Text: Killis Campbell, “Some Unpublished Documents Relating to Poe’s Early Years,” Sewanee Review Quarterly, Vol. 20, no. 2 April 1912 pp. 201-212


[page 201, unnumbered:]


A dozen biographies of Poe have been written, yet the riddle of his life has never been fully solved. There are two whole years of his life for which we know nothing; there are other years of his maturity for which we know scarcely more than his whereabouts; and for his childhood and youth his biographers have been able to give us, with certainty, little save names and dates.(1) There is still doubt as to the occasion of his death. It is still a question how he was employed during the period intervening between his resignation from the army and his admission into West Point; still a question whether he was privately married to Virginia Clemm as most of his biographers hold, in Baltimore, some eight months before their public marriage in Richmond in 1836; still a question whether his mind was not unhinged during his final years.

Some of these obscurities will perhaps never be cleared away. But for Poe’s earliest years, spent in Richmond and London, a good deal of new material has recently become available. This is found in the Ellis-Allan Papers, now in the possession of the Library of Congress, a collection of nearly three hundred volumes of office books, letters, bills, and the like, recording the business transactions of the Richmond firm of Ellis & Allan during the first six decades of last century.(2) The junior member of this firm was John Allan, foster-father of Poe, and scattered throughout the collection are letters from his pen — more than a hundred in all — in which Poe is briefly touched upon, and some that are devoted to him in their entirety. There are also important letters from other hands; and there are, besides, a [page 202:] number of bills and ledger entries that are not without interest for the poet’s early career.

The earliest of these documents of importance for the life of Poe is a letter from Eliza Poe, paternal aunt of the poet, to Mrs. Allan, written eleven days before Poe was to celebrate his fourth birthday and about two years after he had been taken into the Allan family. The letter throws an interesting sidelight on the poet’s infant years, and makes it pretty clear that his relatives in Baltimore understood that Mr. Allan intended to adopt him legally as his son. I give the letter in its entirety, reproducing diplomatically the spelling, capitalization, and pointing of the original: —

Baltimore February 8th, 1813

Tis the Aunt of Edgar that addresses Mrs. Allen for the second time, impressed with the idea that a letter if received could not remain unacknowledged so long as from the month of July. She is induced to write again in order to inquire in her family’s as well as in her own name after the health of the Child of her Brother, as well as that of his adopted Parents — I cannot suppose my dear Mrs. Allen that a heart possessed by such original humanity as your’s must without doubt be, could so long keep in suspence, the anxious inquiries made through the medium of my letter by the Grand Parents of the Orphan of an unfortunate son, suerly e’re this allowing that you did not wish to commence a correspondence with one who is utterly unknown to you had you received it, Mr. Allen would have written to my Father or Brother if it had been only to let them know how he was — but I am confident you never received it, for two reasons the first is that not having the pleasure of knowing your christian name I merely addresed it to Mrs. Allen of Richmond, the second is as near as I can recollect you were about the time I wrote to you at the springs where Mr. Douglas saw you, permit me my dear madam to thank you for your kindness to the little Edgar — he is truly the Child of fortune to be placed under the fostering care of the amiable Mr. and Mrs. Allen. Oh how few meet with such a lot — the Almighty Father of the Universe grant that he may never abuse the kindness he has received and that from those who were not bound by any ties except those that the feeling and humane heart dictates — I fear that I have too long introuded on your patience, will you if so have the [page 203:] goodness to forgive me — and dare I venture to flatter myself with the hope that this will be received with any degree of pleasure or that you will gratify me so much as to answer it — give my love to the dear little Edgar and tell him tis his Aunt Eliza who writes this to you — my Mother and family desire to be affectionately remembered to Mr. Allen and yourself — Henry frequently speaks of his little Brother and expresses a great desire to see him, tell him he sends his very best love to him and is greatly pleased to hear that he is so good as also so pretty a Boy as Mr. Douglas represented him to be — I feel as if I were wrighting to a sister and can scarcely even at the risk of your displeasure prevail on myself to lay aside my pen — with the hope of your indulgence in pardoning my temerity I remain my Dear Mrs. Allen yours with the greatest respect

Eliza Poe.

Mrs. Allen the kind Benefactress
  of the infant Orphan Edgar Allen Poe.

A letter of May 14, 1813, from John Allan to Charles Ellis, his partner, informs him that “Edgar has caught the whooping cough;” to which Mr. Ellis replies six days later: “I am proud to hear Edgar has got the hooping cough”; and then explains: “This may appear strange but it wishes him well.” It is noteworthy that nowhere in the hundreds of letters that make mention of Poe is there any display of ill will toward him on the part of anyone, save only John Allan himself. It is plain that the tradition which makes Poe out to have been a general favorite in his childhood has a firm basis in fact.

