Text: J. Albert Robbins, “Edgar Poe and the Philadelphians: A Reminiscence by a Contemporary,” Poe Studies, December 1972, Vol. V, No. 2, 5:45-48


[page 45, column 1:]

Edgar Poe and the Philadelphians:
A Reminiscence by a Contemporary

Indiana University

Readers of the Philadelphia Sunday Dispatch on May 5, 1850 were introduced to a weekly series of reminiscences about local journalistic and literary affairs by an anonymous writer who obviously knew the people whom he discussed with wit and acerbity. In a leisurely and garrulous way the writer entertained Dispatch readers with recollections, gossip, and anecdotes; and, though it purported to chronicle the daily and weekly press of the city, a good deal is said about the literati, including Edgar Allan Poe and the fellow writers and magazine editors he knew during the important years, from 1839 to 1844, when Poe was for a time a Philadelphian.

Without betraying the author’s anonymity, the editor of the Dispatch called attention to the commencement of the series, saying that it is “written by a gentleman of this city, who is fully competent to the task he has undertaken.” Originally the author planned to begin “by daguerreotyping the members of his own profession. But at our suggestion, he changed his first intention, and has commenced by painting the Press of Philadelphia.” The series bore this title and cryptic by-line: “Philadelphia and the Philadelphians in 1850. A Faithful Panorama of Persons and Places, in all their Phases. By a Member of the Philadelphia Bar; Author of . . . Fellow of the A.D.P.S., and Honorary Member of the P.I.E.C.S. of Pennsylvania” (1).

From the beginning, readers knew that this would be no ordinary exercise in journalistic platitudes. “Philadelphia is a great city,” he wrote. “Not so great, perhaps, as it fancies itself. But, this is a harmless, and, withal, a natural enough piece of self-complacency. All villages have it.” And, speaking of an earlier day when Poe was for a time a member of the literary scene, he described conditions as less than idyllic.

There was a literary coterie once, in Philadelphia, who kindly took all this matter [of self-promotion] into their own hands. By judiciously puffing each other, its members saved the public all trouble in judging for itself. . . .

This coterie consisted of Richard Penn Smith, Morton McMichael, Joseph c Neal, Robert T. Conrad, Willis G. Clark Louis A. Godey, Benjamin Matthias and several other extinguished luminaries, Samuel S. Atkinson and Charles Alexander acting reciprocally as man-midwife and wet-nurse to the literary abortions thrust by them into precocious existence (2).

For a time their powers were great and, he says, “they formed a species of Mutual Soft-Soap Assurance Company.”

He commenced with a discussion of the major newspapers and in the August 4th issue moved to “The Penny Press.” At first he continued in a style of factual reportage, but soon (with the September 1st issue) he shifted to a sprightly dialogue between an editor, “Tom,” and his press foreman, “James.” They disguised the names of [column 2:] papers and persons, in large part, as they chatted about the “Daily Luminary,” the “Swamp Pony,” and the “Daily Seasons” (published by “the pious, church-going Mr. Prayalways”) and about “the immortal Bread Crust” and “the beatitudinally im-immortal Done Brown, made so famous . . . by that atrocious newspaper genius ‘Flip,’ alias ‘Leap-hard’ “ (3). In the next issue, September 15th, the talk turned to Edgar A. Poe (4).

The Daily Seasons, says “Tom” “is the paper that Edgar A. Poe, in his famous letter to Dr. Rufus W. Griswold, said, was ‘only read by blackguards’ “ (5).

“I was at work on the Seasons at that time, and I know that Mr. Poe, drunk or sober, was always about the first person to secure a copy of it every morning for his own private perusal.”

“Humph! then he was the better judge of the kind of people who constituted its regular readers. Did he ever, by mistake, for instance, pay for a copy of it?”

“Of course he didn’t. He was a ‘dead-head,’ sir.”

[Here they digress to other matters.]

“Well, sir; but to return to Mr. Poe. He used to write a good deal for the Daily Seasons himself, and he used, very frequently, to obtain a copy of the paper by daybreak from the press, and when it contained anything in it, of his own, that he denominated ‘rich,’ he never failed to invite me to take a ‘horn’ over in the cellar there, at the opposite corner” (6).

