Reminiscences of Edgar Allan Poe
BY SUSAN ARCHER WEISS
[To the letter from Mrs. Weiss to Professor Harrison, published some time ago, giving her memories of Edgar Allan Poe, she added a longer postscript suggested by reading Professor Harrison’s biography. We give it herewith. -- EDITOR.]
HAVE you an account of Poe’s two public recitations in Richmond of “The Raven” and the “Poetic Principle?”
I may here mention what was known to all Poe’s intimate friends, and from his own lips -- that his engagement to Mrs. Shelton was positively broken off before he left Richmond.)
Now let me make some miscellaneous comments on your biography, the MS. of which you kindly submit:
It must be admitted that Edgar Poe did repeatedly, as occasion suited him, misstate his own age, as on page 2d.
It is doubtful whether Mr. Poe did actually ever “look forward to the inheritance of a large fortune” (p. 1), for he was not by any means the only one whom Mr. Allan considered in the disposition of his property, and he must have known what Mr. Allan frequently declared to be his intention, to provide liberally for Edgar in establishing him in some business which would afford him ample self-support. It was generally understood in social circles that the greater part of his fortune, in event of his wife’s death, would be settled upon her sister, Miss Anne Valentine. She had been his first love, whom he addressed before he did her sister (this she told me as a secret) -- he being at that time a poor man, rather rough and uncultured in mind and manner. It was said after his wife’s death, he (in case of his own death unmarried) settled his handsome home on
[column 2:]her as a home, or intended so to do; and certain it is that she continued to reside there with his widow until her own death. She was homely in person, but of a lovely disposition, and being, like Mrs. Allan herself, tactful and diplomatic, the two ladies agreed excellently well together. It was only in my mother’s house and in confidential conversation with her and one of her own relatives, my Aunt Valentine, that I ever knew of Miss Anne’s taking Edgar Poe’s part against Mrs. Allan, she maintaining that the former had been “more sinned against than sinning.” It was said that she often, after his rupture with the Allans, secretly supplied him with money.
Page 5. My mother remembered perfectly Mrs. Poe’s appearance on the stage in Norfolk, she having been taken to “the play” as a treat. She looked, according to my mother, more like a girl of sixteen than a woman of thirty, which was said to be her real age, she being some years older than her husband. She was petite and very graceful, with a round, childish face, short dark curls and beautiful large laughing eyes. She was considered rather childish and silly, and not a talented actress, tho her beauty, piquancy and coquettish ways made her a great favorite on the stage. My mother said that her son resembled her in feature.
P. 23. Rosalie -- not Rose -- was -- baptismal name of Poe’s sister.
P. 27. I do not think that Edgar was “spoiled” by Mr. Allan. The latter was, from all accounts, an impulsive, quick-tempered man, and, as I have heard stated, very strict with the child, permitting no act of disrespect or disobedience to pass unpunished, unless at his wife’s entreaties. I remember nearing of an instance of this. My uncle Valentine, who was as fond of fun as Edgar himself, taught the latter many mischievous little tricks, among which was that of pulling away a chair from a person about to sit down. Edgar was too little (about four or five) to discriminate as to the proper subjects for this joke (which had been positively forbidden by Mr. Allan) and one evening at a “tea-party,” seeing a certain rather corpulent and dignified lady about to seat herself, suddenly snatched away her chair, he himself falling on the floor in an exuberance of delight. Mr. Allan’s action was prompt, and when, after a brief absence with Edgar, he returned to the company, his wife took an opportunity of slipping away in order to comfort her pet.*
* Our knowledge of the now well-known fact that Poe enlisted in the United States army is due not to Mr. Gill or Professor Woodberry, but to Mrs. Weiss whose uncle, Dr. Archer, was post surgeon at Old Point at the time and often saw Poe in his uniform as a private there. Following out Mrs. Weiss’s suggestion, Professor Woodberry then went to work and established the fact by documentary evidence obtained from the War Department. Honor to whom honor is due. -- J. A. H. [[this footnote appears at the bottom of page 444, column 1.]]
