Monday, August 2, 2010

The Facts in the Case of Mrs. Osgood and Mrs. Ellet

"'The fact is, we have all been a good deal puzzled because the affair is so simple, and yet baffles us altogether.'
'Perhaps it is the very simplicity of the thing which put you at fault,' said my friend."
-"The Purloined Letter"

Frances Sargent OsgoodAs I have noted before, all of Poe's biographers accept as fact Sarah Helen Whitman's story (which she only began relating in the 1870s,) that a great scandal erupted when, while visiting the Poe household, Elizabeth Ellet happened to see--Whitman was never clear how--a letter written by Frances S. Osgood. Whitman never claimed to know, even in general terms, what this letter said, but she said it inspired Ellet to persuade Osgood to allow other ladies--Whitman thought they were Margaret Fuller and Anne Lynch--to call on Poe and insist that all Osgood's letters to him be placed in their hands.

It is deeply frustrating how no one questions this illogical and completely undocumented story. If this absurd scenario had actually happened, why would Osgood, in her "Reminiscences of Poe," make such a point of informing her readers that she and Poe kept up a correspondence during the year of their acquaintance? Wouldn't she be anxious that this correspondence--which, according to Whitman, had such embarrassing and scandalous consequences--be utterly forgotten? Osgood's eagerness to convince the world that she and Poe had at least written contact (she admitted that she was away from New York during most of the period that Poe lived there,) proves there was no contemporary scandal involving their letters--or anything else about their relationship.

And why would Osgood agree to make a public spectacle out of the issue of her private correspondence? If her letters to Poe were innocent, why make herself look guilty by demanding their return? If she did write something indiscreet, why would she agree to involve outside parties in the matter--parties who would undoubtedly spread the degrading details all over town?

Elizabeth F. ElletWhat little evidence we have directly contradicts Whitman's account, and certainly none of the women supposedly involved ever hinted such a confrontation took place. Arthur Quinn and John Carl Miller have noted that when Lynch herself (whom Whitman cited as her source for the story) was asked about the scandal in the 1870s, she denied ever even having heard of such an episode. Lynch also wrote George W. Eveleth that aside from "a wide difference of opinion between us in reference to his treatment of another lady"--it is not clear if this was Mrs. Osgood or Mrs. Ellet--she knew nothing of Poe "that was discreditable or unworthy of his remarkable genius."

It is all too reminiscent of the Anna Blackwell saga. Whitman somehow learned some of the truth--that trouble ensued from Ellet seeing a particular letter written by Osgood, and that this somehow led to Poe revealing to the world that he possessed some sort of incriminating letters from Mrs. E--and, in her usual eccentric fashion, she built upon these facts to present the world with a completely erroneous scenario.

Our major clue to what really happened is a letter (now in the Boston Public Library's Griswold collection) Ellet wrote in July of 1846, in response to a (now lost) communication from Osgood. As it describes a version of events that renders Whitman's story an impossibility, it is worth scrutinizing in detail--a task Poe's biographers have yet to attempt. They tend to mention this letter only briefly--when they mention it at all--and it is invariably misinterpreted.

The letter indicated that Osgood had written to Ellet complaining of being "misrepresented and traduced." She apparently denied having even written the letter that had started the whole controversy, as Ellet responded to her self-defense by eagerly agreeing that "The letter shown me by Mrs. Poe must have been a forgery, and any man capable of offering to show notes he never possessed, would not, I think, hesitate at such a crime." In other words, Osgood was now claiming that the letter Virginia Poe had shown Ellet, and which had caused Ellet to express hostility towards Osgood, was a fraud devised by the Poes themselves. Fanny Osgood, as even her partisan biographer Mary De Jong admitted, was a woman who "generally set about having her own way." She was certainly having it now--at the direct expense of Edgar Poe and his wife.

It is amazing how the significance of this has been completely ignored. Osgood, after both the Poes were dead, portrayed herself as their devoted friend. While they lived, however, she deliberately led a mutual enemy to pretend they were forgers in an effort to disengage from a dispute she herself had instigated. That alone says all one needs to know about the real Frances Sargent Osgood--and her true feelings for the Poes. It also proves that the letter Ellet was deliberately shown--not, as Whitman claimed, "just happened" to see lying about the Poe house--was no love-letter. If it had been, Virginia would have been the last person in the world to display it to anyone. And Ellet, a sophisticated married woman whose own morals were hardly irreproachable, would not describe a mere love-letter as containing "fearful paragraphs" that "haunted me day and night like a terrifying spectre." She could only be describing a letter that was some sort of attack or exposure--one which Virginia used to confront her. (Incidentally, considering that Virginia Poe was the one to reveal the contents of this letter, Osgood may well have addressed it to her. There is nothing in Ellet's letter that reveals whether this troublesome document was sent to Mr. or Mrs. Poe.)

Ellet would not have been so ready to go along with Osgood's witless efforts to disown the letter if it had not affected her personally. Also, she would certainly not be in a position to agree that the letter's contents were false unless they directly concerned herself. And, of course, in regard to Whitman's version of events, Osgood could hardly have agreed to request the return of letters she was now claiming never to have written.

Ellet assured Osgood that Poe would not now "dare to work further mischief with the letter," and that he was so personally disgraced that any "verbal calumnies" he made against either of them would be discredited. That statement is further proof that Osgood's letter was an assault upon Ellet. The reference to "verbal calumnies" clearly implies that this letter consisted of "written calumnies" of some sort. (Ellet's letter also contradicts another element of Whitman's story by indicating that whatever letter or letters Osgood had written were still in the possession of the Poes.)

