Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Precursor to "Annabel Lee?"

whistler annabel lee
"Annabel Lee" is arguably Poe's most well-loved poem--certainly, it is one of the most controversial. Like "The Raven," it quickly took on a mythology all its own, spawning endless warring schools of literary guessing-games regarding its creation. Claims for possible sources and inspirations for the poem have ranged from the sublime (the theory that it was a memorial to his wife Virginia) to the ridiculous (to the end of her days, poor Sarah Helen Whitman kept up a dogged campaign to convince the world that that the ballad was a response to her "Stanzas For Music"--some florid lines that resembled "Annabel Lee" about as much as "The Tell-Tale Heart" is reminiscent of Mother Goose. Evidently, she saw this as a way of proving that--contrary to what most of her contemporaries believed--Poe had not gone to his grave disdaining her. Unfortunately for her, this obsession was seen as something of a joke, even among her friends.) Wightman F. Melton, writing in the "South Atlantic Quarterly" in 1912, fancied he saw parallels between "Annabel Lee" and the prose poem "Eleonora" (a work that has also been linked to Virginia Poe,) which were interesting, if completely speculative.

One of the most curious proposed sources for "Annabel Lee" is a brief poem called "The Mourner," which appeared in the "Charleston (SC) Courier." The author, who only went by the initials, "D.M.C," wrote:
"How sweet were the joys of my former estate!
Health and happiness caroll'd with glee;
And contentment ne'er envy'd the pomp of the great
In the cot by the side of the sea.

With my Anna I past the mild summer of love
Till death gave his cruel decree,
And bore the dear angel to regions above
From the cot by the side of the sea!"

As unmemorable as these lines may be, the similarities to Poe's poem in theme, cadence, and the name of the lost beloved are easily apparent, and the phrase "side of the sea," is repeated in what is generally considered to be the final version of "Annabel Lee." Certainly Poe himself, if he had seen "The Mourner" appear in print after he had written "Annabel," would be screaming of plagiarism loud enough to wake the dead. (Not that it ever took much for him to do that.) However, one must also agree with the critic who commented--assuming, for the sake of argument, that this obscure verse was any sort of inspiration to Poe's own work--that he lost nothing of his poetic reputation by this theory, as it would have been a case of Poe transforming a "buried nugget into fine gold." Also, "The Mourner" is merely a typical specimen of the literary conventions of the era, and as a whole is so obviously inferior to "Annabel Lee," that one cannot connect the two poems with any confidence.

There are more objective difficulties with crediting "The Mourner" as any sort of inspiration. The poem appeared in the "Courier" in 1807, two years before Poe was even born, and so far as is known, never appeared in print again. How in the world could this little-noticed and quickly-forgotten old poem ever have come to Poe's attention at all? During his term in the army, Poe was briefly stationed in Charleston in 1827-28. Certain of his biographers speculate--on very thin evidence--that he must have taken a deep interest in the theatrical career of his parents, who had often performed in that city. Putting these threads together, it has been proposed that while in Charleston, Poe took the opportunity to look up back files of local papers, for the purpose of reading old notices of Eliza and David Poe. Might not, it has been proposed, "The Mourner" have come to his attention in this fashion?

While I bow to the imaginative ratiocination of this theory, it is simply too full of "what-ifs" to be relied upon. In any case, it is hard to picture the teenage Poe taking time from his military duties to do a bit of amateur genealogical research in the local archives, stumbling across this limp poem by an unknown author, making an indelible mental file of the verse, then never pulling it out for use until twenty-two years later.

On the whole, it is most likely that the similarities between "The Mourner" and "Annabel Lee" are the result of coincidence, a quirk of fate--"only this and nothing more." A strange quirk of fate, it is true, but then Poe's history is positively overflowing with those.

As an aside, it is hard not to see the obsession with identifying supposed "sources" and "inspirations" of Poe's poems and stories as a subtle way of demeaning him as an artist in the same way the biographers and novelists have more overtly demeaned him as a human being. The implied message sent by all this inventive literary detective work is this: "Poe was incapable of writing anything on his own. Those works the world thinks are so brilliant? Nothing but borrowed goods!" It is nearly as tiresome as the similar mania for interpreting everything he wrote--"Annabel Lee" being one of the most notable examples--as mere autobiography.

