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.)