Text: Hervey Allen, “Chapter 02,” Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe (1934), pp. 14-21


[page 14:]


THE arrival of Mrs. Poe at the Indian Queen Tavern, as the star of the little troupe of actors then gathered there, was no doubt the signal for a good deal of comment in local dramatic circles. Rehearsals and performances soon began.

Mrs. Phillips’ little shop at that time stood some little distance back from Main Street, abutting the purlieus of the Tavern on the corner of Main and Twenty-third. There was a neat walk up through the dooryard, then lined with shade trees under which the young child Edgar immediately after his arrival in Richmond must first have played.(28)

According to the testimony of a lady from Norfolk(29) who, as a little girl, remembered seeing Mrs. Poe play there in 1811, and made friends with her children who lodged nearby on Bermuda Street (at Norfolk), — the family was then accompanied by a Welsh nurse who looked after the children and nursed Mrs. Poe. This evidence is extremely legendary, however, and there is no authentic mention whatever of the nurse’s presence in Richmond.(30)

Mrs. Poe’s bright little lad would no doubt have been a favorite with the members of the Virginia Players and the hangers-on about the Indian Queen next door, and he must often have sat on the knees of his father’s and mother’s friends before the great open chimney of the inn. The hostelry was the center of the professional dramatic life of old “Richmond City” and was also frequented by the hangers-on and stage-door Lotharios of the theater, together with a few teamsters and travelers. But its principal business was that of a theatrical lodging house and its coterie. [page 15:]

Mrs. Poe, who was in increasing ill health, as the frequent interruptions of her appearances at the theater showed, must have been glad to have had the children taken care of by anyone who would do so. Often enough, perhaps, there was no one at all Mrs. Phillips, who appears to have been a kind woman, had probably taken the burden of the two little ones and the partial care of their sick mother upon herself — as any good woman would — between the intervals of waiting upon her customers in the little front room with a low fireplace and small square window panes, where her scanty stock of ribbons, poke bonnets, lace caps, cosmetics and perfumes was on display.

Mrs. Phillips’ clientele was of two strata: that of the fashionable ladies of Richmond who looked to her for the latest creations, and the dramatically inclined persons from the theatrical hotel next door, who, no doubt, found upon her counters the faultlessly blooming roses which have always enhanced the cheeks of “the profession” both on and off the stage.

Thus there was ample opportunity for the ladies of the better families of Richmond, who would not otherwise in those days have been introduced to members of the theatrical profession offstage, to become acquainted with the fact that a young actress, the mother of the handsome little fellow playing about the dooryard, was ill in the rooms immediately behind the shop of Mrs. Phillips. There can be no doubt either, that Mrs. Poe, as the star of Mr. Placide’s company, the mother of a family, and an actress who, by repute and appearance, was well known to all of fashionable Richmond, was held in a different estimate than some of her more humble sisters in the theatrical boarding house next door. These, too, however, were occasionally honored by fashionable visitors who desired to testify to their admiration in a more ardent manner than a discreet applause from a seat in the theater might express. And among the most gay and ardent, if contemporary accounts are to be credited, none were more so than the members of a numerous circle of prosperous and pious Scotch merchants.

The theater in which Mrs. Poe and Mr. Placide’s Company of Virginia Players acted stood on the present site of the Monumental Episcopal Church, on the block between Twelfth and Fourteenth Streets on Broad, known at the time as Theater Square.(31) In order to reach this [page 16:] from the lower part of Main Street where Mrs. Poe lived, it would have been most convenient to pass along Fourteenth Street to Broad.

At the corner of Fourteenth Street and Tobacco Alley was the residence of Mr. John Allan, the junior partner of Ellis & Allan, Scotch merchants doing a general merchandising business in the city and the region about, and trading by chartered ships and by cargo at home and abroad. The store was not under the residence, as has heretofore always been asserted, but was around the corner on Thirteenth Street about a block away on premises which were leased by the firm and purchased later on(32) in April, 1812.

During the late Summer and the Fall of 1811, Mrs. Poe must have often passed the house of John Allan, probably upon occasions taking little Edgar with her to performances or rehearsals at the theater. It is quite possible that Edgar may have sometimes appeared on the stage in an infantile rôle;(33) a his juvenile repertoire of poems and recitations was known to have caused comment upon private occasions a little later. That he must have gone to and fro with his mother, past the door of John Allan, there can be little doubt.