Another letter brings out the information that Poe’s first schooling was had in Richmond, — apparently in the autumn of 1814 or in the following winter, — and not, as has generally been assumed, at some time after the Allans had moved to London in the autumn of 1815. This develops from a letter of the Richmond schoolmaster, William Ewing, written on November 27, 1817, and addressed to John Allan, then in London. The letter is mainly concerned with a claim against Mr. Allan for the tuition of “Master Edward Collier,” a Richmond boy whom Mr. Allan had befriended, but concludes with this paragraph about Poe: —

“I trust Edgar continues to be well and to like his school as much as he used to do when in Richmond. He is a [page 204:] charming boy and it will give me pleasure to hear how he is, and where you have sent him to school, and also what he is reading. . . . Let me now only beg of you to remember me respectfully to your lady Mrs. Allan and her sister, who I hope are well — and also do not forget to mention me to their august attendant Edgar.”

To this Mr. Allan replied in a letter of March 21, 1818: —

“Accept my thanks for the solicitude you have so kindly expressed about Edgar and the family. Edgar is a fine Boy and I have no reason to complain of his progress.”

The daybook of Ellis & Allan — under date June 15, 1815 — attests the payment by John Allan, of a bill for tailor’s services for the youthful Poe, as follows: —

1813, Oct. 12 — to curing a suit for Edgar  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   $ 75
1814, March 28 — to ”    ”    ”    ”    ”  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   75
1815, May 3 — making a suit of cloeths Edgar  . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   2 00

A letter of John Allan’s, written at Norfolk on June 22, 1815, just before setting sail for Europe for a stay of five years abroad, gives instructions as to the disposal of some property he was leaving behind and concludes with the following intimate details concerning his family: “Tomorrow at 9 A. M. we’ll all go down to the Roads to take our Departure. . . . Frances & Nancy [Mrs. Allan and her sister, Miss Valentine] evince much fortitude, it has been a severe trial to them. Their Spirits is good, Ned cares but little about it poor fellow.” The letter was not mailed before sailing, but was sent back on the next day by the pilot-boat; and in the meantime two postscripts had been added, giving a brief account of the first day out: “Friday, June 23d 1-2 P 3 P M   Off the Horse Shoe. . . . Frances & Nancy rather qualmish Edgar & myself well. 1-2 P. 5 P. M. We are now abreast of the Light House & are off. F. and Nancy sick Ed & myself well.”

The Allan family arrived at Liverpool late in July and went at once to Scotland, where they visited for several weeks among Mr. Allan’s relatives. The first of October, however, found John Allan in London and busy with the affairs of his firm, a branch of which, under the firm name of Allan & Ellis, was now [page 205:] established there. Here the family spent the next five years. They lived first at 47 Southampton Row, Russell Square, in a house owned by Mrs. Martha How, to whom they paid a monthly rental of £2$. 4. For Mr. Allan was not at this time, as has often been held, a poor man, but could count his wealth by the tens of thousands: his firm made one sale of tobacco in 1815 on which there was a “proffit of between 17 & 18 thousand Dollars”; and on January 14, 1817, he wrote to Charles Ellis: “Our property” should now be “worth 140,000 Dollars.” But reverses came after a year or two, so that the London branch was forced to suspend payments in the summer of 1819; and about the same time the Allans moved to another, and perhaps less expensive home, though still in Southampton Row, — the property of a Mr. Birch, as appears from a dunning epistle of that gentleman’s of October 2, 1819. The firm’s place of business was 18 Basinghall Street. Mr. Allan during these years went occasionally on business trips to Liverpool, Bristol, and Manchester; and once he took Mrs. Allan, who was an invalid, for an outing of several weeks at Cheltenham; once, also, they went to the Isle of Wight, Poe remaining in London the while. There is nothing to indicate, however, that either Mr. Allan or any of the rest of the family made a second visit to Scotland during these years — though it has been alleged that Poe spent several weeks there shortly before his return to Virginia; neither is there evidence to show that any member of the family ventured upon a continental tour, or so much as crossed the English Channel; there is, on the contrary, in the absence of all allusion to any such project, pretty conclusive evidence that nothing of the kind was attempted.

