Text: Michael J. Deas, “The ‘Ultima Thule’ Daguerreotype,” The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe (1989), pp. 36-41 (This material is protected by copyright)


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The “Ultima Thule” Daguerreotype

In early November 1848, four days after attempting to take his own life with an overdose of laudanum, Edgar Allan Poe was brought to the Providence, Rhode Island, daguerreotype studio of Samuel Masury and S. W. Hartshorn and there posed for what has become one of the most celebrated literary portraits of the nineteenth century: the so-called “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype (fig. 14). The daguerreotype's unusual epithet is a Latin phrase, first used by the ancient Greek historian Polybius to designate the farthermost regions of the habitable world; used figuratively, it refers to the extreme limits of travel and discovery. It was first applied to the daguerreotype by Poe's former fiancée, Sarah Helen Whitman, who found the circumstances surrounding the picture's creation to be reminiscent of a passage in Poe's poem “Dream-Land”:

I have reached these lands but newly

From an ultimate dim Thule

From a wild weird clime that lieth, sublime

Out of SPACEout of TIME.

Mrs. Whitman thought the likeness “wonderful,” and in an 1874 letter to Poe biographer John Henry Ingram explained that it “was taken after a wild distracted night ... and all the stormy grandeur of that via Dolorosa had left its sullen shadow on his brow. But it was very fine.”(59)

Ultima Thule Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe [thumbnail]

(fig. 14)
The Ultima Thule Daguerreotype
[Illustration on page 37]

Dimly lit, situated against a dark background, Poe here seems to epitomize the image of the tragic romantic poet: solemn, detached, consumed by his own wildly self-destructive nature. The eyes, deeply set beneath an expansive brow, call to mind a description of Poe as he appeared about the time the daguerreotype was taken, as given by a young female admirer: “I have ‘in my mind's eye’ ... a figure somewhat below medium height, perhaps, but so perfectly proportioned, and crowned with such a noble head, so regally carried, that, to my girlish apprehension, he gave the impression of commanding stature. Those clear sad eyes seemed to look from an eminence, rather than from the ordinary level of humanity.”(60) The significance of the “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype, however, lies not simply in its striking visual beauty but in its importance as a biographical document. Coupled with the “Whitman” daguerreotype (fig. 17), taken four days later, it forms a compelling photographic chronicle of a week that began with Poe's attempted suicide on November 5 and ended with his betrothal to Sarah Helen Whitman on November 13.

Poe's stability had declined drastically following the death of his wife in early 1847. In a letter to her former nurse, Marie Louise Shew, he confided, “I shall hardly last a year longer, alone.”(61) He began to travel compulsively, and in the autumn of 1848 arrived in Providence, home of the poet Sarah Helen Whitman. Mrs. Whitman was a gifted woman, an attractive and highly intelligent widow whose verses had won her recognition among literary circles throughout the Northeast. Through mutual friends she had expressed an admiration for Poe's poetry, and he now responded by calling at her home with a letter of introduction written by Maria J. McIntosh of New York. Despite pleas from Mrs. Whitman's family and friends, the forty-five-year-old poet was deeply impressed by her suitor's eloquence, and a courtship — a turbulent courtship — quickly ensued. Poe, apparently drawn by the prospect of a substantial dowry, proposed marriage almost immediately. Mrs. Whitman refused, but continued to correspond with Poe and to receive him as a visitor to her home. This temporizing on Mrs. Whitman's part was to prove ill-fated. As his hopes for a lucrative marriage grew dimmer, Poe's ­[page 38:] instability worsened. On November 5, 1848, after procuring two ounces of laudanum, he boarded a train bound for Boston and upon his arrival consumed half the drug. Fortunately, the overdose proved emetic — Poe had miscalculated the strength of the dosage and his attempted suicide resulted only in prolonged nausea and delirium.(62) Regaining his composure, he returned to Providence where he again asked Mrs. Whitman to marry him. Again she refused.