Mrs. Frances Keeling Allan, the first wife of the merchant, had at this time been married to him for eight years, but was without children and undoubtedly longed for them with all the yearning of her sex and the tenderest desires of a noble but lonely and disappointed heart. The household consisted of John Allan himself, his wife Frances, her sister Anne Moore Valentine, and the negro servants or slaves. It is probable that either or both the ladies may have made the acquaintance of Mrs. Poe and her handsome boy, by whom Mrs. Allan was greatly attracted, as they passed the door from time to time, while a speaking acquaintance was struck up with the popular young actress and Edgar was offered apples,”(34) a fruit as much prized then in Southern towns as oranges were in the North, one with which the Allan house was always well supplied.(35) Whether it was in this way, or at the shop of the milliner, Mrs. Phillips, certain it is that Frances, wife of John Allan, [page 17:] merchant, became acquainted with and more than casually interested in the fate and fortunes of Elizabeth Poe and her fatherless children. Through Mrs. Allan, too, doubtless came the interest and help of Mrs. William Mackenzie, a charitable and motherly woman, the wife of one of Mr. Allan’s closest friends, already provided with two children of her own, John and Mary, It was, indeed. for both Mrs. Poe and her children, a benign combination of circumstances, whatever they may have been, which brought these two good women to her bedside in the house of the little Scotch milliner.

The Scotch circle in “Richmond City” was at that time a peculiarly close one. One of the Mackenzies afterwards remarked that “Mrs. Phillips came of a good family,”(36) and doubtless both the kind ladies who had taken an interest in the young actress were provided with news as to Mrs. Poe’s condition, and in return provided for her the necessities of life in the form of occasional gifts of food and clothing.

During the late Fall of 1811 Mrs. Poe’s condition grew rapidly worse. The burden of supporting her two infant children must have fallen with crushing weight upon her narrow and consumptive shoulders. Her appearances at the theater grew fewer and farther apart; they finally ceased. Mr. Placide, the manager, doubtless did what he could for so important a member of his company, because all of these actors lived from hand to mouth. Mrs. Phillips must soon have been contributing the room rent free, as Mrs. Poe’s stipend ceased with her appearances; and doubtless Edgar was very much about the shop, much to the good woman’s terror for her poke bonnets and falderals, whose rigid repose upon uprights would have been grievously disturbed by the play of a vigorous three year old lad.

The rooms behind Mrs. Phillips’ shop were not the best place in the world for an invalid. There was one fireplace downstairs, but whether there was any fuel to burn there, is another question. The lower part of Main Street, a few blocks away, was subject to periodical invasions of the River James which took every occasion to overflow its banks. The season had been an exceptionally rainy and unhealthful one throughout tide-water Virginia, as the letters of that date show; mosquitoes must have been rife,(37) and this had added constantly recurring attacks of malaria to her poverty and deprivations, to further deplete the ebbing strength of the consumptive young actress.

The little upstairs room in which she lay dying had the scantiest of furnishings: a miserable bed for herself on a straw mattress,(38) with [page 18:] perhaps a woven coverlet and a blanket contributed by Mrs. Phillips; one or two old chairs; probably a trundle bed for the children, or a cot upon which a nurse, if present, slept; and some bottles with candle ends in them. Mrs. Poe’s effects would have been of the most meager description. A few soiled odds and ends of dramatic costumes, tawdry splendors of her past triumphs; a small trunk or chest in which some relics and letters of the vanished Harlequin were cherished by his widowed Columbine; the scanty remnants of even scantier meals; and the children’s tattered clothes. In such a room lay dying the mother of Edgar Allan Poe.

In her poverty-stricken condition medical attendance must have been nil, probably luckily for her, as the science had not yet passed beyond regarding the lancet and the barbers’ bowl as the panacea for all ills. She must have lain through the shortening days, as November waned into December, striving to read the darkness of the future, which for her was dark enough, trying to still the noisy and peevish crying of little Rosalie, listening to the voices of Mrs. Phillips’ customers in the room below, or to the feet of her little son as they stumbled up the narrow stairs.

Her hopeless darkness, however, was lightened from time to time by visits to the squalid, but interesting garret of the dying actress and her charming children, by the grandes dames and lesser ladies of Richmond, who sought the latest mode in bonnets at the hands of Mrs. Phillips. She, indeed, poor woman, we may be sure, had done her full part to interest her customers in the misery of her guests, and had received perhaps an unexpected reward at finding her little shop the center of considerable interest, not all of which could have been in vain.

Those who care to search the Richmond papers of that time will find in the Enquirer of November 25th, 1811, an appeal for Mrs. Poe “to the kind hearted of the city,” inserted no doubt by the thoughtful hands of Manager Placide, for four days later one comes across the advertisement of a benefit to be repeated for the second time, “in consequence of the serious and long continued indisposition of Mrs. Poe, and in compliance with the advice and solicitation of many of the most respectable families.”

