Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Richmond Theatre Fire

72 people died on December 26, 1811, when the Broad Street Theatre in Richmond, Virginia burned down. Eliza Poe was not one of them.

Though Eliza Poe, mother of Edgar Poe, had performed there and, in fact, gave her last performance there, she was already dead when the building caught fire. Years later, Poe would claim his mother was one of the many victims of that tragedy.

In fact, Eliza Poe had died about two weeks earlier, presumably from tuberculosis. Things moved very quickly from there. Young Edgar may have been taken in by John and Frances Allan as a foster child as early as the same day as Eliza's death. On about December 11, the Allans had him baptized (using the unofficial name "Edgar Allan Poe"). When the fire occurred, the Allan family, including young Edgar, was celebrating the Christmas holiday at Turkey Island, Virginia, southeast of Richmond on the James River. A letter to John Allan dated January 7, 1812, notes: "How fortunate that yourself & family were out of town" when the fire occurred.

A couple years later, a memorial church was built on the former site of the theatre. John Allan purchased one of the pews, number 80, for $340 as the family pew in April 1814.

Poe used the fire for sympathy points in 1829. Seeking to leave the Army and earn an appointment at West Point, he had a colonel named James House write to the general E. P. Gaines: "The said Perry [Poe's Army alias], is one of a family of orphans whose unfortunate parents were the victims of the conflagration of the Richmond theatre." The same letter also incorrectly notes that Allan had adopted Poe as "his son & heir" (neither claim was true).

Poe may have tried to cast his acting parents in a more noble light, considering that most actors were not considered noble by the public at the time (one historian noted that, though audiences loved drama, they did not respect those that performed it). Perhaps not coincidentally, Poe's loving foster-mother Frances Valentine Allan had died just before the claim was made that Eliza Poe died in the fire.

Interestingly enough, the theatre where Eliza Poe performed for the last time in Boston — the city where her two sons were born — also caught fire. Its stage, however, was preserved. Years later, Poe also "performed" on that same stage in Boston in what has been called the Boston Lyceum "incident." Poe likely did not realize the coincidence.

* The illustration above is from Richmond Then and Now.


Michele Emrath said...

I bookmarked this blog so long ago but am only just getting back to it. What fascinating posts you have written! I think Poe would be most interested in the twists of his own life as you portray them.
What will you do in the new year? Will the blog waft away like so much smoke?


Rob Velella said...

I'll carry on, but the blog ends, I'm afraid. I was tempted to do a more general 19th-century American literary luminaries blog (so I can bring in more of my favorites like Hawthorne and Lowell but also more obscure ones like Duyckinck and Fields) but it takes up so much time!

Michele Emrath said...

Aaahhh...I already joined that site in anticipation of more Valella wisdom. I suppose we'll just have to see what the next year holds for you!

Well congratulations on a very interesting year of Poe. Thank you for keeping us mystery lovers intrigued. I linked to your blog on my Sunday Foreign Post Roundup.