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Poe Museum’s Object of the Month May Hold Clue to Poe’s Mysterious Death

It is one of the stars of the Poe Museum. It has traveled the world and encountered both a U.S. president and the Queen of England. Millions of people, in fact, have seen this simple wooden walking stick. Millions more have read about it in various biographies and novels about Poe.

About thirty-six inches long, the cane is made of dark wood with a silver tip inscribed “Poe.” A hole through the shaft once held a leather strap the user would loop around the user’s wrist. This humble piece is remarkable not only because it was once owned by Edgar Allan Poe but because it might be a clue to Poe’s mysterious death.

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The first recorded mention of Poe’s walking stick is in a March 1878 article entitled “The Last Days of Edgar Allan Poe” by Susan Weiss in Scribner’s Magazine. Weiss reports that, on Poe’s last night in Richmond before his ill-fated trip to Baltimore on his way to Philadelphia, he visited the home of his friend Dr. John Carter at Seventeenth and Broad Streets in Richmond. “Late in the evening he entered the office of Dr. John Carter, and spent an hour in looking over the day’s papers; then taking Dr. Carter’s cane he went out, remarking that he would step across to Saddler’s (a fashionable restaurant) and get supper. From the circumstance of his taking the cane, leaving his own in its place, it is probable that he had intended to return; but at the restaurant he met with some acquaintances who detained him until late, and then accompanied him to the Baltimore boat.”

Dr. John Carter

Dr. John Carter

Dr. Carter wrote his own account of his evening with Poe in the November 1902 issue of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine.

I had not seen Poe for some days, when he one evening, about half-past nine o’clock, called at my office, which, being on Seventeenth and Broad Streets, had afforded him a half-way resting-place between Duncan Lodge and the residence of Mrs. Shelton, on Church Hill, during his brief engagement to that lady. As was well known to his intimate friends, the engagement was broken off before he left Richmond, though whether afterwards resumed is not certain. On this evening he sat for some time talking, while playing with a handsome Malacca sword-cane recently presented me by a friend, and then, abruptly rising, said, “I think I will step over to Saddler’s (a popular restaurant in the neighborhood) for a few moments,” and so left without any further word, having my cane still in his hand. From this manner of departure I inferred that he expected to return shortly, but did not see him again, and was surprised to learn next day that he had left for Baltimore by the early morning boat. I then called on Saddler, who informed me that Poe had left his house at exactly twelve that night, starting for the Baltimore boat in company with several companions whom he had met at Saddler’s, and giving as a reason there for the lateness of the hour and the fact that the boat was to leave at four o’clock. According to Saddler he was in good spirits and sober, though it is certain that he had been drinking and that he seemed oblivious of his baggage, which had been left in his room at the Swan Tavern. These effects were after his death forwarded by one of Mrs. Mackenzie’s sons to Mrs. Clemm in New York, and through the same source I received my cane, which Poe in his absent-mindedness had taken away with him.

After leaving Richmond, Poe’s disappeared for five days before being found semi-conscious at a Baltimore polling place on an election day. He had no memory of his whereabouts, and the appearance of his cheap, ill-fitting clothes suggested his own expensive clothes had been stolen. Poe spent the next four days in a hospital, but his attending physician John J. Moran was unable to determine what had happened to the poet or his clothing. Rumors spread that he had been beaten, robbed, or cooped (the practice of abducting and drugging a stranger in order to drag them from one polling place to the next to vote multiple times). Even Poe’s cause of death is open to speculation, and historians have theorized he could have been suffering from meningitis, rabies, or any number of other diseases.

In 1907, Susan Weiss wrote about the walking stick again in her book The Home Life of Poe. This time, she embellished her account by saying that Poe was carried to a Baltimore hospital with Carter’s Malacca cane in his hand, even though this seems to be contradicted by Carter’s version of the story.

Susan Archer Talley Weiss

Susan Archer Talley Weiss

While Dr. Carter was sure to recover his own cane from the Mackenzies after Poe’s death, he did not bother to return Poe’s walking stick to the poet’s family. Instead, Carter kept it as memento of his famous friend.

