The Poe Uncertainties: His Birthplace

Let Them Eat Crow

There once was a chef born in Boston
Whose stews were composed in a sauce-tin.
Great measures of thyme
With spices that rhyme
Made tasty that raven he tossed in.

I had hoped this poem might inch me toward settling the mystery of exactly who authored The Lost Limericks of Edgar Allan Poe. In my research on Poe, I came across an interesting debate over his birthplace. Some claim that, yes, he was born in Boston, and that has now become the consensus view. However, for about a century following Poe’s death, others countered this claim by insisting that Baltimore is the correct city.

Here’s a dateline of the debate.

1827

Tamerlane and Other Poems is considered Poe’s first publication. The cover identifies the author only as “a Bostonian.” Is this a clue of Poe’s roots, or was the author or publisher hoping to add a bit of gravitas to the pamphlet by suggesting it came from the city that was becoming the literary center of the U.S.? Or both?

1845

In late October of 1845, Poe had accepted an invitation to recite one of his poems at the Boston Lyceum. There was a less-than-flattering review of the recitation, and Poe wrote a rebuttal in The Broadway Journal, where he was editor. He clarifies his views of Boston, which are equally less than flattering. Using “we” to mean himself (a custom of the era), Poe writes:

We like Boston. We were born there — and perhaps it is just as well not to mention that we are heartily ashamed of the fact. The Bostonians are very well in their way. Their hotels are bad. Their pumpkin pies are delicious. Their poetry is not so good. Their common is no common thing — and the duck-pond might answer — if its answer could be heard for the frogs.

It’s hard to know exactly how snarky he’s being here. Poe could be very snarky. But his confessing to having been born in Boston seems fairly straightforward.

It’s looking pretty much like, according to Poe himself, he was born in Boston, right? Well, at least one Poe website mentions that Poe also proclaimed that Baltimore was his birthplace. Unfortunately, when and where he did that is not noted, and I’m too new to researching the issue to have found a source that confirms it.

Broadway Journal banner
The masthead of the The Broadway Journal, where Poe reluctantly admits to having been born in Boston.

1850

Poe died in 1849, and his first noteworthy biography was written by his literary rival Rufus Griswold, a man who held a grudge. The biography is notorious for painting Poe as a friendless moral degenerate, and it also says that “Edgar Poe . . . was born in Baltimore, in January, 1811 . . .” (xxiii). Both the place and the year became points of contention.

What led Griswold to make this statement? It’s probably impossible to say, but one theory is he trusted a self-profile Poe had once written for him. Along with far more flagrant self-aggrandizing, Poe puts 1811 as the year of his birth. He doesn’t actually state a birthplace, but he points out that his family was from Baltimore — which is true. Maybe Griswold assumed that, since earlier Poes had settled in Baltimore, that’s where Edgar was born (even though he points out that Edgar’s parents were traveling actors).

1874

John H. Ingram then attempted to outshine Griswold’s vindictive, error-ridden biography of Poe with one much more fair and factual. Unfortunately, he introduced new errors and repeated some of the old ones in his own memoir of the author. Ingram states, “Edgar Allan Poe was born in Baltimore, on the 19th of February of 1809” (xiii). Well, he got the year right.

1876

Ingram was determined to get the facts straightened out, and a subsequent version of his memoir says Poe was born in Boston (xi). About the same year, Eugene L. Didier was telling readers: “Edgar Poe, the second son of David Poe, Jr., was born in Boston on the 19th of January, 1809, while his parents were fulfilling a theatrical engagement in that city.

1880

This origin story appears to have stuck. It’s retold in E.C. Stedman’s 1880 book-length biography titled Edgar Allan Poe. The same year, the ever-diligent Ingram released his own titled Edgar Allan Poe: His Life, Letters, and Opinions. Based on my initial research, this is one of the first sources, if not the first, to introduce an anecdote about Poe inheriting a painting done by his talented mother. Boston Harbor: Morning, 1808 was its title, and on the back, Elizabeth Poe had written: “For my little son Edgar, who should ever love Boston, the place of his birth, and where his mother found her best and most sympathetic friends.” Certainly, this is the smoking gun — if it’s true.

