With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, we thought the Poe Museum’s Object of the Month for February should be a memento of Poe’s “first and last love.”
Edgar Allan Poe was a distasteful subject in Elmira Royster Shelton’s home. In fact, her daughter forbade her to mention his name in her presence. For decades, the widow Shelton refused requests for interviews about her famous fiancée, and, when she finally agreed to answer some questions from Richmond historian Edward Valentine in 1874, she denied that she and Poe had ever been engaged. Scholars eventually questioned whether they had been or if the engagement was just one of the many legends that have grown up about Poe’s love life. After all, a number of women had emerged to claim their place as inspirations for his poetry. While one of Poe’s lady friends legally changed her name to match the nickname Poe had given her and while yet another held séances to communicate with his spirit, Elmira Shelton lived a quiet life in Virginia, attended church regularly, and revered the memory of her late husband. But, to her death, she kept this tiny photograph of the author as a memento of the poet.
The facts of Poe’s relationship with Shelton are already well known, even if some of the details have been obscured by time or disputed by historians. It is known that they first met in Richmond when Poe was fifteen and Shelton, about fifteen. James Whitty, a Poe collector who interviewed her in her later years, told Poe biographer Mary Phillps that Shelton been a “beautiful girl” who “was fond of all the boys, but liked Edgar best, while he was interested in all the girls but lingered longest with Elmira.” Her father was the merchant James Royster, who disapproved of the attention the orphan Poe was paying his daughter. Shelton later told Valentine, “He was a beautiful boy — Not very talkative. When he did talk though he was pleasant but his general manner was sad…” In an 1884 interview with John Moran, she related, “We spent much of our time together when we were children. They play the same piano, sang songs, and took walks through a neighbor’s walled garden together. By one account, the Presbyterian Elmira accompanied Poe and his foster mother Frances Allan to Sunday services at Monumental Episcopal Church.
It is believed that Poe and Elmira became secretly engaged before he left to attend the University of Virginia. One source, Shelton descendant Belle Fitzhugh, wrote the Poe Museum in the 1940s that she owned a letter Elmira had written to her own mother telling her about the engagement. That letter, however, disappeared after Fitzhugh’s death.
“Our acquaintance was kept up until he left to go to the University,” Shelton later told Valentine, “and during the time he was at the University he wrote to me frequently, but my father intercepted the letters because we were too young — no other reason.”
By the time Poe returned to Richmond after his first—and only—term at the University, she had engaged herself to the wealthy Alexander Barrett Shelton who had a shipping business on the canal. They were married a year later, in 1828, when he was twenty-one and she was eighteen. After their marriage, Mrs. Shelton was baptized at St. John’s Episcopal Church at the age of twenty-four.
The break from Elmira had sent Poe on a different path. Having accumulated so much debt at the University that he was unable to continue his studies, Poe went to work in an unpaid position at his foster father John Allan’s export business. After three months of increasingly heated arguments with Allan, Poe stormed out of his guardian’s house in a quest “to find some place in this wide world, where I will be treated — not as you have treated me.” The following day, Poe wrote Allan for money to facilitate this quest.
When Poe finally returned to Richmond in 1835, the twenty-six year old writer had published three books of poetry and had seen his poems and short stories published in newspapers and magazines. In fact, his first story to be printed in a nationally circulated magazine was “The Visionary,” which told of a young man hopelessly in love with a beautiful young woman who is married to a much older man she does not really love.
Poe had also met one of Elmira’s close friends, Mary Winfree of Chesterfield County, Virginia. She is said to have assured Poe that Elmira did not really love Alexander Shelton.
