Thursday, July 2, 2009

Poe, Prison, Pursuers, and a Shaved Moustache

One of the oddest moments in the last few months of Poe's life is so confusing, even the date is unclear. Rumors abound on what Poe was doing in the first few days in July 1849. July 1, it is claimed Poe was jailed in Philadelphia "for getting drunk" — according to Poe himself, who also denies the charges. Poe's friend, the mezzotint engraver John Sartain, later claimed Poe's detainment in Moyamensing, the Philadelphia County Prison (no longer standing), lasted "for a few hours only." The mayor of Philadelphia soon recognized Poe and had him released "without the customary fine."

Ah, John Sartain.

Sartain was a frequent collaborator with Graham's Magazine. In fact, at one point, George Rex Graham says that the engravers like Sartain were followed just as much as the famous writers in the magazine. Sartain apparently believed it, and tried to take credit for the magazine's success. Eventually, he was so confident in his appeal that he split from Graham's to found Sartain's Union Magazine in 1849. In November, shortly after Poe's death, his was the first to publish Poe's poem "The Bells."

Possibly July 2, 1849, Sartain was visited by Poe at his Philadelphia home on Sansom Street. Poe was "pale and haggard, with a wild and frightened expression in his eyes," Sartain later recalled. Poe was looking for "refuge and protection" because he was being followed by men trying to kill him — he had overheard their murderous plan while on the train. Sartain asked why anyone would want to kill him, Poe answered it was "woman trouble." To conceal his identity, Poe asked for a razor so that he could shave off his mustache. Sartain suggested he do it himself using a pair of scissors. Poe agreed and, as Sartain wrote, "Accordingly, I took him to the bathroom and performed the operation successfully."

After a walk for fresh air, Sartain took him back to his house and helped him to bed (the sofa in the dining room, actually). Sartain himself lined up three chairs for a bed of his own and slept next to his friend, "without undressing." It seems Poe stayed with Sartain until July 4; that day, Poe claims his pursuit was just paranoia or hallucinations "created by his own excited imagination."

This strange episode with Sartain (and the disappearing mustache) has often confused Poe scholars. Did the event really happen? Was Poe really being pursued by murderers? Was he hallucinating? What could have caused Poe's hallucinations?

The episode has been used as evidence for some of the many theories on Poe's mysterious death, which occurred just over four months later. Some scholars suggest Sartain's memory was off and the date is inaccurate and might refer to a different year.

*Pictured above is an engraving of Poe by John Sartain, based on a portrait by Samuel Stillman Osgood. The lack of mustache in the image has nothing to do with the July 1849 incident; Poe did not grow the moustache until some time in 1846 or 1847. Prior to that, he kept long mutton-chops, as seen in this image.

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