A TELL-TALE HEART?

Poe Edgar Allen

By Richard P. Howe Jr.
July 16, 2012

Almost from the moment of its founding as a town in 1826, Lowell was a prime destination for visitors from across the country and the world.  

 
President Andrew Jackson in 1833, English writer Charles Dickens in 1842, American Congressmen Davy Crockett in 1834 and Abraham Lincoln in 1848 are just some of the celebrities who visited the city.
 
While Lowell was most notable as a manufacturing mecca, it was also the cultural hub North of Boston for all of New England. It was in that context that internationally acclaimed poet and writer Edgar Allan Poe came to the city to lecture in 1848.
Edgar Poe was born in Boston in 1811. After his father abandoned him, his mother died leaving Poe young and alone. Somehow he came under the care of John Allan, a wealthy merchant from Richmond, Virginia.  
 
Allan never formally adopted Edgar although he did give him his middle name. Edgar had a rocky relationship with the Allan family, bouncing from school to school and enlisting in the army before publishing his first story in 1827.
 
In 1835, Poe at age 24 married his first cousin, 13 year old Virginia Clemm. By all accounts, the couple had a wonderful relationship throughout their married lives.
 
Virginia-Clemm-Poe copy
Virgina Clemm Poe

The publication of “The Raven” in 1845 brought Poe international acclaim but it was accompanied by personal pain: Virginia contracted tuberculosis and died on January 30, 1847.  

 
Sorrow over the loss of his wife caused Poe’s drinking to escalate and he soon fell upon hard times financially.
In 1848, Poe hit the lecture circuit to resuscitate his finances, coming to Lowell at the invitation of Mrs. John G. Locke.  Poe’s presentation on “Poets and Poetry in America” was a great success.
 
A young teacher in the audience named Bardwell Heywood who was also related to Mrs. Locke, had this to say about the evening in a subsequent letter to a friend:
“Twas a brilliant affair in the course of which [Poe] recited specimens of the best poetry America ever produced, paying a passing tribute to their respective authors.  After the lecture he came to my sister’s home and spent the remainder of the evening and part of the next day.”
Heywood’s sister was Nancy Locke Heywood Richmond, who was married to Charles Richmond, a wealthy Lowell businessman. Poe apparently became entranced by Nancy Richmond and she reciprocated his affection, spiritually if not physically.
 
Poe Nancy Richmond
Nancy “Annie” Lockwood Richmond

Poe returned to Lowell in October 1848 when he spent three days with the Richmonds and again at the end of May 1849, when he spent a week.

 
Poe and Nancy were inseparable during his Lowell visits and his many letters to her gave tangible form to his feelings for Nancy, whom he called Annie for some reason.
After the death of his wife, Poe seemed to harbor a fear of dying alone which was one of the topics of his correspondence with Nancy.
 
Eventually, he wrote a poem dedicated to her called “For Annie.”  
 
The poem is dark, describing end of life suffering and pain until it reaches the final stanza:
But my heart it is brighter
Than all of the many
Stars in the sky
For it sparkles with Annie
It glows with the light of the love of my Annie
With the thought of the light
Of the eyes of my Annie

When Poe sent Nancy Richmond a copy of “For Annie” he included a note in which he called the poem “much the best I have ever written,” an assessment with which more than a few critics concur.

Nancy and Edgar’s relationship, whatever it was, came to an end in October 1849.  Poe had traveled to Baltimore on business and was found staggering incoherently through the streets.
 
After several days of unconsciousness in a Baltimore hospital, he died on October 7, 1849.
Commentators are divided in their assessment of the Nancy-Edgar relationship. Some mention Nancy only as an acquaintance in Lowell, with whom Poe corresponded.
 
Others see it as a passionate though Platonic relationship. None suggest it went beyond that.
Before readers arrive at their own conclusions, it’s important to note that while Poe was visiting and corresponding with Nancy Richmond, he was engaged to not one but two different women.
 
In 1848 he proposed to Mrs. Sarah Whitman of Providence, a wealthy widow who was also a well-known poet.
 
Poe Sarah Whitman
Sarah Whitman 

Whitman accepted at first but eventually withdrew her acceptance at the urging of her mother and because of her own doubts about Poe’s commitment to her and to sobriety.
 
The next summer while in Richmond, Poe proposed to Mrs. Sarah Elmira Shelton, another wealthy widow.
 
She accepted and was actually in the midst of planning their wedding when Poe made his final, fatal journey to Baltimore.
Poe Sarah Shelton
Sarah Shelton

As for Nancy, shortly after Poe’s initial visit to Lowell, she traveled by herself to New York City to visit Mrs. Clemm, the mother of Poe’s deceased wife.
 
There is no evidence that Poe was present during the visit but there is also no evidence that he was elsewhere.
 
We also have no evidence of Mr. Charles Richmond’s  reaction to Mr. Poe’s visits to his home and correspondence with his wife.
 
Surviving letters from Bardwell Heyward, Nancy’s brother, make clear that during all three Poe visits, the entire extended Richmond family was also present, mesmerized by the famous poet’s pronouncements on the state of American letters.  
 
Still, we do know that shortly after Charles Richmond died in 1873, his widow Nancy petitioned the probate court to legally change her name from Nancy to Annie, the name of the poem written by Poe decades before.
 
For the rest of her life – she lived until 1898 – Nancy Richmond was Annie Richmond which is also the name that appears on her headstone at Lowell Cemetery.
 
Richard P. Howe Jr. is the Register of Deeds of the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds.  He is a graduate of Providence College and Suffolk University Law School and holds an MA in History from Salem State University. In the early 1980s, he served as a US Army Intelligence Officer in Germany.

 Howe is the creator of richardhowe.com, a widely read blog about Lowell history and politics. Three years ago, he succeeded the late Catherine Goodwin as the official tour guide of Lowell Cemetery.  He has lectured frequently on the American Civil War and its impact on the city of Lowell and surrounding communities.

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