Text: Anonymous, “A Great Man Self-Wrecked,” National Magazine (New York, NY), vol. I, no. 4, October 1852, pp. 362-365


[page 362, column 2:]



MANY years ago — in the summer of the year 1815 it was, or thereabouts — a wealthy merchant of New-York took charge of a little boy who had been left an orphan. The parents of this child had been actors of some slight celebrity in the theaters of the United States; but dying within a short time of each other, they left behind them, in a state of the completest destitution, three young children. The eldest of these was a handsome boy of about six years of age, with a quick eye, an active spirit, and a remarkably intelligent countenance. The merchant of whom we speak had known the parents of the child; and out of pity for its helplessness, he and his wife, who had no children, adopted it as their own.

How happily the ardent boy passed his days in the house of his benefactor; how he was beloved by those two childless people; how, in the strength of their great affection, the merchant and his wife took him to Europe; how he spent some four or five pleasant years under the care and teaching of a reverend gentleman near London; how he came back again to the city of his birth to finish his education; and how he was generally looked upon as the rich merchant’s heir — it would take long to tell. But we would fain linger on this portion of our story; fain dwell upon his precocious wit and aptness for learning — his feats of strength and agility — his ease and grace on horseback, his dexterity in race and stream, and his success in all that seemed to promise for him a brilliant future. But the truth must be told, no matter how unwilling the teller. He was sent to the college of Charlottesville, amply provided with money. In those days dissipation among the students of colleges was unhappily but too common; and among the most dissolute and extravagant, the wildest rufflers of the town, the hardest drinkers and the most daring gamblers, there was ever to be found one more wild and desperate than they all — and that one was the subject of our story, now a good-looking, free-hearted young fellow of eighteen. Friends advised with him, and he made fair promises in plenty; tutors remonstrated, and he declared that he would amend and win the highest honors yet; companions tempted and wine allured, and [page 363:] he embraced the filthy siren, and so fell. Instead of coming home from the university with honors, he was summarily expelled.

One would think that disgrace so public would have broken his proud spirit; but it did not. Because his benefactor refused to pay the gambling debts he contracted at college, the willful young man wrote him a violent and abusive letter, quitted his house, and soon afterward left his country with the avowed intention of joining the Greeks, who were at that time in the midst of their struggle with the Turks. He never reached his destination, and nothing was known or heard of him for more than a year. At last, however, he was found, and in circumstances which left no doubt as to the manner in which his European experiences had been bought. One morning, the American Minister at St. Petersburgh was summoned to save a countryman of his own from the penalties incurred through a drunken debauch. He came in time to rescue our prodigal from a prison; and through his influence he was set at liberty, and enabled to return to the United States.

The first to greet him on his landing was his old patron, the merchant, who was now alone in the world, for his wife had died while the youth was away. But he took the wanderer to his arms, and led him back to the quiet home he had quitted so ungraciously. The question then arose as to what should be done for the youth; and on his expressing a wish to become a soldier, interest was made with the merchant’s friends, and the young man was entered as a scholar in the military academy at West Point. For a little time all went on well; the young cadet was assiduous in his studies, became the favorite of the mess, and was looked upon by the officers and professors as one of their most promising pupils. But alas, and alas! the old habits of dissipation were too strong to be given up all at once. He neglected his duties; he drank to excess; he disobeyed orders; he openly sneered at the regulations of the academy — and, in ten months from his matriculation, he was cashiered.

Disgraced and humiliated, where could the wretched man find refuge but in the home of his adopted father? Thither, then, he went, and was again received with open arms. During his stay at the academy, [column 2:] the merchant had married again to a lady some years younger than himself. Time passed on; but, just as the sun of happiness seemed about to shine once more upon him, a quarrel took place between him and the lady, which severed forever all ties of friendship between the merchant and his protege. Another circumstance, which is scarcely fit for mention here, was hinted at, and which, if true, throws a dark shade upon the quarrel and an ugly light upon the character of the dissipated youth. Whatever the cause, however, the merchant and his adopted son parted in anger, never to meet again! and when the former died, the latter shared no portion of his wealth.

Again thrown upon the world by his own misconduct, the young man tried his hand in a field common to young men, and wrote several poetical pieces and articles in the magazines. These were so well received that he was almost tempted to believe that he could obtain a living by literature. But his old habits returning, he despaired of success in his new avocation, and enlisted as a private soldier in the army. He was soon recognized by a former companion in the military academy, and great interest began to be felt for him among the officers. It was proposed to buy a commission for the talented and handsome young man; but just as friends began to rally round him, and just as their plans seemed about to prosper, he deserted.

For more than two years the world knew nothing of his whereabouts; and, it may be, had almost forgotten him.

In 1833, however, the proprietors of a magazine offered two prizes for the best poem and tale which should be suitable to their pages. Numerous MSS. were sent for competition, and a day was appointed on which the arbitrators should meet to judge of the merits of the various productions. Almost the first manuscript that was opened claimed attention, from the remarkable beauty and distinctness of the hand-writing. One of the arbitrators read a page or two, and was charmed. He called the attention of his friends to the tale, and they were so much pleased with it that it was read aloud from beginning to end, and all admitted that it was worthy the highest prize. The “confidential envelope” was opened — a Latin motto was discovered. No other tales were read, [page 364:] and the award was immediately published. But where to find the author, so that the prize-money might be paid? The publisher and arbitrators had not to wait long. In the evening following the announcement, a young man came to the office to claim the prize. He was pale and thin, even to ghastliness, and his whole appearance bespoke dissipation, want, and illness. A well-worn coat, buttoned up to the chin, concealed the want of a shirt, and imperfect, wretched boots, discovered the absence of stockings. But he looked a gentleman, nevertheless; for his face and hands, though haggard and attenuated, were clean and spotless, his hair was well arranged, his eye was bright with intelligence, and his voice and bearing those of a scholar. The publisher and the arbitrators were interested extremely. They inquired into his history, and finally offered him employment on the magazine for which the tale had been written.

