Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A theory to fill the gap

Next to nothing is known about what happened to Poe after September 27, 1849, until six days later (that story will be later this week). It is even unclear where Poe was going when he left Richmond (Richmond's newspaper the Semi-Weekly Examiner reported he was on his way to New York, even though he had an appointment in Philadelphia, but the ship he presumably took was headed to Baltimore). That lack of information has led to speculation which is sometimes wild.

Perhaps the strangest comes from Poe "scholar" John Evangelist Walsh. Among his small series of Poe books is Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe. Though intended as a scholarly study of the last few days in the life of Poe, Walsh fills in the gaps with several heapings of fiction (the narrative voice he uses is part of the problem). It is from Walsh that we get the strange suggestion of accidental murder on the part of the brothers of Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton.

Elmira had almost certainly agreed to marriage by the time Poe left Richmond, rekindling a teenage romance that could have had a storybook ending. Nevertheless, it seems obvious that Elmira's family was not too pleased with Poe. Elmira may also have been concerned because her ample inheritance from her deceased husband would be slashed by a second marriage.

According to Dr. John J. Moran (the attending physician when Poe dies; any information from him should be deemed questionable at best), a train conductor named George Rollins said that Poe boarded a train from Baltimore to Philadelphia. Upon arriving, he did not disembark, but stayed on the train to return to Baltimore (??). Now, however, he was being followed by two men looking like "sharks."

Walsh says that the two "sharks" were actually three brothers of Elmira Royster, who followed Poe to threaten him into breaking the engagement with their sister. Arriving in Baltimore, here's what Walsh tells us happens:
As he left the depot, the three brothers trailed him, watching as he checked in at the hotel. Scarcely had he settled in his room when they again barged in. First came a faint tap on the locked door, then in response to Poe's wary question perhaps a polite, "Message, sir." As the door opened a crack there came a sudden rush into the room.
The brothers then force-fed whiskey to their victim, breaking Poe's temperance pledge to Elmira and thereby forcing an end to the engagement. They also threatened to ruin his reputation by spreading rumors of his relationship with Sarah Helen Whitman, and fathering an illegitimate child with Frances Osgood. Poe fought back, however, but was overpowered and forced to drink more alcohol. In his stupefied state, they left him outside of Ryan's Tavern — or so Walsh speculates.

Walsh's evidence is based on Poe's disappearing mustache, his traveling trunk (Jeffrey Savoye wrote more on this), a letter from poet Elizabeth Oakes Smith, Moran's testimony (picking what works for his theory and dismissing what doesn't), an ignored article published in 1857 with a similar theory, and his own imaginative prowess. I would speculate most Poe scholars dismiss this theory instantly, though there are a few who think at least a portion of this story is plausible.

Elmira did not speak up after Poe's death, refusing to be brought into the public eye. When she finally did answer questions, she denied her engagement with Poe entirely. Was she hiding her family's involvement?

*The photo above is the Shelton House in Richmond, still standing at 2407 Grace Street (a private residence). The image is courtesy of the incredible "Poe Revealed" web site, which focuses on Poe's bicentennial in the commonwealth of Virginia.


Celtic Traveler said...

No wonder most of his love poems had bittersweet endings!

Note: Love your blog, love Poe, and Where can I get the calender?

Rob Velella said...

Well, I don't know about that. By the time this incident allegedly happens, Poe has already written every single one of his poems - so none were inspired by this.

As for the calendar, I have a few left! Email me at robvelella@yahoo.com.