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POE'S BURIAL AND GRAVE
THE STORY OF THE SIMPLE CEREMONY IN BALTIMORE.
TOLD BY THE OLD KEEPER OF WESTMINSTER GRAVEYARD -- THE REMOVAL TO THE PRESENT MONUMENT -- MRS. CLEMM’S DEVOTION TO HER DAUGHTER’S HUSBAND.
BALTIMORE, Feb. 24. -- Forty-three years ago, on an October day, Edgar Allan Poe, the poet and novelist, was laid to rest in the cemetery that is now almost in the heart of the business region of this city. The old burial ground, which was laid out nearly 150 years ago, is the property of the First Presbyterian Church, and is commonly known as “Westminster Graveyard,” from the fact that many years ago -- a century, indeed, after the establishment of the cemetery -- Westminster Church, a branch of the First Church, arose in its place.
The graveyard is at Greene and West Fayette Streets and occupies about half a square. In it are burled Gen. John Stricker, that distinguished Marylander and soldier of the Revolution, who commanded the Third Brigade at the battle of North Point in the second war with England; Capt. Paul Bentalon, another Revolutionary hero, in whose arms Count Pulaski died at the battle of Savannah; Gen. Samuel Smith, a soldier of the Revolution, Secretary of the Navy, Mayor of Baltimore, and for forty years in Congress; James McHenry, one of the framers of the Constitution, secretary to Gen. Washington during the Revolution, and Secretary of War in his Cabinet; William Patterson, father of beautiful Betsy Patterson, belle of Baltimore, and afterward wife of Jerome Bonaparte; Philip Barton Key, whose tragic death. in the streets of Washington from a pistol shot fired by Gen. Daniel E. Sickles is recalled by the old grave; the father and grandfather of the poet, (John David Poe,) James Calhoun, first Mayor of Baltimore, and others of equal note.
The grave of Poe is marked by a monument erected years after the poet's death through a movement started by Miss Sarah Sigourney Rice, then and now a teacher in the Western Female High School, which overlooks the graveyard. It is a solid monument of white marble in pedestal style, resting on a heavy base of granite, and elevated on a mound of earth, its total height being 8 feet. Ornamenting each of the four sides is a carved lyre and laurel wreath. On the face of the pedestal is a large bas relief bust of the poet, which, judging from the descriptions of his face by all of his biographers, is not a particularly faithful likeness, Below this on the base the name “Edgar Allan Poe,” in large letters, is carved. On the opposite side is the inscription:
EDGAR ALLAN POE.
Born January 20, 1809.
Died October 7, 1849.
The date of birth differs from those given variously in biographies and encyclopedias. The true date seems uncertain.
Beneath the monument lies also the dust of the mother of the poet’s wife, Mrs. Maria Clemm, that “tireless minister to genius," who labored unceasingly for the poet’s comfort, and in his hour of need went from publisher to publisher begging aid for her son and pleading only that he was ill and suffering. It was the long ministrations of this noble soul that inspired Poe to write his beautiful lines, “To My Mother”:
“Because I feel that in the heavens above
The angels, whispering to one another.
Can find among their burning terms of love
None so devotional as that of ‘mother,’
Therefore by that dear name I long have called you,
You who are more than mother unto me,
And fill my heart of hearts, where death installed you
In setting my Virginia's spirit free.
My mother, my own mother, who died early,
Was but the mother of myself; but you
Are the mother of one I loved so dearly,
And thus are dearer than the mother that I knew
By that infinity with which my wife
Was dearer to my soul than its soul’s life.”
By the side of the monument sleeps that gentle Virginia whose dust was removed from the old cemetery at Fordham, N. Y., to rest by the side of her husband and mother, several years ago, after the monument was erected.
One morning not long ago the writer visited this cemetery while the day was still very young. As he was about passing out, he was suddenly confronted by an old man who was just emerging from a low archway. Feeling that perhaps there had been an intrusion, an apologetic remark was ventured.
“Oh, help yourself,” he answered; “I am always glad to show anybody about. Not that there are many who come,” he added thoughtfully. “Somehow or other people nowadays don’t seem to care much about the dead.
“Do I know anything about the circumstances of the burial of Poe? Well , I should think so. I have been here since I was a boy of seven, and my father was here before me, and I am close on to seventy now. Why, I buried Poe, and Mrs. Clemm, too, and disinterred the bodies when the monument was erected. I remember the day just as if it was yesterday.”
The old man was George W. Spence, and he was born in Baltimore in April, 1824. He began as a boy of seven to assist his father in his work as sexton of the first Presbyterian Church and keeper of the graveyard. At the father's death in 1844 the son succeeded him in both offices. The gold fever five years later led him West, but the experience of life on the coast sickened him and he returned to Baltimore.
