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Poe-Me Monday - Poe’s Duel Debacle

Edgar Allan Poe - US Postal Stamp, 2009

“I have not only labored solely for the benefit of others (receiving for myself a miserable pittance), but have been forced to model my thoughts at the will of men whose imbecility was evident to all but themselves” ~ Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe was famous for his writing in his own time, but he was equally infamous for his temper. Among his contemporaries, he was known to be hot-headed and quick to respond to a slight, imagined or not. He held grudges for years, often against his own best interests. Poe’s friends often reported that drinking brought forth the worst in him and he could turn from a pleasant, humorous companion to a combative enemy in moments. He was fired from several much-needed jobs for his inability to control his temper sober, much less when he had been drinking.

Elizabeth Ellet

It was a combination of some possibly ‘indiscreet’ letters sent between the poet and his female friend Fanny Osgood, Poe’s quick, vicious temper and a former friend turned bitter enemy that set up one of the more bizarre chapters in his life. Dueling was one of the more controversial traditions that European immigrants to America brought with them. One man could challenge another man to a duel over anything from an affair with one’s wife to a social snub. Today, what comes down to us historically is mainly based on the smash musical Hamilton or High Noon type western movies. Ten paces apart, the parties shoot one round at each other. It’s a test of shooting skill as well as a test of male bravado. Cowardly behavior before, during, or after a duel could result in becoming a social pariah. While outlawed in most places, men seeking ‘satisfaction’ from an insult still engaged in dueling, risking arrest was preferable to losing face apparently.

It’s difficult to overstate Poe’s celebrity in 1845, he was often recognized on the street, greeted by admirers, and whispered about in every corner of New York City, if not the entire country. The Raven had been published in late January of that year, increasing his status. The modern equivalent would be someone who has ‘gone viral’. His increased status came with a cost. At this point, his wife Virginia was bedridden and dying, while Poe and her mother Muddy cared for her, friends visited and often brought much-needed food, money, and other comforts. They also brought the latest gossip to amuse the fatally ill young woman. After coming to New York, the Poes had become close friends with poet Francis ‘Fanny’ Sargent Osgood, the estranged wife of painter Samuel Osgood. It’s clear that Edgar and Fanny were close, just how close is unknown. The pair wrote each other romantic poems and were often seen in each other’s company as Poe escorted her to literary and social events in the absence of their respective spouses.

Thomas Dunn English

As happens with celebrities, they tend to attract groupies, and Poe did indeed have groupies. One of the women who surrounded the darkly brooding writer was would-be poet Elizabeth F. Ellet. A vindictive woman, Ellet was jealous of Edgar’s obvious preference for the company of Fanny Osgood. So in true mean girl fashion, she wrote a series of anonymous poison pen letters to the dying Virginia suggesting that there was more to Osgood’s relationship with Edgar. After sending the anonymous correspondence, Elizabeth Ellet visited and tricked Virginia into showing her letters that Poe had received from Fanny. While the women read the letters, Ellet continued to spin her evil story of future scandal and ruin. Soon afterward a distressed Virginia urged Edgar to destroy the letters, which he almost certainly did. When Elizabeth’s husband got involved, he demanded that the famous poet return the apparently steamy letters that his wife had sent Poe. Sending the letters with a friend to be restored to their writer, Edgar was soon confronted by Elizabeth’s gun-wielding brother. Enraged, Poe challenged the man to a duel and left to borrow a gun. It’s clear at this point, Poe made a stop to drink, before appearing at the home of Thomas Dunn English, a former friend and now avowed enemy of the writer. English refused to give the enraged drunken man a deadly weapon and fisticuffs ensued. The results of the altercation are up for debate as both men later claimed victory. The duel never happened.

The entire episode deepens the mystery as to who exactly Edgar Allan Poe was. A loving husband? A man who cheated on his wife as she lay dying? A man who valued his own petty quarrels over everything? A drunken brawler? Or perhaps a man caught in a personal storm beyond his control, doing the best he could in heart-breaking circumstances?

Next Up: Poe The Soldier

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