Antebellum Petersburg was a melting pot of French, Haitian, Scotch-Irish, and free black populations. It was in this eclectic city that the master of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe, chose to take his new wife, thirteen-year-old first cousin Virginia Clemm, on their honeymoon in 1836.
This book traces the steps of the controversial couple through imaginative scenes of historic Petersburg. From Poe’s own mother performing in the local venues to the poet’s lasting friendship with Petersburg native and publisher Hiram Haines, it reveals an overlooked moment in the young life of this literary giant.
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Bringing Back the Dead
I confess. I was never Edgar Allan Poe's biggest fan. I respected his place among American poets but pretty much left what I'd read behind in high school. Too many Hammer films, too much Vincent Price had long dissociated me from the body of work that went so far beyond "A Cask of Amontillado" and "The Raven." Over time, the words of my favorite authors — Borges, Camus, Miller and Mishima — became sacrosanct. Poe, somehow, seemed more Halloween than hallowed.
When I moved to Petersburg eight years ago, everything changed. Many aspects of Petersburg seem illogical, if not downright surreal. Not the least of these is the fact that the town possesses more fascinating history per square foot than virtually anywhere on the planet — history that is largely unsung and unknown.
With its riverside site and abundant historic architecture, the town's potential seemed boundless. But its chronic inability to tap into that potential can tax one's patience. In time, some folks just pack up and leave — unless they find a reason to stay. For me, it was Poe.
From the outset, locals told me that Poe had spent his honeymoon at what is now 12 West Bank Street. Furthermore, his parents were actors who performed in one of the many theaters in a vibrant, prosperous Petersburg before he was born. So why were there no historic markers, no tours for Poe fans, no proof of all this beyond an oral tradition?
As if compelled by otherworldly forces, Poe's honeymoon quietly became my secret obsession. Where was the proof, I wondered? If the site was bona fide, I felt perversely compelled to acquire it before someone else did.
I decided to approach the owner, who had quietly done much to revitalize Petersburg through the years. She rarely sold a building, but when she did, it was to someone who cared about history and the town's future. Over lunch, I laid out my plans. The owner knew about the alleged Poe connection and was pleased that I had done some homework. It looked like we might be able to strike a deal when the time was right, and that time might be sooner rather than later.
"Be careful what you wish for," I reminded myself. There was still the matter of actually proving that Poe and Virginia had honeymooned at the building that now seemed within reach.
Months passed, and I was given the opportunity to explore the building. While the street-level retail space had been leased for some time, the upper levels of No. 12 far surpassed my expectations. It had not been inhabited by anyone for many decades. Aside from crude electrical conduits outside the ceilings and primitive bathrooms with claw-foot tubs, the rooms looked just as they did in 1814 when they were constructed. Unlike so many Petersburg buildings, it had never been pillaged; the heart pine floors were remarkably intact, protected in part by piecemeal remnants of art deco linoleum. At the ceilings, hand- carved dentil moldings were in place and untouched. Of the six fireplace mantels, one with an early shell motif stood proudly against a wall like a relic of Monticello. Remarkably, much of the soft green peeling paint in every room was in fact original. Horsehairs within the ancient plaster confirmed the period of construction. This faded elegance seemed almost habitable but for the layers of dust and pigeon droppings accumulated through the ages.
In addition, an oversized second-level door opened to a curious walkway, which, crossing a silent and dark chasm below, led to a second building few people even knew about. There was a complete rear structure that served as a bakery at some point. The ovens had collapsed into rubble, and a roof now covered the space between the two structures. A little light revealed the dark chasm to be a magical enclosed courtyard between the two brick buildings.
Digging For Truth
Whether I could afford the building — and a six-figure restoration — was one issue. Whether it was as historic as suggested was another. I had to know the truth, either way.
The scant historical facts about Poe's honeymoon provided the point of departure. Poe married his thirteen-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm, when he learned that her mother (Poe's aunt Maria) was considering sending her away with a wealthy relative. Marrying her was the way to keep his beloved child companion close.
They wed in Richmond in 1836 and then proceeded to Petersburg for their honeymoon. Most biographies end there, with Poe heading back to work at the Southern Literary Messenger. It is, for sure, a touchy subject, even today. Some accounts, in Poe's defense, claim the marriage was not consummated for years. Witnesses recall Poe and Virginia playing leapfrog in Richmond parks, behaving more like young playmates than husband and wife.
Trying to learn much beyond these accounts online led to an informational vacuum. But the Library of Virginia and the Petersburg Courthouse held clues. Handwritten records including little WPA make-work biographies on index cards, Poe's known correspondence, typewritten personal histories and 1930s journals of the College of William and Mary provided tidbits that collectively completed a historical puzzle.
