Text: George E. Woodberry, “Chapter 01,” The Life of Edgar Allan Poe: Personal and Literary (1909), vol. I, pp. 1-17


[page 1, unnumbered:]


Chapter I


EDGAR ALLAN POE was born at Boston, January 19, 1809. His parents were regular members of the company then playing at the Federal Street Theatre. His father, who was about thirty years of age, had been known in his youth at Baltimore as the son of the ardent Revolutionary patriot, David Poe, whose name he bore, and as, ostensibly, a student of law. His friends, however, thought of him rather as a clever amateur actor and a boon companion of the Thespian Club; and after he had emigrated to Georgia, where one of his father's brothers had settled, they may have found nothing out of keeping with his affable, impulsive, and unreflecting character in the report that he had left the brown law books ranged on the shelves of his uncle's brother-in-law and gone upon the stage. Old General Poe, [page 2:] as the citizens called him in recognition of his Revolutionary services, was not a man to condone such an offense in his eldest born. He was in his sixtieth year, with at least three younger children to provide for, and he let the runaway shift for himself, — a situation tediously familiar, in after years, to the young actor, who was most successful on the boards in that part of the “Wild Gallant” which he had first essayed in real life; but his father was by no means the worldly-minded, dry-hearted miser of the playwrights.

General Poe, indeed, left a memory full of virtue. Every action of his life bespeaks a strong and decisive man, from the time he first comes into public notice as “one David Poe, a wheel-wright,” leader of the mob that ousted Robert Christie, the Royal Sheriff, from the city, and afterward attacked the Tory editor, William Goddard, the slanderer of Washington. He had a natural right to a rude and resolute strength, since by a not improbable tradition he traced his descent through his father, John Poe, who had emigrated about 1745 from the north of Ireland and settled in Pennsylvania, to one of Cromwell's officers who had received grants of Irish land, while on his mother's side he is said to have been [page 3:] nephew to John MacBride, who fought under Nelson at Copenhagen, and rose to be an Admiral of the Blue. In his Revolutionary post of Assistant Quartermaster-General for Baltimore, he was a prompt and effective official, whose patriotism was genuine and deep-seated, since he advanced money from his scanty private funds, for which, be it added, no repayment was made, except long afterwards in the form of a pension to his widow. His country's injustice, however, did not lessen his devotion. In 1814, when he was in his seventy-second year, the old spirit blazed out again in his active service as a volunteer in the battle of North Point, against his old enemies, the British. An honest, vigorous, sensible man, capable of worldly sacrifice, — so much he was; and if the ties of natural affection seem to have been in his heart neither strong nor tender, even toward his orphaned grandchildren, it must be remembered that he was not prosperous, and they were well cared for by their adoptive parents. The last record concerning him is that Lafayette, on his parting visit to this country, went to his grave and kissed the sod above him, exclaiming, “Ici repose un cœur noble!”

On the maternal side, the record of Edgar [page 4:] Poe's lineage belongs to the fleeting memories of the stage, and is both briefer and more obscure. The few facts that remain in regard to his mother and grandmother have been practically ignored by our books of theatrical annals, and are to be found only in contemporary newspapers. The “Independent Chronicle and the Universal Advertiser,” published at Boston, in its issue of February 11, 1796, announced that Mrs. Arnold, an English actress from the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, would make her first appearance in America at the Federal Street Theatre, on February 12. If the success of her first night was an earnest of her future fortune, she must have received a considerable share of applause, as is seen by the following characteristic notice: —

“We have had the pleasure of a complete fruition in the anticipation of the satisfaction a Boston audience would receive from the dramatic abilities of Mrs. Arnold. The theatre never shook, with such bursts of applause, as on her first appearance, on Friday evening last. Not a heart but was sensible of her merits; not a tongue but vibrated in her praise; not a hand but moved in approbation. Nor did these expressions of satisfaction die with the evening; [page 5:] her merits have since been the pleasing theme of every conversation.”(1)