While in Richmond, Poe found employment at the Southern Literary Messenger and married his cousin Virginia. Shortly after the marriage, Mr. and Mrs. Poe attended a party where they encountered Mr. and Mrs. Shelton. Elmira later wrote to Poe’s aunt Mara Clemm that “I remember seeing Edgar, & his lovely wife, very soon after they were married — I met them — I never shall forget my feelings at the time — They were indescribable, almost agonizing— ‘However in an instant,’ I remembered that I was a married woman, and banished them from me, as I would a poisonous reptile…”
Within a year, Poe and his bride moved to New York, not to return to Richmond for over a decade. The Sheltons had four children, two of whom died young. The surviving children, Ann Elizabeth and Alexander, did not have much time to know their father before his death in 1843 at the age of thirty-seven. He is said to have died from pneumonia after having leapt into the freezing James River to rescue a drowning man. The only problem is that he died on July 12, in the middle of a hot Richmond summer, so his exact cause of death is unknown.
Alexander’s death forced Elmira into a period of Victorian mourning. A proper lady like Elmira was expected to follow the etiquette of mourning, which dictated her behavior, clothing, and even her stationery for the next four five years. As her period of mourning drew to a close in 1848, she wrote a cousin, Philip Fitzhugh, “I am fearful Cousin Philip, that I shall never be a happy woman again…” Shelton had certainly changed since Poe had known her. One of their mutual acquaintances, Susan Archer Talley Weiss, described her as “a tall, rather masculine-looking woman, who drew her veil over her face as she passed us on the porch, though I caught a glimpse of large, shadowy, light blue eyes which must once have been handsome.”
Edward Alfriend, who knew Shelton, had a very different view of her appearance:
When I knew Mrs. Shelton she had a lovely, almost saintly face. Her eyes were a deep blue, her hair dark brown, touched with grey, her nose thin and patrician, her forehead high and well developed, her chin finely modeled, projecting and firm, and her cheeks round and full. Her voice was very low, soft and sweet, her manners exquisitely refined, and intellectually she was a woman of education and force of character. Her distinguishing qualities were gentleness and womanliness. She was just the woman in which such a perturbed spirit as that of Poe would have sought rest and found it.
Shelton was also gifted in business. In the six years since her husband’s death she had increased her $60,000 inheritance to about $70,000 at a time when American women still had few rights.
Then Poe reentered her life. As she told Valentine,
I was ready to go to church and a servant told me that a gentleman in the parlour wanted to see me. I went down and was amazed to see him — but knew him instantly — He came up to me in the most enthusiastic manner and said: “Oh! Elmira, is this you?” That very morning I told him I was going to church, that I never let anything interfere with that, that he must call again and when he did call again he renewed his addresses.
Since leaving Richmond, Poe had moved from New York to Philadelphia and back to New York, working at some of the nation’s leading periodicals and becoming a literary celebrity along the way. While living outside New York, in the village of Fordham, his wife died after a prolonged battle with tuberculosis. The only alleviation from the crippling depression that ensued seemed to be the friendly admirers who came to Fordham to visit the famous poet. By the time he resumed his lecture tour in 1848, he was desperate to find a new wife to fill the void left by Virginia’s absence. His travels brought him from Fordham to Richmond to Providence and back to Richmond. Along the way, he became fixated on Nancy Richmond of Lowell, Massachusetts. Unfortunately, she was happily married at the time, so he turned his attention to Providence, Rhode Island where an eccentric widow named Sarah Helen Whitman had addressed a Valentine’s Day poem to him. She closed the poem by expressing her desire to share a “lofty eyrie” with the “raven.” When he read a copy of her Valentine, Poe dropped everything to visit her in Providence, and proposed to her on their first meeting. She declined, and he attempted suicide. About two weeks later, she accepted his proposal on the condition that he abstain from drinking. The engagement only lasted a month.
Less than a year later, Poe showed up on Elmira Shelton’s doorstep. He was in town to lecture at the Exchange Hotel and to sell his essays to the Southern Literary Messenger, which was by then under new ownership. Although she had initially refused to receive him, Poe soon became a frequent visitor. On one such visit, Shelton later recalled, “he looked very serious and said he was in earnest and had been thinking about it for a long time. Then I found out that he was very serious and I became serious. I told him if he would not take a positive denial he must give me time to consider of it. And he said a love that hesitated was not a love for him.”
