Text: Gabriel Harrison, “Edgar A. Poe,” New York Times Saturday Review, March 4, 1899, p. 144, cols. 1-2


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[page 144, col. 1:]

EDGAR A. POE.

Reminiscences of Gabriel Harrison, an Actor, Still Living in Brooklyn.

An old man sat in a big armchair, puffing clouds of tobacco smoke into the air. He was gazing into the smoke with meditative eyes, as if it were the misty curtain of bygone years, and he was telling what he saw — a picture of the days in old New York when “Prince” John Van Buren, the son of the President, led nightly gatherings of good fellows in the cozy taverns around the old Park Theatre in Park Row; when the dramatic and literary lions were entertained by social leaders in their residences on Cherry Hill, and when obscure and struggling poets like Poe were fond of wandering in the quiet lanes above Fourteen Street. The old man saw himself in stirring scenes of the old days, for he was Gabriel Harrison, who was a popular young actor in the forties, and also an artist and politician and friend of celebrated men. Of all these wise and witty gentlemen he is the sole survivor. He. lives in Brooklyn with his memories and his mementos of great names and great occasions.

He received me in his “den,” the walls of which are adorned with queer theatrical trophies and with paintings and engravings from his own brush and pencil. The originals of his illustrations for his “Life of Forrest” were here, and many other products of his.artistic talent; but all seemed dominated by one picture — a striking portrait of a man with a great brow, overhanging, large, melancholy eyes set in a face that was peculiarly sensitive and expressive.

“I remember well the day,” Mr. Harrison was saying, “when I took the daguerreotype of Poe from which I made that portrait. It was, I think, in 1846, and soon after I had temporarily abandoned my stage career to give play to my artistic tendencies as chief operator for the celebrated John Plumb in his daguerreotyping establishment. This art was then comparatively new, you know, and was regarded as one of the wonders of the world. I was one of Poe’s few intimate friends. He would drop into the studio at about closing time in the afternoon, and we would walk up town together, or down Broadway to the Battery, where we would sit on the old stone buttress and talk poetry and philosophy as the golden sunset was reflected upon the waters of the bay and the shadows deepened over on the wooded shore of Long Island.

“I asked Poe several times when he was at the studio to sit for his portrait, but he always .refused on the ground that his clothes were too shabby. But one afternoon I caught him in an unusually complacent mood and obtained the original of the engraving you see there on the wall. This was but three years before Poe’s death, and he was not at all prosperous. I recollect that once we were walking up town together late in the day, when Poe began to sway from side to side and then stopped. He said he felt faint. We went into a cafe, where we had a glass of wine and a biscuit. Poe then told me that his sudden dizziness was the result of not having eaten anything since early morning.

“The manner in which Poe and I first came to scrape an acquaintance was, on his side, thoroughly characteristic. Perhaps you would like to hear the story. Well, in 1843 I decided that riches in real life would be more satisfying that prodigious wealth as a mimic king or lord, and so I opened a store for the sale of general merchandise. My shop was a part of the property of William Niblo, and was on the corner or Broadway and Prince Street. Next door was the florist establishment of Grant Thorburn, the eccentric Scotchman and author of ‘Forty Years in America,’ ‘Flowers from Larry Todd’s Garden.’ &c.

“One chilly evening I happened to glance through my window and saw a small man with a large head looking in rather wistfully at some beautiful plugs or tobacco I had displayed. In a moment he entered and asked the price of the tobacco. When I had told him he made no move to buy, and after a few general remarks started to leave. I was struck by a. certain indefinite something in his manner, by his voice, and by his fine articulation. My ear was very sensitive on

this point, for the reason that I was an actor, and because I had been taught to read by Aaron Burr, the finest natural elocutionist I ever listened to. So I offered the man a piece of tobacco. He accepted, thanked me, and departed. Two or three weeks afterward he came in again. At the time I happened to be in the throes of composing a campaign song for the White Eagle Club, a political organization of which I was President.

“ ‘Ah,’ said my visitor, ‘I see you are writing; I’ll call again.’

“ ‘Wait a moment,’ I called to him. ‘Perhaps you can help me. I’m trying to write a song for my political club.’

“He immediately showed interest and sat down when I began to explain the matter to him.

“ ‘Let me have your pencil,’ he said. At that moment a customer came in. In about fifteen minutes I returned to my visitor.

