Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Dark Side of Marie Shew Houghton

This link includes a biographical article on Marie Louise Shew Houghton, (the woman who is always extravagantly described as the Poe family's nurse/financial supporter/all-around savior,) that is quite an eye-opener. I had always pegged Mrs. Houghton as a kook of the first water. As I knew she was one of the water-cure cranks Edgar Allan Poe ridiculed, and a Fourierist to boot, (a group he also scorned,) I always questioned her true value to the Poes. However, jaded character though I am, I never guessed she was involved in what sound like extremely dodgy financial and property transactions. Or that she was likely a (rather inept) abortionist. Or that in 1849, she gave birth to a son whose father could have been one of three men, all of whom were living under the same roof with her at the time--her current husband, her future husband, and a wealthy older man who appears to have "kept" the whole lot of them. (Calm down--our Edgar wasn't in the running.) Or that, just to round things out, she was arrested for murder in 1876. The victim was a Mary Stanley, the mistress of the boy Houghton had in '49. (That son, Henry, by the way, had previously served time in Denver for being a swindler, an adulterer, and a mule thief.)

I looked up the newspaper articles dealing with the inquest into Stanley's death. All I can say is, that if the accounts of the inquest testimony are accurate, Houghton might--and let me just say might--not have been a murderer. (Stanley's death was finally ruled to have been from natural causes, but it sounds like Houghton had a strong motive to wish her dead, and it's clear that Marie Louise was guilty, at the very least, of some suspiciously incompetent nursing. Also, there was abundant testimony--which does not appear to have been disproved by the defense--showing that before her demise, Stanley told everyone within earshot that Mrs. Houghton was an evil woman who abused her and wanted her dead because Stanley "knew too much" about her family.) The inquest also revealed that Houghton expressed relief when Stanley died, as the pregnant woman was threatening to "swear her child"--that is, slap Houghton's son with the nineteenth-century version of a paternity suit. Whatever else Houghton may have been, she was indisputably the matriarch of one deeply creepy crowd. She comes off as a ministering angel with the bedside manner of Charles Manson.

I have always instinctively found something deeply unsettling about all we've been told about Houghton's dealings with the Poe household, (despite the fact that all his biographers paint her as virtually a saint) and I'm now beginning to see why. I'm quite serious: If it is true--and I pray it is not--that in her final days, Virginia Poe had this woman as her nurse, that is enough to chill my blood.

(Image: Chestofbooks.com)

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