“Ah! then you know something of Mr. Poe, James?”

“Quite well, sir. It was difficult, sir, to keep him out of the sanctum of the Daily Seasons. He was then editing Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine (7). Subsequently he lived by his wits, and by what that incorrigible wretch, the editor of the ‘Seasons,’ would call the ‘alvine evacuations’ of his genius! Why, sir, I could relate stories of Mr. Poe that Dr. Griswold would give a new edition of his ‘Poets and Poetry of America’ (not that he ever gives away a copy of it, however often he may promise to do it) to obtain possession of, in order to insert them in his posthumous collection of the works of that contemptible man but extraordinary writer.”

[Here the talk turns to Henry Bread Crust, the Bread Crust Papers, and Mr. Done Brown, the first, a “victim of Poe’s constant eulogiums” and the second, one whose hostility continued after Poe’s death. In the next issue, September 22, there is a brief passage about Poe.]

“And Bread-Gust was a Poet?”

“Most decidedly. And he is yet. He writes exquisite verses, albeit ever since Mr. Poe infected him with his absurd, mechanical rules for the admeasurement of poetic feet, (rules that Poe never used himself, for he knew better, but ever thrust upon others that he might enjoy their consequent embarrassment,) his lines have suffered with chronic theumatism.”

[After a long digression about Henry Bread Gust, Done Brown, and George Leap-hard, the talk comes back to [page 46:] Poe in the October 20 issue of the paper. The topic is Leap-hard’s contemplating suicide in a way that]

“. . . would produce the eclat that he conceived the departure of such an intelligence from the vulgar earth demanded.”

“Ah, he was like poor Poe, in that respect. I don’t wish to make you stop, James, or I could tell such a story.”

“Oh, yes. Pray proceed, sir. Talk about whom you please, and don’t mind interrupting me. Poe was a great man, and I knew him well. So did you, sir. Perhaps you knew more of his eccentricities than I did. So go on with your episode, and I’ll continue, afterwards, my memoir from recollection. Poe, you say, thought of a suicide distingue?”

“Yes, I’ll never forget it. Poe was a jolly wretch, and that is much more than I can say, James, for his posthumous bones-collector, Dr. Griswold, who is, par example, one of the most sang froid articles in the whole cabinet of humanity. I never see him that I do not think of the school-book description of the ‘Reptile’ in the ‘Animal Kingdom’ — that is: a creature, ‘with lungs, a single heart, cold blood, a brain and a cartilaginous skeleton.’ Of course Griswold has a brain. He fancies it is the brain of the American continent, and he has had address enough to induce some of the more affluent book-publishers (more’s the pity!) to agree with him. And that he has but one heart, like a serpent and a fish, is evident from his conduct towards Poe, who, with all his faults, was truly a great man, and had a soul that was, beyond dispute, a splinter fractured from the diamond of the Infinite — and not the less a brilliant because, like other brilliants, it had its flaws and imperfections. . . . Griswold disliked Poe. Everybody knew that. But, when Poe, who equally disliked Griswold, died, and in a fit of magnanimity made the latter his literary executor, it was the infalibility of contemptible meanness, on the part of Griswold, to use the advantages of his position to carry out before the world his petty, personal enmity.”

[There follows a story about how Griswold helped to rig a false ceremony of honor for a friend — a dishonest service apparently typical of Griswold. The talk comes back to Poe, who one day came into the editor’s office, “pretty low-spirited,” and, quite drunk, threatened ro commit suicide then and there. Poe told “Tom,” “I am tired of my life. I am sick (hic), very sick, of existence. I am sick. I am about (hic) to die.” “Tom” advised executing the deed “before a large meeting at the Museum tonight.” He suggested entering, just before proceedings, walking the length of the room, ascending to the podium, and addressing the house:]

