Text: John C. Miller, “Poe and Miss Anna Blackwell,” Poe Studies, December 1979, Vol. XII, No. 2, 12:28-29


[page 28, column 2:]

Poe and Miss Anna Blackwell

Old Dominion University

Mrs. Sarah Helen Whitman of Providence, Rhode Island, published in 1860 a small, hardback book entitled Edgar Poe & His Critics (1) in which she offered a more just and balanced view of Poe’s character than the generally accepted one published in 1850 by Rufus Wilmot Griswold. In this first viable defense of Poe, Mrs. Whitman presented testimonies controverting Griswold by various persons whom she had personally known and who had been associated closely with Poe and his family. Among them she mentions a lady who had spent three or four weeks with Poe and Maria Clemm: “An English writer, now living in Paris, the author of some valuable contributions to American periodicals, passed several weeks at the little cottage at Fordham, in the early autumn of 1847, and described to us, with a truly English appreciativeness, its unrivalled neatness and the quaint simplicity of its interior and surroundings” (p. 30).

Fourteen years later, on April 4, 1874, John Henry Ingram, seeking evidence for his own counter to Griswold asked Mrs. Whitman to identify this English writer.2 She replied on April 21, 1874:

The lady who spent several weeks there in the early autumn of 1847 was Miss Anna Blackwell. She was in very delicate health at the time, & a friend of hers who chanced to know Mrs. Clemm prevailed upon that lady to receive her as a boarder for a few weeks. She was charmed with the exquisite neatness & quiet of the household & the delicious repasts, prepared for her by Mrs. Clemm. She was nor much acquainted with Poe & saw but little of him during her stay there, but spoke of him as a courteous & gentlemanly person (3).

Soon afterwards, through a misunderstanding arising during an interview in England with Mrs. Mary Gove Nichols, Ingram confused Anna Blackwell with her sister Elizabeth.4 Mrs. Whitman attempted to clarify the question in a letter to Ingram dated February 14,1874:

It was not Elizabeth but Anna Blackwell, who, as I told you, boarded with Mrs. Clemm for a few weeks at Fordham. She is the sister of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell. It was Anna Blackwell who translated George Sand’s Jacques, & who is now a resident in Paris. Mrs. Gove Nichols, I think it was, who commended the Fordham cottage to her as a pleasant place wherein to seek rest & recuperation from the fatigues of her literary work. Did Mrs. Gove Nichols say nothing of this — nothing of Anna? They were once friends — Miss Blackwell having been a patient of Mrs. Nichols’ when that lady was at the head of a water cure establishment in N.Y. Anna Blackwell came to Providence in the spring of 1848 to pass the summer, and often spoke of her visit to Fordham. She was at my mother’s house one evening in June, I think, when Miss Maria J. McIntosh happened to be present. It was a bright moonlight night. Miss McIntosh said, “Mrs. Whitman, on just such a night as this one a month ago I met Mr. Poe for the first time at the house of a gentleman in Fordham — a Mr. Lindsay (I think that was the name) & his whole talk was about you.” Miss Blackwell then said that she had received a letter from Poe to much the same effect two or three weeks before, but had not thought to speak of it to me. She afterwards at my request gave me the letter, which she said she had not answered. I do not think that she was altogether [page 29:] friendly to Poe at the time, & when she heard of my engagement to him, seemed still less so. He called on her with me during his first visit to Providence & I invited her to join a party of friends to meet him that evening at my home, but she did not come. I enclose a little note from her acknowledging the call & invitation. After she went to Paris I had one or two letters from her, but our correspondence soon fell off (5).

On March 14, 1875, Ingram acknowledged his mistake and asked Mrs. Whitman for a copy of Poe’s letter to Miss Blackwell. Mrs. Whitman replied on March 30:

You ask about Anna Blackwell’s letter from Poe. I gave the letter many years ago to Mr. John R. Bartlett for his large & valuable collection of autographs. The copy which he made for me is still in my possession. I will copy it verbatim though it contains nothing of special interest except of interest to me, & perhaps to you, in the passage wherein she speaks of S.H.W. Miss Blackwell was, as you perhaps know, of English birth and parentage (6).

Within two years, Ingram had contacted Anna Blackwell, for on February 14, 1877, he told Mrs. Whitman of Miss Blackwell’s strange reply and quoted portions of the complete letter below:

Wirville (Pas de Calais)

Feb. 12, 1877

My dear Sir,

Your letter, just received has greatly surprised me; you are entirely mistaken in supposing that I can be of any use to you in the work you have in hand. If I had ever had anything like an acquaintance with the subject of your researches, I would most willingly give you the benefit of my remembrances of him. But I never saw him but twice, and really know nothing about him, except from hearsay. Some lady (whose very name I have forgotten) once invited me to go with her to take a basket of delicacies, suitable for an invalid, to Mr. Poe, who was then recovering from illness, & in very straitened circumstances. I accepted the invitation, & went with her to a little place in the country (I have not the slightest remembrance where) in which he and his wife were living. The visit was a short one, & I remember nothing of its incidents, except that I was struck with the great neatness of the very small parlour, furnished entirely with tables, chairs, &c. covered with green baize put on with brass-headed nails, “which,] I was told, were of deal & had been made entirely by the poet himself. A short time afterwards, one afternoon, Mr. Poe returned my visit. Those, to the best of my remembrance, were the only times I saw him. I left New York shortly afterwards, and returned to England the following year (1848).

