Text: Gilberta S. Whittle, “Poe’s Unhappy Sister,” Baltimore Sun, October 29, 1905


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POE’S UNHAPPY SISTER

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Promising As A Girl, But Disappointing As A Woman.

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HER SAD DEATH IN WASHINGTON

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Described By One Who Knew Her As The “Loveliest [[Loneliest]] And Most Desolate of Human Beings.”

[Copyright, 1905, by Gilberta S. Whittle.]

Less than 40 years ago no one was oftener seen on the streets of Richmond than Rosalie Poe, the only sister of the poet, the lines of whose early life ran parallel and close to his own. Then as mysteriously as though engulfed by an earthquake or received into a cloud she disappeared. Those nearest her there have merely conjectures to offer as to her fate, and only careful investigation has discovered her burial place and revealed the last scenes of her life.

The earliest view of the two, the one as unique in a way as the other, is obtained through the late Mrs. Talley, a daughter of Capt. Edward Archer, and the mother of Mrs. Susan Archer Weiss, the poetess and friend of Poe, who still lives in Richmond. In December, 1811, when the theatrical company under the management of Mr. Placide, of which the Poes were members, was playing in Norfolk, they took lodgings in a tenement on Bermuda street, adjoining that of Mrs. Butt, an aunt of Mrs. Talley. Mr. and Mrs. Poe occupied the attic, separated from the one next to it only by a board partition, and Mrs. Talley, then a little girl and living in the town, amused herself peeping through a knothole at the two children on the other side and talking to their queer English attendant, who dropped and added an “h” indiscriminately. On one occasion when the trio were out on the front pavement, and Edgar, venturing beyond the sidewalk, just escaped being run over by a horse, Mrs. Talley remembered the old woman rushing into the street crying, as she caught him in her arms:

“Ho, Hedgar, Hedgar!”

From Norfolk the company went to Richmond, where on that fatal Christmas Eve, on the spot now marked by the Monumental Church, was enacted the frightful flame drama in which actors and spectators alike took part, and which shrouded Virginia in mourning. The Poes, detained at home by illness, were preserved from this tragedy, and Mrs. MacKenzie, the benevolent Scotch lady who came to them in their extremity, found them still served by the old English woman, who addressed Mrs. Poe as “Bettie,” and whom she believed to be her mother, a suspicion confirmed by Mrs. Weiss, who says: “I have since learned that the nurse was, indeed, Mrs. Poe’s mother, then the Widow Jubbs, who, as Mrs. Arnold, was a popular actress both in England and this country and who brought up her young daughter Elizabeth in the same profession.

The children were delicate, fretful little things, and to quite them their attendant gave them bread broken in gin, a fact to which she attributed much that was unfortunate in the after life of each. When their parents died and the two were separated, the boy being adopted by Mr. Allan and the girl by herself. Mrs. MacKenzie described them as equally promising, and alike both in appearance and disposition. Until she was 10 years old, indeed, Rosalie’s mental and physical development kept pace with that of her brother, but while his continued hers was suddenly arrested as if some blight had fallen upon her. At the fashionable girl’s school kept in Richmond by Miss Jane MacKenzie, the sister of her adopted father, and attended by representatives of the first families of the South, many of whom still live, she received every advantage, but despite painstaking effort she never acquired more than the rudiments of an education, playing on the piano, spelling, reading and expressing herself to the last much as a child might do. To quote Mrs. Weiss, who knew both brother and sister well after they had reached maturity and acquainted herself with them at an earlier period through the MacKenzies: “While Edgar developed into a brilliant youth, distinguished for physical strength, activity and beauty, his sister faded into languid, dull, uninteresting girlhood. Her figure, naturally well formed, dropped as though lacking strength for its support, and her eyes — large, dark gray, like those wonderful spiritual ones of the poet — were weak and expressive of utter vacuity. Sometimes she would sit gazing into space and when aroused would say: ‘I was not thinking: I was asleep with my eyes open.’