In the man's own words: "...under the sun there neither exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified--more supremely noble than this very poem--this poem per se--this poem which is a poem and nothing more, this poem written solely for the poem's sake."

Monday, May 24, 2010

Poe and Dumas; Or, the Forgery That Dare Not Speak Its Name

In 1929, a well-known rare book dealer named Gabriel Wells presented the world with an amazing footnote to history. He announced that during a recent trip to Europe, he acquired a document in the handwriting of Alexandre Dumas. The manuscript gave a detailed account of a time, around 1832, when he had at his Paris residence a strange young house guest named Edgar Allan Poe. Dumas supposedly wrote:
"One day a young American presented himself at my house with an introduction from his fellow-countryman, the famous novelist Fenimore Cooper.

Needless to say I welcomed him with open arms.

His name was Edgar Poe.

From the outset I realized that I had to deal with a remarkable man: two or three remarks which he made on my furniture, the things I had about me, the way my articles of everyday use were strewn about the room, and on my moral and intellectual characteristics, impressed me with their accuracy and truth. On the very first day of our acquaintance I freely proffered my friendship and asked for his. He must certainly have entertained for me a sympathy similar to that I felt for him, for he held out his hand to me and the understanding between us was instantaneous and complete...I offered to let Edgar Poe have two rooms in this house for the duration of his stay in Paris.

...Poe had one curious idiosyncrasy; he liked the night better than the day. Indeed, his love of the darkness amounted to a passion. But the Goddess of Night could not always afford him her shade, and remain with him continually, so he contrived a substitute. As soon as day began to break he hermetically sealed up the windows of his room and lit a couple of candles. In the midst of this pale illumination he worked, or read, or suffered his thoughts to wander in the insubstantial regions of reverie, or else he fell asleep, not being always able to indulge in waking dreams. But as soon as the clock told him that the real darkness had come he would come in for me, take me out with him if I was there, or go forth alone if I was not...In these rambles I could not help remarking with wonder and admiration (though his rich endowment of ideas should have prepared me for it) the extraordinary faculty of analysis exhibited by my friend. He seemed to delight in giving it play, and neglected no opportunity of indulging himself in that pleasure...for him, every man had an open window where his heart was."

And so on, with Poe as part Dupin, part vampire. (This account's obvious resemblance to the opening section of "The Murders In the Rue Morgue" should in itself have been a red flag right from the beginning.)

As may be imagined, Wells' hitherto unknown acquisition caused quite a stir. Poe scholars, always desperately anxious to find means to fill in the many blanks in the poet's biography, were thrilled that they may have been presented with new and exciting information. However, after the first wave of excitement had passed, reality sank in, and the story's manifest improbabilities and impossibilities quickly led them to sadly reject the Dumas story as a hoax. (And for Poe biographers to dismiss a tale as incredible is truly saying something.) In spite of this, the "Poe visited Paris" legend is still repeated as fact here and there (usually on the sort of websites that describe Poe as an international espionage agent who was murdered by the Illuminati.)

In spite of the near-universal dismissal of the story itself, there seems to still be some amount of confusion about whether the manuscript was an odd piece of fiction, but truly written by Dumas, or a particularly demented forgery. This reluctance to dismiss the document as a complete fake is astounding--not only because Dumas was hardly the light-hearted practical joker type, but because of the further history of the man who came up with the strange artifact.

The year after revealing his Dumas story, Gabriel Wells--no doubt flushed with the success of his earlier bombshell--announced his acquisition of another previously undreamed-of addition to Poe lore. He claimed that while in Italy, he had also gained possession of three sketches drawn by Poe, supposedly representing Virginia Clemm, a young Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton, and a self-portrait. According to Wells, he bought them from "an elderly American" living in Genoa, later identified only as a "W. Mills," who was the descendant of a man named Henry O'Reilly, who had been given the drawings by Poe himself. (There is no evidence that Poe ever knew anyone by that name, much less that "O'Reilly" ever even existed.) Despite this rather dodgy provenance, Poe "expert" Thomas O. Mabbott--on the grounds, evidently, of a combination of wishful thinking and gullibility--immediately and enthusiastically pronounced the portraits to be "genuine and of the greatest importance historically." Mabbott gushed, "The self-portrait of Poe is in one way the greatest find of all...It not only represents him in his prime, but the self-portrait is probably the most satisfactory picture we have of him at this period...But the picture one rejoiced most in seeing is the lovely head of Virginia Clemm Poe. It is said that the only other picture that is accessible was made after her death. But here we have her as her husband saw her--a most romantic and tragic lady, the poet's best love."