When Carter’s health declined in his later years, his cousin William Henry Booker took Carter into his home. Booker inherited the walking stick after Carter’s death. Booker’s daughter, Mrs. Mary Harnish, (b. 1874) then inherited the stick along with the rest of Booker’s possessions.

In 1923, Mrs. Catherine Campbell, custodian of the newly formed Poe Museum in Richmond, borrowed the walking stick to display at the museum. Three years later, the museum contacted Mrs. Harnish about the possibility of purchasing the piece. Harnish wrote back to say she would need $250 for it and that they should reply soon because she was fielding other offers for the artifact. Always short of funds, the museum could not afford what would have been the equivalent of $3,280 in today’s dollars.

Mrs. Archer Jones

Mrs. Archer Jones

At about this time, tragedy struck when one of the Poe Museum’s founders, Archer Jones, committed suicide. His devastated widow Annie Boyd Jones bought the walking stick and presented to the Poe Museum in memory of her husband.

The same year it entered the Poe Museum’s collection, Poe’s walking stick was mentioned in Poe biographies by Mary Phillips and Hervey Allen. In his 1941 biography of Poe, Arthur Hobson Quinn also retold the story of Poe mistakenly taking Carter’s walking stick. This seemingly humble piece of wood was quickly becoming one of the museum’s main attractions.

Walking Stick in Display Case in 1927

Walking Stick in Display Case in 1927

In 1945, William J. Burtscher wrote in his book The Romance Behind Walking Canes that “this cane could claim that it was often held by the hand that wrote “The Raven,” “The Bells,” and “Ulalume,”—and that was the only hand of all poets of all time that could have written these, and some other, Poesquian mysteries.” Burtscher believed “Richmond, indeed, is the logical place for the cane to rest, for Poe himself left it there.” The cane, however, would soon leave Richmond.

In 1957, Virginia celebrated the 350th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the New World. In honor of the occasion, the Virginia 350th Anniversary Commission opened the Jamestown Festival featuring a reconstruction of the original 1607 Jamestown settlement, recreations of the ships that carried the colonists to Jamestown, and a large exhibit of Virginia history. Among the 1.5 million visitors to the festival were the Queen of England and Vice President Richard Nixon. The walking stick was such a popular attraction that the Jamestown Festival Park requested an extension of the loan through 1959. The can did not return to Richmond until 1960 when the Poe Museum’s board finally decided not to renew the loan.

Poe's Walking Stick

Poe’s Walking Stick

In 1999 the walking stick crossed the ocean for the first time when the Poe Society of Prague borrowed it for an exhibition at the First International Poe Festival. Because the Poe Museum deemed the cane too valuable to ship to Prague, Poe Museum trustee Welford Dunaway Taylor carried it with him to the festival. The walking stick would not travel again until 2014 when the Grolier Club in New York borrowed it for the exhibit The Persistence of Poe. Once again, a Poe Museum representative personally delivered and retrieved the item.

Part of the interest in this piece is its connection with Poe’s final days. Authors and researchers have speculated that the fever and the confused state that may have caused Poe to mistake his walking stick for Carter’s could be a symptoms of the still unidentified illness that would end Poe’s life a little more than a week later. Others have wondered if Poe took Carter’s sword cane because he wanted a weapon with which to defend himself on his trip to Philadelphia. The latter seems unlikely if Poe left the walking stick in Richmond, as Carter’s account implies. In his novel about Poe’s death, The Poe Shadow, Matthew Pearl explores the mystery of the switched walking sticks. Believing Poe still had Carter’s Malacca cane with him when he was found wearing someone else’s clothes in Baltimore, the novel’s detective Duponte speculates Poe was not robbed of his clothing because the thieves would have also stolen the fine Malacca cane in the process.

Poe admirers and actors portraying Poe have created replicas of the famous cane, and it has appeared in numerous books and articles. To this day, it remains one of the stars of the Poe Museum’s collection. That is why it is the museum’s Object of the Month for September 2015.

This month marks the 166th anniversary of the night Poe left his walking stick at Dr. Carter’s house just days before his death. That walking stick is now on display just six blocks from where that house once stood. You can see Poe’s walking stick the Poe Museum’s Elizabeth Arnold Poe Memorial Building alongside Poe’s vest and boot hooks.

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