On August 29, Poe wrote his aunt Maria Clemm, “And now let me tell you all about Elmira as well as I can in a letter. — We are solemnly engaged to be married within the coming month (Septr) — but I make no doubt that in a week or 10 days, all will be over.”
According to the letter, Shelton tried to postpone the wedding until January, so Poe stormed out and went to his sister’s house in the country. Then Shelton “went out to Mackenzie’s after me & all about town — so that every body knows of our engagement. It was reported, indeed, that we were married last Thursday.”
But there was some strong opposition to the match. Poe’s sister Rosalie Poe disliked Shelton, who had tried to discourage her from annoying Edgar by following him everywhere he went. Additionally, Shelton’s married daughter opposed the marriage because, in Poe’s opinion, Ann Elizabeth’s “pecuniary interests will be injured…” The problem was a stipulation in Shelton’s late husband’s will stating that, if she ever remarried, she would lose three quarters of her inheritance, which would still leave her more money than Poe had made from his entire twenty-two year career as a writer. Poe, of course, had struggled with poverty his entire adult life and made plans to save $500 a year by educating her son Southall himself at home. The ten-year-old would have probably hated the idea. He is known to have mocked Poe behind his back while Ann Elizabeth giggled uncontrollably.
Poe had other plans for the marriage. In addition to expressing his intention to move with Elmira to a cottage in the country, he also wanted to bring Maria Clemm to Richmond to live with them. She accepted the plan, writing Clemm, “I am fully prepared to love you, and I do sincerely hope that our spirits may be congenial — There shall be nothing wanting on my part to make them so…”
If Elmira was looking forward to the wedding, Poe still had doubts. He wrote Maria Clemm, “There is one other thing, too, dear mother, which drives me frantic — my love for Annie — I worship her beyond all human love. My passion for her grows stronger every day. I dare not, at this crisis, either speak or think of her — if I did I should go mad…Indeed, indeed, there is no expressing or conceiving the devotion I have for her. My love for her will never, never cease, either in this world or the next.”
A couple weeks later, Poe wrote Clemm, “I confess that my heart sinks at the idea of this marriage. I think, however, that it will certainly take place & that immediately.” Just eight days after writing that letter, Poe wrote Clemm again, this time making plans to meet her in New York to bring her back to Richmond for the wedding. By then, he expressed his renewed devotion to Elmira, writing, “I think she loves me more devotedly than any one I ever knew & I cannot help loving her in return.” In spite of his poverty, Poe bought Elmira extravagant gifts including a gold locket containing a lock of his hair, a gold wedding ring, and a daguerreotype of himself. Meanwhile, the hotel in which he had been staying confiscated his luggage until he could pay his bill.
Regardless, Poe was in good spirits. He visited the office of the Southern Literary Messenger, where, as the editor John Rueben Thompson recalled, “The evening before his departure from Richmond he was with me and spoke in the highest spirits of his resolves and prospects for the future. He had become a Son of Temperance and was soon to be married to a lady here.” By joining the Sons of Temperance, Poe pledged to abstain from drinking alcohol.
On his last night in Richmond, Poe spent the evening with Elmira. He complained of feeling sick, and she thought he seemed “very sad.” The next morning, he caught a steamship to Baltimore, where he died ten days later.
Poe spent his last four days in a Baltimore hospital under the care of Dr. John J. Moran who noted a month later in a letter to Maria Clemm, “He told me…he had a wife in Richmond (which, I have since learned was not the fact).” The “wife” to whom Poe referred could have been Elmira.
Elmira was stunned to read about Poe’s death in the newspaper and frantically wrote Maria Clemm, “Oh! how shall I address you, my dear, and deeply afflicted friend under such heart-rending circumstances? I have no doubt, ere this, you have heard of the death of our dear Edgar! yes, he was the dearest object on earth to me… Oh! my dearest friend! I cannot begin to tell you what my feelings were, as the horrible truth forced itself upon me! It was the most severe trial I have ever had; and God alone knows how I can bear it!”
