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[Text: William P. Meany, “Edgar Allan Poe’s Grave,” The Celtic Monthly, September 1879, pp. 139-141.]


[page 139:]

EDGAR ALLAN POE’S GRAVE.

BY WILLIAM P. MEANY.

[column 1:]

The history of Edgar Allan Poe has been sketched by scores of biographers, and his character has been the theme of numbers of newspaper articles. The honor of his birth has been claimed by three States, and the exact particulars of his death have long been matters of controversy between those who professed to know the man and his surroundings. Biographers of Poe, with scarcely an exception, have contented themselves with beginning the poet’s story with his birth; and while a number claim Baltimore as his native place, it is now generally admitted that he was born in Boston, Mass. on the 19th of January, 1809.

In a new work published in Baltimore under the title of “Representative Men of Maryland,” some facts in regard to Poe’s ancestry, hitherto unpublished, appear. And as all the information in the volume was gleaned from the immediate relatives of the personages whose histories it relates, it may be taken for granted that the statements made are true to the very letter.

Edgar Allan Poe, according to this new work, was descended from a highly respectable Irish family. His grandfather, David Poe, came to this country with his parents from Londonderry in 1743. He espoused the American cause during the Revolution, and became an officer in the Maryland line and the intimate friend of Lafayette. His son, David Poe, Jr., adopted the law as a profession, afterwards became an actor, and died in 1811, being one of the victims of the burning of the Richmond Theatre, at which place he was at that time engaged. He left three orphan children, the second of whom, Edgar Allan, has made himself immortal as the author of “The Raven,” “Annabel Lee,” “The Bells,” and other poems, which will live as long as English literature continues to delight the learned. The music and poetry of the Irish race, from whim lie sprung, characterized every line that dropped from his pen, and the weird sweetness and exalted genius pervading his every effort makes a sympathizer and admirer of all familiar with his brilliant works.

But it is not of Poe or his works that we desire to speak, but of the grave of the poet, so long neglected, in the old Presbyterian burying-ground of Baltimore. For Nears not even a simple slab marked the resting-place of the one whose very name shed a lustre on the monumental city. While all the graves in the immediate vicinity had costly monuments or headstones, with loving inscriptions, to tell of who “lay buried there,” nothing but a green. clad mound marked the remains of Poe.

Mr. Neilson Poe, a cousin of the deceased, once, it is true, made an effort to raise a suitable monument over the grave of his relative, but a train ran into the marble-yard [column 2:] where it was made and destroyed the shaft just as it was approaching completion.

No further steps to the matter was taken until October 7,1865--just sixteen years after the poet’s death-when Mr. John Basil, Jr., a schoolteacher of the city, at a meeting of his fellow-pedagogues, offered a resolution that their association should adopt suitable measures to perpetuate the memory of Poe. A committee was appointed for the purpose, the young ladies of the Western Female High School took the matter in hand, and in a few years, through the energy and perseverance of Miss Sara Sigourney Rice, a gifted elocutionist of the city, quite a handsome sum was raised by select entertainments towards the purchase of a monument. George W. Childs, of Philadelphia, supplied the balance needed, and the work on the Poe column was commenced.
On September 30, 1875, the sculptors announced their work as finished, and the same day the remains of Poe were removed from the centre of the graveyard and placed beside those of his mother-in-law in the northwest corner of the lot, close to the intersection of Greene and Fayette Streets.

Mr. George W. Spence, the undertaker who buried Poe twenty-six years before, entrusted a professional coffin-lifter named Tuder with the raising of the remains, and that individual set about his task early in the afternoon. The sun was just setting in the western horizon as his pick crushed through the outer boarding of the coffin and sounded sharply on the lid. The casket lay about five feet from the surface and at first sight appeared firm and sound. On raising it to the brink, however, Mr. Tuder discovered that it was partially broken in at the sides, and the lid near the head was so much decayed or shattered by the stroke of the pick that it fell in pieces to the ground. Looking through the aperture thus created, Messrs. Tuder, Spence, and the few others present beheld the skeleton of Poe. The flesh and funeral robes bad of course crumbled into dust, and there was nothing left but the bare bones and a few clumps of hair attached to the skull, to tell that a body had once been there. The skeleton was in good condition, the arms lying as they were arranged in death, and the back and leg-bones in a natural position. The ribs, however, had fallen out, but they lay in order on either side of the coffin, and the skull had not moved the least from the proper place, The teeth of the upper jaw must have been shaken out in the lifting of the coffin, for they lay scattered about the skull, while those of the lower jaw, which had fallen down from the rest of the “face,” were perfect, not one being missing from either side, The teeth looked pearly white and were in excellent preservation. [page 140:]

Without a moment’s loss of time Mr. Spence had the bones placed within a strong wooden box, and before the darkness set in the clay was dashed in for the second time on the hollow-sounding casket, and the remains of Poe were covered up, never to be disturbed again.