The letter-books of Allan & Ellis for these five years in London — 1815 to 1820 — contain frequent mention of the boy Poe. In most cases this mention is merely perfunctory: “Nancy Edgar and myself are all well,” “Frances Nancy & Edgar enjoy excellent health,” “Frances Nancy & Edgar beg to be kindly remembered to you.” But other letters record details of larger interest: “Edgar thin as a rasor” (August 31, 1816); “Edgar is growing and of course thin, and your Hble Servant as hard as a lightwood knot” (October 2, 1816); “Edgar is a fine Boy and [page 206:] reads Latin pretty sharply” (June 22, 1818); “Edgar is growing wonderfully, & enjoys a good reputation and is both able & willing to receive instruction” (September 28, 1819); “Edgar is in the Country at school he is a very fine Boy & a good Scholar” (November 27, 1819).

The country school which Edgar attended was, as we know from his own testimony, that of Dr. Bransby at Stoke Newington, then four miles distant from London, though now a part of the city. It would appear from John Allan’s letters that Poe did not lodge at the Reverend Bransby’s establishment during the first year or two of his stay in England, but was only a day scholar; for Mr. Allan makes no reference to any absence from home before 1819, but invariably writes of Poe as though he lodged under the Allan roof. The following payments for Poe’s schooling in London are recorded in the office-books of the London firm: “August 28, 1817 — By John Allan, for Edgar’s School a/c £24. 16”; “July 24, 1818 — pd. Bransby £16. 14. 3”; “Jan. 15, 1819 — Fry and Bransby £69. 16. 11. 4”; “Feb. 1, 1820 — To Stephenson & Co. paid Mr. Bransby £70. 9. 6”; “May 26, 1820 — paid Bransby Edgar’s Board & tuition £35. 4. 10.”

Mr. and Mrs. Allan and Miss Valentine returned to America in the summer of 1820, reaching New York on July 21. Poe, I believe, returned with them, — though some doubt appears to be thrown on the matter by a letter received by Mr. Allan in the following year from a London friend, Dr. Arnott. In this letter — which is superscribed “Bedford Sq r , 15 May 1821” — occurs the statement: “You know that I have Master Edgar still inhabiting one of my rooms. Your not asking for him with the other things [a piano was one of them] makes me hope that you do mean to come back again.” The allusion is not, however, I take it, to Poe, but must be to some piece of property which Mr. Allan had left in England and which served somehow as a visible symbol of his foster-child — perhaps a portrait of him. A letter of June 9, 1820, makes it clear that Poe accompanied the Allans to Liverpool when they were leaving England; and a letter written by Charles Ellis from Richmond on August 10, 1820, mentions Poe as though he were in Richmond at that time [page 207:] (“Nancy and Edgar are very well”). There is, moreover, a significant entry on the daybook of Ellis & Allan for December 9, 1820, — a charge against John Allan for “1 Knife for Edgar. . . 12 1/2.” Mr. Allan was too shrewd a business man — or at least too shrewd in matters of small moment — to be forwarding a piece of cutlery to England.

Poe resumed his studies shortly after his returnto Richmond, entering now the “English and Classical School” kept by Master Joseph H. Clarke. Five of the bills for his tuition at this academy are preserved among the Ellis-Allan papers. One of these reads as follows: —

Mr. John Allan Dr.

  To present quarter’s tuition of Master Poe from    
  June 11th to Sept 11 – 1822      $12.50  
1. Horace 3 50, Cicero de Off. 62 1/2 ——      4.12 1/2
1. Copy book, paper Pen & Ink ————      .87 1/2
  Recd payt. J. H. Clarke      $17.50  

The remaining bills cover the dates: June 11 to September 11, 1821; September 11 to December 11, 1821; September 11, 1821, to March 11, 1821 (the bill for the fall quarter having been allowed to go over); and September 11 to December 11, 1822. The fee for tuition is in each case twelve dollars and a half per quarter. Charge is made in two instances for fuel, and in one for quills.

At what time Poe left the academy of Master Clarke, does not appear from these papers. Nor do they show just when he entered the academy of Master William Burke, into whose hands he next fell, — though an entry in the cash-book of Ellis & Allan on January 26, 1824, charging Mr. Allan with ten dollars paid “Mr. Burk,” makes it appear that he began his studies there not later than the winter of 1824. Another entry — this in a journal — proves that Poe was still at the academy in the spring and summer of 1824: “John Allan paid Mr. Burke for Edgar’s tuition for 5 months from the 1st April last — $30.00.”

To this period also belong certain other brief entries on the office-books of Ellis & Allan, in which Poe’s name occurs. Between June 3, 1821, and October 31, 1825, John Allan is charged in the cash-books eleven times with “postage for Edgar,” in [page 208:] amounts ranging from 18 cents to $1.50. In the entry for June 3, 1821, appears the name of Poe’s sister, Rosalie: “By John Allan paid ditto [postage] to Edgar & Rosaline Poe .37”; and, again, on August 31, 1822: “postage to Miss Poe .19.” In the journal for January 11, 1825, is the memorandum: “John Allan paid Bradley & Co. % for Edgar’s clothes $8.50.” And on March 16, 1824, charge is made against John Allan for ten dollars “sent him by Edgar.”

