Monday, March 8, 2010

The Silence of the Lummis

...or, The Case of the Brother Who Didn't Bark.

When Edgar Allan Poe sued the "New York Mirror" for libel in 1846, one of the listed witnesses for the defense was Elizabeth Ellet's brother William Lummis. (Ellet and Lummis figured in a particularly strange and complicated story I chronicled here, here, and here.) According to Thomas Dunn English (who wrote the column that inspired Poe's lawsuit,) after Poe made his fatal declaration that Mrs. Ellet had sent him some sort of compromising letters, Lummis sought to defend his sister's honor--with a gun. English claimed Poe was so terrified by this pistol-packing brother's wrath that he cravenly sent Lummis a letter retracting his claim and took to his bed, pleading an attack of insanity. Although Ellet claimed years later that she still had Poe's apologia in her possession, it was never produced by her or anyone else--which is very strange, if she did indeed own a letter so helpful to herself, and so damming to her antagonist, Poe.Elizabeth F. Ellet and Edgar Allan PoeWhen Poe filed suit, English not only failed to present any proof for his published allegations, he fled town, leaving the "Mirror" team to fend for themselves. Thus, their only available line of defense was to attempt to blacken Poe's character as much as possible--the idea, evidently, was to show that it was impossible to libel such a wretch. Presumably, as part of this tactic, the defendants hoped to have Lummis substantiate English's version of the Ellet scandal.

The curious thing is that we have no evidence that Lummis actually testified. We know there were transcripts made of the trial--"Mirror" editor Hiram Fuller afterwards stated he owned one, and the lawyers involved surely had copies--but no one ever revealed their contents in any detail, and no complete record of the trial has ever surfaced. The failure of Poe's enemies to make use of the court testimony strongly indicates it only favored him. So far as we know, the worst specific charge that was allowed to stand against Poe during the trial was that he sometimes drank--hardly an earth-shattering revelation. After the trial, Poe himself crowed to George Eveleth that the defense "could not get a single witness to testify one word against my character..." If Lummis had sworn to the truth of English's libels--especially if he could produce a self-incriminating letter directly from Poe--it is impossible to believe that Poe's multitude of enemies would not have trumpeted this to the world. It all implies that Lummis would not--or could not--back up English's story under oath. In other words, Lummis' silence provides additional evidence that English's version of the Ellet dispute--which most of Poe's biographers accept as fact--was indeed a pack of malicious lies.