“‘I am Edgar A. Poe. Neglected by my friends — persecuted by enemies — feared by the talented — uncomprehended by the world — left penniless in a world I hate, and amongst a humanity I despise — thus genius seeks its homeward flight!’ Then cut your throat boldly before the multitude, and there will not be a journal in all Christendom that will not detail and retail every minute circumstance.” [column 2:]

“‘By Jove, Tom,’ he exclaimed, jumping to his feet, ‘it’s a delicious idea. It’s poetic. It’s philosophic. It’s eminently Roman. There’s metaphysical transcendentalism about the style of death, Tom, that is peculiar and would make it popular. Like Lucretia, Tom, ne non procumbat honeste, &c:

‘Twas her last thought how, decently, to fall (8).

I’ll do it, Tom. Give us your hand. The meeting takes place at seven, don’t it?’”

“And off he started for home, to sleep until that hour. Before that time he was sober, and thought of his supper instead of suicide.”

[Tom, the editor, concludes his reminiscence on Poe in the October 27 issue, commencing with an account of both strengths and weaknesses of character and ending with a final anecdote on Poe’s drinking.]

“In truth, James, Mr. Poe was one of the most eccentric of human beings. With an intellect far surpassing, in its ripeness, that of most men who surrounded him, he was a perfect child in that species of worldly knowledge, without which no amount of learning will lead to pecuniary success, and with which any amount of ignorance may thrust itself in the way of prosperity. He had an abundance of intellectual gold, but it was in masses, and therefore unavailable for the purposes of common circulation. A much smaller amount of ready coin would have been far more useful, in a practical sense, and in relying upon others for an exchange, of course he was ever made the victim of cunning selfishness, assurance and deceit. Hence Mr. Poe often found himself the boon companion of creatures who had no recommendation but sycophancy, and was frequently made a supple instrument in the hands of the designing, who possessed just what he lacked, viz: tact, and nothing more. This will account for many of his vagaries. And when you add to it, that he was constitutionally irascible, excessively egotistic, cynical by nature and imperious by habit, you have a character that, like an exposed nerve, could not but suffer at the slightest touch, and could be made to writhe in anguish by trifles that would scarcely disturb the equanimity of spirits less susceptible to ordinary impressions. When goaded to agony, therefore, by the retaliatory attacks of those whom he had assailed, he had but one remedy — to drink. And as he was literally an unsparing as well as a bitterly prejudiced critic, and tomahawked nearly every writer he touched with a gout that would have delighted even a McGrawler, there were few moments in which he did not need this kind of consolation (9). Not that he was a coward. He was not. Carlyle says that the French nobles were required to have one virtue (for mortal man cannot live without a conscience) — the virtue of a perfect readiness to fight duels. Poe would have pleased Carlyle in this particular. He was, sometimes, very insulting. But, he was, at all times, ready to answer for it, in a physical way. It was his constant boast that he was a ‘Virginian,’ and, as such, possessed a chivalric sense of honor that permitted him to endure no contempt and retreat from no danger. He was not a coward in that sense. He had plenty of physical courage, but he was terribly deficient in the moral article. He might have faced a pistol-mouth without [page 47:] blanching, but the stroke of a pen could throw him into mental convulsions. This was his weakness. His foes knew it. He knew it. And yet, living as it were in such a vitreous domicile, he could not and he would not cease to hurl missiles at those who, he was confident, would return the compliment by projecting similar annoyances instanter at himself.”

“And was Poe a Virginian, sir — one of the regular F.F. (first families)? “

“Truly we can’t say. He always called himself such, and came near getting himself into a serious difficulty once, by reason of the assumptions he indulged in on that account.”

“And how was that?”