Mrs. Arnold, whose forte seems to have been in vocal music, sang often, and also acted in comic operas, burlettas, and romantic plays, until the close of the season, May 16. On June 1, she gave a vocal concert, at which her daughter, Elizabeth, made her first appearance and sang some popular songs adapted to her youth. The fascination of the mother was not confined to the stage. She had now captivated — “Nobody Coming to Marry Me” was one of her piquant ditties — the impressionable heart of one Mr. Tubbs, a player on the pianoforte; and after their speedy union the bridegroom set up a theatre at Portland, Maine. A very little theatre it must have been, hardly more than a family affair, since it was recruited from the amateurs of the town, and had for its chief attractions only Tubbs's piano, his wife's voice, and the precocity of his step-daughter, — “the beautiful Miss Arnold whose powers as an actress command admiration.”(2) One winter's experience of the theatrical enthusiasm of Maine proved enough, [page 6:] and when spring came the three were engaged as members of the troupe made up by Manager Solee from the Boston and Charleston comedians to play in the latter city. On their way South they stopped at New York, where two performances were given at the John Street Theatre in August, but the company was soon afterwards scattered by the fatal yellow fever of that year. During the autumn the family went South, and on the opening of the Charleston theatre, in November, made their début. They performed the whole winter, but Miss Arnold in only slight parts, — a child, a nymph, a Cupid; and at the close of the season, in April, grandmother Tubbs and her obscure consort, the pianoforte player, disappeared from theatrical history, while young Miss Arnold returned to the North and joined the Philadelphia company. With her new associates she acted the next four seasons (1798-1802), during their winter engagements in the city, their summer ventures at Southwark, and on their excursions to Washington and elsewhere; her rôles were usually unimportant, but she enjoyed benefits and was apparently under the protection of Mr. Usher and Mrs. Snowden. On March 14, 1800, Mr. C. D. Hopkins, a young man, made a reputation [page 7:] on his very first appearance as “Tony Lumpkin,” and became a popular member of the company, with which he continued to play, except during occasional absences at the South. In 1802, after the season had closed with the engagement of Mr. Green, of the Virginia company, Miss Arnold played at Baltimore, and there received a benefit, June 4. Possibly it was on this occasion that the charms of the petite and arch beauty inflamed the heart of young Poe; but if it were so the spark must quickly have grown dim and cold, for within two months she was married to Mr. Hopkins, who had been acting during the spring at Norfolk. Early in August the pair were delighting the people of Alexandria, and they were long to hold good rank among the Virginia players, as may still be read in old files of Petersburg, Norfolk, and Richmond papers.

In the fall of 1804 a new member was added to the company in the person of Mr. David Poe. This youth of twenty-five summers(1) had left his [page 8:] uncle's at Augusta, and made “his second appearance on any stage” at Charleston, December 5, 1803; but he had previously performed at the same place, December 1, without any special announcement. He had continued uninterruptedly in the same company until the close of the season in the spring, a diffident, easily abashed actor, although in his own rôle as Harry Thunder in “Wild Oats.” He was not, as has hitherto been asserted, drawn to the South and tempted before the footlights by any inamorata except the Comic Muse; nor is it likely that his uncle, who died the following September, withdrew him, as the tradition avers, from the fascination of the theatre after he had entered on his career. In November, at all events, the new actor, for whom particular favor was asked as being American-born, was playing in the Virginia company at Petersburg, and with it he continued as it moved from place to place [page 9:] through its wide circuit, until, early in September, 1805, it opened the season at Mr. Green's new theatre in Washington. Mr. Green was particularly unfortunate in this venture, and not the least of his losses was that of the popular comedian, as he is styled, Mr. Hopkins, who died, after a brief illness, on October 26. The company, and his widow among the rest, performed until Christmas, and then went southward again. Within a month, Mr. Poe, with some pecuniary aid from a friend (for these actors were always poor), married Mrs. Hopkins, and early in February they were already playing at Richmond. They remained in Virginia until May, when they started North; and after acting at Philadelphia in June and July, and at the new Vauxhall Gardens, New York, from the middle of July until late in August, they arrived at Boston by October, and were welcomed by Mrs. Poe's old friends, the Ushers.

