Monday, November 30, 2009

The Strange Case of Rosalie Poe

edgar allan poe sister rosalie poeThere is a tradition that Edgar Allan Poe's sister Rosalie was born on December 20, 1810, but there is no solid documentary evidence for this claim. All we know is that she was born long enough after the mysterious disappearance of her mother Eliza's husband, David Poe, for questions to arise about the child's paternity. It has even been claimed that David's sister, Maria Poe Clemm, maintained that Rosalie was not the true child of either David or Eliza Poe. Intriguingly, when Rosalie was a child, a wealthy resident of Richmond, Virginia, Joseph Gallego, died and left a will bequeathing the then enormous sum of 2,000 dollars for Rosalie's maintenance. She was the only charity bequest in his will to be so favored, leaving one to speculate whether the young orphan was more to him than just an object of sympathy.

After Eliza Poe's death in 1811, Rosalie was given a home by the Mackenzies, a prominent Richmond family, but there are conflicting accounts about whether she was treated as a member of the family or merely as a ward. All reports, however, agree that she grew into a "hopelessly dull" woman with a strange, rather off-putting manner, making her a peculiar contrast to her famous brother.

Rosalie and Edgar had a distant relationship. She herself wrote John Ingram that she was "a good size girl" before she even knew she had siblings--a remarkable statement considering they were raised in the same city. Her letter to Ingram made it clear that she could tell him very little about her brother, which is highly significant in light of the fact that Susan Talley Weiss claimed to have learned practically everything she wrote about Poe from Rosalie and the Mackenzies. Sarah Helen Whitman stated that Edgar told her his relationship with Rosalie was characterized by "a coolness or estrangement of long standing." This is substantiated by a rather startling letter Maria Clemm wrote to her Baltimore relative Neilson Poe soon after Edgar's death. She expressed her desire to have "my darling's trunk" sent to her, and also made clear her indignation at Rosalie's attempts to secure what little estate he left. "What right," Mrs. Clemm cried, "has Rose to anything belonging to him--he has not even written to her for more than two years, and she never has done anything for him except to speak ill of him..."

Rosalie led a comfortable and stable existence in the Mackenzie home until the Civil War left the family destitute. Thereafter, her story becomes pure pitable tragedy. The surviving members of her foster family having scattered, Rosalie, unable to cope with the loss of her happy pre-war life, made her way to her Poe relatives in Baltimore. They evidently soon grew tired of being burdened with her, and she was left on her own resources--a fate her intelligence, character, and upbringing left her completely unable to handle. She made attempts to find work as a housekeeper, and was said to walk the streets trying to sell pictures of Edgar to passerby. (She also made money selling ordinary household items as "Poe artifacts" once owned by her brother--items that, in truth, had no connection to him at all. Poe scholar John Carl Miller cautioned, "Any Poe-association artifact must now be suspect" if Rosalie ever any connection to it.) Her main source of support, however, was "the kindness of strangers," motivated to assist her by admiration for her celebrated sibling.

Rosalie was eventually placed in a charity home in Washington, D.C., where she died in 1874, of what was described as "inflammation of the stomach." Curiously, her tombstone gives her year of birth as 1812--the year after Eliza Poe's death.

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