Sunday, January 30, 2011

It Was Many and Many a Year Ago...

Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe death
"Both we, and the beings I have mentioned as inhabiting the other elements, vanish into air at death, and go out of existence, spirit and body, so that no vestige of us remains; and when you hereafter awake to a purer state of being, we shall remain where sand, and sparks, and wind and waves remain...The element moves us, and, again, is obedient to our will, while we live, though it scatters us like dust when we die..."
-Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, "Undine"

Forget about who's buried in Grant's Tomb. I want to know who's in Virginia Poe's. Poe biographer William Gill claimed that when the Fordham cemetery where Virginia lay was razed, many years after her death, he "just happened"--mirabile dictu!--to be visiting the burial ground at the precise moment when her remains, which lacked anyone to claim them, were to be discarded. Gill said he recovered what he could of her bones, and kept them in his bedroom for some time.

This rather ghoulish tale--which does not appear to have ever been independently verified--seems just too coincidental and fortuitous (not to mention self-glorifying) to be automatically believed, particularly since Gill, like J.H. Whitty, was among the more eccentric and untruthful Poe acolytes. (Published accounts of Gill's story vary in their details, making the truth all the harder to pin down.) In 1885, what was said to be these same bones were reburied with Poe and Maria Clemm in Baltimore. (What was left of them, at any rate--the sexton at the Baltimore churchyard later described Virginia's remains as being delivered to him in a container the size of a cigar box!) Of course, it would have been impossible in that pre-DNA-testing era to prove these bones were actually Virginia's. However, no one ever even tried to examine them to determine if they at least could have belonged to a woman of Virginia's age. Gill's account is simply too strange to be completely trusted, and it is also curious that he supposedly kept these bones for some indeterminate length of time before delivering them to a decent resting-place. It really is not at all certain who--or what--is buried under Virginia's name.

And, of course, there is a very curious allegation that when Edgar himself was reburied under an elaborate monument in 1875, they accidentally exhumed the wrong corpse, that of a young man named Philip Mosher Jr. Unless yet another exhumation takes place--which is unlikely, as the Baltimoreans, who are understandably touchy about the issue, prefer to literally let sleeping bones lie--the controversy can never be resolved with any certainty, as the various accounts of Poe's death, burials, and exhumation abound in contradictions. However, Poe himself would undoubtedly delight in the thought that, for all those years, his monument was graced by annual visits from the Mosher Toaster. It would certainly be his last, greatest hoax. In short, there is at least an outside chance that poor Maria Clemm is spending eternity in the company of complete strangers.

Edgar Allan Poe graveIn an earlier post, I discussed an oddly disquieting reminiscence of Poe and Virginia entitled, "The Bones of Annabel Lee." The anonymous author was either unaware of or unconvinced by the stories that Virginia had been reburied at her husband's side, as he presumed that her "fragments" "are still wandering about..." Perhaps he was nearer the truth than we know.

In any case, spare a thought today for the gallant and undervalued spirit of Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe, who died on this date in 1847.

In pace requiescat!

virginia poe death undine

(Image: John William Waterhouse, "Undine," 1872. Via Wikipedia.)