Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. T. O. Mabbott), “Letter 06,” Doings of Gotham: Poe's Contributions to The Columbia Spy (1929), pp. 65-71 (This material is protected by copyright)


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[page 65:]

LETTER VI

New York,

June 18, 1844.

In point of natural beauty, as well as of convenience, the harbor of New York has scarcely its equal in the northern hemisphere; but, as in the case of Brooklyn, the Gothamites have most grievously disfigured it by displays of landscape and architectural taste. More atrocious pagodas, or what not — for it is indeed difficult to find a name for them — were certainly never imagined than the greater portion of those which affront the eye, in every nook and corner of the bay, and, more particularly, in the vicinity of New Brighton. If these monstrosities appertain to taste, then it is to taste in its dying agonies.

Speaking of harbors; I have been much surprised at observing an attempt, on the part of a Philadelphian paper, to compare Boston, as a port, with New York; and in instituting the comparison, the journal in question is so bold as to assert that the largest class of ships cannot pass the bar of this harbor at low water. I believe this to be quite a mistake : — is it not?

Foreigners are apt to speak of the great length of Broadway. It is no doubt a long street; but we have many much longer in Philadelphia. If I do not greatly err, Front street offers an unbroken line of houses for four miles, and is, unquestionably, the longest street in America, if not in the world. Grant, the gossiping and twaddling author of “Random Recollections of the House of Lords,” “The Great Metropolis,” &c., &c., in mentioning some London thoroughfare of two miles and three-quarters, calls it, with an absolute air, “the most extensive in the [page 66:] world.” The dogmatic bow-wow of this man is the most amusing thing imaginable. I do believe that out of every ten matters which he gives to the public as fact, eight, at least, are downright lies, while the other two may be classed either as “doubtful” or “rigmarole.”

The trial of Polly Bodine will take place at Richmond, on Monday next, and will, no doubt, excite much interest. This woman may, possibly, escape; — for they manage these matters wretchedly in New York. It is difficult to conceive anything more preposterous than the whole conduct, for example, of the Mary Rogers affair. The police seemed blown about, in all directions, by every varying puff of the most unconsidered newspaper opinion. The truth, as an end, appeared to be lost sight of altogether. The magistracy suffered the murderer to escape, while they amused themselves with playing court, and chopping the technicalities of jurisprudence. Not the least usual error, in such investigations, is the limiting of inquiry to the immediate, with total disregard of the collateral, or circumstantial events. It is malpractice to confine evidence and discussion too vigorously within the limits of the seemingly relevant. Experience has shown, and Philosophy will always show, that a vast portion, perhaps the larger portion of truth, arises from the apparently irrelevant. It is through the spirit of this principle that modern science has resolved to calculate upon the unforseen. The history of human knowledge has so uniformly shown that to collateral, or incidental, or accidental events, we are indebted for the most numerous and most valuable discoveries, that it has, at length, become necessary, in any prospective [page 67:] view of improvements to make not only large, but the largest allowances for inventions that shall arise by chance — out of the range of expectation. It is, thus, no longer philosophical to base upon what has been, a vision of what is to be. Accident is admitted as a portion of the substructure. We make chance a matter of absolute certainty. We subject the unlooked-for and unimagined to the mathematical formulae of the schools. But what I wish now to observe is, that the small magistracies are too prone to ape the airs and echo the rectangular precepts of the courts. And, moreover, very much of what is rejected as evidence by a court, is the best of evidence to the intellect. For the court, guiding itself by the general principles of evidence — the recognized and booked principles — is adverse from swerving at particular instances. And this steadfast adherence to principle, with systematic disregard of the conflicting exception, is a sure mode of attaining the maximum of attainable truth, in any long sequence of time. The practice, in mass, is, therefore, philosophical; but it is none the less certain that it engenders, in many extraordinary instances, a vast amount of individual error. I have good reason to believe that it will do public mischief in the coming trial of Polly Bodine.