These drawings, unique in Poe's history, and with a romantic background, garnered even more ecstatic attention than the Dumas manuscript. Wells consigned his little treasures to one of his regular agents, a salesman with an extremely shady reputation named C.B. Randall, who sold them to Poe collector J.K. Lilly for nearly nine thousand dollars--quite a tidy sum for 1931. Unfortunately, as was the case with Wells' earlier revelations, the intoxication caused by the discovery of these works soon gave way to the inevitable painful hangover. Mr. Mills--who had made earlier appearances in Poe circles--had shown himself to be extremely untrustworthy. (During earlier attempts to sell these same drawings, he had given them an entirely different history.) Other Poe scholars indignantly refuted Mabbott's authentication (the charge that the drawings were forgeries was led by none other than J.H. Whitty--a lovely bit of irony, that.) Lilly himself came to the conclusion that he had been sold a pup, but chose to keep the pictures anyway--perhaps because if he had disposed of them, it would have been too humiliating a confirmation of how well and truly he had been gulled.

As Michael Deas commented in his fascinating book "Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe," "In retrospect, it seems almost inconceivable that all three portraits could have at one time been regarded as authentic drawings by Poe." Deas--a professional in the art world--noted that while Poe was known to have some artistic ability, at least the "self-portrait" (which, incidentally, could scarcely be said to even resemble Poe) was clearly done by someone with formal training. Also, the drawings, as even my untrained and inartistic eye can see, are completely different in style, and are obviously the work of three separate artists.Alleged Poe Self-PortraitWhat is most interesting--and depressingly revealing--about the whole debacle is how not one of the guilty parties involved paid any price for their mistakes and/or crimes. Mabbott was suitably embarrassed by how he had been had--or more importantly, how he had allowed Mr. Lilly to be had--but not too embarrassed to stop presenting himself as an authoritative Poe source. His reputation as an "expert" was in no way diminished by this well-publicized demonstration of his lack of expertise. The shadowy "W. Mills" went on his merry way undisturbed and free to foment further mischief. According to one source, Lilly had spoken of bringing criminal charges against Randall (both he and Wells had evidently known early on about the dubious background of the portraits but chose to simply keep that knowledge to themselves,) but if so, it came to nothing. Wells continued to buy and sell valuable books and manuscripts, with apparently no one being the least troubled by his adventures in historical shenanigans. The honorary doctorate Rutgers University awarded him in 1935 lauded "his importance as a bookman, author, philanthropist, international authority on rare books, and, above all, a man of integrity." Comment seems superfluous, let alone probably actionable. Suffice to say that I myself would feel extremely uneasy about any document, particularly if it related to Poe, that ever passed through this gentleman's hands--and quite a few of them did.

The spurious drawings of Virginia and Miss Royster still pop up frequently on the Internet (including that vast online horror show, Wikipedia,) as authentic portraits--which just goes to show you can't keep a good fraud down.Elmira Royster forgeryvirginia poe forgery
And so it goes in the World of Poe.

Thursday, May 20, 2010


When examining the relationship between Frances S. Osgood and Poe, one crucial detail that is always overlooked is the simple fact that after they met in March of 1845, she spent most of that year away from New York City. So far as her movements can be traced, (largely through her extant correspondence,) she was far from New York--and Poe--at least during May, July, August, September, October, probably June, and possibly November as well, spending much of that time in the company of her husband. She may have made flying visits to NYC during the year, but considering the rigors of travel in that era (just going from New York to Providence R.I. took a minimum of ten hours,) and Osgood's frail health, these visits must have been rare.

