she called Mrs. Poe “Betty” — took them upon her lap and fed them liberally with bread soaked in gin, when they soon fell asleep. Subsequently, after the death of the parents, the old woman (who remained in Richmond until her death, not long after, devoting herself to the children) acknowledged to Mrs. Mackenzie that she had, from the very birth of the girl, freely administered to them gin and other spirituous liquors, with sometimes laudanum, “to make them strong and healthy,” or to put them to sleep when restless. Mrs. Mackenzie was convinced that this woman, who was a simple, honest creature, was, in reality, the maternal grandmother of the children, and conscientiously acted for their good. She never doubted but that this gin diet had stunted their growth physically, had produced the abnormal craving for stimulants, and also, in the case of Rosalie, utterly paralyzed both mental and physical faculties.

“My conviction is,” she was accustomed to assert seriously, “that Rosalie was naturally gifted with genius and intellect not inferior perhaps to that of Edgar, but that these were blighted by the injudicious treatment of the nurse.” She referred to this cause many of Edgar’s and Rosalie’s weaknesses, as their nervous irritability; but on Rosalie, as having been from her very birth subject to the poisonous influence of gin and opium, the effect had been most pernicious.

It may appear to some a confirmation of this rather startling theory when it is mentioned that Rosalie Poe, with all her weakness, yet possessed certain traits which in Edgar were considered as evidences of poetic temperament. She had his instinctive love for, if not his appreciation of, beauty in all its visible forms, and an aversion to whatever was coarse, harsh or disagreeable. Both were affected to melancholy by music, whether gay or sad. She took great pleasure in the rhyme and jingle of verse — a taste which her brother has so strongly evinced in his liberal use of repetition and the refrain — and for this reason “The Raven” and “The Bells” were her favorite poems. Once she said, “I often feel as if I could write poetry. I have it all in my head, but somehow can’t get it clear enough to write down,” A sad, clipped-wings sort of feeling, it must have been, if Mrs. Mackenzie’s theory were correct. A passionate ­[page 818:] love of flowers was peculiar to both herself and her brother. I rarely saw the latter without some delicate bud or leaf in his buttonhole, and a bouquet was his sister’s constant accompaniment, and the offering which she was accustomed to bestow upon those whom she called her “favorites.” These favored individuals were always young and pretty; for, like Queen Elizabeth, neither she nor her brother had any “liking for an uncomely visage.” She, even beyond middle age, preferred the society of young persons, whose lively sallies amused her, and were not above her capacities of appreciation. Mrs. Mackenzie was at this time residing in the city suburbs, near my mother’s residence; and in both families were a gay group of young persons, to whom Miss Poe attached herself, and who, though constantly amused by her oddities of dress and manner, regarded her with good-natured indulgence as a privileged character. I remember that upon one occasion she insisted upon accompanying us to a fashionable party, for which she arrayed herself in a style which elicited from our light-hearted group an irrepressible burst of merriment. It was her habit to appropriate any article of dress or adornment, whether her own or another’s, that happened to strike her fancy, or to be most conveniently at hand, and the effect was frequently absurd in the extreme, and presented a singular contrast to her brother’s fastidious taste in dress. She would submit to our criticisms with easy indifference, but rarely took advice, save from Mrs. Mackenzie, to whom she accorded the obedience of a child.

For her brother Miss Poe had the most unbounded admirstition. Her pride in him was really touching, accompanied, as it was, by an humble consciousness of her own inferiority. Nothing afforded her more pleasure than to hear him eulogized, or to be introduced to or noticed by strangers as “the poet’s sister.” He, on his part, took little or no interest in her, and never, that I am aware, replied to one of her frequent letters, except in a postscript to some member of the Mackenzie family, with whom he was on almost as intimate terms as his sister. She was not calculated to please his fastidious taste, and perhaps she was right when she said, despondingly, “I believe Edgar is ashamed of me.” Sometimes she betrayed a bitter consciousness of her inferiority. “I don’t see why Edgar should have all the good gifts and I all the bad.” Often she was pathetic. “I know that people can’t like me as they do Edgar. I am of no use to anybody. I wish it were different, but I can’t help it; I did not make myself.” And in these moods she would generally conclude with; “Ma loves me. She never gave me a hard word in her life.” And in this protective love of her adapted mother she seemed ever to find her chief comfort and reliance.