In regard to the engagement with Mrs. Shelton, it was broken by Mr. Poe himself in consequence, as we understood, of her refusing him a loan for the establishment of The Iris [Stylus], in the success of which she had no faith, and accusing him of wishing to marry her for her money. Poe himself, greatly disgusted, broke the engagement, and ceased his visits to her. He went for a stay of some days at the country home [Duncan’s Lodge, on Broad Street, opposite the Lee Monument] of his friend, Mr. John Mackenzie, and I well remember that during his absence Mrs. Shelton one day came to see Mrs. Mackenzie, with whom she had no previous acquaintance, and had a private talk with her in the parlor, as was whispered in the family, about Mr. Poe’s letters to her. I do not know what letters these were which she was so anxious to obtain and which he refused to give up unless she returned
[column 2:]his own. There was certainly a bitter estrangement for a time, nor was there ever to us any evidence of a reconciliation -- tho a letter from Poe and one from Mrs. Shelton to Mrs. Clemm, now in evidence, would indicate that the engagement was renewed, and Mrs. Shelton, on Poe’s death, donned “widow’s weeds” of the deepest mourning. He himself always denied, even in public, that any engagement existed between himself and Mrs. Shelton, and spoke of the schoolboy love affair with her as a case of “measles.” Observe also Mrs. S.’s own statement on page 315 that she “was not engaged to him, but there was a partial understanding.” With these contradictions the case is one difficult to be understood.
I did not know Mrs. Shelton, but saw her on two occasions -- once, when she milled at Mrs. Mackenzie’s, and again at Poe’s lecture at the Exchange Hotel. She was a tall, rather masculine looking woman, with good features, hollow cheeks, thin lips and large blue eyes with purplish shadows about them, which had once probably been handsome. She was richly dressed, but had not a -- particle of grace or style, and her countenance was wholly expressionless. She impressed me as being hard and cold -- the type of a thoroughly respectable, sensible, matter-of-fact woman, with whom no one could associate an idea of romance or poetry. I heard her spoken of as “a rich widow,” but she lived in a plain manner, in an ordinary, substantial brick house with a high square porch and not even a flower to ornament the front yard. Miss Van Lew once pointed out this house to me, a few doors above her own, saying, “I used to see Mr. Poe go in there when he first came to Richmond, but not during the last part of his stay here. Once or twice they walked out together, and we could not but notice the contrast between them even in size.”
This house [now No. 2613 E. Grace Street, near, not opposite, St. John’s] was opposite St. John’s* Churchyard, where Poe’s mother was buried.
* The church celebrated in Virginia annals as the place where Patrick Henry pronounced the famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech. -- J. A. H. [[this footnote appears at the bottom of page 444, column 2.]]
Poe’s last visit in Richmond was to Mrs. Shelton on the evening before his departure for Baltimore. In returning
[page 445:]from her house he stopped, as was his custom, to rest at the office of Dr. John F. Carter, and then, instead of going on to the Swan Tavern, crossed over to Sadler’s restaurant, whence he repaired at a late hour to the Baltimore boat, which was to leave at four o’clock. It was said that he was sober, but it is now certain, on the authority of Dr. Carter, that he did not send for his baggage at the Swan, and this explains a point which has been much commented upon by his biographers, who assert that his baggage was stolen from him in Baltimore. It was, after his death, forwarded to Mrs. Clemm in New York by Mr. John Mackenzie.
Speaking of Mrs. Shelton, Rose Poe -- who was altogether without tact or judgment, wishing “to see her brother and Mrs. Shelton together,” as she said -- one day went to that lady’s house when she knew that her brother was there. She was shown into the parlor, where she found him lying on a sofa with a headache from his long walk. Mrs. Shelton called her into the hall and said, “He does not need you here, and I will take care of him myself,” -- and so dismissed her, to her great indignation.