But is it true? Let’s come back to that in a moment.

1024px-Fitz_Henry_Lane_-_Boston_Harbor_-_Google_Art_Project
Alas, this painting titled Boston Harbor (1854) is by Fitz Henry Lane, not by Elizabeth Poe.

1885

George E. Woodberry wrote yet another biography of Poe, and it follows the narrative of Poe’s birth that Ingram and Didier had established in 1876. However, this work refers to an important newspaper notice that had originally appeared on February 9, 1809, in the Boston Gazette. That notice congratulates theater goers “on the recovery of Mrs. Poe from her recent confinement” and announces her return to the stage. In other words, here was substantial evidence that 1) Elizabeth Poe was in Boston during the first months of 1809 and 2) in January, she had been “confined” from acting for a while. Presumably, giving birth to Edgar was the reason why.

1909

Once the 19th century had turned into the 20th, the claim that Poe had been born in 1809, not 1811, carried enough weight that his centennial was celebrated in 1909. But not everyone was convinced that his birth had occurred in Boston. In February of that year, Elizabeth Ellicott Poe revitalized the thesis that Baltimore was Edgar’s birthplace. She did it in an article for Cosmopolitan magazine that shouldered this hefty title: “Poe, the Weird Genius: An Authentic and Intimate Account of the Personality and Life of the Most Tragic Figure in American Literary History, Written by a Member of His Own Family.”

There, with fancified syntax, the writer proclaims, “To Baltimore belongs the right to call him son.” Knowing the point was debatable, she devotes a paragraph to the evidence:

Briefly summarized, the proofs of Poe’s Baltimore birth are as follows: The evidence of relatives; the fact that he was in Baltimore when two days old when Boston was a week’s coach-journey distant; the testimony of Mrs. Beard; his own statements in memoranda prepared for Mr. Griswold and verbally given to other witnesses; the Encyclopedia Britannica, Allibone’s “Dictionary of Authors,” and all English biographers and school-records; the better-informed American biographers; the Baltimore Sun notice of his death; and the traditional record of his birthplace kept in the family.

It’s easy to spot holes in this list of proofs. The memoranda prepared for Griswold was probably that exaggerated self-profile Poe wrote, which only says his family is from Baltimore. Griswold’s mistakes were repeated by others, accounting for the encyclopedia and dictionary statements. Ingram was prominent among those English biographers, and he had converted to Team Boston decades earlier. The family records that begin and end the list appear to have been contradicted by a relative who probably new Edgar better than almost anyone: his aunt and later mother-in-law, Maria Clemm. In The Poe Cult — also published in 1909 — Didier reports that Clemm informed him personally that Edgar had been born in Boston.

The Literary Digest must have pounced on Cosmopolitan’s February article because, in their January 30 issue, they offer a summary of that article. Beside it, they report that an antiquarian named Walter Kendall Watkins had recently supported the Boston claim with reference to the Gazette theatrical notices that Woodberry had nodded to back in 1885. We’re given more specifics about those notices, though, and the case they make was convincing enough that a 1909 publication called Edgar Allan Poe: A Centenary Tribute includes them.

This really seems to confirm that Poe was born in Boston. That Centenary Tribute leaves us with another uncertainty, though. It might be a comparatively minor one. Right after discussing the reports on Elizabeth Poe’s return to the stage, readers are told the anecdote about Edgar inheriting a piece of art from his mother. On the back is his mother’s request that he “love Boston, the place of his birth.” However, now — instead of a painting of Boston Harbor — the artwork is a “miniature of herself.” This version of the anecdote also appears on the website of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore.

So it goes. Poe research leads from one uncertainty to another. And I’ve gotten no further in my quest to determine if Poe is the actual author of The Lost Limericks of Edgar Allan Poe. All I know is that the author of those 100 limericks was someone who agreed that Poe had been born in Boston. And that’s an awful lot of people.

I suspect that, somewhere, Edgar is snickering at me.

Creepy GIF-source

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