Finally, on November 8, he sent a hastily penned letter renouncing Mrs. Whitman, returned to his hotel, and there began to drink quite heavily. At some point during the evening he encountered a man identified only as “a Mr. MacFarlane,” who persuaded the poet to go the following morning to a daguerreotype parlor operated by Samuel Masury and S. W. Hartshorn. Exactly who MacFarlane was, and why he chose to bring Poe to the Masury & Hartshorn studio, are unclear. In a letter written twenty-seven years after the “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype was taken, Mrs. Whitman characterized this enigmatic figure simply as a man who had become “deeply interested” in Poe, caring for him throughout the night preceding the sitting.(63) Conceivably, he may have been a fellow guest at Poe's hotel, a friend of Mrs. Whitman, or possibly one of several “dissolute young men” who at times encouraged Poe to drink with them in the barroom of the Earl House in Providence.(64) In bringing Poe to Masury & Hartshorn's gallery, MacFarlane may simply have hoped to provide a distraction for the troubled man in his care; it is equally possible, however, that his motives were less than altruistic, since daguerreotypists sometimes compensated prominent individuals for posing. Such a circumstance would certainly explain why the completed likeness of Poe would remain in the hands of the daguerreotypists for several years after the sitting.

The daguerreotypists Samuel Masury (c. 1818-1874) and S. W. Hartshorn were co-proprietors of a studio situated on the second floor of 25 Westminster Street (also called Market Street) in downtown Providence. Their business was evidently a prosperous one, for within the past year they had been able to hire from a neighboring studio two camera operators, the brothers Edwin H. and Henry N. Manchester, to assist periodically with the task of photographing clients. Interestingly, the “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype — a triumph in early American portrait photography that has been variously attributed to Masury, Hartshorn, and a host of other daguerreotypists including Mathew Brady — appears to be the work of a relatively unknown cameraman, Edwin H. Manchester. The chief testimony on this point comes from Mrs. Whitman, who many years after the sitting wrote the English biographer John Henry Ingram: “Mr. Manchester, then in Masury's employ, took these portraits himself. He bought out Masury & Hartshorn & had this original portrait (daguerreotype) of Poe in his possession until it mysteriously disappeared some years ago. ... If you ever come to Providence you can verify what I have told you from the lips of ... Mr. Edwin Manchester.”(65)

The date of the sitting, sometimes given by Poe's biographers as November 8, was actually Thursday, November 9, 1848. Confusion over the date stems primarily from a letter written by Mrs. Whitman to John Ingram in 1875. Poe's movements during his stay in Providence were highly erratic, and in this letter Mrs. Whitman gave Ingram a somewhat garbled chronology of events that has often been misinterpreted by subsequent scholars.(66) A careful reading of the letter, however, clearly shows Poe sending Mrs. Whitman his letter of renunciation on Wednesday the eighth, returning to his hotel that evening, and posing for the daguerreotype “the morning after” — Thursday the ninth. ­[page 40:]

Upon leaving Masury & Hartshorn's studio, Poe made his way to Mrs. Whitman's home on Benefit Street. She recounted that he arrived there alone and agitated, “calling upon me to save him from some terrible impending doom. The tones of his voice were appalling & rang through the house. Never have I heard anything so awful, even to sublimity. It was long before I could nerve myself to see him. ... When my mother requested me to have a cup of strong coffee prepared for him, he clung to me so frantically as to tear away a piece of the muslin dress I wore.”(67) As the day wore on, Poe grew more composed and in the afternoon was taken to the home of an acquaintance, William J. Pabodie, who continued to look after him. The hysterics displayed in Mrs. Whitman's parlor have led many biographers to conclude that Poe was still feverish from the previous evening's spree, and that Manchester's daguerreotype had captured him, as Hervey Allen caustically observed in 1926, “probably at the very hour when he looked the worst that he had ever looked in his life.”(68)

Lithograph of Edgar Allan Poe [thumbnail]