The writer of this article visited the graveyard on the morning following the removal of the remains and found the foundation complete for the reception of the slab. Mr. Tuder was there awaiting the arrival of the stone, and two or three laborers sat around discussing the difference in dead bodies, munching the while the peaches which dropped from the trees abounding in that portion of the churchyard.

Robert Davidson, the old man of all work about the church, and who sleeps in a sort of living tomb beneath it, was there, too, removing the pits from the peaches he picked up from the grass upon the mound and spreading the fruit to dry upon a bench which he had improvised with tombstones for its supports. Robert is known as “Old Mortality,” and though he sleeps as contentedly beneath the church, with nothing but memorial slabs surrounding him, he dreads to touch a coffin, and could not be prevailed upon to lend a helping hand in raising the remains of Poe. He is a native of the north of Ireland, but speaks with a broad Scotch accent. When asked by the writer it nothing of the remains of Poe was left above ground, he kicked a small piece of mahogany timber with his right foot and said: “Yes, there’s a piece of the coffin in which the skeleton was encased. You can have it if you wish.” The memento was eagerly picked up, and has long since been converted into a penholder, as a relic from the poet’s grave.

Before describing the monument of Poe, it , any, it may be well to set at rest a mis-statement which appeared under the signature of Dr. J. E. Snodgrass, in “Beadle’s New York Monthly,” of March, 1867. In the course of a lengthy article, Dr. Snodgrass (now of Washington), after alluding to Poe’s death, speaks as follows of his burial: “I now proceed to give the true version of the place and manner of Mr. Poe’s burial. Among the false statements I have met with, was one to the effect that he had been buried in the Potter’s Field of his native city. As one of only three, or perhaps four, persons, not counting the undertaker and the drivers of the hearse and a single carriage, which made up the entire funeral train of the author of The Raven’ -- who followed the body to the grave, I am happy to be able to testify that the truth, bad as it is, does not sustain this story. The burial place of Poe was an old one belonging to the Westminister Presbyterian Church, which had ceased to be used much in 1849, because of its location in a populous portion of Baltimore -- in Green Street. There were many old vaults in it; and, when our little cortege reached it, I naturally consoled myself with the thought that his relatives-two or three of whom were present, and one of these officiating as clergyman-had [column 2:] secured him at least a temporary resting place in one of these family tombs. But it proved to be otherwise. A grave had been dug among the crumbled mementoes of mortality. Into this the plainly coffined body was speedily lowered, and then the earth was shoveled directly upon the coffin lid. This was so unusual, even in the burials of the poor, that I could not help noticing the absence of not only the customary box, as an enclosure for the coffin itself, but of even the commonest boards to prevent the direct contact of the decomposing earth with it. I shall never forget the emotion of disappointment, mingled with disgust and something akin to resentment, that thrilled through my whole being as I heard the clods and stones resound from the coffin lid and break the more than ordinarily solemn stillness of the scene.”

Having come by chance across the foregoing in “Beadle’s Monthly,” and remembering the box “Old Mortality” had shown me in the graveyard the day succeeding the raising of the remains, came to the conclusion that if Dr. Snodgrass was correct in what he wrote, the monument of Poe was over the wrong remains. A visit only two years ago to “ Old Mortality,” Neilson Poe, Esq, and Mr. Spence, the undertaker, settled the matter. The first named vowed that the coffin was protected by boards (exhibiting a portion of them as a proof), and Messrs. Poe and Spence were not only positive in support of the same, but stated unhesitatingly that Dr. Snodgrass was not at the funeral at all. “ Why,” added Mr. Spence, whom I found seated outside Messrs. Jenkins & Son’s Undertaking Store on Light Street, “I saw the boards made and the coffin too, in this very shop. The casket was of the best mahogany, and I remember as distinctly as if it was yesterday, lowering it into what we call a “shoulder” grave, and fixing the boards above to protect it from contact with the earth.”