It is also interesting that Ellet referred to Poe as speaking disparagingly not just of herself, but of Osgood as well. Whatever the exact content may have been of the vicious stories Ellet was circulating against Osgood and Poe, if she had helped spread gossip about a romance, she would hardly describe Poe as uttering "calumnies" against both of them. (And here, for once, she was speaking the truth. Two months before Ellet wrote this letter, Horace Greeley commented, in an obvious reference to these two women, that Poe had recently "scandalized"--i.e. insulted--a pair of well-known literary ladies.)

Ellet wrote that she will "preserve utter silence in future on the subject"--she avoided saying precisely what "the subject" was--only saying, should others mention Osgood's name "in connection with it" that Osgood had been "traduced, wrongfully." This, again, disproves the idea that some sexual scandal involving Osgood and Poe was making the rounds. Ellet assumed that discussion of "the subject"--obviously, Ellet's feud with Poe, which broke into open warfare when he declared that she had written him some sort of compromising letters--would not necessarily involve references to Osgood. Ellet went on to decry "the falsehoods told by the Poes" about her--again, she is clearly not describing any love letters written by another woman. (And if Poe had possessed any embarrassing letters from Ellet, would she, as Whitman alleged, seek to make an issue about another lady's correspondence?)

Ellet assured Osgood that she had "no unkind feeling toward Mr. Osgood for what he said under mistaken impressions against me. Some of the things that reached me were too terrible to repeat, but even at the time I felt sure he was not willfully wronging me, and I rest in your assurance that he will not do so, now that he knows the truth."

This is another key statement. Samuel Osgood had clearly been repeating his wife's denunciations of Ellet, and she presumed now that "he knows the truth"--that the letter Virginia Poe displayed was a "forgery"--he will hold his peace. Surely, if the letter Mrs. Poe revealed was a mere indiscreet note from Mrs. Osgood, Frances' husband would hardly have cause for denouncing Ellet in the matter. He would be angry at his wife--or Poe--or Poe's wife and her bizarre desire to publicize her husband's flirtations--not some innocent bystander.

Ellet sighed that it was "most unfortunate both for you and me that we ever had any acquaintance with such people as the Poes--but I trust the evil is now at an end. Heaven sends such trials as merciful warnings--let us accept and profit by them." (This statement showed that Osgood obviously shared her anger towards Poe and his wife.) She closed in this same somewhat menacing vein with the pious hope that God will guard Osgood from future "danger."

Their collusion in blaming Mr. and Mrs. Poe for all their difficulties produced only a temporary truce. In January of 1849, Rufus Griswold wrote a friend that Ellet had quarrelled with, and been "cut" by many people in New York, including Mrs. Osgood. What caused the resumption of hostilities is not clear, but the New York literati--a crowd that would have made the Borgias blush--needed little reason to slash at each other. As Poe was long out of both those women's lives by that point, it seems unlikely that he was a factor in their later disputes. Be that as it may, in a sense, it was a great pity that the friendship between Mesdames Ellet and Osgood failed to last. The two certainly deserved each other.

***A footnote: Among Rufus Griswold's papers in the Boston Public Library is a very curious memorandum he wrote sometime in the 1850s, detailing his own ongoing war with Elizabeth Ellet. It is unknown to whom this memo was written, and his purpose in writing it is also unclear. This memo described a showdown he allegedly had with Ellet either in 1849 or 1850--his dating of the meeting is inconsistent--about "calumnies" (unspecified, but evidently concerning the 1846 fracas involving Poe) she was spreading about Frances Osgood. (This claim, incidentally, smacks of "cover story." An 1849 letter of Osgood's to her mother proves that in actuality, damaging gossip was then circulating about Osgood and Griswold himself--not Poe. Not even Elizabeth Ellet would bother to recycle old tittle-tattle everyone had already heard featuring a man Osgood had not even seen for years.) According to Griswold, he threatened to publish Ellet's letter to Osgood if she did not cease her smear campaign.

Although many of Poe's biographers repeat his account without question, there are--as usual with Griswold--problems with his story. First of all, he characterized Ellet's letter as one of "apology" and "confession," that she wrote only after Samuel Osgood threatened to sue her on his wife's behalf. Ellet's letter itself indicated that she only wrote in response to an olive branch from Mrs. Osgood, where she repudiated the letter shown to Ellet by Virginia Poe. Ellet's tone is self-justifying, not apologetic, (she even wrote that if Frances herself could have seen the letter Virginia displayed, "you would not wonder I regarded you as I did.") There would be no reason for Ellet to fear the publication of a letter where she painted herself as innocent victim of the scheming, evil Mr. and Mrs. Poe. There is no other indication that Mr. Osgood threatened any lawsuit, and it is impossible to believe that he would compound scandal and do incalculable additional damage to his wife's reputation by dragging everyone's dirty laundry out into a public court. Ellet's letter itself showed that Samuel was indeed saying "terrible" things about her, but it also revealed that Ellet assumed that Frances' husband now felt he had "wronged" her. (And, in any case, as Sidney P. Moss noted in another context, the mores of the time forbade a gentleman from suing a lady--even as equivocal a lady as Elizabeth Ellet.)

As I say, we do not know Griswold's reason for recording this story (which he never made public,) unless it was simply the fact that at the time he wrote this memo, he and Ellet were in a lively competition to see who could make the most venomous accusations against the other. (Their feud always reminds me of Henry Kissinger's famous remark about the 1980s Iran/Iraq war: "It's a pity they can't both lose.") Whatever his motivation, this anecdote involving the Ellet letter can only be taken as yet another example of his strange and nebulous relationship with reality.

(Images: New York Public Library.)