Text: John Carl Miller, “Chapter III,” Building Poe Biography (1977), pp. 58-64 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 58, unnumbered:]


Rosalie Poe Begs for Help

WITHIN TWO DAYS after Elizabeth Poe died in Richmond on December 8,1811, Mrs. John Allan took three-year-old Edgar into her home and Mrs. William MacKenzie took one-year-old Rosalie into hers. These arrangements were expected to be temporary, but Edgar was to remain in the Allans’ care, after a fashion, for the next fourteen years, and Rosalie was to stay with the MacKenzies for more than fifty. Something apparently happened to Rosalie’s mental processes when she was ten or eleven, for she went the rest of her long life a simple, childlike person, who always looked older than she actually was. Dull, tiresome, uninterested and uninteresting, she was able to contribute only slightly to the life around her. Her oddities of behavior and dress repelled Edgar, but she adored him and followed after him, uninvited and unwanted, when he revisited Richmond in the 1840s. To Sarah Helen Whitman Poe quietly explained this awkward relationship in that decade as “a coolness or estrangement of long standing.”

Publication and widespread sale of the first edition of Poe’s works, which included Griswold’s infamous biography, brought fame not unmixed with slander to Poe’s name. Rosalie, however, began early in the 1850s proudly trying to sell postcard pictures of her famous brother on the streets of Richmond.

When the Civil War was over, Rosalie was homeless. Some members of the MacKenzie family had gone to England; others were scattered in the countryside around Richmond. They were poor and they had to learn for the first time how to work for a living. Rosalie Poe was unfitted for the work or life on a small farm and she was terribly unhappy in the country. Dreaming and talking constantly of “the old times,” she soon returned to the city, where she became a pitifully [page 59:] familiar figure tramping the streets trying to sell her postcard pictures of Edgar. After a while she betook herself to Baltimore where her cousins lived, but her wretched appearance and poor mentality made her less than welcome to the Baltimore Poes. Before long she was reenacting her Richmond role, haunting the streets of Baltimore, begging passersby to buy her brother’s picture or to contribute to the welfare of the poor sister of Edgar Allan Poe.

A committee of kind ladies in Baltimore succeeded in getting Rosalie Poe admitted, around March 1, 1870, to the Epiphany Church Home in Washington, D. C., a refuge for the poor of that parish. When admitted, she was approaching sixty years old, and her health was failing.

Small paragraphs began appearing in newspapers along the Eastern Seaboard asking readers to contribute clothing and money to Poe’s poor, sick sister. One of these was forwarded to Ingram in London by an American correspondent. Avid for any new source of information about Poe, Ingram addressed a letter to Rosalie at Hicks Landing, on the James River in Virginia, the address given in the newsclipping. Receiving no reply, Ingram asked the British consul in Baltimore to help him find Rosalie. That official referred him to the Reverend George Powell, a Baltimore minister who had known Rosalie for a long while and who had delivered public lectures on Poe’s works during the winter of 1873/74, raising by this means some sixty dollars for Rosalie’s benefit. Powell was at this time corresponding about Rosalie with James Wood Davidson, the South Carolina editor and writer who was an ardent admirer of Poe’s works. Davidson was one of Ingram’s helpful correspondents too, and he forwarded Powell’s letter very quickly. From the letter to Davidson, Ingram learned that Powell thought Rosalie “a good o!d lady, but simple,” and although she badly needed financial help, Powell would not recommend that a large sum of money be sent to her, he thought too much money at one time might have “an intoxicating effect” on her.

Ingram wrote immediately to Powell and told him of his efforts to raise money for Rosalie among his and Poe’s friends in London. And he wrote to Rosalie at the Epiphany Church Home. She replied rather quickly.

Letter 20. Rosalie Poe, Washington, D.C., to John Ingram, London. Second printing. [Item 148] [page 60:]

April 28, 1874

Dr. Ingram

Kind Sir Several months you kindly wrote to me that you had some idea of publishing my Brothers life over again Edgar Allan Poe contradicting things that had been said about him that was not correct and asking me if I could give you any information concerning his life not been living with my Brother until a few years before his death I did not know I had a Brother or Brothers, I may say until I was a good size girl I took your letter as I was advised to my cousin Nilson [sic] Poe who is a lawyer in Baltimore I asked him to read it he replied after he read, and with my permission he would answer it he said at the same time there is money coming to you concerning this. After I said to him Dr. Ingram, that I wish he would as I could give you no information concerning my poor Brothers life. Not hearing from me you wrote to Mr. George W. Powell of Baltimore asking why I did not write. Mr. Poe has got my letter that you wrote to me and will not give R[ev] G. W. Powell any information concerning my Brothers life I saw Rv G. W. Powell he said not hearing from me he did not know what to do. I told Mr. Powell when he wrote to you to say the reason I did not write Mr. Poe said he would attend to it I will write to you myself telling you that if I had not known that Nelson Poe had not written I would have done so myself. I now write telling you that I am in the Charity Home in Washington in distressed circumstances I have a Home and nothing else for a support I have nothing everything I get I beg for it Now Dr. Ingram if you have a feeling heart for the destitute and distressed Sister of Edgar A. Poe will you do some thing to help me through I am in very bad health My strength is failing daily I have not many years to live 64 is my age. I am two years younger than my Brother Mr. Poe told me when I saw him last that your Books were published if they are you need no information about my Brother now Dr. Ingram I will give you information concerning myself and you will pity me if you knew my condition in life will you be so kind as to answer this letter as soon as you can. I have to furnish my clothes in this Charitable Home without a penny to my [self?] [nor?] a cent for a Stamp I have [page 62:] nothing without assistance I hope you will get this letter I will give you my address

1319 H. Street Epiphany

Church Home

Washington DC

Miss Rosalie M. Poe

This pitiful letter says much about the mental and emotional states of its writer, and it is of course filled with errors of fact, some of which are understandable, some not.