“Mr. Poe used to now and then wander into the burial ground,” said Mr. Spence. “I recollect plainly his looks and his manners as he went hunting in and out among the graves. He was always very quiet and gloomy, it seems to me, and he appeared to be in thought. He would stand looking at the graves of the Poes, and he would often wander about among the others examining names and dates and inscriptions with great interest. Now and then he would ask a question about some person or date, or how was this one related to that one, and the like, but not very often. When I met him in the streets he would sometimes say ‘Good morning’ or ‘Good evening,’ and sometimes he wouldn’t.
“Well, I was mighty surprised to hear of his death. I had notice to make arrangements for the burial on Oct. 9. It was a dark and gloomy day, not raining, but just kind of raw and threatening. You would have been surprised to see that funeral procession as it came up to the burial ground. Nobody would have thought it was anybody famous-like. There was only just the hearse with one hack coming after it. There wasn’t any flowers -- not one. In the hack was the minister, (the Rev. W. D. T. Clemm, a well-known Baltimore Methodist clergyman and the second of the two living witnesses of the burial,) Judge Neilson Poe, and a Mr. Henry Herring, I believe, who was a Baltimore lumber dealer, and another gentleman, (the Hon. Z. Collins Lee.) That was all -- only four, except the gravedigger and me.
“It didn’t take long to get the work over. The preacher said the burial service and benediction. Then the four gentlemen went away.
“Some time after this somebody started the story in the papers that Mr. Poe had been buried like a dog, and that trouble was not even taken to have the coffin laid in an outside box, as is always done. Now that isn’t the truth at all. The funeral was very quiet and without any show or fuss, but there wasn’t anything wrong with the way the body was buried, for I saw the coffin placed in the outside case myself. I will show you where the old grave was.”
He led the way to the place where the body had lain for many years, unmarked by stick or stone.
“This is the place,” said the keeper, pointing to an old expanse of grass-covered ground surrounded by old tombstones. One could fancy the unpretentious burial train -- the six men gathered about the open grave and the benediction.
Speaking of Mrs. Clemm, the poet’s mother-in-law, the keeper said: “She often came to visit the grave and she never left without a bit of grass or weed plucked from it. Just before she died at the Church Home in Baltimore, where Mr. Poe, too, died, she made the request that I would bury her and that I should lay her beside her son. And so I did. It was twenty-six years before there was any monument to mark the place except the one I put there myself.” Then he added, smiling gently at the recollection:
“It came about like this: Every now and then somebody would come into the yard and want to know which was the grave of Edgar Allan Poe. Well, I always pointed it out when I was here, but sometimes when I was away I would have to leave this to the man who worked with me as a sort of an assistant. So, in order that there would be no mistake about it, I picked up a little piece of sandstone with the number “80” on it that had been broken off one of the stones marking the numbers and divisions of lots. I put this at the head of Mr. Poe’s grave.” And this was the monument of the poet for nearly thirty years!
October was again a memorable time in the quaint old burial ground, for it was in that month, in the year 1875, that the monument was unveiled, the body disinterred, and again laid to rest. Here again the keeper bad something to tell that was not recorded in the newspaper accounts at that time.
“Only the skeleton was left,” he said, “and when the pickaxes struck against the coffin it was found that the wood was pretty well gone. We were obliged to put the bones in another box about 2 1/2 feet long, and when this was put into the new grave I laid all the pieces of the old coffin in the grave, too. That is, I should say nearly all, for several big splinters got broken off, and were kept as mementos by a reporter and a policeman, I think.” One of the splinters, by the way, was converted into several penholders, and one is being used in penning these lines.
“The pieces I got hold of,” continued Mr. Spence, “I turned into a number of little
[column 11:]crosses, but one by one they have been begged away from me.
“The coffin that held Mrs. Clemm’s remains was in good condition. The committee did not want to move her body, but I begged them to do me because she had asked me to lay her by Mr. Poe’s Side. So we buried it under the monument. When the old grave was closed up the little bit of stone I had put there fell into the hands of my assistant. The last I heard of it was that he had sold it for 50 cents or $1 to some gentleman who was fond of relics. I do believe that it was the little stone that started all the talk about the way Mr. Poe was buried, because it all came out just about the time my assistant took the stone.
“Yes, they had a grand time when the monument was put up. The school teachers and girls and lots of big folks took part, and there were poems read and flowers and crowds and all sorts of doings. The next thing that happened was the burying of young Miss Poe’s body at the side of the monument. Members of the family were present, and the Rev. Dr. J. S. B. Hodges of the old St. Paul’s Church read the Episcopal service. Since those times nobody has seemed to think much about the grave, and those who do come here to see it are mostly strangers, it seems to me.”
[Poe’s father, David Poe, Jr., is not buried in the cemetery. In fact, where he died and is buried is unknown. Poe’s grandfather, “General” David Poe is buried in the cemetery, as is Poe’s grandmother, brother and great-grandmother. There is no certain record of Poe’s great-grandfather, John Poe, being buried there. Although the article specifies October 9, 1849 as the date of Poe’s burial, the more generally accepted date is October 8. One of the penholders made from the fragment of Poe’s coffin is currently owned by the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore.]
[S:0 - NYT, 1893]