Among the “ladies of the most respectable families” who visited Mrs. Poe and her children, as her tragedy neared the end of its last act, none were more welcome and efficacious to the little family in the dingy upstairs room than Mrs. Frances Allan and Mrs. William Mackenzie.

It is not hard to imagine what must have been the thoughts and emotions of Mrs. Allan, the tenderly inclined, childless woman, as she sat in that bare garret with the handsome, curly-headed young Edgar Poe in her yearning arms, talking to him; and with the girlish mother [page 19:] on the bed, against whose soiled pillows the black hair of the invalid lay tangled in dark disarray. Nor could she have been oblivious to the silent appeal of the haunted, “wildered” eyes of the young actress which shifted tragically from the baby face of young Rosalie, resting trustfully against the bosom of Mrs. Mackenzie, to that of her little son smiling sadly back at her from the chair of Mrs. Allan. There was a silent appeal there which even a rough man might understand. To these good women, as the future proved, it was not made in vain. A few days later there was an appeal of a more obvious kind —


On this night Mrs. Poe. lingering on the bed of disease and surrounded by her children, asks your assistance: and asks it perhaps for the last time. For particulars, see the Bills of the day.

It was, indeed, “for the last time!”(39) Azrael had appeared in one of his favorite disguises, pneumonia: and the tragedies of the little doll actress were over. “Ariel” had received release; the tinsel stars of the wand were laid away with the paper flowers of “Ophelia”; “Juliet” was tricked out in her best paste jewels, and, for a few hours, lay in squalid state in the milliner’s attic, where all those who had made her small world, and who had cared a little, might come to see. Among these, we may be sure, were the members of Mr. Placide’s company from the tavern next door, Mrs. Phillips, Mrs. Allan and Mrs. Mackenzie and their husbands, who by this time had been interested in the startling little tragedy on lower Main Street to the extent of takng the arrangements for the funeral into their own hands.

It would be easy enough to pull out the vox humana for the final scene when Edgar and Rosalie Poe were at last parted from that which had been their mother. For the not unimaginative the facts will suffice: Mrs. Allan and Mrs. Mackenzie came for the children the morning after their mother’s death. One can imagine the sudden hush about the old inn and the milliner’s shop. The broad Scotch lamentations of Mrs. Phillips, the moment when the two children were held up to look for the last time upon their little doll-like mother, now waxen, indeed, and lying upon the bed, dressed in some high-waisted Empire slip of the period. Certainly, as the custom then was, ‘some toll was taken of her long, dark locks, and before the children left the room little Rosalie was [page 20:] given an empty jewel case, the modest contents of which had long ago vanished to put food in her mouth. For Edgar there was a miniature of his mother, and a painting by her of Boston Harbor, upon the back of which in her own pitiful cipher she had charged her little son to “love Boston, the place of his birth, and where his mother found her best and most sympathetic friends.”(40) Like many another death-bed admonition it was to be in vain, for her son always found there the reverse of his mother’s experience. This, together with a certain weakness of constitution, was the entire inheritance of the orphans of David and Elizabeth Poe.(41)

Outside the little shop some of the members of Mr. Placide’s company doubtless gathered to say, on the part of the women at least, a tearful farewell to the little grey-eyed boy who had been their pet. Some of them may have accompanied Mrs. Poe to her last resting place in St. John’s Churchyard where Mr. Allan and Mr. Mackenzie, who were members of the congregation, had arranged for her burial, not without protest from certain members of the vestry who shared the prejudices of their time and were reluctant to see even the mortal remains of an actress sheltered by consecrated ground. Fittingly enough she was buried “close to the wall.” There is an entry for the burial, but it is without name, and the grave was for over a century left unmarked.(42)

Young as he was, Edgar Poe could scarcely have remembered the actual scenes surrounding the final tragedy of his young mother, but even a child of three may be conscious at the time that its own familiar little world has suddenly gone to pieces about it. When Edgar got to the street in front of Mrs. Phillips’ shop he was parted from his baby sister, Rosalie, and suddenly found himself alone with an affectionate but nevertheless strange woman. The soft and always comforting presence known to all children as “mamma” had disappeared. The doubtless protesting sister Rosalie had mysteriously vanished in the arms of another unknown person. As the boy rattled over the old, cobbled streets of “Richmond City” in Mrs. Allan’s hired hack(43) he must dimly have experienced for the first time, in an emotion without words, the extreme sense of fear and utter loneliness which was to follow him to the grave. The tenderness of the strange woman who sat beside him could never supply the intimate sense of well-being and [page 21:] spiritual safety which a real mother confers naturally upon her child. Ishmael was gone forth to dwell in other tents, and the hand of the stranger was henceforth mysteriously against him.

