Monday, February 21, 2011

Poe's Perplexing Parents: David Poe, Jr.

David Poe Jr. father of Edgar Allan PoeThe greatest achievement of Edgar Allan Poe's father is that he managed the considerable feat of having a death even more mysterious than that of his famous son.

David Poe Jr. was born July 18, 1784. He was trained to be a lawyer, but at a young age defied his family's wishes and became an actor instead. He had a busy, if only modestly acclaimed career until he made his final known stage appearance on October 18, 1809. After that, his trail immediately goes cold. By July of 1811, his wife Eliza was described as "left alone, the only support of herself and several small children." No explanation was given for the absence of her spouse. In November of that year, it was said merely that Mrs. Poe had "quarreled and parted with her husband." She died the following month of a lingering illness, assumed to be either tuberculosis or pneumonia, leaving three young children as penniless orphans.

And that is the last we know of David Poe. No death or burial records have ever been found for him, or even contemporary references to his demise. This is strange, considering that he was a relatively famous and well-traveled performer. A newspaper story from a much later era claimed he died in Norfolk, Virginia on October 19, 1810, but this is completely unverified, and the source for the claim is uncertain. Long after the fact, various members of the Poe family and his early biographers gave very brief remarks indicating merely that David died on some uncertain date shortly before or after his wife. The nonspecific and conflicting nature of these accounts only proves that no one had any exact knowledge of when, where, or how he met his end. They all have the air of people repeating vague legend rather than known fact. Over forty years later, his sister Maria Poe Clemm told Sarah Helen Whitman that Edgar's parents both died at about the same time of "consumption," a story Edgar himself echoed. If this is true, it makes the absence of any sort of definite record of David's death or burial all the more inexplicable, as his wife's pitiful end was widely publicized. It is plausible that neither Maria Clemm nor her nephew wanted to admit that David Poe abandoned his family, and so passed on a more palatable story. They may well have never known his true fate.

There is so little evidence about the disappearance of David Poe that it has the air of a sudden and unnatural end--one that would leave no documentation. Is it possible that Edgar Poe's father was the victim of a undetected murder, and is lying in an secret, hastily-arranged grave, with contemporaries assuming that he had deserted both his young family and his chosen career? The very little we know about Edgar's father gives the impression of a quarrelsome, immature, hot-tempered drunk. It is undoubtedly unfair to judge a person by the contents of a single letter, but David Poe's one surviving missive--written to his relative George Poe Jr. early in 1809--suggests a man who could not refrain from alienating even his kin:
"Sir, You promised me on your honor to meet me at the Mansion house on the 23d--I promise you on my word of honor that if you will lend me 30, 20, 15, or even $10 I will remit it to you immediately on my arrival in Baltimore. Be assured I will keep my promise at least as well as you did yours and that nothing but extreme distress would have forc'd me to make this application--Your answer by the bearer will prove whether I yet have 'favour in your eyes' or whether I am to be despised by (as I understand) a rich relation because when a wild boy I join'd a profession which I then thought and now think an honorable one. But which I would most willingly quit tomorrow if it gave satisfaction to your family provided I could do any thing else that would give bread to mine."
George Poe, when he forwarded this note to his brother-in-law William Clemm Jr., snorted: "To this impertinent note it is hardly necessary to tell you my answer--it merely went to assure him that he need not look to me for any countenance or support more especially after having written me such a letter as that and thus for the future I desired to hear not from or of him--so adieu to Davy."

It is not difficult to picture a man capable of arousing such contempt among his own family angering the wrong person, with deadly results.

This is, of course, mere conjecture. But the virtual black hole one encounters when looking at the unexplained vanishing act of a man only in his mid-twenties--a man with many relatives who must have made efforts to locate him, if only for the sake of his children, and whose face and name were reasonably well-known--makes such conjectures inevitable.