The image revealed was that of Hiram Haines, poet and editor of the local newspaper, a man with whom Poe had corresponded regularly — the man who hosted Edgar and Virginia's honeymoon at his Petersburg tavern.
A Poet's Poet
To me, historic preservation means more than shoring up old buildings. It means remembering the people who inhabited those buildings, the lives they led, the things they thought. Poe's friend Hiram Haines was indeed a man worth remembering. His Coffee House or "restorative," a place for food, drink and lodging, hosted not only Poe but also intellectuals, poets, journalists and politicians at a time when the country was still young, still defining its place in the world at large, politically and artistically.
As a teenager, Haines wrote and read aloud a poem written for the Marquis de Lafayette during the Frenchman's 1824 visit to Petersburg. Later, Haines self-published a book of poems, one of the first to draw attention to the state of Virginia's natural beauty. In time he became editor of the American Constellation while Poe was editing the Messenger in Richmond. It was during this time that the friendship developed. A mutual love of poetry and the need to promote each other's publications brought them together on several occasions and prompted regular correspondence. (In one letter, Haines offers Poe and Virginia the gift of a fawn, which the couple declined.) Both men died at about age forty. One of Haines' four children went on to edit the Baltimore Sun. Virginia Clemm died at age twenty-five, two years before Poe, and is largely considered the inspiration behind Poe's famous poem "Annabelle Lee."
If confirmed, the building in question needed more than a plaque, I realized, more than a paragraph in a guidebook. The place that existed in 1836 needed to return to present-day Petersburg. Hiram Haines' Coffee House, a poet's tavern, demanded more than remembering. It required resurrection.
What Dreams May Come
As my body of collected evidence grew, so did my enthusiasm. Still, some locals claimed that the honeymoon site was destroyed long ago. Some reference materials pointed to "East," not West, Bank Street. Yet others claimed that the couple stayed at Haines' home, not his Coffee House. Then, in an off-limits room in the Petersburg Courthouse, a kind of Holy of Holies place for the older, more fragile documents, I found the answer I sought.
In the old deed books, written records and little hand-drawn diagrams showed the place clearly on Bank Street, off Sycamore where the adjacent buildings all still exist in a row. Clear as day, the words "Haines Coffee House" appeared on building number 3, and to my surprise and delight, Haines' "manse" or house was right next door. There was no East Bank Street in 1836, though today the buildings are 12 and 16 West Bank. I later observed that the buildings were interconnected on all levels through doorways that were filled in. So those who said he stayed at Haines' house or his Coffee House were both correct.
The couple spent close to two weeks in Petersburg, according to several accounts. While other small-edition books further confirm the Coffee House as the place they returned to each evening, the fact that Haines lived with a wife, a mother-in-law, four children ages one to eight and probably a few barnyard animals left the Coffee House rooms, designed for visitors, the only logical option, even without further proof.
I retained this secret knowledge for many months, as I fell into the habit of staring at the building from a distance nearly every day. I imagined carriages pulling up to the Coffee House on muddy streets of the 1830s. I envisioned curtains blowing in the open windows and the look of the original lower-level façade, hints of which I had seen in early insurance drawings. I looked up at the windows and imagined Edgar and Virginia looking out onto the street on a moonlit night.
I thought of the other "poets' taverns" in the world: the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village, where Dylan Thomas had taken his last drink and I had taken my first; Les Deux Magot, where Oscar Wilde sipped absinthe and Sartre explored existential nausea; and Harry's Bar, of Hemingway lore. And as I sat and pined over a building, the dream of a literary tavern, a revival of Hiram Haines' original Coffee House, his restorative, somehow began to restore my very soul.
I fed this desire by studying Poe. Having slighted him early in life, I committed myself to reading everything he had ever written and most of his existing biographies as well. I soon realized how much I had missed all these years, not only from a cultural literacy standpoint but from a personal one as well.
Poe suffered things that could not be put into words. His characters often reflected a sense of unreality and anxiety that I myself had explored in the book I coauthored with a psychiatrist in 2004, Feeling Unreal: Depersonalization Disorder and the Loss of the Self. Poe, almost certainly, experienced fleeting if not chronic depersonalization — a relentless sense of detachment and dissociation from reality that is often misdiagnosed as depression. Many gifted people use writing to express this condition, as a way of creating some kind of reality. Often, self-medication with alcohol or drugs offers a temporary sense of ego, of self, while ultimately worsening the situation overall. Reading Poe completely, in light of the psychological material I had studied for so long, helped me connect with him on a level that would not have been possible otherwise.
