Monday, March 15, 2010
In 1909, at a New York event celebrating the centenary of Poe's birth, an elderly lady named Sarah Miller presented--for the first time--her memories of the period, early in 1846, when the Poe family were her family's neighbors, in a then-rural area named Turtle Bay. In 1922, her younger brother John also recorded his reminiscences about the famous writer.
Books about Poe have utilized the accounts given by the Miller siblings ever since, all blithely ignoring one crucial fact: The Millers could not possibly have been telling the truth.
Brother and sister forgot to coordinate their stories: Sarah said the Poes were her family's neighbors; John said they boarded with the Miller family. Sarah described Poe as a kind, likable man. According to John, the poet was cold and dissipated; an unpleasant person and neglectful husband. A man named William G. Appleton, who had known Sarah Miller for many years, was astonished to hear her 1909 revelations of her early friendship with Poe. He said Miss Miller had often mentioned having seen Poe as a child, but that she never gave any hint of possessing any detailed reminiscences of him. When shown a transcript of her account discussing Poe, Appleton said flatly that she had never before said anything resembling these Poe stories. To top things off, a writer named Appleton Morgan looked into Miller's story. A study of old records of the area in question soon showed him that at the time the Poes and the Millers supposedly lived in the vicinity, no private residences existed there, and no public thoroughfares. (Morgan tactfully suggested that the aged lady's memory "had become confused after a lapse of fifty years.")
A relative of the Brennan family, Bronx-area dairy farmers with whom the Poes boarded in 1844, stated years later that the poet and his small family had lived on the Brennan farm at two different periods. It is only logical that in the short gap between the time the Poes left New York City (sometime late in February or early in March 1846) and their move to their Fordham cottage that spring, they returned to the familiar, congenial home of the Brennans, rather than any mythical housing near or with the Millers. Most likely, the Miller children remembered from their youth local gossip about the brief time the famous Mr. Poe spent in the general area--they may even have known the Brennans--and, as often happens, the siblings embroidered their stories considerably in their old age.
In short, another Poe story bites the dust.There is, incidentally, a minor mystery surrounding John Miller's reminiscences. In "The Haunted Palace," Frances Winwar's tawdry and inaccurate biography of Poe, she quoted from what she described as a typewritten transcript of a 1922 letter of Mr. Miller's discussing the poet. Winwar stated that this letter (which told--close to eighty years after the fact--some highly uncomplimentary stories about Poe) was in the archives of the New York Historical Society. A NYHS librarian has told me not only that the Society has no such letter, but that there is nothing in their records to show they ever did. A check of other libraries and archives has yet to uncover the document Winwar cited. Very odd.
(A footnote: The Poe Centenary brought out a bumper-crop of bogus Poe anecdotes. At another Centennial event, Annie Richmond's 79-year-old sister Sarah Heywood Trumbull spoke of her memories of Poe, ending with the previously-unknown statement that "He visited me only a few days before his death, leaving with me some pages of his last manuscript..." An interesting assertion, considering not only that it is impossible that he came calling on her in Lowell "a few days before his death," but that the reminiscences she provided in the 1870s to John Ingram and William Gill state that the last time she saw Poe was in the fall of 1848.)
If this weird little blog of mine could be said to have a theme, I suppose it would be, "Everything We Know About Poe Is Wrong."
(Poe medallion via Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.)