You say you have a copy of a letter addressed to me by Mr. Poe, I do not think I ever received a line from him, I am convinced that there must be some mistake in the matter, & that the letter must have [sic] written to some one else, the extreme slightness of my acquaintance with him precluding all probability of his having written to me. Most certainly, enough I contributed a good many poems &c. to various periodicals during my sojourns in the United States, I never, for one moment contemplated publishing my poems in a collection over there. As an Englishwoman constantly intending to return to my native land, I always intended to publish them in England, as I did, some quarter of a century ago.

So persuaded am I that the letter you refer to was not written to me, that I must particularly request you not to allow my name to appear in connexion with it, or, indeed, with the subject of your labours, in any way.

I am, my dear Sir,

Yours truly

Anna Blackwell (7)

Anna Blackwell was not telling the truth. She must have addressed a letter to Poe around May 24, asking for help in getting an American publisher for her volume of poems to be called “Legend of the Waterfall,” as is evident from his response to her on June 14 (8). But Ingram evidently [column 2:] credited Miss Blackwell over Mrs. Whitman. He irritably asked Mrs. Whitman her source for Miss Blackwell’s stay at Fordham, adding petulantly that nothing he got about Poe seemed to be reliable and that he sometimes fancied that Poe “never lived & sometimes I think there must have been two Poes!” (9). Mrs. Whitman responded with noticeable asperity, for her, that her source was Miss Blackwell herself and urged Ingram to contact Mrs. Nichols again for confirmation of all Anna Blackwell had told Mrs. Whitman (10). Mrs. Nichols’ failure to do so precipitated the second serious quarrel through the transatlantic mails between Ingram and Mrs. Whitman, although it was Ingram’s scathing, bitter review of Eugene Didier’s recently published biography of Poe, prefaced by Mrs. Whitman’s introductory letter, that brought to an end, at least for practicable purposes, the long, affectionate, interesting and valuable correspondence between these two chief builders of Poe’s biography. (11).

Perhaps their emotional involvement with Poe as a person and writer kept them from recognizing Miss Blackwell’s chief reason for so vehemently dissociating her name from Poe’s. Despite the pioneer efforts to redeem his reputation from Griswold’s unsavory allegations, the fact that Poe was not generally accepted as respectable, notwithstanding his undenied genius, was more important to Miss Blackwell than the possibility that her meeting and correspondence with him, brief as they actually had been, might at some future date bring immortality of a sort to her name that she had so blatantly lied to protect.



(1) New York: Rudd & Carleton, 1860.

(2) The portions of Ingram’s letters here reproduced are from the holographs in the Sarah Helen Whitman Papers in the Brown University Library; Mrs. Whitman’s are in the Ingram Poe Collection in the University of Virginia Library and are identified both by dates and item numbers in that collection. To both libraries I offer my appreciation for being allowed to quote here as well as to reproduce the letters in full in my book Poe’s Helen Remembers (forthcoming — Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia) .

(3) April 17 and 24, 1874; item 145, Ingram Collection.

(4) Ingram’s confusion is recorded in his letter to Mrs. Whitman of January 27, 1875. Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910), Anna’s sister, was the first woman to break the medical career sex barrier by graduating from Geneva Medical College in Syracuse, New York, in 1849. She studied in Paris and London before establishing a practice in 1851 in New York City, where she also founded a hospital. In 1867, with the help of another sister, Dr. Emily Blackwell, she organized the Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary.

(5) Item 202, Ingram Collection. In the interest of clarity and ease of reading, I have silently corrected one misspelling and a very few of Mrs. Whitman’s errors in punctuation.

(6) Item 211, Ingram Collection.

(7) Item 315, Ingram Collection.

(8) See Letters, II, 369-371, for the text of Poe’s reply.

(9) February 14, 1877; Whitman Papers.

(10) March 2, 1877; item 316, Ingram Collection.

(11) Didier’s biography was titled The Life and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, with Additional Poems (New York: W. J. Widdleton, 1877); Ingram’s review, unsigned but unmistakably his, was printed in the London Athenaeum, No. 2572, February 10, 1877, pp.537-538. For a more detailed overview of this controversy, and of Mrs. Whitman’s relationship with Ingram, see my “Poe’s Biographers Brawl,” American History Illustrated, 11, no. 7 (November 1976), pp. 20-29.


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