Looking back after more than a hundred years, to us, the bitter end of the little tragic-comedy of Mrs. Poe seems to be one of those petty victories of which even Death might be ashamed. To young Israfel, whose trembling little mouth was for the time being stopped by the bread and kisses of charity, it was the first and perhaps the most decisive of the many tragedies which the Dark Angel Azrael was bidden to confer.



[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 14:]

28.  For the description of the house in which Mrs. Poe died and its environs, I am indebted to information supplied me by the present owner of the property in whose family it has been for many years, and under whose hands it has passed through successive building changes greatly altering it and the old inn next door, both belonging to the same owner. A personal visit was made to the spot, and photographs of the premises made and compared with old ones, in July, 1925. The former house of Mrs. Phillips is now inhabited by negroes and surrounded by a tenement, all in a shocking state of neglect and disrepair. The former front yard of her shop is occupied by a building erected some time since. The inn archway is bricked up.

29.  Afterwards a Mrs. Archer of Richmond, mother of Mrs. S. A. Weiss.

30.  Although there is some doubt about this “nurse” having been with Mrs. Poe, the evidence from this account and several others is too precise to be ignored. I am inclined to accept it as accounting for the persistent rumors that Mrs. Tubbs, for whom the nurse was mistaken, accompanied Mrs. Poe to Richmond.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 15:]

31  The Richmond Theater was on the site of a frame building which had been built by a remarkable Frenchman in 1786 as an Academy in which he attempted to introduce many new ideas in education and the fine arts into America. Among other things, theatricals, painting, and sculpture. The first classic plaster casts for models even seen in America were shown here. M. Quesnay’s scheme failed. The Academy was afterwards used for the Virginia Convention which ratified the Federal Constitution, and in 1802, the building having been destroyed by fire, its site was occupied by the new Richmond Theater, a brick and frame structure also destroyed by fire in 1811. As many of Poe’s earliest and most intimate associations are connected with this spot it has been thought worth while to give the above facts.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 16:]

32  Ellis & Allan Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D. C. — Articles of agreement made and entered into the 22nd day of April in the year of our Lord 1812, between Anthony R. Thornton of the Town of Fredericksburg and State of Virginia, of the first part and Charles Ellis and John Allan, Merchants and partners trading under the name of Ellis & Allan. (Consideration one thousand pounds of current money on or before the 22nd day of April, 1817, with interest). To sell and convey to the said Ellis & Allan a house on Thirteenth Street, etc.

33.  Edward V. Valentine to the author at Richmond, Virginia, July, 1925.

34.  Frances Allan seems to have been the active factor in Edgar’s “adoption” from the first.

35.  John Allan to Charles Ellis in New London, Connecticut, from Richmond, Virginia, October 26th, 1812.

“P. S. I wish you would procure for me a barrel of nice green pippins on your return to New York.” For this and similar items see the Ellis & Allan Correspondence, Library of Congress, Washington, D. C.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 17:]

36.  Meaning a good “Scotch” family.

37.  Letter from Pedlar Mills, Virginia, from Joshua L. Ellis to Mr. Charles Ellis at Richmond, August 13th, 1811, and others of like import at later dates. “The rains have been greater here than I have ever seen them.” Ellis & Allan Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D. C.

38.  This is specifically mentioned in some accounts.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 19:]

39.  Mrs. Elizabeth Arnold (David) Poe died December 8, 1811. On December 9th Mrs. Mackenzie took Rosalie home, and Mrs. Allan carried Edgar to her house. (Statement by Mary Mackenzie, Rosalie’s foster-sister.)

In the newspaper notice quoted on this page there was an error in spelling which has not been reproduced.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 20:]

40.  Woodberry, 1909, vol. I, page 14, and other authority Ingram I, 6, etc.

41.  There was also a bundle of letters, and as it now appears from a poem by Henry Poe recently discovered, a pocket book with locks of hair of both parents. See Poe’s Brother, Doran, 1926.

42.  A fitting monument has recently been provided.

43.  John Allan did not at this time own a horse and carriage, but he was at considerable expense for hack hire. For the frequent bills from Richard E. Wortham & Co., for hack hire through 1811 and 1812, see the Ellis & Allan Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D. C, Receipt for 12th of November, 1812, etc.






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