‘I Think That You Know I Love You, As No Man Ever Loved Woman’
LOWELL -- Most fans of Edgar Allan Poe are familiar with the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death.
On Oct. 3, 1849, the author was found wandering the streets of Baltimore, ranting and incoherent. He died four days later at the age of 40.
The cause of Poe’s death has been disputed, with everything from alcoholism to rabies to suicide having been blamed for it. Whatever the cause, his mental state at the time may have been influenced by a relationship he had with a woman from Lowell in the last year of his life.
A new book by local historian Brad Parker tells that story. The book, “Poe’s Pure Beautiful Angel: Romance in Massachusetts,” available to purchase as an e-book on Amazon.com ($3.99), details how this platonic, but intense romance developed during three visits Poe made to Lowell.
Parker, a Boston resident who grew up in Chelmsford and later moved to Westford, spent a year researching this story. He said he hopes it renews interest in Poe’s connection to the Mill City.
Following the 1847 death of his wife Virginia at the age of 24, Poe hit the lecture circuit to make money. This took him to Lowell in July of 1848, where he gave a talk on American poetry on Merrimack Street.
Rather than stay in a hotel, Poe was invited to spend the evening in the Ames Street home of Charles Richmond, a wealthy paper mill owner, and his wife Nancy Richmond. They were fans of Poe’s work.
Poe and Nancy Richmond stayed up talking late into the night. A fast friendship developed into something deeper.
“Poe was desperate. He seemed to be trying to find someone to keep himself together,” said Parker. “She was good at that. She gave him the kind of warm caring attention that he needed and wanted.”
Through his research, Parker said he has found evidence that Richmond later visited Poe in Fordham, New York, where he had been living in a cottage since 1846. Poe also saw Richmond during two subsequent trips he made to Lowell, in October of 1848 and May of 1849.
In the book, Parker includes letters Poe wrote to Richmond to illustrate the intensity of their connection. Poe calls Richmond “Annie” in the letters, the reasons for which are unclear, said Parker.
In one letter to Richmond, sent in November of 1848, Poe writes: “So long as I think that you know I love you, as no man ever loved woman -- so long as I think you comprehend in some measure, the fervor with which I adore you, so long, no worldly trouble can ever render me wretched. But oh, my darling, my Annie, my own sweet sister Annie, my pure beautiful angel -- wife of my soul -- to be mine hereafter and forever in the heavens.”
While Poe was visiting and writing letters to Richmond, he proposed marriage to two other women.
The first, in 1848, was Sarah Whitman, a wealthy widow from Providence who was also an established poet. Whitman accepted, but eventually changed her mind due to her concerns with Poe’s drinking and erratic behavior. The next summer, while in Richmond, Virginia, Poe proposed to Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton, another wealthy widow. She was planning their wedding at the time of Poe’s death.
According to Parker, Poe favored “Annie” over both women.
“In fact, in one of his final letters in 1849, he said to his mother-in-law, don’t tell me anything about Annie unless you can tell me her husband is dead,” said Parker. “He would have moved right in.”
While Richmond and Poe got along famously, there is evidence Poe may have been a boorish houseguest. Richmond’s brother, a Lowell educator named Bardwell Heywood, details two incidents in which the famous author displayed a Larry David-like tendency for social faux pas.
“Annie’s brother mentions that he was serving Poe some iced cream when Poe was at Annie’s house one night, and Poe started to say that men should not sing, only women should sing,” said Parker. “And Annie’s brother was in a choral group, and he may have mentioned in a letter that he wanted to throw the dish of iced cream in Poe’s face.”
Poe also visited Westford, where Nancy Richmond’s family lived. It was there that he and Heywood climbed Prospect Hill, the highest point in Northern Middlesex County.
“Annie’s brother said that at the top of Prospect Hill, Poe looked down at the vista and said he thought it was beautiful but that it could have been better,” said Parker. “He thought that if God had dropped a silver lake down there somewhere, or a little white church with a steeple, it would have looked better.”
After her husband died in 1873, Richmond legally changed her name from Nancy to Annie. This allowed her to more closely associate herself with Poe’s poem “For Annie” and the character Annie in his story “Landor’s Cottage,” which may have been a tribute to her, said Parker.
In 1876, Richmond began sharing the letters Poe had sent her with his biographer, John Henry Ingram. Parker believes she did so to combat the public perception that Poe was depraved, which had been established in a biographical article written by Rufus Wilmot Griswold, a writer who disliked Poe.
“What (Griswold) wrote has sort of stayed with us, that Poe was a drunkard, a creature of the dark, a gothic monster,” said Parker. “In fact, he was an astute literary critic, a former magazine editor, a master of the short story, and a poet whose verses were intended to excite the soul. He was no fiend, no atheist, no debauched and rowdy barroom aficionado.”
Parker said Poe considered moving to Lowell or Westford in the last year of his life. Poe believed that living in Westford would be “a paradise,” and he relished the idea of living near Richmond’s family and being able to see her often, according to Parker. That dream ended with his death just five months after his last visit to Lowell.
Richmond died in 1898. Poe’s influence stayed with her until the end. Her gravestone in Lowell Cemetery bears the name “Annie.”
“He seemed so unlike any other person I had ever known,” she wrote of Poe, years after their dalliance. “He was incomparable, not to be measured by any ordinary standard. All the events of his life, which he narrated to me, had a flavor of unreality about them. Just like his stories.”