By the time of Poe’s death, word had already spread about his engagement. The day after Poe’s funeral, his friend John Pendleton Kennedy wrote in his diary, that Poe “was soon to be married to a lady in Richmond of quite good fortune.” Poe’s acquaintance and editor of the Richmond Semi-Weekly Examiner John Moncure Daniel, wrote, “It was universally reported that [Poe] was engaged to be married. The lady was a widow, of wealth and beauty, who was an old flame of his, and whom he declared to be the ideal and original of his Lenore.”
Others believed the engagement had been broken before Poe left Richmond. Dr. John Carter, whose house Poe visited immediately after his last evening at the Shelton house, wrote in 1902, “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.”
A friend of Poe’s sister’s, Susan Archer Talley Weiss, wrote in 1904, “He himself always denied, even in public, that any engagement existed between himself and Mrs. Shelton, and spoke of the schoolboy love affair with her as a case of ‘measles.’” Weiss believed that Poe could only been interested in marrying Shelton for her money because Shelton was “not gifted with those traits which might be supposed capable of attracting one of his peculiar taste and temperament.” But Weiss does mention in the same account that “Mrs. Shelton, on Poe’s death, donned ‘widow’s weeds’ of the deepest mourning.”
Weiss also reported that Shelton’s neighbor, the former Civil War spy Elizabeth Van Lew, told her, “I used at first to often see Mr. Poe enter there, but never during the latter part of his stay in Richmond. It seemed to be known about here that the engagement was off. . . . Gossip had it that Mrs. Shelton discarded him because persuaded by friends that he was after her money. All her relatives are said to be opposed to the match.”
If Poe had been a celebrity during his lifetime, he became a legend after his death. Countless newspapers printed his obituary, and magazines carried accounts of his life. Rufus Griswold printed a memoir of the author, and Sarah Helen Whitman wrote her own Poe biography a few years later. John Rueben Thompson started deliver a lecture about “The Genius and Character of Edgar Allan Poe.” It seems almost everyone who had ever met the author started telling their story to any journalist who would listen. A number of women from Poe’s life were eager to alert the media that they were the inspiration for “Annabel Lee,” “Lenore,” or some other Poe poem. Elmira, however, refused to speak about her former fiancé. When she finally did answer a few questions from Edward Valentine, she insisted, “He never addressed any poems to me.”
After Poe’s death, Shelton continued to live in her Church Hill home, spurning the advances of potential suitors. Southall fought and lost an eye in the Civil War. Ann Elizabeth moved with her husband John Henry Leftwich to Ashland, Virginia. After the War, Elmira fell on hard times, eventually selling the locket, mother-of-pearl purse, drawing, and daguerreotype Poe had given her. At some point, she gave her wedding ring—with Poe’s name inscribed inside the band—to Poe’s sister Rosalie MacKenzie Poe.
Around 1870, Shelton left Richmond to move in with her daughter in Ashland. After all those years, Ann Elizabeth still detested Poe, forbidding her mother to mention his name in her presence. Ann Elizabeth’s daughter Jennie Leftwich Wright later recalled, “The feeling of my mother was so strong against Mr. Poe and any association of his name with my grandmother’s that even as an old lady my mother would become incensed whenever their names were linked.”
By 1875, Shelton was living in a house on Clay Street in Richmond. She revered the memory of her husband and rarely spoke of Poe. The only person permitted to mention the poet was her favorite grandson, Southall’s son Alexander F. Shelton, who occasionally called out, “Well, Lost Lenore?” when she returned from visiting friends. To this she insisted she was most certainly not the “Lost Lenore.” Incidentally, the home in which she briefly lived in Ashland is listed on the National Record of Historic Places as the “Lost Lenore” House.
When she finally agreed to speak with Valentine, she insisted she had never been engaged to Poe: “He [continued] to visit me frequently but I never engaged myself to him. He begged me when he was going away to marry him. Promised he would be everything I could desire.”