When Osgood admitted in her "Reminiscences of Poe" that her year-long acquaintance with him was largely through correspondence, for once she was not dallying with the truth. There must have been some sort of exchange of letters between them, as she was a regular contributor to the "Broadway Journal," but on his part, at least, they were all likely as bland and impersonal as this. If we trust the testimony of Sarah Helen Whitman (granted, always a dangerous thing to do,) Osgood herself admitted that Poe's correspondence to her consisted of mere notes exactly in the mode of that one surviving letter--cordial and polite, but extremely brief and lacking in interest. (Incidentally, Osgood's stupefyingly brazen claim that she and Poe wrote to each other only because of the urgings of his wife, who hoped that Osgood could use her "influence" to keep him sober, should be treated with the contempt and derision it deserves.)

And yet, Osgood's peripatetic ways are studiously ignored, with sloppy biographers and cheap novelists all insisting on portraying the two as being in each other's society virtually nonstop during the year 1845. Amazing.

A footnote: John Ward Ostrom, who edited Poe's published letters, gave the undated letter linked to above a speculative date of "late October 1845." Ostrom had no hard evidence for suggesting this date, and as Osgood was in Providence throughout that entire month, Poe's note to her--which indicated that Osgood was then in New York--must have been written at another time. All we can say is that this note--the only extant item of correspondence between them--was written sometime in 1845 or early January 1846.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Happy Anniversary!

Virginia Eliza Clemm married Edgar Allan Poe
I dwelt alone
In a world of moan,
And my soul was a stagnant tide,
Till the fair and gentle Eulalie became my blushing bride —
Till the yellow-haired young Eulalie became my smiling bride.
Ah, less — less bright
The stars of the night
Than the eyes of the radiant girl!
And never a flake
That the vapour can make
With the moon-tints of purple and pearl,
Can vie with the modest Eulalie’s most unregarded curl —
Can compare with the bright-eyed Eulalie’s most humble and careless curl.

Now Doubt — now Pain
Come never again,
For her soul gives me sigh for sigh,
And all day long
Shines, bright and strong,
Astarté within the sky,
While ever to her dear Eulalie upturns her matron eye —
While ever to her young Eulalie upturns her violet eye.

MARRIED - On May 16, by Rev. Converse, Edgar A. Poe, to Miss Virginia Eliza Clemm.
-Richmond Whig & Public Advertiser, Friday, May 20, 1836

...Or, at least one of the anniversaries, at any rate. Edgar Allan Poe, God bless him, could not even get married without giving his biographers fits. As is well known, Baltimore city records show that on September 22, 1835, he and Virginia Clemm (who had reached the legal age to marry only the previous month,) applied for a marriage license. To date, however, no evidence has been uncovered to show that an actual marriage ceremony took place at that time, and the fact that the couple indisputably married in Richmond on May 16 of the following year would seem to argue against an earlier ceremony.

However, in 1874 N.H. Morison, a Baltimore friend of the couple's relative Neilson Poe, told John H. Ingram that Edgar and Virginia had indeed wed twice, although he was uncertain about the dates. Giving Neilson Poe as his source, Morison claimed that "the marriage took place in Christ's Church in this city, the ceremony being performed by Rev. now Bishop John Johns. The parties did not live together for more than a year, when they were again married in Richmond where they were to reside. This second marriage, the bride 15, took place to save all comments, because the first one had been so private."

Unfortunately, Morison's word does little to settle the question. His account is completely uncorroborated--even by Neilson Poe himself. Christ's Church left no record of this alleged marriage, and Bishop Johns' relatives were also unaware of him having married the couple. Also, if Edgar and Virginia felt a second ceremony was required for the sake of propriety, why did they make the first ceremony so secret?

It has always been difficult to know what to make of the matter. It seems highly improbable that Poe would suddenly abandon his job at the "Southern Literary Messenger" in order to make a flying visit to Baltimore and go to the trouble of taking out a license, all for nothing. However, it seems even more improbable that the couple would marry privately, pretend the event never took place, and then wed again a mere eight months later. To date, no one has found a satisfactory explanation for the puzzle.Edgar and Virginia Poe marriage bondThe theory that the initial ceremony was kept secret because of Virginia's youth seems absurd--surely, it could have made little difference whether the bride was thirteen years and one month old, or thirteen years and nine. There is no evidence for the oft-asserted belief that the couple's relatives violently opposed their desire to marry, and even if they had, as long as the girl's mother consented to the match, there would be nothing they could do to stop the pair. If they felt the need to keep the initial marriage hidden and unconsummated because of Virginia's youth, why would they marry then at all? (Hervey Allen's assertion that the initial wedding was kept secret in order to make it easier for Mrs. Clemm to cadge loans from their relations is not even worth discussing.) There is no known sane reason why they should have married secretly, especially considering that surely no one at the time would have noticed or cared what the then-obscure couple did. So then, how to explain the Baltimore license?

