Text: John C. Miller, “The Exhumations and Reburials of Edgar and Virginia Poe and Mrs. Clemm,” Poe Studies, December 1974, Vol. VII, No. 2, 7:46-47


[page 46:]

The Exhumations and Reburials of
Edgar and Virginia Poe and Mrs. Clemm

Old Dominion University

The stories of Edgar and Virginia Poe’s deaths and burials are familiar to many biographers and their readers, while that of Mrs. Clemm is understandably less so. Equally familiar is the fact that the three bodies now lie together under a huge monument in a corner lot at the juncture of Fayette and Greene Streets in Baltimore. What is not familiar is the complete story of the many exhumations and reburials that had to take place before those three who had been so close in life could be close in death. The account that follows, albeit at times grisly, is the complete story (1).

Edgar Allan Poe died early on Sunday morning, October 7, 1849, and the next day, which was raw and cold, more than ordinarily unpleasant for the season, his body was buried in an unmarked grave in the Poe family plot behind the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Baltimore. The Reverend W. T. D. Clemm, a relative of Poe’s wife, read the burial service; George W. Spence officiated as sexton. Eight, perhaps nine, persons attended the brief burial rites (2).

In 1873 Paul Hamilton Hayne, then known as the “poet of the Southland,” visited Poe’s grave and was so distressed over its unkempt condition that he wrote an article for newspaper publication in which he urged responsible persons to clear Poe’s grave of weeds and to erect a suitable monument over it. Hayne’s article was widely reprinted and served to revive lagging efforts to raise money for a marker for Poe’s grave, catching as it did the attention of persons concerned, not only in Baltimore but throughout the United States and England (3).

Miss Sara Sigourney Rice, a teacher of elocution in the Baltimore City School system, quickly became a leader in the renewed activities to raise money for the proposed monument, soliciting contributions in person and through newspaper publicity as well as training her elocution students to give public entertainments to raise funds. Baltimoreans gave both small and large amounts, but in the end it was the well-known Philadelphia philanthropist, George W. Childs, who contributed the last $650, making it possible to let the contract for the monument.

The design was entrusted to a Baltimore architect George A. Frederick, and the monument itself was to be built by another Baltimorean, Colonel Hugh Sisson. When the Committee decided that a medallion of Poe was to be placed on the monument, still another Baltimorean, an artist named Valck, was chosen to model it from an oil painting of Poe, owned by John Prentiss Poe, son of Neilson Poe, Edgar’s cousin who had paid the funeral expenses in 1849. The total cost of the monument, with the medallion, amounted to slightly over $1500.

In order to prepare a necessary foundation for the large monument, it was necessary to exhume Poe’s body and place it in the grave occupied by Mrs. Clemm, who [column 2:] had died on February 16, 1871. In late October 1875, a reporter for the Baltimore American described the exhumation:

. . . The laborers employed to perform the task, upon digging to a depth of about five feet, discovered the coffin in a state of good preservation, after having lain in its place nearly 26 years. The lid was removed, and the remains curiously examined by the few present. There before their gaze, was extended the skeleton, almost in perfect condition, and lying with the long bony hands reposing one upon the other, as they had been arranged in death. The skull bore marks of greater decay, the teeth from the upper jaw having become dislodged, but those in the lower were all in place, and some little hair was still clinging near the forehead. Beyond what has been described nothing was to be seen. The coffin was inclosed in another, and reinterred (4).

George W. Spence, the sexton in charge of Poe’s burial in 1849, directed this first exhumation. Three years afterwards he told a gentleman visitor to Poe’s grave that when the first grave was opened in 1875 he had lifted up the head of Poe’s skeleton and “his brain rattled around inside just like a lump of mud, sir” (5).

William Fearing Gill of Boston and New York and one of Poe’s earliest biographers reported nearly thirty-four years after the first exhumation that a sister of Professor Alphonso C. Smith of the University of Virginia was among those “few present” at that event and that she had preserved a few pieces of the wood from the original coffin which she gave to Gill who had in turn taken them as a present to Mrs. Annie Richmond in Lowell, Massachusetts. Many years later, Gill added, Mrs. Richmond returned the gift to him, having had it fashioned into a cross and secured with a nail from Poe’s coffin.6 Gill’s biography of Poe, while containing some new and valuable information, shows unmistakable evidences of hasty writing and an active imagination, leading one to suspect that same imagination was perhaps at work in these recollections written at different times and so many years after the events, especially since he made no reference to the nail in his first telling of the story nor attempted to account for it in the second.

In deference to what the Monument Committee considered to be the popular wish, a plan was made and agreed upon to move the newly constructed monument and Poe’s body from the rear of the churchyard to the front, to occupy portions of lots 174 and 180, at the corner of Fayette and Greene streets. The descendants of the original owners of these lots gave their permissions, and once more Poe’s body was exhumed and moved, as was Mrs. Clemm’s, for many persons in Baltimore and elsewhere remembered her oft-repeated wish to lie in death beside her beloved Eddie (7).