The literary world of Gotham is not particularly busy. Mr. Willis, I see, has issued a very handsome edition of his poems — the only complete edition — with a portrait. Few men have received more abuse, deserving it less, than the author of “Melanie.” I never read a paper from his pen, in the “New-Mirror,” without regretting his abandonment of Glen-Mary, and the tranquility and leisure he might [page 68:] there have found. In its retirement he might have accomplished much, both for himself and for posterity; but, chained to the oar of a mere weekly paper, professedly addressing the frivolous and the fashionable, what can he now hope for but a gradual sinking into the slough of the Public Disregard? For his sake, I do sincerely wish the “New-Mirror” would go the way of all flesh. Did you see his Biography in “Graham’s Magazine”? The style was a little stilted, but the matter was true. Mr. W. deserves nearly all, if not quite all, the commendation there bestowed. Some of the newspapers, in the habit of seeing through mill-stones, attributed the article to Longfellow, whose manner it about as much resembled as a virgin of Massaccio does a virgin of Raphael. The real author (Mr. Landor), although a man of high talent, has a certain set of phrases which cannot easily be mistaken, and is as much a uni-stylist as Cardinal Chigi, who boasted that he wrote with the same pen for fifty years.

In the “annual” way, little preparation is making for 1845. It is doubtful whether Mr. Keese will publish his “Wintergreen.” Mr. Appleton may issue something pretty, but cares little about the adventure, and would prefer, I dare say, a general decay of the race of gift-books; their profit is small. Mr. Riker is getting ready the “Opal,” which was first edited by Mr. Griswold, afterwards by Mr. Willis for a very brief period, and now by Mrs. Hale, a lady of fine genius and masculine energy and ability. The “Gift,” however, will bear away the palm. By the way, if you have not seen Mr. Griswold’s “American Series of the Curiosities of Literature,” then look at it, for God’s sake — or for [page 69:] mine. I wish you to say, upon your word of honor, whether it is, or is not, per se, the greatest of all the Curiosities of Literature, or whether it is as great a curiosity as the compiler himself.

P.

NOTE ON THE SIXTH LETTER

This letter first appeared in the Columbia Spy for June 29, 1844. According to a notice in the editorial columns of the issue of June 22, it arrived too late for insertion in that paper. The original manuscript is in the Ridgway Avenue Library, Philadelphia, and the text has been republished in full from that in Woodberry’s Life of Poe, but the exact date of the Spy’s publication is now first made known.

Poe talks of “taste in its dying agonies” in the 26th of his Fifty Suggestions, and in his paper on The Philosophy of Furniture.

The bar of New York harbor is, of course, still its one great drawback — our largest ships certainly cannot cross it at low tide. Poe had already used much of the comment on Grant in a criticism of one of that worthy’s books in Burton’s Magazine for August, 1839.

Polly Bodine was accused of the murder of her brother’s wife, Mrs. Emeline Housman, and a child, at Staten Island, December 25, 1843. She was accused of setting fire to the house to conceal the crime, and, of course, claimed that the deaths were accidental. The evidence was for the most part necessarily circumstantial, but Polly was shown immediately after the fire to have pawned, under an assumed name, jewelry belonging to the deceased. It is hard to believe her other than guilty after reading the portions of the evidence given in the Philadelphia Public Ledger, as taken down at Bodine’s first trial, June 24 to July 5, 1844. At the end the jury disagreed, eleven for conviction to one for acquittal. Polly was saved by one juryman who would not convict without eyewitnesses. The precious woman was convicted at her second trial in New York, but, tried a third time at Newburgh, she was acquitted after a trial in which local prejudices and oratory were played up by the defense in a fashion that would have been funny if the woman had not been so gallows-worthy. For details of the later trials and so forth my friend, Mr. E. H. Pearson, kindly has referred me to Henry Lauren Clinton’s Extraordinary Cases, New [page 70:] York, 1896. What Poe says of the American judicial attitude toward relevancy seems to have beeen justified by the outcome of this case — no fact of the woman’s life would have been actually irrelevant in this case, where her escape must have been due largely to insistence upon the benefit of the doubt, where there must have been little doubt. For instance, one pawnbroker’s evidence that Polly pawned certain valuables was impeached because the pawnbroker was shown to have lied about his own earlier career in minor particulars. But his evidence was similar to that of other pawnbrokers whose testimony was unimpeached. At the first trial the judge ruled this evidence was good. But at the last trial this evidence was obscured and confused by the clever tactics of Polly’s lawyers. The dangers of emphasis on bad character of the accused have, however, been recently exhibited in the case of Oscar Slater in Scotland; but no thoughtful reader of the newspapers will find it hard to recall cases where great rogues have escaped because some of their acusers were lesser rogues, and the character of the witness was impeached, while that of the accused was to a degree concealed in the courtroom.