But the most important item belonging to this period is a letter of November 1, 1824, from John Allan to William Henry Poe, elder brother of the poet, a letter which indicates unmistakably Mr. Allan’s attitude to Poe at this time. John Allan, though singularly callous and cold-blooded, had evidently felt, and had even displayed at times, a genuine admiration for his foster-child during the latter’s infancy and early boyhood. But now that Poe was approaching manhood, and had perhaps already begun to assert something of the independence of spirit that so distinguished his later career, it appears that Mr. Allan has completely lost sympathy with him. Unluckily for Mr. Allan, he kept a copy of his letter, and it is this copy that has come down to us. It runs as follows: —

Richmond Nov 1, 1824.

Dear Henry

I have just seen your letter of the 25th ult. to Edgar and mamuch afflicted, that he has not written you. He has had little else to do for me he does nothing & seems quite miserable, sulky and illtempered to all the Family. How we have acted to produce this is beyond my conception why I have put up so long with his conduct is little less wonderful. The boy possesses not a spark of affection for us not a particle of gratitude for all my care and kindness towards him. I have given a much superior Education than ever I received myself. If Rosalie has to relie on any affection from him God in his mercy preserve her — I fear his associates have led him to adopt a line of thinking & acting very contrary to what he possessed when in England. I feel proudly the difference between your principles & his & hence my desire to stand as I ought to do in your estimation. Had I done my duty as faithfully to my God as I have to Edgar, then had Death come when he will had no [page 209:] terrors for me, but I must end with this devout wish that God may yet bless him & you & that success may crown all your endeavors & between you your poor Sister Rosalie may not suffer. . . . Believe me dear Henry we take an affectionate interest in your destinies and our United Prayers will be that the God of Heaven will bless & protect you. Rely on him my Brave & excellent Boy who is willing & ready to save to the uttermost. May he keep you in Danger preserve you always is the prayer of your Friend & Servant.

John Allan.

Three other letters deal with Poe’s life at the University of Virginia. All have to do with unpaid debts incurred by him, and hence do not display him in the very happiest light. We betray no confidence, however, in giving them to the public, since Poe himself made no secret of his irregularities at college; nor did he at any time conceal the fact that Mr. Allan refused to pay some of his debts.

The earliest of these letters is from a schoolmate of Poe’s at the University: —

Dinwiddie County

March 25th 1827.

Dear Sir:

When I saw you in Richmond a few days ago I should have mentioned the difference between us if there had not been so many persons present. I must of course, as you did not mention it to me enquire of you if you ever intend to pay it. If you have not the money write me word that you have not, but do not be perfectly silent. I should be glad if you would write to me even as a friend. There can certainly be no harm in your avowing candidly that you have no money if you have none, but you can say when you can pay me if you cannot now. I heard when I was in Richmond that Mr. Allen would probably discharge all your debts. If mine was a gambling debt I should not think much of it. But under the present circumstances I think very strangely of it. Write to me upon the receipt of this letter and tell me candidly what is the matter.

Your friend,   Edward G. Crump.

This letter demonstrates that it was not alone Poe’s debts of honor at the University that went unpaid. It serves the further purpose — and in this its chief value consists — of exploding [page 210:] the legend, industriously fostered by Poe himself, of a trip to Europe in the winter and spring of 1827. Professor Woodberry, as long ago as 1884, succeeded in proving that Poe was in Boston in May, 1827, and that on the 26th of that month he enlisted in the army of the United States, taking the name of “E. A. Perry”; and in his latest biography of the poet he has branded as apocryphal the story of a trans-Atlantic voyage just prior to this, giving it as his opinion that the time of the alleged voyage — “from some date in January to May 26” — was “insufficient for the events” said to have occurred. These included, according to Poe, a trip by vessel from Richmond to some English seaport, a journey to London and thence to Paris, where he endeavored to find employment of some sort, thence back to London, and so to the English coast, and thence over sea to Boston. But other scholars have held pertinaciously to the old view, and among them the most recent of Poe’s biographers, Mr. J. H. Whitty, who insists that the time — estimated by him at four months — was ample for all that is said to have happened. But this letter makes it necessary to advance the hypothetical date of Poe’s departure from January to the middle of March or later, thus reducing the probable time for the alleged voyage to about two months; and with this, of course, the whole story falls to the ground. The evidence that Poe left Richmond late in March derives additional support from a letter of John Allan’s to a sister in Scotland, of March 27, 1827, in which Mr. Allan writes: “I’m thinking Edgar has gone to Sea to seek his fortunes.”

