Text: Lynn Roby Meekins, “Poe’s Grave in Baltimore,” Critic (New York, NY), vol. XXXIII, whole no. 854, July-August 1898, pp. 39-45


[page 39, continued:]

Poe’s Grave in Baltimore

The Poet’s Burial Described by One who Attended It

“IT WAS A COLD, raw November day when I buried Edgar Allan Poe, and I am the only person alive who was present at the funeral.”

The speaker and his surroundings would have been a fine theme for Poe’s genius. They constituted a picture of uncanny life that makes fiction surrender to fact. Fancy a man living a half-century amid the cheerful environments of mausoleums, his home a bit of a basement under a church, with a little window looking out on tombstones, with a deserted alley at his gate of iron bars, with an old stove for cooking simple food, and with an improvised bed for sleeping.

Once the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Baltimore was fashionable, and in the graveyard surrounding it are great vaults and colonial and revolutionary names, and the crowded ground has received the remains of many of the city’s most distinguished dead; but a growing town has surrounded it with bricks and forgetfulness, and the sexton who takes care of the church informs you that he has no connection with the cemetery, and tells you to go around through the alley and rap as hard as you can at the iron gate. The alley is not clean, and when you peer through the iron bars, as if looking through a prison entrance, you see no sign of life. Your gentle rap brings no result, but when you hit the iron with a piece of brick and call out several times, a great hound as agile as a panther springs [page 40:] with a roar towards you, and you are thankful that the bars are thick and strong. The dog surveys you, and finally runs through a low doorway level with the ground, and communicates his message in sharp, imperious barks. Then he returns and makes a few remarks as if to say, “My master is putting on his shoes and will be out in a few minutes.”

An old man smiling at his seventy years and waving the dog aside comes forward and unlocks the gate, and assures you that the beast will not hurt you while you are with him. And then he leads you through the low doorway and then through another door into a low-pitched room humbly furnished. You feel as if you had entered a cave. You accept one of the three chairs, and if you have sympathy with the man who lives alone in such a place you need not express it, for he tells you cheerily that it suits him, and that since a feminine admirer of Poe fixed up the room, he has added luxury to comfort.

The name of this man is George W. Spence and he leads a healthy life of weird contentment. He has charge of the old graves, and it is a safe duty, for even the ghosts have crumbled into dust.

“As a matter of fact,” he said, “I never saw but one ghost in all the years I’ve been living here. One night I came in — well, I don’t know how I got here that night, for I had been out enjoying myself, but from what happened I guess I went to bed in the hollow of one of the graves, and it seems that I hung my coat and hat on the headstone, and ‘long in the morning when the moon rose, I woke up and saw somebody standing over me. I got away from there pretty quick, but as soon as I saw what was the matter with me, I went back and got my hat and coat and went to bed more orderly in the room here.”

The invitation to look at the old graveyard, with its queer stones and marble pyramids and heavy masonry vaults, led from the gloom of the room to the open sunshine where the dog was tossing its latest victim with eminent satisfaction. “Greatest dog for cats in the world. If one comes inside these brick walls” — the yard is surrounded by high brick walls — “it is a goner. In the past two or three years I counted as high as seventy dead ones, and then I got tired of counting.” This is the main amusement, and the other interruption in the queer life of the enclosure is the pilgrimage of the admirers of Poe.

Tennyson said that his chief desire to cross the ocean was to visit the grave of Poe. Both poets were born in the same year and it was Poe who was the first, in this country at least, to understand and appreciate Tennyson’s poetry. To-day the visitors to Poe’s grave are more numerous than at any time since it was made.

“Oh, yes, I remember the day very well. It was cold and wet and there was not much time lost in getting through. The funeral was at four o’clock. Rev. Dr. Clemm, the Methodist preacher who [page 41:] died a year or two ago, and who was a close relative of Poe’s wife, Virginia Clemm, had charge of the services. He had prepared an address, but the day was so bad and there were so few people present that he didn’t deliver it, but only said the usual words according to the Methodist way. There were, so far as I can recall, only seven people there; one was a woman. This was Mrs. Edmund Smith, who was with her husband, a cousin of Poe. Then there was one of Poe’s classmates at the University of Virginia named Lee, and Poe’s cousin Neilson Poe, one of the greatest lawyers of Baltimore and Poe’s nearest kin, and Mr. Henry Hering, and some say the editor of the paper in which Poe’s prize story was printed, but I don’t remember him.”