Here they had their permanent home for the three following years. From the contemporary criticisms(1) it is easy to form a clear and complete [page 10:] idea of the personal appearance and histrionic talent of the poet's father and mother. David Poe was a man of prepossessing figure, suitable for the juvenile and gallant parts, the Henrys and Charles Sedleys, which he habitually took; his voice was full and manly, but untrained, deficient in modulation and in power, his utterance distinct but mechanical, his gesture either too stiff or too flaccid. He was sometimes praised, but more often censured, or even made fun of, for his lack of dignity and his dependence on the prompter. His range was narrow, his manner always remained amateurish, and after repeated trials he sank at last, it is said, into insignificance. But his wife, who had been born and trained to the stage, rose above mediocrity, although she apparently never equaled her mother in popularity or in merit. She was fragile in figure (Ariel was one of her rôles), and her voice, when she sang, lacked richness and volume. She began her Boston engagement with light impersonations, and soon won upon the public by her archness and roguery in the comic and her sweetness in the romantic plays. Mr. Buckingham, the somewhat exacting critic of “The Polyanthos,” pronounced the hoyden to be her forte, but others were more [page 11:] indulgent to her serious representations. In the course of time she became the leading female performer; when Cooper and Fennell were enjoying their greatest triumphs, she was the Cordelia, Ophelia, or Blanche of the drama, and when the youthful prodigy, John Howard Payne, first came on the Boston boards in 1809, she still maintained her position, playing Palmyra to his Zaphna, Sigismunda to his Tancred, and the like parts. An impression of the regard in which she was held, and of her own theatrical labors, can, perhaps, best be got from the following favorable notice, which, moreover, throws a suggestive light on the worldly condition of the lesser players of that time: —

“If industry can claim from the public either favor or support, the talents of Mrs. Poe will not pass unrewarded. — She has supported and maintained a course of characters more numerous and arduous than can be paralleled on our boards during any one season. Often she has been obliged to perform three characters on the same evening, and she has always been perfect in the text, and has well comprehended the intention of her author.

“In addition to her industry, however, Mrs. Poe has claims for other favors from the respectability [page 12:] of her talents. Her Romps and Sentimental characters have an individuality which has marked them peculiarly her own. But she has succeeded often in the tender personations of tragedy; her conceptions are always marked with good sense and natural ability. We are confident to hope therefore that the Bostonians will not suffer her merits to be so slighted that poverty and distress are to result from her benefit night, as has been the case with other performers.”(1)

This appeal was ineffective, since the Poes advertised a second benefit, in conjunction with the Ushers, to indemnify them, as they state in their personal card to the public (in which they “hope for that sanction, influence, and liberal support which has ever yet distinguished a Boston audience”), for what they term “the great failure and severe losses sustained by their former attempts.”(2) A friendly effort was made by one “Senex” to increase Mrs. Poe's reputation by praise of her moral qualities and domestic virtues, and she was supported by the good-will of some ladies in society; but there was clearly a party against her among the [page 13:] critics, to which she must finally have succumbed, even if she had been more successfully defended by the characteristic arguments to which, as Mr. Buckingham relates, her husband resorted by calling upon that gentleman with the purpose of caning him for his impertinence. From such incidents and from the general tone of criticism the natural conclusion is that Mrs. Poe was an interesting rather than a brilliant actress, more deserving than fortunate, and indebted for her moderate share of favor rather to her painstaking care than to native talents.

She played very often during these years; frequently she sang, and sometimes she danced a Polish minuet, — the feminine counterpart to her husband's hornpipes, reels, and strathspeys. There are but two marked breaks in her appearances: one in the early months of 1807, when her son William may have been born; the other in the same months of 1809, when she suffered her second confinement. The child, born January 19, was named Edgar. The mother went again upon the stage February 10, and played until the end of the season almost incessantly. The family then left Boston, never to return, but not without grateful feelings toward the city, at least [page 14:] on Mrs. Poe's part, since on the back of a painting from her own hand she charged her son to “love Boston, the place of his birth, and where his mother found her best and most sympathetic friends.”(1)

