Poe’s Shockoe - The Lovely Ladies
by Alyson Taylor-White
Every dark and dreary January, hundreds of faithful fans flock to Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom to celebrate the birth of the nation’s most talented, and perhaps quirkiest author. The great news for us is that we claim him even though he was born in Boston. Clustered against the cold, they crowd into the ancient brick Poe Shrine, and after heaving a collective sigh, extinguish the many candles on Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday cake. This year he would have turned 208.
Eager enthusiasts of Edgar Allan Poe await the cutting of the
birthday cake by a proxy Poe. Photo/Kelly Keener.
After a daylong celebration filled with reenactments, readings, and related hubbub, it’s always fun to imagine what Poe himself would think about all this. In particular, what would Poe think his hometown of Richmond, Virginia today?
Fortunately for us, even though two centuries have passed since he grew up here, it is easy to see and experience many of the same sights and sounds he did. Nowhere is this more evident than places with the word “Shockoe” in them. Poe lived for the most part with his foster parents John and Frances Allan in several places in and around Shockoe Hill’s neighborhoods of Court End and Gamble’s Hill. Poe played, fished, ran and swam around Shockoe Bottom, Shockoe Creek, and the James River. As a teenager, he set a six-mile record swimming against the current of the rocky James. And just about everybody he loved, and a few he did not love, are buried at Shockoe Hill Cemetery.
Map of Poe’s Richmond. From Edgar Allan Poe: the Man, by Mary Phillips, 1926
Like a lot of other famous Richmond sons and daughters, stories and legends abound about Poe. “I am a Virginian,” he once wrote a friend. “Or at least I call myself one.” Local lore is rich with tales about him that are mostly true, partly true, or almost as good as the truth.
The grave of Jane Stanard, Poe’s inspiration for “To Helen.” Photo/author.
If we could somehow place Poe right in front of Monumental Church on Broad Street, he would be able to figure out his way around Richmond fairly easily. The church would be very familiar to him. Inside is the pew where he and his foster mother Frances Keeling Valentine Allan worshipped. As many people know, Monumental stands on the site of the horrific 1811 theater fire that claimed the lives of 72 victims. Worshipping there as a boy, Poe would have been aware of the grim fact that the theater fire victims are entombed in a crypt beneath the church. Both of Poe’s birth parents had performed as actors in that theater. He later fantasized that they were killed in that famous inferno, but it simply was not the case.
Just a short distance away is a place Poe knew well. Shockoe Hill Cemetery was created in 1822 and is the first city-owned cemetery. As old St. John’s Churchyard filled, city officials looked around for space for public and private burials. They found an available parcel to the west of the city, near the Alms House, Hebrew Burial Ground, and the burial ground for free and enslaved persons of color. It is at today’s 4th and Hospital Streets.
If fate had been kinder to Poe, and to the rest of us, he would have lived a good, long life, written a lot more, and would enjoy eternal rest there as well. If you know anything about his biography, however, you will know that fate was seldom if ever kind to him. Nonetheless, it is easy to speculate where he would be buried. He would, and should be right next to his long Lost Lenore, his first and last fiancée, Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton. Perhaps one day he will be. There are several precedents for this. Richmonders have never been hesitant to retrieve someone and reassign them where they want them.*
We are fortunate in that there is an embarrassment of riches in Poe landmarks all over Richmond, but Shockoe Hill Cemetery is a great place to explore in order to really get to know him. Located in Jackson Ward, the original cemetery entrance is through an old ornamental front gate on Hospital Street. Originally intended for the city’s elite, the New Burial Ground as it was originally called, was carefully laid out in a grid pattern like Richmond itself. Careful efforts went into choosing trees and other plants according to the symbolism of floriography, then in full bloom. Neighbors from upscale city sections like Court End, Capitol Square, and Gamble’s Hill reserved park like plots near their friends and family. It also served as a burial place for less fortunate individuals, as this was the only public cemetery available for years. Old St. John’s Churchyard had long since filled. Consequently, there are parts of town in Shockoe Hill, just like the city that surrounded it. Some sections are obviously more affluent with expensive, elegantly carved tombstones. Others are barren of any markers whatsoever.