Halting at a spot in the rear of the church, Spence pointed to it and said, “Here he was buried, and he lay here for a long time until he was moved to the corner where you see the monument.” This is a simple block of marble surmounting a granite base and with a medallion portrait of the poet on the front.

“It is not generally known, or it has been forgotten by most people,” he continued, “that the remains of Virginia Clemm, Poe’s girl wife, are also under that monument. I placed them there. They were sent on through the interest of Mr. George W. Childs, and they came in a small package not much bigger than a cigar box.” [page 42:]

“Do many persons visit the place?”

“More than used to — generally women. One comes every year and puts flowers on the stone, and people from other cities and other countries drop in to look at the grave.”

This, course, is a source of income to Spence, and he always gives his reminiscences of Poe. In brief, they are that Poe was sad-looking, that he never seemed very prosperous, that one small drink with alcohol in it had more effect upon him than twenty drinks had on an ordinary man, that he could sing a good song and that he was drugged on the visit to Baltimore that ended his life.

A stone for Poe’s grave was ordered by his cousin Neilson Poe, but before it was erected a steam-engine ran into the marble yard and ruined it. For years “Poe’s neglected grave” was a local reproach. In 1865 the Public School Teachers’ Association resolved to raise enough money for a memorial. A girls’ high-school entertainment yielded $380; another girls’ school concert added $75.92; Prof. Charles Davis of New York sent $50; the young ladies of the Troy (N. Y.) Female Seminary gave $54; one Baltimore man gave $100 and another $50; a school-teacher collected $52; and then Mr. George W. Childs, who before making his fortune in Philadelphia was a clerk in a Baltimore book-store, made up the balance by a gift of $650. It took ten years to get this small sum together, but the dedication of the modest monument in 1875 was a local event of unusual magnitude, with numerous addresses, music by the local societies, and the participation of thousands of school children. If it had not been for the women, the plan would have failed.

The literature of this dedication did much to turn the tide of abuse and slander which had followed his death and had found perpetuation in numerous biographies. Suggestions for epitaphs and inscriptions had been asked from the poets of the land and abroad and invitations to the unveiling had been sent to them. A reading of some of these letters, most of which seem to have been forgotten, is curiously interesting.

Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in concluding his long letter of regret: — “The hearts of all who reverence the inspiration of genius, who can look tenderly upon the infirmities attending it too often, who can feel for its misfortunes, will sympathize with you as you gather around the resting place of Edgar Allan Poe and raise the stone with one of the few names which will outlive the’graven record raised to perpetuate its remembrance.”

John G. Whittier wrote: — “The extraordinary genius of Edgar Poe is now acknowledged the world over, and the proposed tribute to his memory indicates a full appreciation of his rare intellectual gifts on the part of the city of his birth.” This was a strange mistake for the Quaker poet, for Poe was born while his parents were on a visit to Boston. Whittier added to his letter that he did not, as “a matter of principle, favor ostentatious monuments for the dead.”

Thomas Baily Aldrich wrote: — “Your desire to honor his genius is in the heart of every man-of-letters, although perhaps no American [page 43:] author stands so little in need of a monument to perpetuate his name as the author of ‘The Raven.’ His imperishable fame is in all lands.”

“I need not assure you that I sympathize heartily with the sentiment which led to its erection,” wrote Lowell.

“I have long been acquainted with Poe’s works, and am an admirer of them,” said Tennyson.

Longfellow suggested that these lines from Poe’s poem “For Annie” would make a suitable inscription on the monument: —

“The fever called living

Is conquered at last.”

One letter that was not read was from William Cullen Bryant, who said he could not write a poem for the occasion, and that his difficulty arose from the personal character of Poe, but he did suggest the following inscription: —


Author of ‘The Raven’

And other poems

And of various of fiction,

Distinguished alike [page 44:]

For originality in conception,

Skill in word painting

And power over the mind of the reader,

The Public School Teachers of Baltimore,

Admirers of his genius,

Have erected this monument.”

The suggestion of Oliver Wendell Holmes was the following, taken from Poe’s verses “To One in Paradise”

“Ah, dream too bright to last —

Ah, starry hope, that didst arise

But to be overcast.”