The remaining letters belonging to Poe’s University period are from George W. Spotswood, of Charlottesville, Va., pressing a claim against Mr. Allan for the services of a slave employed by Poe at the University. The first of these is as follows: —

Dear Sir,

My situation requires me again to request you will send the trifling sum I wrote for due by Mr. Poe — for servants hire — every young man who comes to the Institution has a servant — this of course is a sweeping change. Mr. Poe did not live with me but hired my servant the justice of this [page 211:] small claim Sir I hope will cause you not to hesitate sending me a check for it directly the am’t is $6.25.

Respectfully yrs,

2d April 1827.

Geo. W. Spotswood.

The second letter is similar in strain: —

1st May 1827

Dear Sir,

I presume when you sent Mr. Poe to the University of Virginia you felt yourself bound to pay all his necessary expenses — one is that each young man is expected to have a servant to attend his room Mr. Poe did not board with me but as I had hired a first rate Servant who cost me a high price — I consider him under greater obligations to pay me for the price of my Servant — I have written you two letters & have never reed an Answer to eather — I beg again Sir that you will send me the small amt due I am distressed for money — I am informed that you are Rich both in purse and Honour   Yrs respectfully

Geo. W. Spotswood.

There is preserved in the Ellis-Allan papers, also, a curious bill for haberdashery purchased by Poe while a student at the University. The bill was made with one Samuel Leitch, merchant of Charlottesville and at one time agent for Ellis & Allan in that city and vicinity. In his later life Poe dressed habitually, so his biographers tell us, in black or — occasionally, in summer — in white. In his college days, however, it would appear that he was not an unworthy disciple, in matters of dress, of Bulwer or of the younger Disraeli. The bill is dated “Dec. 4” (1826), and is countersigned “a/c Mr. E. A. Poe with Sam Leitch, Jr.” —

  Mr. Edgar A. Powe
  In Acct. With Samuel Leitch, Jr., Dr.
To 3 yds Super Blue Cloth $13.00  . . . . . . $39 00     
  ″ 3 ″ Linin 3 / 2 yds Cotten 1 / 6 2 00     
  ″ 2 3 / 4 ″ Blk Bombazette 3 / Padding 3 / 1 88     
  ″ Staying 3 / 1 set Best Gilt Buttons 7 / 6 1 75     
  ″ 1 doz. Buttonmoulds 9d 1 Cut Velvet Vest 30 / 5 13     
  ″ 3 / 4 yd Blk Cassinette 27 / 3 38     
  ″ 1 ″ Staying 2 / 16 Hanks Silk 6d 1 63     
  ″ 9 Hanks Thread at 3c 1 Spool Cotten 1 / 44     
  ″ 1 Peace Tape 9d 1 1 / 2 doz. Buttons 6d 25    55 46
  ″ 1 pr. Drab Pantaloones and Trimmings   13 00      13 00
           68 46

[page 212:]

A year and a half later, on June 28, 1828, Leitch wrote to Ellis & Allan, ordering some hardware of them, and in a postscript inquired after the foregoing bill as follows: “Please let me know if Mr. Allen [has] done anything with my Account agains Mr. Pow.”

I have hunted diligently through these papers for the months of January and February, 1827, in the hope of turning up something that might throw light on Poe’s alleged employment by Ellis & Allan at this time as accountant in their warehouse, but I can find there no handwriting that resembles Poe’s autograph of later years. I have also looked for some letter or other document that might contribute towards clearing away our uncertainty with respect to Mr. Allan’s relations with Poe after his departure from Richmond in March, 1827; but here, too, my search was fruitless. All letters bearing on the matter — if such there were — must have been extracted from the collection before it passed out of private hands — perhaps by friends of Poe who were jealous of his reputation, but more probably by friends of John Allan. For it is safe to assume that they must have proved more damaging to Mr. Allan than to his unhappy foster-child.

Killis Campbell.

The University of Texas.


[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 201:]

1.  The fully authenticated details of the first third of Poe’s career, Professor Woodberry presents in his revised life of Poe — a work comprising more than eight hundred pages — in a chapter of twenty pages.

2.  I called attention to some of these documents two years ago in Modern Language Notes (XXV, 127-8), but was not then at liberty to publish them. The ban upon publication has since been removed; and I have, in the meantime, had further opportunity to examine the collection, with the result that I have turned up considerable additional material.





[S:0 - SR, 1912] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Some Unpublished Documents Relating to Poe's Early Years (K. Campbell, 1912)