Edgar Allan Poe knew a lot of folks who ended up in Shockoe Hill Cemetery. They were his neighbors, his playmates growing up, his foster family, and his sweethearts. The most famous resident, and one who Poe certainly knew personally was Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, the longest serving Chief Justice of the United States. Poe may have had a passing acquaintance with a woman who would go on to be known as the Yankee Spy, Elizabeth Van Lew. She lived in a huge mansion in one of Richmond’s oldest and most exclusive enclaves, Church Hill. His beloved Elmira Shelton lived just east of the Van Lews on Grace Street in a house she rented from them.
An early 20th century illustration of Poe.
One persistent local legend tied to Poe concerns the grave of an individual who probably inspired his uniquely weird version of a female protagonist. We can take pride in the fact that most likely he cultivated his peculiar perspective right here in Richmond. Even as a teenager, Poe knew he was more than slightly different. His parents had both been actors, not the most stable of pedigrees. His nouveau riche foster parents John and Frances Allan never formerly adopted him. From an early age, he had a sense of being on the edge of Richmond’s comfortable middle class, yet never really belonging. He grew up as the ultimate outsider.
When he was in his mid teens, Poe accompanied a friend home one day to Rob Stanard’s house near Capitol Square. There he was struck by the stunning good looks of Rob’s mother, Jane Stith Craig Stanard. He later told poet Helen Whitman that Jane Stanard was his first truly ideal love. It was certainly a platonic bond, since she was twice his age. He also later revealed that her beauty was such that when he first saw her, he almost lost consciousness. Stanard married into an affluent family, and came from Richmond nobility herself. Her father was Adam Craig, the Henrico County Clerk of Court whose house, possibly where Jane was born, still stands in Shockoe Bottom. Jane Stanard was perfect for Poe. She was beautiful. She was kind. She offered him the unconditional attention all teenagers crave. And she probably encouraged his writing. He became intensely smitten with her. As if on cue, she became mysteriously ill, went insane, and tragically died. Those who could remember, and some who thought they could, recalled seeing Poe meandering mournfully to Shockoe Hill Cemetery after her death. There he was seen kneeling or sometimes weeping inconsolably at her grave. Future heroines of his would resemble Jane Stanard. They were often intellectual, beautiful, and dying or even deceased. They haunted his narrators (and readers) from the grave. Poe admitted that his passionate poem To Helen was dedicated to her.From childhood’s hour I have not beenAs others were—I have not seenAs others saw—I could not bringMy passions from a common spring—From the same source I have not takenMy sorrow—I could not awakenMy heart to joy at the same tone—And all I lov’d—I lov’d alone—Then—in my childhood—in the dawnOf a most stormy life—was drawnFrom ev’ry depth of good and illThe mystery which binds me still—From the torrent, or the fountain—From the red cliff of the mountain—From the sun that ’round me roll’dIn its autumn tint of gold—From the lightning in the skyAs it pass’d me flying by—From the thunder, and the storm—And the cloud that took the form(When the rest of Heaven was blue)Of a demon in my view—
Elmira’s house in Church Hill where Poe courted her in 1849. Photo/author.
His foster mother Frances Allan was another significant woman in Poe’s life. Sadly, she died when he was away from home. Always a sickly woman, according to the cemetery records, asthma finally caused her death. Poe arrived home too late for her funeral. She’d been the only real mother he’d known when she and John Allan took the baby Poe into their home in 1811. While she adored and spoiled her foster son, John Allan was said to have been dour and stern with him, perhaps natural to his Scottish roots. As Poe aged, the relationship with he and his “Pa” deteriorated, perhaps due to Allan’s known dalliances with other women in Richmond. After Frances died, animosity with John Allan grew over support that Poe felt entitled to as the foster son of a wealthy merchant. Relations further chilled when, within a brief period, Allan married a much younger woman who produced three legitimate male heirs in quick succession. The second Mrs. Allan would not allow Poe in the house. The foster son and father never reconciled, and Poe was not left anything in the estate. It is worth noting that the second Mrs. Allan outlived her husband by quite a few years. It is worth noting that her tombstone is much larger that her predecessor. There in the family plot John Allan lies between his two wives.