Shall I confess that I have little faith in the sincerity of Poe’s love rhapsodies, especially as regards Mrs. Whitman? His letter to her (how could she ever have made it public?) is clearly no genuine love-inspired epistle, but an elaborate work of art intended to please the lady. A poetic college youth might have written such to a romantic girl in her teens, but between a man and a woman of nearly fifty such a passion as is here portrayed - such ideal visions of love in a cottage, etc. appear rather exaggerated. A gentleman who knew both Poe and Mrs. W. told me that her portrait had been greatly overdrawn and that he did not credit her account of Poe’s insane conduct at her house; that he could not imagine Poe acting as described, and he also doubted whether the lines, “I saw thee once, once only,” were addressed to her. But it is impossible to know to whom Poe’s poems were originally addressed, except in the case of Mrs. Osgood, who appears to have been a genuinely sweet, feminine and lovable woman. It is strange, and to me incomprehensible, how freely all these women, down
[column 2:]to Mrs. Shelton, have informed the public of their love passages with the poet. Mrs. Shelton had no children. Some of her family, the Roysters, are still living -- in Hanover, I believe. They and the Sheltons were plain, respectable people -- her husband, if I am not mistaken, a prosperous grocer on Church Hill. I believe that Mrs. Shelton was really anxious for the marriage with Poe. Mrs. Osgood accuses Mrs. Whitman and others of seeking Poe’s acquaintance and attention, or, to use a common expression, “running after him,” and this may he as well applied to Mrs. Shelton. After his wife’s death she was continually inquiring about him of Mr. Thos. Mackenzie, and even sent messages -- remembrances and regards -- and hoped he would visit Richmond. Possibly letters may have passed between -- them (the letters which she was afterward so anxious to regain possession of?). Mrs. Clemm, I heard, who had not favored Mrs. Whitman, was anxious for the match with Mrs. Shelton, whom she had known in Richmond, and with whom she anticipated a quiet and comfortable home. But when, after Poe’s death, his poverty-stricken mother applied to Mrs. Shelton for a slight pecuniary aid, she received no response. Two weeks after Poe’s death Mrs. Shelton made her appearance at church and on the street clad in deepest widow’s weeds, which she wore for the prescribed conventional period. It is true that she used to be sarcastically pointed out as “ Poe’s Lenore.” She was very “close” with her money, but appears to have been a good woman -- pious, and on good terms with her relatives and acquaintances, and much esteemed by them.
About Poe’s last lecture in Richmond -- it took place, not, like the former one, at the Exchange Hotel, but at the “Odd Fellows’ Hall,” just below, on Franklin Street (afterward police court). With mv mother and sister and Rose Poe, I attended, and, arriving late, found about s’xty persons, mostly of Richmond’s repsentative [[representative]] society, assembled -- the Cabells, Carringtons, Miles Careys, Daniels, Ellises, etc. -- an appreciative audience. Mrs. Shelton was pointed out to me occupying, with a male friend, a conspicuous front seat exactly opposite the platform. This was, I think, during the
[page 446:]period of their estrangement. Mr. Poe, clad, as usual, in black, stepped upon the platform, and, gracefully bowing, commenced his lecture (“The Poetic Principle”), his hands resting upon either a railing or a low writing desk in front of -him. During the whole lecture he never changed his position or made a gesture even with his hands, but his expression was constantly changing, and it was al_ most impossible to remove one’s eyes from his face. The audience seemed fascinated and listened breathlessly and almost as motionless as the speaker. Upon concluding he again bowed, and then, without a pause, came quickly down the steps to where we were seated, in doing so passing Mrs. Shelton without notice. He looked unusually pleased, and handsomer than I had ever seen him. People observed him curiously and some waited, evidently desiring to speak to him; but he appeared oblivious of their presence, not once glancing toward them. His face, with the beautiful, soft smiling expression of his eyes, I can this moment in memory behold as plainly as I then did. Rose, who was very proud of her brother, and also of herself as “the poet’s sister,” was almost absurdly happy, and remarked: “Edgar, just see how those people are staring at us -- the poet and his sister.”
I can recall him in various situations -- once, strolling meditatively and alone -- in the old Hermitage road at twilight, and, again, holding a skein of yarn for Mrs. Mackenzie to wind. It was on a Friday that I was introduced to him, and on the following Sunday at church I was surprised to see him enter and very quietly -take a seat just across the aisle opposite us. He sat motionless and attentive during the service, only once or twice turning his head and glancing up at the choir during the fine singing. I observed that his appearance attracted attention, tho he was not recognized as the poet about whom everybody was then talking: He walked with us up Franklin Street to my uncle’s, Dr. Archer’s, but would not accept his invitation to enter. My uncle remarked, as he left, that he still looked much like the Poe whom he had when post-surgeon at Old Point often seen there in the uniform, of a private.