Early in September the Poes had become members of the New York company, in which they remained until the following July, still engaged in acting the romantic and sentimental drama and light comedy of the period. They made little impression. At the close of the season they left New York, and within six weeks Mrs. Poe had joined her old friends of Mr. Green's Virginia company, and was announced at Richmond, but no further mention of her husband has been found. Mrs. Poe continued to play in the field of her early triumphs, and from the warm commendation she received it would seem that her charms and beauty had suffered no loss of power over the audiences of the Southern circuit. At an uncertain date in 1810 she gave birth to her third child, Rosalie. In the summer of 1811 she was playing, according to Richmond tradition, at Norfolk, and had with her the two younger children and her mother; her husband is said to have been living [page 15:] in a lingering consumption, and on the departure of the company to have been left at Norfolk and to have died there. At the opening of the Richmond season, in August, 1811, Mrs. Poe was still an active member of the troupe, nor did she cease to appear until after her benefit night, early in October. She had fallen into a rapid decline, and the family, which was in the utmost destitution, immediately became the object of the charity of the Richmond ladies. The players, too, advertised a second night for her benefit, “in consequence of the serious and long-continued indisposition of Mrs. Poe, and in compliance with the advice and solicitation of many of the most respectable families,”(1) and on the morning of that day the following card appeared: —


“On this night Mrs. Poe, lingering on the bed of disease and surrounded by her children, asks your assistance; and asks it perhaps for the last time.”(2)

A few days later, December 8, she died. A [page 16:] few kind words in a Richmond paper, a single line in one at Boston, was all that marked the close of a career which, though honorable, must have been full of labor, anxiety, and poverty. The tinsel crown, the gauze, the flash of the paste jewels, the robes and the red shoes, went into the chest of faded things. Harlequin must seek a new Columbine before the footlights should flare up again; and there, left over from the comedy, were three children, the eldest five years old, all helpless and in want. Possibly the actors might have afforded them some protection, but the disastrous conflagration of the theatre on Christmas night prevented. That fatal calamity, which threw the city into mourning and turned the playhouse into a church, deeply stirred the community, and in the charity immediately extended to all the sufferers these orphans were not neglected. Mrs. Allan, a young wife of twenty-five years, and her friend, Mrs. MacKenzie, who were attracted by the younger children, took, one Edgar, the other Rosalie, into their homes and gave them severally the family names of Allan and MacKenzie in baptism by the hands of Dr. Buchanan, at the house of Mr. John Richard. William, the eldest, was cared for by his father's friends at Baltimore, [page 17:] by whom he appears to have been taken at an earlier date, not improbably soon after Edgar's birth, when, tradition asserts, the family visited the grandparents at Baltimore in the fall of 1809.


[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 5:]

1  Massachusetts Mercury, February 16, 1796.

2  The Eastern Herald and Gazette of Maine, December 12, 1796.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 7, running to the bottom of page 8:]

1  The age of both David Poe and Miss Arnold has been reckoned (Ingram, i, 3) as if they were born in 1787. The youthfulness of the lovers, however, disappears with the other romantic features of their mythical elopement. The mention of Miss Arnold at Boston and Portland in 1796 can hardly be thought to apply to a child of nine years, and her rôles the [page 8:] next summer in New York (the play-bill ascribes one of these, Agnes, in “The Mountaineers,” to “Mrs. Arnold,” but presumably by a misprint, as the name of “Mrs. Tubbs” is in the same list) could not have been filled by a person so young. The character of her life, and the notices of her acting make it exceedingly improbable that she was much, if at all, younger than her husband. He was born “certainly not later than 1780.” — John P. Poe, Esq., to the author, June 19, 1883.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 9:]

1  These are contained in the various journals of all the cities in which the Poes acted, and more particularly in a few periodicals of elegant literature, — The Polyanthos, The Emerald, The Theatrical Censor and Critical Miscellany, The Rambler's Magazine and Theatrical Register, and The New Englander.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 12:]

1  Boston Gazette, March 21, 1808.

2  Ibid. April 18, 1808.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 14:]

1  Ingram, i, 6.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 15:]

1  The Virginia Patriot, November 29, 1811.

2  The Enquirer, November 29, 1811.





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