“We were with him once, in company with Jesse E. Dow, then of the Madisonian, we think, who was here on what he termed a ‘hard-cider’ jubilee. Supper was ordered at the ‘Cornucopia,’ then palmy in its flourishings, under the Harmer regime.l° Poe, who had no relish for the nectar of Harrisonism, eschewed the cider, of course, and, of course, was in that state in which the adage tells us men are always ingenuous and manifest their natural idiosyncracies. At an opposite rable three gentlemen had placed themselves, and were discussing a bottle of champagne with considerable vigor, and a serious determination to scrutinise the end of it. They drank and laughed, and laughed and drank, with a humor that was quite infectious. One of them rose from his chair, and retired for a moment, when Poe deliberately crossed the room and took possession of his vacant seat. The others stared. ‘Your health, gentlemen,’ said he, pouring out a glass of wine and emptying it with a ha! that emphatically indicated its satisfactory quality. The others rose upon their feet. ‘You are Virginians, I perceive,’ said Poe, refilling his glass with much care, and bowing to them as familiarly as if he had known them for a time but a little short of a century. ‘You are Virginians — so am I. Virginians should be brothers. I am — so here’s your health again — brothers,’ and the contents of the tumbler vanished like a legitimate ghost at cock-crowing. Here the others could stand such refrigerant impudence no longer, and an immediate uproar was the consequence. We stepped up and explained. A hearty burst of laughter succeeded. But when we looked around, Poe, who was as indifferent to the treaty of peace as if he had not the remotest interest in it, had finished the bottle, and was earnestly squeezing it under his arm in the vain hope of extracting an additional drop of the liquid inspiration.”

Some of the gossip and anecdotes which the Dispatch author relates may be elaborations upon fact, but, in general, in the passages on Poe and about other Philadelphia writers and about literary magazines, we are clearly dealing with a man who knew these people and the literary scene intimately. What arrests, and tantalizes, a Poe scholar is the author’s declaration that Poe “used to write a good deal for the Daily Seasons” while “editing Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine.” If I am correct that the “Daily Seasons” is the Spirit of the Times, there could be Poe contributions, signed or anonymous or pseudonymous, [column 2:] in the paper; but my search of available issues has produced nothing undiscovered, verse or prose, likely to be Poe’s.

Several bits and pieces of evidence indicate that the author is talking about the Spirit. Poe certainly knew Du Solle and the Spirit. In his Autography series, Poe wrote, “Mr. Du Solle is well known through his connection with the ‘Spirit of the Times.’” He went on to comment upon his virtues as writer of prose and verse (see Complete Works, ed. James A. Harrison, New York: Thomas Y. Crowell and Co., 1902, XV, 219). A letter which Poe wrote to F. W. Thomas on September [21], 1842 indicates that Poe read “Du Solle’s paper” closely (see Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. John Ward Ostrom, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1948, p. 214). The author of the Dis patch series says that “Leap-hard” was an assistant editor of the “Daily Seasons.” George Lippard’s connection with the Spirit is a matter of record (see the Ehrlich article, cited above, and the Dictionary of American Biography, VI, 285).

The clues fall into place even more clearly with the casual reference to drinking “in the cellar there, at the opposite corner.” The masthead of the Spirit tells us that the paper was “published daily at the North-west corner of Third and Chestnut Streets”; and two historical works on Philadelphia confirm and identify a tavern, named Bird Pecking at Grapes, on the south-west corner of Third and Chestnut, in the basement.”



(1) Altogether the “Philadelphia and the Philadelphians in 1850” series runs from May 5, 1850 (Vol. 2, No. 52) to July 13, 1851 (Vol. 4, No. 10). In January 1851, the date in the series title changes from 1850 to 1851. The series ends abruptly and without explanation with the July 13, 1851 issue. The Free Library of Philadelphia has a full run of the Dispatch for the span of the series.

The identity of the author of the series has so far eluded me. The two sets of initials in the by-line are, I have come to conclude, spurious. Assuming that the author was truly a “member of the Philadelphia Bar,” the most likely candidate in sight seemed to be Thompson Westcott (1820-1888), editor of the Dispatch, who contributed signed material on the local scene to the paper; who knew publishers, editors, and authors intimately who was known for his wit and sarcastic invective. However, in one instance, a statement of fact by the author of the series is corrected in a footnote signed “ — ED.” (which surely would be Westcott). It seems unlikely that Westcott, author of the series would be corrected by Westcott, editor of the Dispatch — unless (and it is a possibility) in jest.