The gravesite of Poe’s foster parents the Allans. Photo/Jeffry Burden.
Down the hill in an unmarked grave lies a girl who danced divinely with Poe. When he returned to Richmond for a job as editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, young Poe briefly squired publisher Thomas White’s daughter Eliza around the fashionable social scene. They created quite a complimentary contrast, twirling and swirling around ballrooms in Richmond with her long blond hair, and with his dark, dramatic good looks. Observers said the only emotion he betrayed on the dance floor was in his large gray eyes. Southern Literary Messenger owner Thomas White gave Poe his first journalism job. This launched Poe as an acerbic critic on an unsuspecting literary stage. His fierce criticism would earn him the sobriquet of “the Tomahawk Man.” White often speculated that Poe only read other authors in order to eviscerate them editorially. It is said that White forbad his editor from pursuing his dear daughter Eliza. Whether or not this is the case, she remained unmarried to the end of her days. She was one of the few wedding guests present at Poe’s wedding in Richmond to his cousin, Virginia Clemm. Though Eliza White’s grave is unmarked, a memento mori of hers may be seen at the Poe Museum in the form of a large lock of her flaxen hair.
Poe’s love life begins and ends with Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton. While it is a fact that from an early age, Poe was in love with the idea of love, he most likely really did have affection for Elmira. They were teenagers when they first became secretly engaged in a garden on the site of what is today’s Linden Row Inn. Then they became unengaged as soon as her father caught wind of it. Like a lot of parents, Royster thought his daughter could do better than an alliance with a penniless orphan. Even though the Allans spared no expense in raising Poe, it was common knowledge around town that there was no love lost between the boy and his foster father. That might have been because of the fact that Allan had well-known dalliances with women other than his wife that resulted in illegitimate offspring. While Poe was at Mr. Jefferson’s new university at Charlottesville, Elmira’s father intercepted their love letters. She said later it was because her father thought them too young for such a serious commitment. She eventually married a prosperous man her family chose as a more suitable match. However happy she might have been, it did not prevent her from wistfully wondering what might have been when she saw Poe squiring his young bride Virginia around town. Elmira said she had to remind herself that she herself was a married woman. Suppressed desires can sometimes be the most irresistible. It is likely had things gone her way in 1849, Elmira and Poe would have married when he returned to his hometown and settled down as a successful author. By that time, she was a wealthy widow, and he’d been a widower since 1847. Unfortunately for her and for us, Poe left his fiancée in Richmond allegedly on a business trip, promising to return, never to do so. To add insult to injury, Elmira learned of his sudden mysterious death in Baltimore by reading about it in the paper. Of all of Poe’s lovely ladies in Shockoe Hill Cemetery, Elmira’s tabletop marker gets the most attention. It is often covered with stones and other mementoes for remembrance from Poe fans visiting from all over the world.
There are many more stories about both Poe and others to explore in a historic landmark like Shockoe Hill Cemetery. These tombstone tales also reveal a lot about early Richmond, Virginia that are seldom found elsewhere.
*Ask James Monroe, who was happily dead and buried in New York when the developers of Hollywood Cemetery repatriated his remains when they needed a celebrity to promote burials to their new, private necropolis on the James.
- Alyson Taylor-White
Allyson is a historian and instructor of Richmond and Petersburg history at the University of Richmond. History Press will publish her book on Richmond’s Shockoe Hill Cemetery this year.