It was singular that Mrs. Clemm, whose devotion to Edgar was so entire, should have regarded Rosalie with a coldness amounting to aversion. She, who never found fault with Edgar, was always harsh with Rosalie, who said of her: “I don’t remember that Aunt Clemm ever spoke a kind word to me.” This recalls to mind an incident related by Miss Poe herself. She went on a visit to her brother and his wife at Fordham, and was there told by Mrs. Clemm that they “could not afford to keep her over a week.” Edgar was at this time in New York, whence he some days after wrote urgently to his mother-in-law for money for some special purpose. Finding herself unable to raise the necessary amount, Mrs. Clemm appropriated the most valuable portion of her niece’s wardrobe, the sale of which enabled her to release her son-in-law from his difficulties. But Rosalie never forgot the deed. She immediately [column 2:] returned home with the story of her wrongs, and thenceforth “Aunt Clemm” became the object of her bitter resentment. Still it is to be noted to her credit that when, after the deaths of her daughter and son-in-law, Mrs. Clemm was reduced to soliciting charitable contributions for her support, Miss Poe generously sent to her, without being applied to, the whole of her store of pocket-money or “savings.” She was rarely, however, intrusted with money to any extent, being accustomed to spend it with the indiscretion of a child, in purchasing candy or some useless and ill-judged present for her friends.

When, in 1859 [[1849]], Mr. Poe paid his last visit to Richmond, Mrs. Mackenzie remarked that he and Rosalie seemed on more familiar terms, and “more like brother and sister” than since their childhood. He treated her indulgently, and accompanied her about the neighborhood to be introduced to her “favorites,” only now and then remarking in his quiet, half-playful, half-sarcastic manner: “Rose, why can’t you dress like a civilized being?” or “behave like other people?” She took unwonted pains to please him; and when, after his departure for New York, the news of his sudden death arrived, was for a time completely overcome, manifesting deeper feeling than she had been given credit for possessing. Thenceforth she always spoke of him as “my dear brother.”

In looking back upon this time, I recall the Mackenzie family was a happy and gay little circle, dwelling in luxury, and observing the most unbounded “Old Virginia hospitality.” But then came the war, and all was changed. At the conclusion of that terrible four years’ struggle I returned to my once beautiful home, only to find it a wreck. It was no longer “Talavera,” but “Battery Ten,” where a lonely half-ruined house arose in the midst of encircling fortifications studded with guns. Out-buildings, orchard, vineyard, all were swept away, and no token of the past remained save here and there the faint outlines of garden-walks and a hardy shrub or flower springing amid scattered shot and rusty bayonets. The neighbors, including the Mackenzies, had all dispersed, none knew whither. In this desolate abode I remained for some months, with one or two faithful old negroes as protectors. Each evening we would barricade the entrance to the fort as a sort of protection against the hordes of homeless freed negroes who roamed the country, subsisting upon whatever they could appropriate. One evening, when we had taken this precaution, some one was heard calling without, and mounting the ramparts I beheld a forlorn figure in black standing on the edge of the trenches. It proved to be Rosalie Poe. She was looking haggard and ill. The Mackenzies, she told me, were some of them dead and the rest living in extreme poverty somewhere in the country. “They cannot give me a home now,” she said. “They have to work for their living, but I am not strong enough to work, and I don’t know what is to become of me. If Ma were living, she would give me a home so long as she had a roof over her head.” She shortly went to her relatives in Baltimore; but soon returned, saying that they refused to receive her, and had sent her back to the Mackenzies, which family now consisted of but one son, in wretched health, and a widowed daughter with her little children. Their sole means of subsistence was at this time a cow and the products of a garden which some person had kindly given them, and this latter they cultivated with their own hands. Miss Poe, as she declared, was not strong enough for such work, and the family, with insufficient of the necessaries of life, were not able to support her. ­[page 819:]

