Poe in Westchester
by Henry John Steiner
Historian of Sleepy Hollow
Few of us realize that a great American author, Edgar Allan Poe, once lived in Westchester County. Well, he sort of did. We can assert this because the Bronx was once the southern part of Westchester. The Bronx was part of the county at the time of Westchester’s founding, in 1683. The area remained the southern part of Westchester until the creation of Greater New York City in the years 1874 and 1898. So, for 191 years (at a minimum) the Bronx was within the county of Westchester. For as long as Poe lived in the Bronx, he lived in Westchester County.
Good—we got that out of the way…
The part of the Bronx in which Poe resided was Fordham Village, one of the eleven villages in the now extinct township of West Farms. The present-day Grand Concourse runs north-south, through the Fordham Village of old, and the humble farmhouse or cottage which Poe rented stood on the west side of where the Concourse runs today. The little Poe house was subsequently relocated to the east side of the boulevard in the early twentieth century. It stands within a small public park, named Poe Park, and the historic house functions as a tiny museum with a street address of 2640 Grand Concourse.
Poe had settled in Manhattan in 1844. He then moved to the Fordham cottage in the spring of 1846 in the company of his wife, Virginia Clemm Poe, and his mother-in-law (who was also Poe’s aunt), Maria Poe Clemm. The New York and Harlem Railroad had only recently become the first line to connect New York City and Westchester County, and service to Fordham had opened in 1841. It is likely that Poe took advantage of this link to the publishers of lower Manhattan. Occasionally Poe would be visited by messengers carrying proofs of his writing from printing houses in New York.
One particular messenger boy was sent to Poe’s residence twice within a few months of the Poe family settling in Fordham Village. As the boy sat waiting for the writer to review the proofs, he had the opportunity of observing the activity of the household. When the boy was older, he recorded his impressions. On the first occasion, the boy saw Poe’s wife, Virginia, who sat wrapped up beside her husband as he did his work. On the next visit, the boy was struck by the appearance of the woman’s face, “thin and white,” with eyes “wonderingly obtrusive.” He remembered seeing Poe wince as he heard Virginia cough in another room. Poe himself was said also to be ill during this period. The family suffered from want as Poe struggled to generate income.
Toward the beginning of January 1847, a friend and visitor observed Virginia bedridden and inadequately clothed in the cold house, “with only sheets and a coverlet on the bed, wrapped in her husband’s coat.” A charitable “subscription of $60” was said to have been raised for the family, and its situation was reported in the New York newspapers in order to raise more funds. Virginia died of tuberculosis on January 30, 1847, less than a year after moving into the cottage. Her grieving husband and mother had Virginia’s remains buried in the graveyard of the Fordham Dutch Church.
During his time in Westchester, Poe indulged in self-defeating controversies with real or perceived literary rivals. Published disagreements of this sort appear to have been a common ritual among many mid-nineteenth century writers. These wanton brawls in print made peaceful nonparticipants, (such as local celebrity, Washington Irving) all the more admired and remarkable for staying out of the fray. In this period Poe would produce some of his most famous works: “The Bells,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “Annabel Lee.”
He was observed strolling on High Bridge, a notable feature of the newly constructed (Old) Croton Aqueduct. Poe, it is recorded, enjoyed visiting the Jesuit priests of the Fordham college, then named “Saint John’s College,” which was very near to his home. The bells of that institution may have inspired his famous poem, “The Bells.” The writer found the priests to be “highly cultivated gentlemen and scholars [who] smoked, drank, and played cards like gentlemen, and never said a word about religion.”
While Poe resided in Fordham after the death of Virginia, his mother-in-law continued to care for him and keep house. Even in the years following his death Maria Clemm loyally defended him and his legacy, in spite of her struggles with poverty and other personal difficulties. The cottage she kept was ringed with cherry trees, and it was “of the humble description and contained in all, but three small rooms and a kind of closet.” On the first floor there was a sitting room, a kitchen and a small bedroom. On the second floor was a room for Mrs. Clemm and a small study for Poe. There were songbirds in cages hanging from the eaves of
the narrow front porch. One source suggests that the house was sparsely furnished, out of preference or necessity, or both. It sat on a plot of ground about a quarter of an acre in extent. In the latter nineteen century, long after Poe’s few years there, it was feared that the structure would be torn down and its land developed. One observer wrote in 1900, “To-day several ‘modern’ houses of a distinctly indifferent order of architecture, occupy all of the land except the single lot where the cottage stands.” At that date there were already plans being made to move the small dwelling to a public park on the opposite side of the concourse.
After Virginia’s death, Poe “pursued” a number of women, possibly in an attempt to fill an emotional void and to repair his economic straits through marriage. His gaze turned on a local divorced woman, Marie Louise Shew, who had been of valuable assistance to the household during Virginia’s illness. She, it seems, wearied of the troubled writer’s attentions. In June 1848, Poe hosted another woman, Jane Erminia Locke, a literary enthusiast, at his Fordham home. He then traveled
to see her at her home in Lowell, Massachusetts while he delivered a lecture there. Soon, Poe was distracted by one or two additional women. He was particularly avid for another woman living in Providence, Rhode Island—a writer named Sarah Helen Whitman. The two were engaged, until, through damning reports and firsthand evidence, it became clear to the lady and her family that Poe was an emotional wreck and an apparent abuser alcohol and laudanum. The Christmas Day 1848 marriage was called off and Poe returned to Fordham.
In early 1849 he managed to reignite his literary efforts for a time. Receiving encouragement from a potential financial backer, he saw the possibility of establishing his own literary journal, and in June 1849, he set off for the South to promote subscriptions for the magazine. The railroad trip from New York to Richmond, Virginia had terrible results. Before Poe made it past Philadelphia he was drunk, broke, and missing a valise that contained all his belongings. After experiencing great difficulty and then miraculously recovering his valise, he arrived at Richmond. He managed to deliver a set of relatively successful
lectures there, and also rekindled a relationship with a recently widowed, childhood sweetheart, Elmira Royster Shelton. This led, on September 22nd, to a formal engagement. Poe took leave of his new fiancé to settle business affairs in New York, but he never arrived at that small cottage at Fordham. He died under mysterious circumstances in Baltimore, on October 7th, 1849 at the age of forty. The following day, his remains were buried there. Much later, in 1878, the remains of his wife, Virginia, were moved from Fordham to Poe’s grave site in Baltimore.
Today the tiny Poe cottage is still standing, but across the boulevard from its original site. Indeed, it hunkers beneath the comparatively high, massive apartment buildings of the Grand Concourse. There is no longer the twitter of birds on its front porch, but the report and echo of passing cars and buses. The diminutive dwelling is only a relic of Poe’s life, but it is well worth visiting. There is a rich poignancy that hangs about the place, born perhaps of Poe’s seemingly ineffectual and misguided efforts to climb free of his nearly hopeless “lot.” Neither were the fates kind to his wife, Virginia Poe, nor to her mother, Maria Clemm. For a time, these three persons found a kind of sad respite at their humble Fordham home, ringed with cherry trees and serenaded by caged songbirds.
Note: For more on Edgar Allan Poe’s influence (specifically in historic Sleepy Hollow), see my piece entitled, “The Ghosts and Mr. Anderson.”
[Copyright © 2019 Henry John Steiner]