Poe, of course, has given us the most easily accessible account of the murder of Mary Rogers in his tale The Mystery of Marie Roget, but the accuracy of his account, and the correctness of his proposed solution of the mystery have been called into question, the most recent article being one by my friend, Mr. Pearson, in Vanity Fair, July, 1929. Mary was taken to Hoboken and killed on July 25, 1841 — and Poe’s account as far as I have been able to verify it, is accurate. In the main he follows the details as given by the Brother Jonathan of New York, which seems to devote much more space to the crime than any other paper I have examined in the course of preparing my notes on the tale for the Columbia edition of Poe’s Works. But I have not yet tracked down all the references given by Poe himself though a major portion of them yield a higher percentage of accuracy than is usual with my author. I believe Poe established that Mary was the victim of one man, and not of a gang — whether the naval man upon whom he casts suspicion was guilty I cannot guess. Will M. Clemens discussed the crime in the Era Magazine for November, 1904 — (my friend and teacher, Professor Trent, gave me his copy of this along with his other notes on Poe recently) and came to the conclusion that the confessions mentioned by Poe are of [page 71:] doubtful authenticity. Mr. Pearson tells me he also doubts the confession of Mary’s murder found in the excessively rare pamphlet Confession of the Awful and Bloody Transactions in the Life of Charles Wallace, printed in New Orleans, 1851, and I at least admit it seems merely to make confusion worse confounded.

Poe talks of the Calculus of Probabilities elsewhere, e. g. in A Chapter of Suggestions which he contributed to the Opal for 1845.

Willis’ biography was by William Landor, a minor American magazinist whom Poe talks of elsewhere and who is not to be confused with the really great English poet, Walter Savage Landor.

Poe’s venture into art criticism is lifted from Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame, VIII, 6, and is again paraded in the last of Fifty Suggestions. Cardinal Chigi’s fondness for one pen is mentioned in old books of familiar sayings, and Poe speaks of it again in the Marginalia.

The annuals are familiar to those who collect them, and hardly will interest anyone else. I believe Mrs. Hale paid Poe fifty cents a page for the weak Chapter of Suggestions which graced the forthcoming Opal, but there were few words to a page and the Raven was not yet written to make Poe’s name alone a highly valuable thing. The Gift paid better, I think — and the 1845 volume contained the Purloined Letter which a good many competent judges consider the greatest detective story written by Poe, or anyone else, to date.

To an American large octavo reprint of Disraeli’s Curiosities, Griswold added a series of brief articles on early American writers. The articles are not very entertaining, they led to much controversy — but their chief importance now is as one of the causes of Poe’s bitter enmity with Griswold, whose learning in his peculiar field, treachery, and love of being a busybody were perhaps equally outstanding qualities. For this is not the sole reference made by the touchy poet to the unfortunate additional Curiosities.


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Notes:

None.

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[S:0 - SPM29, 1929] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Doings of Gotham: Poe's Contributions to The Columbia Spy (J. Spannuth and T. O. Mabbott) (Letter 06)