“She had no special complaint, her infirmity seeming to be simply a wasting of vitality of mind and body. Certain tastes and idiosyncracies, however, continued common to both. Each was devoted to flowers. I rarely ever saw Mr. Poe without some delicate leaf or blossom in his buttonhole, and Rosalie’s constant accompaniment and choice offering to a friend was a bouquet. Both were lovers of the beautiful, with an unconquerable aversion to whatever was coarse, harsh or disagreeable, and both were made melancholy by music, whether gay or sad. Rosalie took pleasure in the rhyme and jingle of verse, a fondness for which her brother evinced in his liberal use of repetition and refrain. Once, indeed, she was heard to say: ‘I often feel as if I could write poetry. I have it all in my head, but I can’t get it clear enough to put it down.’ [[”]]

One accomplishment and one only she possessed — that of beautiful penmanship, and this Miss MacKenzie, with wise recognition of what was best for her, turned to practical account, making her the writing teacher of the school. Prominent ladies living in Richmond and many scattered elsewhere recall being carried through all the gradations of chirography, from pothooks and hangers to elaborate flourishes, by the sister of Edgar Allan Poe. The late Mrs. Margaret Stone, a daughter of Mr. Thomas Richie, editor of the old Richmond Inquirer and the widow of Dr. Stone, Lincoln’s physician while at the White House, said last autumn a short time before her death in Washington: “We all used quill pens in that day, and I have a distinct picture before my mind’s eye now of Rosalie Poe, with a great bundle of pens beside her, mending them for the next day’s exercises and afterward distributing them at the different desks.

“Her brother was an object of almost fetish worship with her, and nothing,” Mrs. Weiss says, “gave her greater pleasure than to hear him praised, or to be introduced as the poet’s sister. Her oddities of dress, her lack of personal attractions and general uncouthness were, however, positively repellant to one of his fastidious tastes, and in moments of depression she would sometimes say: ‘I believe Edgar is ashamed of me, but I didn’t make myself.’ ”

Mrs. Lefwich, a daughter of Mrs. Shelton, to whom Poe was engaged to be married at the time of his death, remembers how, to quote her expression, she “shadowed” him while in Richmond. “When he came to see my mother,” she says, “Rosalie, to his great and evident annoyance, would soon [column 2:] after make her appearance. At that time, although under 40, she was much wrinkled. Indeed, she always looked old even as a girl.”

It is pleasant to record that during his last visit to Richmond Mrs. MacKenzie observed that the two seemed more like brother and sister. Poe was more tolerant of her defects, treating her indulgently, and even accompanying her about the neighborhood to be introduced to her favorites. When the news of his sudden death reached her she was completely overcome, even afterward referring to him as “my dear brother.”

Mrs. MacKenzie’s home, then quite beyond the city limits, was within a quarter of a mile of that of Mrs. Weiss, situated near the spot now occupied by the Lee monument. There was almost daily intercourse between the two families, and, in talking over that period, Mrs. Weiss says: “I recall the MacKenzies as a gay little group, living in luxury and observing unbounded Virginia hospitality. Then the Civil War came and all was changed. When I returned to my once beautiful home it was no longer Talavera, but ‘Battery 10.’ A lonely, half-ruined house arose in the midst of encircling fortifications studded with guns. Outbuildings, orchard, vineyard were all swept away. No trace of the past remained except here and there the faint outline of a garden walk or hardy shrub or flower springing amid scattered shot and rusty bayonets. The neighbors, including the MacKenzies, had all dispersed. In this desolate abode, with one or two faithful servants as protectors, I remained for months. Each evening we would barricade the entrance to the fort, as some protection against the hordes of homeless negroes who roamed the country, subsisting upon whatever they could appropriate. One evening when we had taken the precaution I heard someone calling without and, mounting the ramparts, I beheld a forlorn female figure in black standing on the edge of one of the trenches. It was Rosalie Poe, and, going out to her and bringing her in, I saw how ill and haggard she looked. Some of the MacKenzies, including her adopted mother, were dead, she told me. The rest were living in the country in great poverty. ‘They cannot give me a home,’ she said. ‘They have to work for a living, and I am not strong enough to work.’

“She did, indeed, appear utterly broken in health and spirits, the only subject of interest to her seeming to be what she termed ‘old times.’ These she never wearied of discussing, recalling with childish satisfaction the luxuries to which she had been accustomed, and saying: ‘Many a time I should have been glad to get the scraps which we used to throw to the dogs.’ ”

It was about this time that Mrs. Weiss went to New York to live, and soon after her arrival there she received from Miss Poe some pictures of her brother, with an autograph letter, accompanied by the request that she would sell them for whatever they would bring.