To return to the memorial ceremonies at the grave, however. The monument was unveiled about the middle of October, 18745, It is of pedestal form, the surbase being of Woodstock granite; the balance of veined Italian marble, and the bas relief of statuary. The pedestal has an attic base three feet ten inches high; the die is a cube three feet square and three feet two inches in height, and suitably relieved. On the front panel is the bas relief bust of the poet, and in this panel is also the inscription consisting of the simple record of Poe’s birth and death. The total height of the monument is eight feet.

The unveiling of the monument attracted an immense number of people to the Western Female High School, adjoining the graveyard, where the ceremonies took place. Addresses were made by Professors Elliott and Shepherd and J. H. B. Latrobe, Esq.; H. F. Gill, Esq. of Boston, recited several of Poe’s poetic gems, Miss S. S. Rice read letters from poets and authors in regard to the celebration, and several musical selections were rendered by an efficient choir. [page 141:]

Apropos of the letters of the poets read before the assemblage, the following from William Cullen Bryant, received fourteen years ago, is here, through the courtesy of Miss Rice, published for the first time. It will be read with all the more interest when it is stated that six years latter Bryant write a warm and suitable inscription for the monument of the man he formerly despised. Like others, he had learned by enquiry that the majority of the charges against Poe were base calumnies:

OFFICE OF THE EVENING FOST,
41 NASSAU STREET, COR. LIBERTY,
New York, Nov. 6th, 1865.
DEAR MADAME -- I am very unwilling to do anything which may seem disobliging -- yet I cannot comply with the request in your note. A poem I could not furnish, for I never write verses for particular occasions except when spontaneously prompted to it: Nor do I see how I can co-operate in your design in any other manner. The difficulty arises from the personal character of Edgar Allen [[sic]] Poe, of which I have in my time heard too much to be able to join in paying especial honor to his memory. Persons younger than myself, who have heard less of the conduct to which I refer, may take a different view of the matter and certainly I do not intend to censure them for doing so. I think, however, that there should be some decided element of goodness in the character of those to whose example a public monument directs the attention of the world. I am sure that you will take this expression of my views in good part as it is intended. I am, Madame,
Very respectfully yours,
W. C. BRYANT.

Miss SARA S. RICE.

Another of the interesting letters received on the occasion has never yet seen the light in full. It is from Mrs. Margaret Preston, the [column 2:] authoress of the sweet poem, “Keeping His Word.” which appeared in the last issue of the CELTIC MONTHLY, and reads as follows:

LEXINGTON, VA., OCT. 8, 1875, Miss SARA S. RICE.

DEAR MADAME -- Your note and request, so complimentary to myself, has been received. I thank you for the good opinion which led you to propose the writing of a poem on my part, for the prospective inauguration of the Poe memorial. While it is not in my power to comply with the flattering request, or to be present at the ceremonial, I tender to the committee my thanks, nevertheless, for the honor thus conferred upon me. There would seem to be a slight appropriateness in the proposal made to me, inasmuch as my husband (Col. Preston of the Virginia Military college) was a boyish friend of Poe’s when they went to school together in Richmond, who used to sit on the same bench with him, and together with him pore over the same pages of Horace. To him, as his earliest literary critic -- a boy of fourteen -- Poe was accustomed to bring his first verses. Even then, youth as he was, he was distinguished by many of the characteristics which marked his after life.

With every good wish for the entire success of your memorial services, and with renewed thanks to your committee for this mark of regard, believe me, my dear Madame,
Sincerely yours,
MARGARET J. PRESTON.

Letters were also received from Longfellow, Whittier, Tennyson, Holmes, Saxe, Whitman and others, all uniting in wreathing a garland of love and respect over the author of the “Lost Lenore,” his “memorial shaft” though in no way pretentious, is yet fit for the simple and true, and serves as a beacon for all poetic pilgrims visiting the City of Monuments.


[Poe was indeed born in Boston, on the date noted. Although Poe's father, David Poe, Jr., is thought to have died in 1811, he was not killed in the Richmond Theatre fire. The precise location, date and circumstances of his death are unknown. H. F. Gill was really William Fearing Gill.]

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[S:0 - CM, 1879]