Monday, March 22, 2010

The Heinous Henry Harrington (Part One)

"...the magnitude of a slander is usually in the direct ratio of the littleness of the slanderer, but, above all things, of the impunity with which he fancies it may be uttered."
-Edgar Allan Poe
May 4, 1885 marked the launch of the strangest, vilest, and most incomprehensible attack on Poe's personal character--Rufus Griswold's not excepted. On that date, Henry F. Harrington, Superintendant of Public Schools in New Bedford, MA, and the widower of Frances S. Osgood's sister Elizabeth, wrote an unsolicited letter to writer Richard Henry Stoddard.Richard Henry StoddardStoddard was a stranger to Harrington, but he wished to discuss a highly negative newspaper article Stoddard recently wrote about Poe. Harrington claimed that Stoddard had spoken "rather lightly" of his late sister-in-law. He feared that readers of this article would get the impression that Mrs. Osgood's feelings for Poe had been in some way improper. (It is odd that Harrington would express this fear. Stoddard's descriptions of the Poe/Osgood relationship--which he largely plagiarized from Sarah Helen Whitman's "Edgar Poe and His Critics"--were actually quite innocuous, and accompanied by references to Poe's undeniable devotion to his wife.)

"I know very well the peculiar circumstances of her life in New York," Harrington commented cryptically. "I know a good deal about the literati who circled around her." However, Harrington expressed himself as determined to impress upon Stoddard the utter impossibility that Osgood may have been enamored of Poe. "In fact," he wrote, "it was from Mrs. Osgood herself that I received the impression of his character which led me to loathe him as one of the basest of mankind." (Elsewhere, however, he contradicted himself by declaring that Poe's reputation for "sensual excesses" was widely known during his life, making him a pariah wherever he lived.)

Mr. Harrington then proceeded to descend into insanity. He described Mrs. Osgood's many visits to Fordham in 1847, in order to provide the dying Virginia Poe with "the barest necessities of life," which "her profligate husband" denied her, preferring to spend his time and money on dissolute pleasures in the city. (Harrington was evidently unaware of several difficulties with this story: Virginia died at the very beginning of that year, plus, at the time these missions of mercy supposedly took place, Osgood and her family were living in Philadelphia. Osgood never visited Fordham in her life--in fact, she and Poe never spoke to or wrote to each other again after early 1846.)

Some time after Virginia's death, Harrington continued, Mrs. Osgood visited his home in Albany--he himself being away at the time. Upon his return, he declared, his sister-in-law told him, with "sparkling humor," that Poe showed up at the Harrington residence in order to beg Osgood to elope with him--a proposal she described with such "raillery," that proved, Harrington assured Stoddard, she never would have dreamed of submitting to Poe's indecent advances.Edgar Allan Poe and Albany NYHarrington concluded his letter somewhat confusedly, by asking Stoddard "whether you are aware of any circumstances in connection with Poe which compromised Mrs. Osgood's good name. I trust not."

Two days later, Harrington wrote again, in response to a note from Stoddard, in which the writer--who had only two brief meetings with Poe in his life (where the poet accused him of plagiarism,) but who had been acquainted with Osgood--evidently strongly asserted the innocence of her relations with Poe. In this second and final letter to Stoddard, Harrington launched into a hysterical tirade against those who sought to defend the character of Poe, a man guilty of "the reckless violation of the fundamental laws of God and man." He urged Stoddard to launch a campaign to enlighten the public about Poe's "moral degradation." As an example, he proposed that Stoddard "make use" of another of his Poe anecdotes. In 1846, Harrington claimed, he was friends with a New York family--whom he never identified--where "love, confidence, and happiness prevailed." Into this Eden, Harrington claimed to have later learned from unnamed sources, the snake Poe appeared. He made the acquaintance of the beautiful young wife of this household and "resolved to make her his victim." The woman was soon "beguiled" into an affair, which soon left her ruined in reputation, abandoned by both husband and lover, and with her once blissful home destroyed. Poe had "added another to the guilty triumphs of his despicable life."

Incidentally, if this woman and her sad tale had actually existed, there is something particularly diseased about Harrington attempting to exploit the shame and misery of a female "friend" of his in order to pursue his bizarre vendetta against Poe--even to the point of offering to provide her name. His eagerness to openly bandy the name of his late sister-in-law is even more appalling. Harrington had evidently disliked Mrs. Osgood and thought little of her probity (see Osgood's 1849 letter complaining about Elizabeth and Henry Harrington's distrust of her word in connection with some scandal that was circulating about her and Rufus Griswold,) but for him to publicly name her in connection with such a suggestive story was, especially in those times, unimaginably ungentlemanly.

Stoddard evidently failed to respond to Harrington's call to arms. Although he claimed to hold a dismal view of Poe's character--hardly surprising, as Stoddard had been a Griswold protege--he certainly never gave any sign that he saw the dead poet as the monster of depravity Harrington described. That avenue having gone nowhere, Harrington then went public himself. A few months later, he wrote a lengthy, rambling letter to "The Critic" magazine ("Poe Not to Be Apotheosized," Oct. 3, 1885.)

This time, Harrington claimed that the impetus for breaking his long silence about Poe was his indignation at the latest edition of the "Encyclopedia Britannica," and its laudatory entry on Poe. This letter repeated the same three stories he told Stoddard--Poe's cruel desertion of his sick wife, his heartless seduction and ruin of a married woman, and his attempts to similarly degrade Mrs. Osgood, all presented in a tone bordering on mania.

Harrington's lurid screed certainly brought him the attention he craved--albeit not the sort he must have expected. Contemporary opinion scarcely knew whether Harrington should be condemned more for his bad taste or his mendacity. One New York paper, the "Daily Telegraph," even devoted most of one Sunday edition to columns expressing disgust with the New Bedford pedagogue. Literary critic and Poe scholar Edmund Clarence Stedman summarized popular reaction to the man he described as "the harrowing Harrington" by noting, "Poe, with all his faults, was not 'a libertine,' and I see not the slightest cause to change my opinion. In fact, he was the least 'sensual' of men and authors..." Harrington made a serious error by allowing his evident obsession with sex to define his charges against Poe. He might have gotten away with painting the author of "The Raven" as a drunk, a liar, a sponger, and a fraud--many others, including Stoddard, had built handsome careers by doing so--but not even Poe's most vigorous detractors could picture him in the role of Don Giovanni.

Harrington abruptly retreated back into well-deserved obscurity, never even trying to defend stories he had claimed were both well-documented and extensively known. Before his outbursts to Stoddard and "The Critic," there is no record of him ever so much as speaking the name of Poe--a man he had never even met--and so far as we know, he never did so again.

...Coming up in Part Two: More sleaze! Conspiracy! Slander! Fun for the whole family!

(Image: Albany, New York during Poe's era via NYPL Digital Gallery.)