In 2010, when I resurrected Hiram Haines' establishment as Hiram Haines Coffee and Ale House, I was confident that Hiram and his friend Edgar would feel right at home. This is the untold story of their friendship and the people and places of the town they came to know well.CHAPTER 2
A Thriving Antebellum Town
It lies on the banks of the Appomattox River, roughly twenty miles south of Richmond where Interstate Highways 85 and 95 intersect. Established as a trading post in the seventeenth century, Petersburg, by the 1830s, was a thriving river town, a crazy quilt of cultures with more theaters, racetracks, taverns and boardinghouses than any town of comparable size. In time it grew to become the state's fifth-largest city and a major center for tobacco, ironwork, flour, furniture, publishing and new ideas.
Today, many of its historic structures remain, including more antebellum houses, restored or in disrepair, than any other city in the region. Despite pockets of intense capital investment by individuals, as well as corporate groups seeking valuable tax credits, Petersburg's historic Old Towne remains a historic venue that has yet to be discovered by the world at large. The city overall, which includes five historic districts, has suffered years of financial and sociological problems. But it wasn't always like this. Through most of the nineteenth century and half of the twentieth, Petersburg was a thriving river town and a hub of artistic, political and social activity for the region. And it is due for a comeback.
Few places on earth enjoy the potential, the architecture and the burgeoning sense of rebirth that Petersburg is beginning to celebrate. Most cities offer only sporadic glimpses of their history; Petersburg's streets place you right back into it, block after block. Many of the homes and business structures that Edgar Allan Poe and Virginia Clemm passed as they strolled through town in May 1836 still remain, much as they were. Unlike most places Poe lived, he would surely recognize Petersburg.
Like many of the earliest American settlements that grew into towns, Petersburg was born on the banks of a river, in this case the Appomattox, providing a natural trade route leading into the James River and the open seas beyond. Native Americans, under the domain of the ruler Powhatan, first tapped into the region's natural resources. Increased population in the seventeenth century brought the establishment of parishes, trading posts and eventually forts. In time, trading with the Native Americans as a livelihood became secondary to the cultivation of tobacco.
Peter Jones' trading post, circa 1670 — the ruins of which are a tourist attraction in Old Towne Petersburg — marks what many historians consider to be the origin of the name "Petersburg." As counties were carved out, what was to become Petersburg was known as Bristol Parish, established in 1643. Its pivotal structure, Blandford Church (1735–37), not only survives today but also serves as one of Petersburg's major tourist attractions. Located in the sprawling and historic Blandford Cemetery, the church is one of only a few adorned completely with stained-glass windows created by L.C. Tiffany himself. Each window, installed at the turn of the nineteenth century, represents one of the Confederate states through stunning depictions of biblical saints.
In 1748, the towns of Petersburg and Blandford were incorporated.
By the mid-eighteenth century, the architectural bar was set high through the construction of Battersea, the earliest surviving example of a five-part Robert Morris–style Palladian house form in the United States. Built by John Bannister, the first mayor of Petersburg, and currently preserved by the Battersea Foundation, the structure was one of many large estates that proliferated at the time and still exist, often in private hands. It is suggested that Thomas Jefferson may well have assisted in its design.
As Petersburg grew in size and stature, it played a role in the Revolutionary War as well. The British occupied it twice, but the 1781 Battle of Petersburg proved that the Virginia militia could take on hopeless odds and engage the best army in the world. As in most other towns, some Tories and Scottish merchants liked things as they had been, doing successful business with the Brits. But the majority of citizens were Patriots on the side of independence, despite the hardships such a stance promised to bring.
General Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee, father of Robert E. Lee, explained why there was a Battle of Petersburg and emphasized the town's strategic importance at the time:
Petersburg, the great mart of that section of the state which lies south of the Appomattox, and of the northern part of North Carolina, stands upon its banks about twelve miles from City Point; and after the destruction of Norfolk, ranked first among the commercial towns of the state. Its chief export was tobacco, considered our best product, and at this time its warehouses were filled. In addition were some public stores; as this town, being most convenient to the army of Green, had become a place of depot for all imported supplies required for southern operations.
In April 1781, British general William Phillips and his army, bent on destroying tobacco reserves, marched on Petersburg. One thousand Virginians, mostly militia, faced more than twice their number. After several hours of fighting, the Americans moved across Pocahontas Bridge and then burned it, stopping the British pursuit. Afterward, Thomas Jefferson praised "this initiation of our militia into the business of war."
General Muhlenburger, in charge of operations locally, noted, "The militia behaved with a spirit and resolution which would have done honor to veterans." Even though the British took over the town, it wasn't done easily, and the men fighting in Petersburg showed that they could not only fight courageously but slyly.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Edgar Allan Poe's Petersburg"
Copyright © 2013 Jeffrey Abugel.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 Bringing Back the Dead 9
2 A Thriving Antebellum Town 17
3 Eliza Poe Sets the Stage 32
4 The Miller and the Countess (and Other Lovers) 45
5 Friends and Poetry Lovers 56
6 The Real Hiram Haines 74
7 The Honeymoon 90
8 Postmortem 115
About the Author 127