In this, as is so often the case when contemplating Poe biography, one must echo the words of the Duchess of Malfi:
"Wish me good speed,
For I am going into a wilderness
Where I shall find nor path nor friendly clue
To be my guide."

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Devil's Law-Case (Part Two)

"A poltroon charges his foe, by instinct, with precisely that vice or meanness which the pricking of his (the poltroon's) conscience assures him would furnish the most stable and therefore the most terrible ground of accusation against himself."
-Edgar Allan Poe, "Reply to Mr. English and Others"

"I'm the innocent bystander
But somehow I got stuck
Between a rock and a hard place
And I'm down on my luck."
-Warren Zevon, "Lawyers, Guns, and Money"

*"Mirror" editor Hiram Fuller, some months after the lawsuit ended, referred to the incident in his paper with the words, "There have been actors behind the scenes in all this business, whom we may yet have to call before the footlights. When a man has robbed you he will kill you also if he can, for the reason that 'dead men tell no tales.'" What in the world did he mean by that? A letter Sarah Helen Whitman claimed Poe wrote her in 1848 described Fuller and English--in frustratingly vague terms--as being merely Elizabeth Ellet's "tools" in the publication of libels against him. But who else could have been secretly involved? Surely, Ellet alone was not powerful enough to use such prominent literary figures for her own petty personal grudges. And, in any case, Fuller clearly had men--or one particular man--in mind. The last sentence quoted, incidentally, is particularly chilling in its implications. Could Fuller really have been suggesting someone "behind the scenes" might actually kill--or, at least, use very drastic means--in order to prevent the true history of the lawsuit from being told?

*In December 1846, Fuller published an editorial commenting on the widespread reports of Poe's destitution. Without mentioning his enemy by name, Fuller said that "we cannot now call to mind a single instance of a man of real literary ability suffering from poverty, who has always lived an industrious, honest, and honorable life; while of the other class of indigents, we know of numerous melancholy specimens, of both sexes." [My italics.] Now, this cheap jab was clearly meant, not just for Poe, but for someone else--a female someone. But what literary woman was Fuller insulting?

In the early 1840s, he and Frances Osgood had a close, coyly flirtatious relationship, but by this time they were estranged, for reasons unknown to us. Perhaps Fuller had become aware of the fact that Osgood passed his more overheated letters to her around to other of her friends for their entertainment, turning him into something of a laughingstock within her circle. He also had professional reasons to resent the poetess. Her friend Edward Thomas' sworn testimony that Poe was not a forger--an refutation she may well have encouraged him to make, if only to keep both her and Thomas out of trouble--effectively lost the lawsuit for the "Mirror." Fuller later published blind items suggesting that Poe would sue certain "literary ladies" who figured in the trial. That was obviously a taunt aimed at least partly at Osgood, who, so far as is known, was the only woman whose name surfaced in the lawsuit. Were Fuller's remarks about destitute literary figures who led disreputable lives also directed to Osgood, who was suffering from financial problems during this period?

*In an open letter to Nathaniel P. Willis that was published in Willis' "Home Journal" in January 1847, Poe, among other things, stated that his wife's illness had been "heightened and precipitated" by the receipt of two anonymous letters (evidently from Elizabeth Ellet)--one containing a newspaper report of the Poe family's degrading poverty, the other enclosing the violent columns Fuller and English wrote against Poe.

Virginia Clemm Poe

This persecution of the dying Virginia--seemingly an innocent bystander if ever there was one--raises several questions. What had Virginia done to inspire such venomous and vengeful hatred in Poe's enemies? It suggests that she played a larger role in his literary and personal battles than has been presumed. And why send her previously published attacks, of which she must already have been aware? Receiving in the mail attacks that were already public hardly seems enough to "heighten and precipitate" a fatal illness. Did these letters contain, not merely abuse against her beloved husband, but actual covert threats? (The newspaper paragraphs describing their destitution claimed that not only Virginia, but Poe as well, was soon to die.)