John Ingram was not “Dr.” Ingram; his proudest title was “Fellow of the Royal Historical Society,” granted to him in 1867.

The letter Rosalie Poe took to her cousin Neilson to read was very likely the one Ingram had addressed to her at Hicks Landing, Virginia. Neilson Poe had probably seen reprints of Ingram’s articles on Poe in American magazines, which would account for his telling Rosalie that Ingram’s books about Edgar were already published and that she had money coming to her from them; her letter is dated April 28, 1874, and the first volume of Ingram’s edition of Poe’s works actually did not come off the press until November, 1874. Neilson Poe was dilatory, to say the least, in matters concerning Edgar and Rosalie.

Several of Rosalie’s statements in this letter are simply irreconcilable. Her saying that she did not know that she had a brother or brothers until she was a “good size girl” cannot be explained, for the Allan and MacKenzie families were on friendly visiting terms in Richmond when the Poe children were taken into their homes, and it is a matter of record that her older brother, William Henry Leonard, who lived with his paternal grandparents in Baltimore, did visit Edgar in Richmond at least on several occasions, and surely Rosalie was included in some of their activities.

Rosalie’s statement that she had not been living with her brother “until a few years before his death” has some element of fact in it. There are good reasons to believe that she did indeed visit Edgar, Virginia, and Mrs. Clemm in Fordham in the summer of 1846, but her visit, which in those days was expected to last a week or even a month, was surely ill-timed: Virginia was sick; Edgar was away in feverish pursuit of Mrs. Frances Sargent Osgood; and Mrs. Clemm heartily detested Rosalie.

The Epiphany Church Home in Washington furnished food and shelter, but the inmates were expected to supply their own clothes and other necessities of life.

Letter 21. Rosalie Poe, Washington, D.C., to John Ingram, London. Second printing. [Item 158]

Epiphany Church Home June 9, 1874

Dr. Ingram

Kind Sir

I hope you will excuse this mean piece of paper. I have no more as I have no money and no means I am in the Epiphany C. Home through kind persons I am on charity I have my food given to me. I have to find my own clothes indeed I have to find everything & nothing to do it with it [sic] sometime ago I wrote to you but not hearing from you I am afraid you did not get it. I got your address from Mr. George W. Powell. I will now write to you again enclose I will send you a small paragraph that will give you a good account of my situation and condition I got it from a Boston paper. after reading it Dr. Ingram you cant fail to aid me I heard you had already raise me a little money but as yet I have heard nothing of it indeed it will be an act of charity for any one to assist me I have no one at all to call on. I have relatives but they are not willing to help me Dr. Ingram will you answer these few lines and you will oblige Miss Rosalie Poe Sister of Edgar Allan Poe

Miss Rosalie Poe

Apparently, Ingram did not reply directly to Rosalie Poe’s letter of April 28, 1874, although he did write to the Rev. G. W. Powell informing him that he was raising money for a fund to be established in Rosalie’s name, with small amounts to be issued to her from time to time.

There is a small, unidentified newsclipping, Item 569 in the Ingram Poe Collection, that reads, “Rosalie Poe, now poor, aged, and helpless, resides in Baltimore.” This, possibly, was the clipping she had enclosed in her letter to Ingram.

The Baltimore Poes either ignored or barely tolerated Rosalie when she appeared, almost certainly unannounced, in Baltimore in the late 1860s. One may be sure, too, that her appearance and her street begging did little to endear her to them.

Death came swiftly for Rosalie Poe on Wednesday morning, July 22, 1874. Summoned downstairs to sign for a registered letter, she returned to her room seeming much exhausted. Tearing open the letter, but not reading it, apparently, she threw herself upon her bed and lapsed into unconsciousness. About nine o’clock, she died. [page 64:]

The letter contained a postal order for fifty dollars, sent by George W. Childs, a Philadelphia philanthropist, in reply to a request from Rosalie.

The governing board of the Episcopal Church Home met and decided to bury Rosalie Poe in the plot in Washington’s Rock Creek Cemetery that had been set aside for the inmates of the home. That plot was marked by a marble shaft, one side of which was inscribed, “For Epiphany Church Home”; and on the reverse, “For the Poor of Epiphany Parish.” The original stone has recently been replaced.

There was little in this correspondence with and about Rosalie Poe to help Ingram in his biography of Edgar Poe. He did mention in Volume I that she was born in 1811, some months after her father died, and that she was taken in by the MacKenzie family in Richmond. In Volume II he told of Rosalie’s legal adoption by the MacKenzie family; and he retold, too, of Mrs. Clemm’s bitterness over Rosalie’s attempts to claim a share of her brother’s estate, which would have been a share in the proceeds from the sales of Griswold’s edition of Poe’s works.

In addition, also in Volume II, Appendix C, 256-57, Ingram told what little there was to tell of Rosalie’s life and death.





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