(fig. 15)
Lithograph by Alexis Perrassin
[Illustration on page 39]

The history of the original “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype following its completion is shadowy. Mrs. Whitman reports that as early as December 1848 it was being displayed at the Masury & Hartshorn gallery, remaining on exhibition there “for several years.” At some point it was mounted in a large black walnut frame — a mark of considerable distinction, since daguerrean portraits of even the most prominent individuals were commonly mounted in inexpensive miniature cases made of leather and wood. About 1850 Samuel Masury and S. W. Hartshorn parted company, with Masury eventually moving on to Boston. The daguerreotype of Poe seems to have been acquired about this time by Masury & Hartshorn's former assistants, the Manchester Brothers, who were then operating their own studio at 33 Westminster Street. At some point during the Manchesters’ ownership, probably about 1860, the original “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype vanished. Whether the likeness was stolen, destroyed, or simply lost is not clear. Mrs. Whitman, in letters written in 1874 and 1875, remarks only that the plate had “mysteriously disappeared” and was “presumed to have been stolen.”(69)

The subsequent fate of the original “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype has not been established, but the image itself seems to have been amply copied at an early date: no less than five contemporaneous versions of the daguerreotype are known to exist. All five possess unusually clouded provenances, though several have histories which link them directly or indirectly with Sarah Helen Whitman (see Appendix A, “Copy Daguerreotypes” for the “Lewin,” “Barrett,” “Cornwell,” “Kingsley,” and “Robins” daguerreotypes). Four of the plates — those in the collections of the American Antiquarian Society, the Pierpont Morgan Library, the Poe Museum, and the Free Library of Philadelphia — are virtually identical in size and detail. None are mirror images and each carries an identical, photographically reproduced abrasion across the left breast — circumstances which suggest that all four may be early copies based on a now lost original.(70) A fifth version of the daguerreotype, the recently discovered “Robins” plate (fig. 69), is unique in that the photographic image is reversed; the likeness itself, however, lacks some of the crispness and overall tonality found in the four plates mentioned above, suggesting that it too is a copy. What may have been a sixth version of the daguerreotype, possibly the original itself, surfaced in Ohio about 1860 in the possession of a traveling singer and composer named Ossian E. Dodge. It was taken to London sometime before 1875 and is presently unlocated.(71)

Carte-de-visite of Edgar Allan Poe [thumbnail]

(fig. 16)
Carte-de-visite copy photograph by Cole & Remington
[Illustration on page 41]

The “Ultima Thule” image has over the years served as a basis for numerous derivative portraits in other media. The earliest example appears to be a stiffly rendered lithograph (fig. 15) by Alexis Perrassin, a minor French artist evidently ­[page 41:] active for a brief time in New England. His lithograph, which measures approximately 9 3/4 by 8 1/2 inches oval, is signed in the stone at the lower right: “A. Perrassin / from Paris.” The origins of this likeness are confused. There is some evidence to suggest it was lithographed as early as 1857, directly from the original “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype, or as late as 1869 from an intermediary likeness of some sort, now unlocated, painted by the Rhode Island portraitist John Knowlton Arnold.(72) Sarah Helen Whitman cared little for Perrassin's work, cautioning one friend to “remember, it is not good.”(73) Nevertheless, a copy of the lithograph hung in Mrs. Whitman's home for several years, and in 1874 she allowed it to be reproduced in carte-de-visite form by the Providence photographers William Coleman and O. M. Remington. The Coleman & Remington firm was also responsible for distributing some of the earliest photographic reproductions of the “Ultima Thule” likeness, small carte-de-visite prints made from a heavily retouched copy negative (fig. 16). Other notable derivatives of the “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype include a wood engraving by Timothy Cole (fig. 46), a photographic print by Mathew B. Brady (fig. 39), and a woodcut by Félix Vallotton (fig. 48).






[S:1 - PDEAP, 1989] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe (M. J. Deas) (The 'Ultima Thule' Daguerreotype)