A little money judiciously applied soon altered the appearance of the young man, and in a short time he took his post as second editor of a monthly magazine, with the means and position of a gentleman.

Now here was an opportunity of retrieving his lost character. Here were friends ready not only to overlook the past, but to assist in making his future calm and free from care. Here was a public ready to listen to his teachings, and a patron ready to reward his labors. For a little while all went on well, and those who knew him began to congratulate themselves upon the happy change. Those who before admired his genius were beginning to respect his integrity. He was happy and successful in his new avocation. He married a young and beautiful girl, his cousin; he found for himself a cottage, which the care, economy, and gentle temper of his wife converted into a Home, and he was beginning to be a happy man. It would be well if our story could end here; but, alas for human frailty! alas for good resolutions made without prayer to God! alas for principles in which He assists not! the young husband of that fair young wife fell back again into the abyss, and forfeited the respect of employers and the sympathy of friends, through his devotion to the accursed bottle!

It were a weary tale to tell how often he repented, and was forgiven; how he passed from the editorship of one magazine [column 2:] to that of another; how he went from state to state, and from city to city, a hardworking, aspiring, sanguine, talented man, bearing about him the curse of irresolution, never constant but to the “seductive and dangerous besetment” of strong drink; how friends advised with him, and publishers remonstrated; how at one time he had so far conquered his propensity as to call himself, in a letter to a friend, “a model of temperance and other virtues;” and how, at another, he forfeited the occupation, which was the sole dependence of his little family, by frequent relapses into his old disgraceful habits; how he committed, under the excitement of intoxication, faults and excesses to which no gentleman would plead guilty; how he borrowed money of his friends without the means or intention of returning it; how he forfeited the esteem — even while his talents commanded the admiration — of the public; how he succeeded in bringing many literary speculations into life, which his vicious habits and inattention to business murdered in their youth; how he became a confirmed drunkard, with only now and then a fitful hour or so in which to throw off on paper the vagaries of a mind rich in learning and imaginative fancies; how his young wife died brokenhearted, and how he became so reduced as to be able no longer to make an appearance among his friends; how his wife’s mother, constant to his falling fortunes, and ever anxious to conceal his vices, went with his MSS. from office to office, and from publisher to publisher, in search of the means to support him; how for a little while he shook off the lethargy of intoxication, and again appeared in the polite circles of New-York; how he was caressed, and feted, and congratulated; how the efforts of his pen were sought by rival publishers; how he was engaged to be married a second time to a beautiful young woman, and how the engagement was finally broken off through his return to his pernicious habits. It were a weary tale indeed.

The melancholy story of this man’s life was soon to close — the golden thread to be rudely snapped asunder — and by his own hand. He had partly recovered from his dangerous courses, and was engaged in delivering lectures in different towns. They were well attended, and it was with something like renewed confidence [page 365:] that the well-wishers of the lecturer watched his conduct, which was now distinguished by extreme sobriety. He even appeared to have renewed his youth and strength; and it was with pleasure that his friends again received him into their houses. At one of these he met with a lady with whom he had been formerly acquainted. Their friendship was renewed, and they were engaged to be married. Everything seemed to promise well; the dawn of a better day appeared; and the reformation so long in coming, seemed to have come at last. But it was not to be. On a sunny afternoon in October, in the year 1849, he set out for New-York, to fulfill a literary engagement, and prepare for his marriage. He arrived at Baltimore, where he gave his luggage to a porter, with directions for him to convey it to the railway station. In an hour he would set out for Philadelphia. But he would just take a glass before he started — for refreshment’s sake, that was all. Fatal hour! In the tavern he met with some old acquaintances, who invited him to join them. In a moment all his good resolutions — home, duty, bride, honor — were forgotten; and, ere the night had well set in, he was in a state of filthy intoxication. Insanity ensued; he was carried to a public hospital; and, on the night of Sunday, the 7th of October, he died a raving madman. He was only thirty-eight years old when this last dreadful scene of his life’s tragedy was enacted.

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READER, — What you have read is no fiction. Not a single circumstance here related, not a solitary event here recorded, but happened to Edgar Allan Poe, one of the most popular and imaginative of our writers.




This article is full of problems and errors. Most of the basic biographical material appears to have been taken from Griswold’s memoir from the 1850 edition of Poe’s collected works. Among the many mis-statements is that John Allan, the merchant who took Poe in, did so in the end of 1812 rather than in 1815, and he lived in Richmond rather than New York. Poe was born in 1809, and was 40 years old when he died, although most biographies repeated the error of his birth year as being 1811, a mistake for which Poe himself was responsible. Accounts of Poe’s final days are controversial, but it appears that he was mostly calm and sometimes not fully conscious. In no case did he die as “a raving madman.”

Based on the 1974 bibliography compiled by Ester Hyneman, several commentators have assigned this anonymous article to Richard Henry Stoddard, but apparently in error. Stoddard did write an article about Poe for the National Magazine in 1852, but there seems no reason to ascribe the present article to him. The present article was widely reprinted, primarily in periodicals with a strong moralistic tone.

Versions of the article were still appearing as late as Nove. 29, 1862, where it was printed in the Independent (Oskaloosa, KS), vol. III, no. 14, p. 1, cols. 4-5.

The word “owre” is Scottish for “only,” in this context presumably meaning “an absolutely true story,” although, quite to the contrary, it is full of errors. The sub-title of “An Owre True Story” was in some use in the 19th century, with numerous examples in popular literature.


[S:0 - NM, October 1852] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - A Great Man Self-Wrecked (Anonymous, 1852)