On the day following this my mother,
[column 2:]sister and myself were going down Main Street, when we passed Mr. Poe and Dr. Gibbon Carter with several other gentlemen at the entrance of the American Hotel. We stopped at a jeweler’s, when presently they appeared and stood just outside, while my sister and myself in the doorway talked to them. Mr. Poe stood bareheaded, with his hat and cane held behind him, the beau ideal of a courteous, elegant and high-bred gentleman, -- as, indeed, he appeared to me on all occasions. These brief glimpses may serve to give some idea of his general manners and appearance.
I have often wondered whether the renewal of the engagement with Mrs. Shelton (if there was a renewal) was the result of that lady’s offering to assist Mr. Poe, pecuniarily, in establishing the Stylus. In my last interview with him he appeared so cheerful and confident of its success.
I do not know what became of the review of my poems which Mr. Poe in my last interview with him told me that he was writing-probably it was only a beginning, and as such valueless after his death-and so I missed being immortalized.
I once on a quiet, drizzling summer day had an hour’s talk with Mr. Poe in cur own parlor about “The Raven,” when he said: “Do you know that ‘The Raven’ was originally not a Raven at all, but an Owl? “ I hardly noticed then what if I had been older’ would have so much interested me. I only asked why he had made the change. To which he replied, “ For sake of the `nevermore.’.” I afterward mentioned the circumstance to Dr. Holland (editor of Scribner’s), who said that he had heard something of the same kind, but did not credit it. For this reason I refrained from mentioning it in my “Last Days” of Poe. But in reading the poem one comes upon words and expressions which irresistibly remind us of the Owl, the bird of wisdom-Minerva’s bird, which “perched upon the bust of Pallas” -- more appropriate to an Owl than a Raven --
“Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,” etc., etc.
Moreover, owls are night-birds and,
as is well known, are attracted to lighted windows at night, which doesn’t apply to ravens.
“And its eyes have all the seeming of a demon
that is dreaming”
is decidedly owlish. But I would not venture at this late day and with no proof to put forth this claim of Owl versus Raven.
In an article of mine published some 15 or 20 years ago, on “The Sister of Edgar A. Poe,” I gave the following account of the Poe children, the first glimpse which we have of Edgar, and on the authority of my own mother. I have no copy of the magazine in which it was published (The Manhattan or Cosmopolitan), and must, therefore, quote from memory.
In November, 1811, my mother, as a child of ten years (sister of the late Dr. Robert Archer Richmond), was living in Norfolk; and a daily visitor at the house of her aunt, Mrs. Butt, on Bermuda Street In the attic of the adjoining house were lodged Mr. and Mrs. Poe, two small children, and a nurse -- the latter an old Welsh woman (she may have been Scotch) called Mrs. Tubbs or Tibbs. Tibbs, who spoke imperfect English in a way which amused my mother. Mr. Poe was sick in bed, and the nurse kept the two children mostly out of doors, the weather, tho in winter, being mild and sunny. The eldest, a beautiful boy, was very gay and restless and not easily controlled, while the girl was quiet and generally sat on the nurse’s lap. Both were apparently wayward, spoiled children. My mother recalled how one day the boy persisted in running to and fro across the narrow street, and came near being killed by a runaway horse, when the nurse dropped the little girl and rushed toward him, crying, “Ho! Hedgar! Hedgar!” People would often stop to admire the children, and my mother repeatedly heard the nurse say in answer to an inquiry, Rosie is two years (and certain months) old, and Hedgar is just four.” Note that this was in November of 1811.
To obtain additional evidence on this point, I some years since wrote to my old friend, Mrs. Byrd, a daughter of Mrs. Mackenzie, and with whom Rose Poe had been brought up, knowing that
[column 2:]at the time of the children’s baptism or “adoption” their ages had been registered. The following is her answer, here copied verbatim, from the original note now in my possession:
You ask the date of Edgar’s and Rose’s birth. From a remark of his [in a letter in answer to her wedding invitation: S. A. W.], he said that if I had put off my marriage one week it would have been on his birthday. I was married the 5th of October. He was born in the year 1808, Rose in 1810. Their mother died 8 Dec. 1811, & on the 9th the children were taken to Mr. Allan’s & our house. Their mother was boarding at Mrs. Fip’s, (a milliner) in Richmond, & was buried at the old Church [St. John’s] on the hill. Mr. Poe died first, in Norfolk, I think.
