Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The scandalous Elizabeth F. Ellet

Elizabeth F. Ellet is the female equivalent of Rufus W. Griswold: jealous, petty, cruel, and an instigator who lashed out against others without reason. For example, she threw herself into the strange "affair" between Frances Sargent Osgood and Poe, for whom she had a romantic interest. After tricking Mrs. Virginia Poe into showing her some of Mrs. Osgood's letters, she suggested to Mrs. Osgood that their contents would lead to shameful scandal. Though today, most accounts suggest that the flirtation between Osgood and Poe was purely innocent, she was convinced to have Poe destroy the letters. A minor controversy ensued which involved Margaret Fuller, Anne Lynch, and Ellet's pistol-wielding brother (which eventually also pulled in Thomas Dunn English — but that story will be told here later this summer). Mr. Samuel Osgood accused Ellet of scandal-mongering, but she placed the blame squarely on Mr. and Mrs. Poe. Virginia died in 1847 and at least one friend suggested Ellet's forced scandal exacerbated her illness such that it could be claimed "Mrs. E. had been her murderer." Griswold, of course, was involved as well — he also had a crush on Osgood; she even dedicated a book to him.

But, if you think that controversy was confusing, nothing compares to what Ellet did to Rufus Griswold.

Griswold was not a nice man, certainly, but there are a few incidents that beg sympathy. In 1852, he broke off a loveless marriage with his second wife, Charlotte Myers (their relationship is still confusing) so that he could marry a woman named Harriet McCrillis. Ellet stepped in and urged Myers (a complete stranger) not to grant the divorce and for McCrillis (a complete stranger) not to marry Griswold. Nevertheless, the divorce was made official and Griswold married McCrillis. Ellet did not quit.

She continued writing to Myers, urging her to seek a repeal of the divorce. Myers gave in and the matter was to be brought before the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. While awaiting the court date, Griswold's house caught fire, leaving him brutally disfigured; he lost his eyebrows, eyelashes, and seven of his fingernails to the fire. In 1856, the Court date arrived and neither Myers nor Griswold bothered to show up — but Mrs. Ellet did, serving as a character witness against Griswold. The divorce was not repealed, but Griswold's third wife Harriet McCrillis left him amidst the public scandal over the possible bigamy — she never saw her husband again before his death from tuberculosis in 1857. Shortly before his death, Griswold published a pamphlet to publicly address the scandal, Statement of the Relations of Rufus W. Griswold with Charlotte Myers (called Charlotte Griswold) [and] Elizabeth F. Ellet... With Particular Reference to Their Late Unsuccessful Attempt to Have Set Aside the Decree Granted in the Case of Griswold vs. Griswold. One friend suggested that Ellet had "goaded Griswold to his death."

Frankly, there was no apparent reason why Ellet got involved in Griswold's romantic life. She did not seem to exhibit any romantic feelings towards him (her messages to Poe were more than clear, if not sultry). Griswold had always treated her well in his criticism and even helped her publish her popular book The Women of the American Revolution (1845). Ellet deserves no more complicated a description than "a bad person."

Nevertheless, rest in peace, Elizabeth. She died this day, June 3, in 1877. Today she is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn — the same cemetery where lies Rufus Griswold.


Gina said...

Hmm. If Ms. Ellet were alive today, she'd be blogging under the name "Perez Hilton," no doubt.

Rob Velella said...

I think a good candidate for that could be Nathaniel Parker Willis, who loved "celebrity gossip." He was beaten up for sticking his nose in the wrong place at least once, and was almost threatened with a duel another time!

Poe Forward said...

She wears her soul on her face. She kinda looks like one of the more belligerent girlfriends I had in college.