(2) Sunday Dispatch, May 26, 1850, p. 1.

(3) Sunday Dispatch, September 8, 1850, p. 1. The “Daily Luminary” is probably the Daily Sun, which commenced in 1843. The “Daily Seasons” is, I think, the Spirit of the Times, established in June 1837 as a daily morning paper. As early issues indicate, [page 48:] it was published briefly by “Andrews & Meader”; then, in November, John S. Du Solle became both editor and proprietor and operated the paper until 1849, when he sold it and moved to New York. The paper was generally called “the Times,” a title suggestive of the code name, “Seasons.”

Some of the code names are common and apparent. “Henry Bread-Crust” is Henry Beck Hirst and “T. Done Brown” (author of the “Bent Hasp”) is Thomas Dunn English (author of “Ben Bolt”) . “Leap-hard” is George Lippard, who, for a time, contributed a local-scene column to the Spirit of the Times. “Flip” is a typographical error for “Flib,” a fictional servant in a series of pieces which Lippard wrote for the Spirit of the Times in 1842. [See Heyward Ehrlich, “The ‘Mysteries’ of Philadelphia: Lippard’s Quaker City and ‘Urban’ Gothic,” ESQ, 18 (1972), 52.]

More troublesome is the code name, “Mr. Prayalways.” Although the name suggests the Rev. Rufus W. Griswold, he was not associated with the Spirit of the Times. Du Solle was a forthright, fashionable man about Philadelphia and anything but pious and church-going. It may be that “Prayalways” is an inverted epithet, intended to be humorously malapropos.

(4) There is material on Poe from the issue of September 15, 1850 (Vol. 3, No. 19) to that of October 27, 1850 (Vol. 3, No. 25), passim. In the transcript which follows I pass over digressions which have nothing directly to do with Poe. I identify issues from which I quote by date. The series uniformly appears on page 1 of the Dispatch.

(5) No such statement appears in extant Poe letters.

(6) The known Poe contributions to the Spirit of the Times are listed in Charles F. Heartman and James R. Canny, A Bibliography of First Printings of the Writings of Edgar Allan Poe (Hattiesburg, Miss., 1943), p. 264: “Original Conundrums,” March 28, 1843, four tales in 1845, and Poe’s response to an attack by Thomas Dunn English, July 10, 1846, which was a paid insertion (see Arthur H. Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography, Philadelphia, 1941, p. 504). All items, except the reply to English, were reprinted.

An item that has gone unnoticed is the appearance of the Penn Magazine prospectus in the Spirit (Vol. 5, No. 23, June 12, 1840, p. 3). Poe scholars have assumed the first printing of the prospectus to be in the Philadelphia Saturday Courier, June 13, 1840.

(7) Poe edited Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine from May 1839 to November 1840.

(8) Ovid, Farti, Book II, line 833.

(9) The reference is to Peter MacGrawler, editor of the “Asinaeum,” in Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford (1830) . I am grateful to my colleague, Anthony W. Shipps, for help with this and the preceding references.

(10) Jesse E. Dow was a Washington, D.C. acquaintance of Poe and is first mentioned by him in a letter of June 7, 1836. Dow had a number of marginal political jobs in Washington: police magistrate, clerk in the Patent Office, member of the common council, doorkeeper of the House, candidate for mayor, and, in May 1845, editor-proprietor of the newspaper, the Madisonian. The reference to hard cider and Harrisonism dates this episode (the William Henry Harrison campaign of 1840). The Cornucopia was an eating and drinking establishment, operated by R. Harmer at 44 N. Third Street (A. McElroy’s Philadelphia Directory for 1840). As an instance of the series author’s faulty memory for details, note that in 1840 Dow was not “then of the Madisonian.”

(11) John T. Scharf and Thompson Westcott, History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884, 3 vols. (Philadelphia: L. H. Everts, 1884), 11, 997; and John F. Watson, Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, 3 vols. (Philadelphia: Leary, Stuart Company, 1927), III, 354.


Associated Article(s) and Related Material:

  • None


[S:0 - PS, 1972]