“I applied to Mrs. S. H. Kidder, of Boston, and to Mr. Howard, the editor of the Sunday Times and News,” Mrs. Weiss says, “to assist me in my efforts. Both kindly but unsuccessfully exerted themselves in behalf of the unfortunate sister of the poet. Meanwhile I was almost daily in receipt of urgent letters from her, in one of which she says: ‘Do try to do something for me. I am worse off now than ever. I have no home at all, and every night I have to try for some place to sleep. I really don’t know what will become of me. I walk about all day till I am almost dead.’”

This statement is borne out by the testimony of Mrs. Leftwich, who says: “After Mrs. Mackenzie’s death Miss Poe was a wanderer, staying wherever she could, and being often with a Mrs. Nye, who lived in a house, still standing, near the corner of Broad and Twelfth streets. Occasionally she went to Baltimore, every one wondering where she got the money with which to pay her traveling expenses.”

From one of these trips she never returned, and a vague rumor reached Richmond that she had died in a public organization — some said at the Church Home, of that city; others at the Louise Home, in Washington. These reports being found to be incorrect, and investigation leading to the Epiphany Church Home, Washington, examination of its record revealed the following entry, hidden for more than 30 years between the leaves of the ponderous volume:

“A sister of Edgar A. Poe, who entered the institution from Baltimore, recommended by Mrs. Margaret Richie Stone, died here July 22, 1874.”

Mrs. Margaret Richie Stone was none other than her former writing pupil, the widow of Lincoln’s physician while at the White House, then secretary of the institution, with Miss Margaret Washington as president. Her house, corner of Fourteenth and F streets, was only a few blocks from the home, and a little talk there with the friend who closed the dying eyes of the only sister of Edgar Allan Poe supplied the last chapter in her life.

“The organization,” Mrs. Stone said, “was established exclusively for the poor of Epiphany parish, and Miss Poe was not eligible for admission into it. Her name being presented to the board by a prominent literary woman, however, as in destitute circumstances, and the sister of a genius whom all the world admired, an exception was made in her favor. She entered the institution in 1870, and during the four years of her continuance in it she seemed to me to be the loneliest, most desolate human being I had ever known, having practically no association with anyone about her. It was observed that she wrote and received many letters. It was also discovered that she rode extensively on the city railways, carrying with her photographs of her brother, which she offered for sale to the passengers.

“On the day upon which she died Miss Washington and myself were hastily summoned to the home by a messenger, and, hurrying to the spot, we found her unconscious and evidently near her end. Turning to the matron and other employes [[employees]] standing around, I said: ‘Ladies, isn’t this very sudden?’

“‘Yes,’ was the reply. ‘Miss Poe was as well as usual yesterday, and this morning went down to the front door to sign for a registered letter, brought her in the first delivery. When she returned to her room she seemed much exhausted, and, tearing open the letter, without reading it threw herself upon the bed.’

“ ‘And where is that letter?’ I asked.

“They pointed to a torn envelope lying on a table near me, and, examining it, I found that it inclosed a letter from Mr. George W. Childs, of Philadelphia, with a postal order for $50.

“When all was over it was decided at a meeting of the board to apply this sum to the maintenance of the home which had for four years given her shelter. It was also decided that the remains of the sister of the poet should be placed in Rock Creek Cemetery, in a plot set aside for the use of the members of the institution, and marked by a marble shaft, on one side of which is inscribed: ‘For Epiphany Church Home,’ and on the reverse, ‘For the Poor of Epiphany Parish.’ ”


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Notes:

The original article features a large portrait of Mrs. Susan Archer Weiss. The reminiscences of Mrs. Talley appear to have been culled from The Sister of Edgar A. Poe, Continent, June 27, 1883.

On a clipping of this article in the Ingram Collection, at the University of Virginia, appear the following notes:

“Her writing was wretched

She did not know she had a brother till when on in years. She wrote me so. JHI”

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[S:1 - PUS, 1905] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Poe's Unhappy Sister (G. S. Whittle, 1905)