Although the bodies had been reburied and the monument was in place by November 6, 1875, Wednesday, November 17th was chosen for the day of unveiling and dedication. In sharp contrast to the day of Poe’s first burial, this day the weather was clear and not disagreeably cold; instead of the eight or nine persons present at the original ceremony, eager spectators filled the churchyard cemetery, made the streets outside impassable, and crowded about the windows and roofs of every available house in the neighborhood.

When the dedication ceremonies began in the study [page 47:] room of the Western Female High School a few minutes after two o’clock, the platform at the head of the hall was filled with dignitaries. The Baltimore Philharmonic Society played and sang; Professor William Elliott, Jr., President of Baltimore City College, made the principal address; and Miss Sara S. Rice read aloud many letters of regrets for being unable to attend the ceremonies from such American and English literati as Longfellow, Holmes, Whittier, Bryant, Swinburne, and Tennyson.

The audience then gathered at the new gravesite and Professor Elliott and Miss Rice removed the cloth that had covered the monument, revealing wreaths of ivy, lilies, and evergreens. A floral tribute in the shape of a raven, made from black immortelles, was placed on the tomb by the acting company of Ford’s Grand Opera House in Baltimore, to honor Poe’s mother, since she had been an actress in the Holliday Street Theatre (8).

When the ceremonies were over, Walt Whitman, with long silver locks reaching to his shoulders, was seen near the monument asking for and receiving, as a mark of his affection for Poe, a leaf of laurel and a half-opened bud (9).

The atmosphere of the occasion was rather that of a grand triumphal pageant than of a funeral service, strictly religious exercises were conspicuous by their absence. That was as it should be. The occasion was one of triumph rather than mourning, of joy rather than sorrow, and conventional funeral rites would not have been in keeping with its spirit (10).

Nearly ten years passed before Virginia Poe’s remains were brought from Fordham to be buried under the monument above her husband and her mother. Again, it was William F. Gill who figured largely in this matter, at least according to his report. Twenty-seven years after the event, he said in the Boston Herald that he had visited the Fordham cemetery in 1883 at exactly the right moment to rescue what remained of Virginia Poe. A portion of the cemetery was being razed and Gill reported that he had met the sexton, Dennis Valentine, with Virginia’s bones in his shovel, ready to be thrown away, since Valentine knew of no one to claim them. Gill stated that with the sexton’s help he put the bones in a very small box, which he took to his home in New York, corresponded with Neilson and John Prentiss Poe in Baltimore, and brought the box down to be placed in a bronze casket and laid on Edgar’s left side. Whatever the intervening details may be, it is true that Virginia Poe’s remains were indeed reburied under the monument on January 19, 1885, the seventy-sixth anniversary of her husband’s birth (11).

Remarkably enough, the sexton of Westminster Presbyterian Church, George W. Spence, who had officiated at the first burial of Edgar Poe in 1849 and the two exhumations of his body in 1875, was also present at the rites which brought the three bodies together at last (12).



(1) Piecing together this story has been possible only because of the large number of newspaper clippings sent to John Henry Ingram by numerous American correspondents, now preserved in the Ingram-Poe Collection in the Manuscript Division of the Alderman Library of the University of Virginia. Each item is catalogued by number.

(2) The Baltimorean, Nov. 20, 1875. Item 656. [column 2:]

(3) Unidentified newsclipping reprinted from the Augusta, Ga Constitutionalist, ca. 1873. Item 567. Another unidentified newsclipping from a Baltimore newspaper states that an English contributor sent to the Monument Committee twenty sixpenny stamps, his mite towards paying Poe’s memory the honor intended in erecting a monument. Item 674.

(4) Item 631.

(5) Unidentified newsclipping reprinted from the St. Louis Republican. Item 749.

(6) Newsclipping from the Boston Herald, Jan. 17, 1909. Gill’s biography of Poe appeared in 1877.

(7) Sara S. Rice, Edgar Allan Poe: A Memorial Volume (Baltimore, 1877), p. 47.

(8) The Baltimorean, Nov. 20, 1875. Item 655.

(9) Baltimore Gazette, Nov. 18, 1875. Item 645.

(10) Boston Globe, Nov. 19, 1875. Item 653.

(11) Jan. 17, 1909. Item 957. The Detroit Free Press, without mentioning Gill by name, reported on June 6, 1885, that a gentleman in New York” had kept Virginia Poe’s bones in his home for two years, and had, on one occasion, shown them to a friend who greatly admired “Annabel Lee.” Item 852.

(12) Baltimore Sun, Jan. 20, 1885. Item 846.


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[S:0 - PS, 1974]