*In July 1846, Fuller, again carefully avoiding Poe's name but making his target plain, published a truly ugly column attacking the poet as "a poor wretch" whose personal misbehavior had "reduced his mind and person to a condition where indignation for his vices, and revenge for his insults, are changed into compassion for the poor victim of himself," that he was now "the most pitiful of all pitiable objects," and "in a condition of sad, wretched imbecility." (This piece of abuse probably was among the items included in the poison-pen letters sent to Virginia.)

Intriguingly, in this column Fuller momentarily veered from his assault on Poe to address someone else. In an obvious reference to Poe's "The Literati of New York City," Fuller remarked that "It would be unreasonable to look to such a person for a just appreciation of the works of an upright intellect. But the only harm that such men can do is by praise, and we might well suspect the merits of those who are lauded by such persons, if we did not know that their seemingly good words were as sinister as their abuse."

In short, Fuller claimed that Poe's praises of certain writers included in "The Literati" were, in reality, veiled insults. Was this another of Fuller's sly attempts to derogate his erstwhile friend Frances Osgood? Poe's "Literati" sketch of her, as well as his other published reviews of her work, certainly were full of "seemingly good words"--words which, Fuller now stated unequivocally, were actually attacks. Whether Fuller had Osgood specifically in mind or not, his remark bears keeping in mind when considering any "praise" Poe ever made of her. In this regard, of particular note is Poe's review of Osgood's poems that was published in March of 1846. When discussing her verse drama "Elfrida," (a play he strongly panned, incidentally,) Poe commented, "In depicting the impassioned ambition of Elfrida, the authoress seems especially at home, and upon this character she has evidently put forth her strength."

The title character Poe referred to was a heartless, deceitful, scheming woman who plotted the murder of her innocent husband because he stood in the way of her "impassioned ambition" of marrying a king. Could Poe's identification of Osgood with such a creature be called anything but "sinister?"

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Devil's Law-Case (Part One)

"The touchstone by which falsehood is detected is inconsistency. In a true narrative, inconsistencies are impossible."
-Jeremy Bentham, "Rationale of Judicial Evidence"
The chain of events surrounding the libel suit Poe filed against the "New York Mirror" in 1846 comprise some of the most peculiar unanswered questions in his entire career. These are among the many mysteries clouding the story:
*It is a puzzle why "Mirror" editor Hiram Fuller bothered to involve himself and his newspaper in the attacks against Poe at all. His prior dealings with Poe had been scant, and evidently not unfriendly. Then suddenly, when "The Literati of New York City" appeared in print, Fuller began using his paper as a forum to heap abuse on the sketches and their author, a campaign that culminated with his publication of English's libelous column. We know of no reason for his abrupt, venomous attitude change towards the poet.

Poe himself offered what may be a clue to the cause of Fuller's hostility. In his "Reply to Mr. English and Others," Poe referred to Fuller having "prostituted his filthy sheet" by publishing English's column--a column, he declared, that Fuller had known was full of lies.

"Prostituted" is an interesting choice of words. It implies that Fuller was merely a hired gun, that he was "bought off" in some way to join the efforts to defame Poe. But how? English did not pay Fuller to print his column, and he was not wealthy enough to "buy" the editor in other ways. Was there someone else--one of the people "behind the scenes," to use Fuller's own words--who secretly used money or the promise of some other favors in order to enlist him into the Poe Wars?

*One of the actionable charges Thomas Dunn English made in the "Mirror" column that inspired the suit was that Poe was guilty of forgery. English never said what Poe supposedly forged, and so far as we know, the issue was never clarified during the trial.Thomas Dunn English and Edgar Allan PoeThis makes no sense. One cannot simply call someone "a forger" without giving some sort of specifics about what the person supposedly forged. Yet this most central and obvious information was left unstated. Why?

*In English's deposition, he claimed that Poe told him that an ironworks merchant named Edward Thomas had told Frances S. Osgood that Poe was a forger. English said Poe asserted that Thomas wished to seduce Osgood, was jealous of Poe's influence with her, and so told her this slander in order to alienate her from someone he assumed was a rival.