About this time I went to New York, where I soon after received a letter from Miss Poe enclosing some photographs of her brother and an autograph letter of his, which she desired me to dispose of at whatever price I could obtain. I entrusted them first to Colonel Du Solle, editor of the Sunday Times and Messenger, and afterward to Mrs. S. H. Kidder, of Boston, both of whom kindly exerted themselves in behalf of the destitute sister of the poet. But no one cared to purchase either the letter or the pictures. And, meantime, every few days brought me an anxious note of inquiry from Miss Poe.

“Dear S.,” she writes, in her characteristic style, “have you got no tidings for me about my brother’s letters and pictures? Do, S., do something for me, for I am worse off now than ever. I have no home at all, and at night I have to try for a place to sleep. I really don’t know what will become of me.”

She writes again, on the blank leaf of a book: “None of my relations will receive me except one cousin by marriage, a widow. She is kind to me, but her house is full of boarders.”

Again: “Do, dear S., try to sell the letter and pictures. . . . The place I was staying at last when I wrote to you I have left, for my cousin could not give me a bed to sleep in any longer. I walk about all day till I am most dead, and don’t know where I can get a place at night. I feel like a lost sheep with no shoes nor gloves.”

This last is simply a specimen of Miss Poe’s peculiar manner of expressing herself, whether in speech or writing, with no attention to pause or punctuation — a peculiarity which was a source of constant amusement to others. More glaring errors of expression she was constantly guilty of; and I well remember the air of dignified unconsciousness with which Poe once, in company, received her pathetic appeal to “subscribe for her lame foot.” That she should, with her social and educational advantages, have been capable of such barbarisms, is sufficient proof of her extreme mental incapacity.

Miss Poe afterward paid us a visit of some weeks in Richmond. She was utterly broken in health and [column 2:] spirits, but still with no special complaint. “Too little blood and muscle, and too much nerves,” said an old physician who kindly attended her. Her chief pleasure seemed to be in talking about what she called “old times,” and in childishly recalling the luxuries to which she had been accustomed. She had never had an ordinary appetite or eaten more than would have sufficed an infant; but now she said: “Many a time I have longed for the crusts that we used to throw to the dogs.” Her desire was limited to “good bread and strong coffee,” of which latter she drank inordinate quantities. Professor Valentine, brother of the Virginia sculptor, delivered a lecture in Baltimore upon the genius of Poe, and sent to her the proceeds, about fifty dollars. With this money she returned to Baltimore, where she entrusted it to a relative “to take care of for her.” Subsequently, wishing to make him a present, she applied for the money, and was informed that he had appropriated it to the payment of her board while she remained in his family. Such is the story which we heard from others beside Miss Poe, who, in her indignation, consulted a lawyer in regard to the possibility of recovering her money.

Through life the course of Rosalie Poe’s destiny had been much that of her brother, and its ending was destined to bear out the similitude. Her health became so utterly broken, and her condition in Baltimore so pitiable, that some persons at length exerted themselves to secure for her a home in a charitable institute — whether in that city or Washington I have not been able to ascertain. There she died, and in such obscurity that it was some months ere her few friends were informed of it.

Mrs. Clemm, it will be remembered, met with the same fate *mdash; a refuge and a death in a charitable institute. So passed away the sister of the poet, and the woman whom he had called his “more than mother.” So, also, died his parents — dependent upon charity for the last necessities of life, and a final resting-place, though even the spot of their burial is now not remembered. Truly, a strange fatality appears to have attended upon this family.

SUSAN ARCHER WEISS.


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[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 816, column 1:]

*  This venerable lady, Mrs. E. F. Talley, is still living in Richmond, at the advanced age of eighty-two.

  Grandmother of the widow of Admiral Farragut.


Notes:

None.

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[S:1 - CM, 1883] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - The Sister of Edgar A. Poe (S. A. T. Weiss, 1883)