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Poe-Me Monday: The Mystery of Poe's Mustache

By Lynn Schaffer Beaver.

The “Daly” Daguerreotype 1847

One of Edgar Allan Poe’s most distinctive features was his mustache. The story of his tidy bit of facial hair is as interesting as it is mysterious.

There is no exquisite beauty…without some strangeness in the proposition.

- Edgar Allan Poe

In our high-tech world, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a world with no photographic images: no internet, no selfies, no family photos on the shelf. Capturing an image for posterity called for the skills of a portrait artist and the leisure time required for a sitting. We must remember, Edgar Allan Poe was already 17 years old when French scientist Joseph Nicéphore Niépce took the first known photograph–View from the Window at Le Gras–at his country estate in 1826. It’s amazing that an inexpensive type of photography was readily available in many cities in the United States just twenty years later.

If you’ve been a follower of The Archive Theater Blog, you may remember our video on tintype creation during summer 2022. The sheer magic of watching the image appear in the tray is a wonder to behold. To a person living in the mid-19th century, the process must have had an otherworldly quality. Later in the century, Victorians would become obsessed with “death photography,” the practice of staging pictures with recently dead loved ones, especially departed children who hadn’t lived long enough for a formal portrait.

The first of these available photographic techniques was called the daguerreotype. “The daguerreotype is a direct-positive process, creating a highly detailed image on a sheet of copper plated with a thin coat of silver without the use of a negative,” according to The Library of Congress. Invented by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in 1839, the industry took off in a big way. By the time Poe died, there would be over 70 studios producing these true-to-life images in New York City alone.

Poe was clearly in awe of the photographic process, writing on January 15, 1840, in Alexander’s Weekly Messenger, “The instrument itself must undoubtedly be regarded as the most important, and perhaps most extraordinary triumph of modern science…. All language must fall short in conveying any just idea of the truth... For, in truth, the Daguerreotyped plate is infinitely (we use the term advisedly) is infinitely more accurate in its representation than any painting by human hands.”

There are exactly eight authenticated daguerreotypes of Edgar Allen Poe, all but one of which show him wearing his signature mustache. It is a known fact that he didn’t grow his mustache until 1845; therefore, it follows that every photographic image of the famous writer was taken in the last four years of his life. If one looks at the daguerreotypes in order, one can clearly see that after his beloved wife, Virginia, died in 1847 at the age of 25, Poe’s health clearly deteriorated. Speaking of images, immediately after her death from tuberculosis, a watercolor artist was summoned to the Poe residence to paint a portrait of the writer’s late wife. No other images of the beautiful, tragic young woman exist.

A death portrait of Virginia Clem Poe from 1847. The artist is unknown.

Now for the mystery….

In June of 1849, Edgar began a speaking tour that would also serve as a means to recruit subscribers (investors) for his lifelong dream, his own literary magazine, The Stylus. This tour would take him from the last home he shared with his mother-in-law, Maria Clemm, and his beloved cat Caterina in New York City through every city he had lived in–Boston, Richmond, and finally, Baltimore.

On July 2nd of 1849, an agitated Edgar A. Poe burst into the engraving business belonging to John Sartain in Philadelphia. Poe’s appearance was alarming to his friend and occasional publisher. Surtain had met the writer in 1840 when Edgar had been an editor for the Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine and American Monthly Review, where Sartain was engaged to provide engravings for the publication. (Engravings were the chief illustrations for print media at the time.) They stayed friends for the remainder of Poe’s life and beyond. Sartain would defend his friend after his death against the slanderous obituary written by Rufus Griswald.

It was at the period of the transfer of Burton’s Magazine to Graham that I first met Poe, already of much fame as a poet. He became one of my dearest friends. His memory I cherish and honor. He made many enemies, and many harsh things have been said about him, but I never once saw him drunk, and I believe that in everything he was perfectly honest. To be sure, in his criticisms, especially those in The Stylus, he used ‘an iron pen,' and no doubt, as has been said, 'sometimes mistook his vial of prussic acid for his ink bottle.' But I believe he intended to be absolutely fair in all that he wrote.”

- John Sartain

On that July 2nd, a distressed Poe had a wild tale to tell. According to Sartain, his friend was pale and haggard, with a wild and frightened expression in his eyes” and looking for "refuge and protection.” Poe related a complicated story: he was on a train when he overheard men plotting his own murder. After hearing this, the poet reported that he got off at the next stop and returned to Philadelphia, attempting to throw his pursuers off the trail. Edgar begged Sartain for assistance, asking for a razor to shave off his signature mustache in an attempt to disguise his identity. The engraver, seeing his friend in a frenzied state, feared that Poe would use the sharp blade to cause harm to himself, offering instead to cut the facial hair off himself with scissors. After the tonsorial work was complete, Edgar seemed to calm. Sartain then convinced the newly-shaven man to take a walk in the fresh air. That night, he settled his distraught friend on his sofa, while he put three chairs in a row to stretch out, rest and keep watch until the morning. Poe would stay with Sartain until the morning of July 4th when he proclaimed that the whole episode was actually “created by his own excited imagination”.

Edgar Allan Poe would be dead 65 days later.

The “McKee” Daguerreotype circa 1843

The story of Poe’s mustache raises many questions: What did he overhear on the train? Who were these men? Were they really plotting Poe’s murder? Were they following him? Did the whole episode have any basis in reality? Was Poe having a psychotic break? Was he having a paranoid episode? Did he have a hallucination? Or was he delusional? Did this bizarre episode take place because Poe was under the influence of some drug? Sartain knew that Poe had a problem with drink but didn’t report that his friend appeared to be drunk when he arrived at the office. Could the episode have been a symptom of a deeper illness? Or something he may have taken to cure or defend himself from cholera? (A pandemic making its way across the Eastern US at the time.) In those days, one could buy a tincture in any general store or pharmacy over the counter. These medicines contained largely opium and alcohol along with a mixture of herbs to cure a wide array of complaints.

If Sartain’s account is accurate, Poe was very ill indeed. There is a mountain of research, and much speculation abounds. The Mustache Mystery has been debated and speculated on for over a century. Unfortunately, we don’t have an answer for you here, but it clearly makes the veil of mystery surrounding Poe a little denser, the answers more elusive, and our love of Edgar Allan Poe that much stronger. We will never know exactly what occurred; we cannot pierce the veil. But somehow that’s a fitting story for the father of American macabre.

Coming up next:

Edgar Allan Poe’s Eldorado

The “Thompson” Daguerreotype by William A. Pratt 1849

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