There are many problems with this story. At the time in question, Thomas and Poe were complete strangers. As Thomas did not even know Poe, how could he see him as potential competition for Osgood's bed? As Poe did not know Thomas, how could he know what his defamer's motives may have been? He could not have heard the tale from Mrs. Osgood herself. Frances was never known for her discretion, but it is still highly improbable that she would tell Poe a story that not only disparaged her ally, Thomas, but portrayed herself as a woman whose acquaintances saw her as immoral enough to be capable of adultery. If Thomas felt jealousy for anyone, would not his obvious target be Mr. Osgood? At this date, Thomas had been friends with the Osgood family for at least a few years. If he ever had had amorous intentions towards Frances, would they not have surfaced a long time before this?

The little we know about Thomas indicates that he was a friend--nothing more--to both the Osgoods. (Samuel Osgood even sought to borrow money from him around that time.) Thomas' two extant letters to Frances are full of cordiality towards both her and Samuel, but are hardly romantic. In his letter to her from March 1847, Thomas discussed the aftermath of the lawsuit. He referred to Poe in a condescending, but not unsympathetic manner: "Poor Poe--he has lost his wife--his home--may the folly of the past make him contrite for the future--may he live to be what he can be if he has but the will." He made an oblique reference to his relief that Frances' actual name had been redacted during trial testimony, as he had feared it "would come out under English's affidavit in a way I would not like." His comments appeared to blame English--not Poe--for the unflattering story English told about him. His letter assumed that Frances herself was unaware of this story of his alleged immoral intentions towards her, and, rather oddly, Thomas appeared to think having it related in court would reflect poorly on her, rather than himself. (Most curiously, Thomas also commented that he was unsurprised about the outcome of the suit, as he had always believed the forgery charges were untrue.) The letter made it clear that he never, at any time, saw Poe as a romantic rival--in fact, its tone conveyed a belief that Mrs. Osgood was never any closer to the poet than Thomas himself had been.

English's deposition, as the trial would show, contained many lies, and all the evidence indicates this story was merely one more of them. It was his way of insulting not only Poe, but Osgood (whom he disliked,) and Thomas (the chief witness against his side,) as well. The fact that Thomas knew before the trial had even begun that English was likely to include this tale in his deposition indicates that English had, in his dealings with Thomas, already threatened to relate this highly embarrassing anecdote if he took the stand. Likely, this was part of some sort of intimidation tactic he was using. (Poe himself described English as behaving like a "bully" towards the merchant.) Why? What was the true story that English was trying to hide?

*That leads to another puzzle--why did English involve himself in Thomas' forgery scandal in the first place? Poe indicated that English, for unknown reasons, volunteered to act as Poe's envoy in his dealings with the merchant. So far as we know, English did not know Thomas, and these vague and seemingly trivial allegations against Poe were certainly no concern of his. What was his motivation for inserting himself in the middle of the dispute? English was positively eager for Poe to sue Thomas. According to Poe, when Thomas wrote him a letter retracting the forgery charge, English advised him to pretend this apology was never sent, and to take the merchant to court anyway. Why was it so important to him that this lawsuit take place?

*Thomas claimed to have heard the "forgery" tale from someone else--a someone who, when Thomas later asked him about the matter, denied ever having made such a statement. This person was never named. Why? Did he even exist? But why would Thomas invent from whole cloth a tale of forgery to discredit a man he did not know, and that--assuming he invented the charge--could be so easily disproved?

*Why do we not have a transcript of the trial--or even any sort of comprehensive description of what both sides said?

*When English wrote his libelous attack on Poe, he knew that Thomas had retracted the forgery allegation. Why, then, did he revive the charge, considering that its original source would no longer support the story? English had to assume that Poe might very well sue him for insisting that Poe was a forger--after all, Poe would have sued Thomas if the merchant had not apologized. Why risk making an allegation he could not prove? Did English believe at the time that he could get--or manufacture--other evidence incriminating Poe? Or was he just a hot-headed imbecile?

In Part Two: Hiram Fuller steps before the footlights...In the role of Cassandra.

(Image of TD English via NYPL Digital Gallery.)