It is certain that Mr. Poe died in Norfolk; where the company with which they were playing (Mr. Placide’s) were compelled to leave him on account of his illness, while they went on to Richmond. On hearing of his death one of them returned to Norfolk and brought the whole family to Richmond, intending to take them to their friends in Baltimore, but Mrs. Poe being taken with pneumonia, died as above. Mrs. Mary Carter (daughter of Major James Gibbon and mother of the late Mrs. Minnegerode), who was always very severe in her condemnation of Edgar Poe’s Baltimore relatives in connection with their treatment of the children, asserted that Mr. Placide took pains to inform them to inform them of the pitiable condition of the family; he himself being very generous in providing for them; but it does not appear that they made any response until after Mr. Allan and Mr. Mackenzie had at their own expense had Mrs. Poe buried in St. John’s churchyard. The grave is now unknown, tho “close to the Eastern wall,” as I have been told.*
On the whole, the old nurse’s account would appear to be the most authentic and reliable, she being in a position to know certainly what she stated, while the other testimony was only from hearsay. Also her account would agree with Poe’s own statement to Mrs. Byrd that the 12th of October was his birthday.
* Of course this contradicts all the traditional accounts of Poe’s birth day and year, the records of the University of Virginia, etc. Poe himself gave varying accounts of his age, substituted his sister’s age for his own, etc. What are we to believe? -- J. A. H. [[This footnote appears at the bottom of page 447, column 2.]]
“Grandmother Arnold” was this old Welsh or Scotch nurse, Mrs. Tubbs -- or Tibbs, as she was known in Richmond. In her last illness Mrs. Poe called her “Mother,” while she always addressed [page 448:] the latter as “Betty.” It was said by some that the name of Arnold was an assumed stage name -- evidently preferable to Tubbs.
The company with which the Poes were playing was Mr. Placide’s, not Mr. Green’s, the latter and his wife being leading members of the company.
Mr. Gill asserts that the father died, three years later [than his wife] of the same disease. Mr. Gill is all wrong.* Mrs. Poe’s lodgings were plain but respectable, in the house of a milliner, in the damp, low-lying portion of Main Street, just above the Old Market known as “Bird in the Hand.” There could have been no such wretched surroundings as described by Gill. The pawning or selling of her clothes is due to Mr. Gill’s very fertile fancy.
Neither Edgar nor Rosalie was in the legal sense “adopted” by Mr. Allan or the Mackenzies ; they were simply “taken in,” as any charitably disposed person might arrange to protect, two destitute orphan children.
The “fashionable school” spoken of
[column 2:]was not “kept by the Mackenzies,” but by Miss Jean Mackenzie, sister of the gentleman who “adopted “ Rosalie.
* There is indubitable evidence, in an unpublished letter. written by Poe himself, giving the history and genealogy of his family, that his father died several weeks after his mother. Mrs. Weiss corrects the statement (p. 8) that “little Rosalie came after her father’s death, to add to the distresses and troubles of the mother,” holding that she was at least two years old at this time. -- J. A. H.
[Thus far Mrs. Weiss still further expresses her emphatic dissent from the statements made (page 112) in the letter from Mr. Allan’s niece accusing Poe of forgery and of brutal conduct during Mr. Allan’s last illness. She adds:] The account which I have heard of this occurrence is (with some slight variation) simply this -- that Poe, having been informed that Mr. Allan had expressed some kind feeling toward him, went to the house and requested to see him -- and that this being refused, he stepped into the hall and insisted upon the message being delivered to Mr. Allan himself; whereupon Mrs. Allan ordered the servant to “put that drunken man out of the house.” This was all.
I, of course, do not intend in the least to disparage your correspondent, who has simply told what she had heard and believed, but I consider that I have the best and most reliable authority, in a word, of such well-known ladies as Mrs. Carter, Mrs. Mackenzie, Mrs. Peter Chevalie, Mrs. Julia Mayo Cabell and others of equally high standing. The occurrence was well known and much discussed in society.
[S:0 - IN, 1904]