In 1884, when Poe’s attending physician John J. Moran was preparing his own biography of Poe, he requested an interview, and Elmira accepted. On meeting her, he observed that “though in feeble health and well advanced in years, her face indicates a peaceful mind and a joyous hope of the rest beyond.”
He spoke with her for four hours during which “she talked freely with me of their childhood and riper years when they were in each other’s company.” He later quoted her as telling him, “I am lost in wonder and amazement at the singular drama now being enacted. Oh, sir, you can have no idea of the thoughts that have so crowded upon my memory and occupied my mind. How often I have wished to see his physician, so that I could learn from his own lips Mr. Poe’s dying words. And to think that so many years after his death, we are face to face, reviewing his life, from his childhood to his grave. All this I have anxiously hoped for before I should die, and it is now fulfilled.” She wept the tears with her handkerchief as she spoke.
Four years later, Elmira was dead. Her February 12, 1888 obituary in the Richmond Whig, entitled “Poe’s First and Last Love,” began, “One more of the few ties that prominently connect the name of Edgar Allan Poe to earth has been broken.” The article’s eleven paragraphs told of Poe’s life, his engagement to Sarah Helen Whitman, his marriage to Virginia Clemm, and nothing about Shelton’s life apart from him. Her granddaughter had grown up with no idea that her grandmother had once known a famous writer, but there was no missing the fact after the publication of that obituary.
Although Elmira Shelton had long-since sold almost all her mementos of Poe, she kept a tiny albumen print photograph of him until her death. It is unknown when or where she got the picture, but she must have acquired it at least twenty years after Poe’s death because the pastel portrait depicted in the photo was not created until 1868 and probably not reproduced until 1870.
The photograph is stamped “Lee Gallery, Richmond VA,” so she could have received it from any of her friends in the city or even from Poe’s sister, who resorted to selling photographs of her famous brother in the lean times after the Civil War. Rosalie Poe is said to have considered this portrait the best likeness of Poe, so copies of it could be among those she sold.
After Shelton’s death, the photograph was among her possessions that passed to her daughter Ann Elizabeth Shelton to Ann Elizabeth’s daughter Lou Newton Leftwich Coghill to her son daughter Bessie Coghill Cobb to her sons Maj. William Magruder Cobb and Thomas Tracy Cobb. William and Thomas Cobb donated their collection of Shelton family photographs and portraits to the Poe Museum in 1979. In addition to the photograph of Poe, the group includes two photographs of Ann Elizabeth Shelton Leftwich, a miniature of James Royster, a photograph of John Henry Leftwich, two photographs of Elmira Shelton’s sister, and one of two known daguerreotypes of Elmira Shelton.
Ever since Poe’s death, various scholars have tried to dismiss the possibility that Poe and Elmira were engaged at the time of his death, but evidence has emerged to lend support to claims made by Poe, Thompson, Kennedy, Daniel, and Shelton herself that they really were engaged and very likely would have married if his life had not been cut short just days before the ceremony was to have taken place. The truth is we can never be certain whether or not Poe would have married Shelton and finally settled down into a comfortable upper-class life for the first time in his adult life. All that remains as evidence of their relationship are some second-hand accounts, a couple letters, and a few scattered artifacts, among which is the Poe Museum’s photograph.
The albumen print carte-de-visite is slightly smaller than a baseball card. Poe’s image emerges in slightly faded sepia tones on one side. On the back of the photograph, Elmira wrote the name “Edgar Allan Poe” in handwriting clearly recognizable from her letters. Above her signature is written in a different handwriting, “Poe’s picture kept by Elmira Royster/ WMC [William M. Cobb] 1950/ Writing below probably/ Elmira Royster’s.” There is no other evidence to suggest what this photograph—or its subject—meant to her.
Today the Poe Museum devotes a case to Elmira Royster Shelton. In it are displayed a handful of items donated by Shelton’s descendants. Her spectacles, a daguerreotype of her, a miniature of her father, a copy of a drawing Poe made of her, a photograph of her daughter, and a selection of other artifacts serve to tell the story of a love that could have been.