“ ‘There.’ he said, handing me the paper, ‘how will that do?’ What was my surprise when I saw written a song of five stanzas with chorus. At this moment, nearly sixty years later, I can remember only a few lines, which ran thus:

“ ‘See the White Eagle soaring aloft to the sky,

Wakening the broad welkin with his loud battle cry:

Then here’s the White Eagle, full daring is he, [column 2:]

As he sails on his pinions o’er valley and sea.’

“I was delighted and wanted to pay him something for his trouble, but the only thing he would accept was a bag of my best coffee. As he was going I said that I should like to know his name.

‘ ‘Certainly,’ he answered, with a faint smile. ‘Thaddeus K. Perley, at your service.’

“I had ‘Mr. Perley’s song set to music and we sang it with great success throughout the campaign. But I saw nothing of its author. I felt curious about a man who could drop into a shop, write a poem, and leave again inside of fifteen or twenty minutes.

“One of my friends was Fitz-Greene Halleck, then private secretary to John Jacob Astor, whose office was in a small brick building in Prince Street two doors from Broadway and only a few steps from my store. Halleck often would come around to the shop in the evening. I had partitioned off a cozy corner with a pile of tea boxes, and there we would sit and discuss the topics of the day. Frequently old Grant Thorburn would join us, and he was welcome, for he was brimful of incidents of the century he had left behind him, and never spoiled a good story in the telling.

One night after Halleck, Thorburn and myself had been ensconced in our corner for several hours talking of many things and feeling the more comfortable for a storm outside, Halleck and I decided that it was time to conduct our old friend, who had been sampling my stock of vintage with some zest, to his flowery kingdom next door. We put him to bed and then returned to the shop. I was surprised to see a man standing by the counter. I stepped quickly forward.

“ ‘Why, good evening, Mr. Perley,’ I began. Halleck interrupted me: ‘Great heavens, Poe, is this you!’ he exclaimed. ‘Poe? This is Mr. Perley,’ I broke in.

“Poe looked at me and then at Halleck, and after an instant’s hesitation said: ‘The fact of the matter is, Halleck, I have made this gentleman’s acquaintance under the name of Perley; no harm was intended and none done. I knew that the facts would develop themselves. I have walked several miles through the sleet and rain, and, seeing a light in here, thought that perhaps Mr. Harrison would let me warm up somewhat.’

“ ‘Why, of course,’ I answered, ‘here is the stove behind the tea boxes almost red hot. Take off your coat and dry it. What will you have, some of this old port?’ I spread out some crackers, an old English pineapple cheese, and we all nibbled and bent our elbows in homage to his crimson majesty the old port, and talked of pleasant things till my big clock struck the hour of midnight. Poe left with Halleck and stopped at his house that night. He returned to his home in Philadelphia the next day, I believe, but soon afterward came to New York to reside.

“Poe died in 1849, and quite accidentally, in 1852, I made the acquaintance of his mother-in-law, Mrs. Maria Clemm. Lawyer S. D. Lewis, the husband of Stella Lewis, the poet, invited me to his home in Dean Street, Brooklyn, and there, to my utter astonishment, I met Mrs. Clemm, of whom Poe had spoken to me many times. She was a handsome old lady, with white hair, half covered by a prettily trimmed cap. We talked much about her ‘Eddie,’ as she called Poe, and not a great while afterward, so quickly did our friendship grow, she named me her second Eddie, and asked me to call her ‘Muddie,’ as Poe had done. Mr. Lewis gave Mrs. Clemm a comfortable home for many years, but finally the Lewis family was broken up, and Mrs. Clemm was taken to the Church Home in Baltimore. While she was there I presented her with a portrait of Poe, colored with the hues of his eyes, hair, complexion, and dress, which I made from the daguerreotype I took of him in 1847. Mrs. Clemm was so grateful for the photograph that she took from her finger her own and Poe’s wedding ring solidified into one and gave it to me. This ring and the colored photograph I have since presented to the Long Island Historical Society.”

Gabriel Harrison is a stanch defender of Poe’s memory. He is the poet’s sole surviving friend — the one connecting link between the present generation and Poe the man.


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Notes:

None.

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[S:1 - NYTSR, 1899] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Edgar A. Poe (G. Harrison, 1899)