As a matter of fact, not one of the suggestions of the .poets was adopted, and the monument bears simply the inscription of Poe’s birth and death. At the dedication exercises, which were quite long and included a learned disquisition on literature by a college professor, there were several incidents of value. Among the letters read, the one that produced the profoundest impression and gave the most satisfaction to the large audience was that of S. D. Lewis, a Brooklyn lawyer, a personal friend of Poe, who visited him often at his last residence, which he called “a beautiful, secluded cottage at Fordham, fourteen miles above New York.” Mr. Lewis wrote: —

“Mr. Poe was the most affectionate, kind-hearted man I ever knew. I never witnessed so much affection and devoted love as existed in that family of three persons. His dear Virginia, after her death, was his ‘Lost Lenore.’ I spent weeks in the closest intimacy with Mr. Poe and I never saw him drink a drop of liquor, Wine or beer in my life, and never saw him under the slightest influence of any stimulants whatever. He was, in truth, a most abstemious and exemplary man. But I learned from Mrs. Clemm that if, on the importunity of a convivial friend, he took a single glass, even wine, it suddenly flashed through his nervous system and excitable brain, and that he was no longer himself, or responsible for his acts.”

After paying his respects to the slanderers of Poe, the lawyer continued: — “He was always in my presence the polished gentleman, the profound scholar, the true critic, and the inspired oracular poet; dreaming and spiritual; lofty and sad.”

Still more interesting were the reminiscences of John H. B. Latrobe, who was one of the chief literary, scientific and historical figures of the century in Baltimore, and probably .did more than anyone else to help Morse with his magnetic telegraph scheme. In the second quarter of the century there was quite a literary revival in Baltimore, and such spirit’s as Latrobe and John P. Kennedy, the author who was afterwards a member of Fillmore’s cabinet; and the brilliant members of the bar of the time, were at the head of it. They started The Saturday Visitor and offered a prize of $100 for the best story and $50 for the best poem. Latrobe and Kennedy and another were the committee of selection. “Seated around the table garnished with some good old wine and some good cigars,” they began [page 45:] their critical labors. It was dreary work,, and they had about given up in despair, when, to quote the words of Mr. Latrobe, who, being the youngest, opened the packages, “I noticed a small quarto bound book that had until then accidentally escaped attention, possibly because so unlike, externally, the bundle of manuscripts it had to compete with. Instead of the common cursive manuscript, the writing was in Roman characters — in imitation of printing.” The committee filled their glasses and settled back to be bored, but as the reading proceeded there were exclamations of appreciation and admiration. The first read, Latrobe proceeded to the second and on through the entire book. “When the reading was completed there was a difficulty of choice. Portions of the tales were read again, and finally the committee selected ‘A MS. Found in a Bottle.’ One of the series was called ‘A Descent Into the Maelstrom,’ and this was at one time preferred. I cannot recall the names of all the tales. There must have been six or eight.”

Mr. Latrobe denounced Griswold’s statement that the prize was awarded because of the legibility of Poe’s handwriting as “absolutely untrue,” and Griswold’s other statement that Kennedy took Poe to a clothing store and a bath and fitted him for respectable company, was denounced as “a sheer fabrication.” Poe called upon Mr. Latrobe after the award of the prize. His clothes had evidently seen their best days, “but there was something about this man that prevented one from criticizing his garments,” Mr. Latrobe said, and he added: — “Gentleman was written all over him.” In the conversation Poe described a new story he was writing, and it afterwards appeared as “The Adventures of one Hans Pfaal.” Poe got so excited in describing the trip to the moon that he carried Latrobe along with him in his enthusiasm, and when they reached the climax both burst out laughing because they had grown so interested. Poe had also competed for the poetry prize, and his poem was “The Colosseum [[Coliseum]].” The judges afterwards admitted that it deserved the prize, but fearing to give both to one person, they awarded it to a local versifier named Hewitt, who wrote a great deal that escaped fame.

The name of Poe is still prominent in Baltimore, including leaders at the bar and in society, and when a second movement was begun, a short time ago, at a meeting at Johns Hopkins University, to raise a fund for a monument worthy of Poe’s genius, many of that name were present. This movement started auspiciously, but it was about the time that the University, through loss of income from the failure of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad stocks to pay dividends, had to appeal to the public for a large emergency fund, and when it had finished with local generosity, there was nothing left for monuments. Still, the plan is only in abeyance, and it is certain that Baltimore will have an adequate memorial of Poe before long.





Mr. Lynn Roby Meekins (1862-1933) was a Baltimore journalist, serving as an editor for the Baltimore American. He is perhaps best known for his short story “The Robb’s Island Wreck,” first published in 1894 and soon thereafter collected in The Robb’s Island Wreck and Other Stories (Chicago: Stone and Kimball, 1894).


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