Edgar Allan Poe’s family Bible reveals genealogical secrets—and an enduring real-life mystery.
Edgar Allan Poe, the Boston-born author known for shocking twists in tales such as “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” also had a few turns in his family tree: After a young Poe’s actress mother, Elizabeth Arnold Poe, died, the Allan family of Richmond, Va., took him in. And Poe married his first cousin Virginia Clemm (who was only 13 years old on their wedding day to his 27) in 1836.
Despite those complicated roots, the Poe Museum in Richmond, Va., has for the first time posted the Poe family genealogy
on its website. The information comes from a reliable source—a family Bible pulled out of storage for a special exhibit honoring the author’s 200th birthday in 2009. “It also has a great sketch of the Poe Family Burial Plot at Westminster Hall in Baltimore, Md.,” says Christopher Semtner, curator of the Poe Museum in Richmond.
The genealogical details recorded in the Bible didn’t escape Poe’s interest.
The museum also owns a letter dated July 14, 1839, in which Poe responds to a question posed by a George Poe of Houston, about the author’s lineage. “Our relationship is that of second cousins,” Poe writes. “My father, David Poe Jr, was the son of David Poe, Sr, who was the brother of your paternal grandfather, George Poe, Sr. Your father and mine were own cousins, and playmates. My wife, who is my own cousin, is also your second cousin, being the daughter of Maria Poe, my father’s sister.”
The letter recounts the Poe name’s German origins, although, “As far back … as we can trace our immediate progenitors, they are Irish,” Poe writes. He also charts the descendants of his grandfather David Poe, noting, “By this table, you will perceive that ... I am the oldest, or head of all of the Poes in America.”
Despite Poe’s knowledge about his roots, he’d occasionally take artistic license. “Because his mother’s name was Arnold, he’d tell people he was related to Benedict Arnold,” Semtner says. “I suppose it made him sound more exciting.”
The author’s Bible revealed its own mystery when the museum had the tome restored. Jill Deiss of Cat Tail Run Hand Bookbinding
in Winchester, Va., noticed the book had been cut in half between the Old and New Testaments. On closer inspection, things became even stranger.
“All of the genealogy information written in the Bible was on the right-hand pages,” Deiss says. That meant the left-hand pages had acted as a blotter when the book was closed. Yet where the Bible had been separated, the blots on the left-hand page didn’t match what was written on the right-hand page—leading Deiss and Semtner to determine that at some point, pages had been removed from the Bible.
Judging from the time frame of events recorded on adjacent pages, the missing section likely would’ve documented the time of Edgar Allan Poe’s life—and his mysterious 1849 death in Baltimore. Indeed, the Bible bears no mention of Poe’s death or of the noted author at all.
Semtner surmises that whoever removed the pages, denoted only by shadowy ink blots on a left-hand page, likely sold them or kept them as a memento. “Even in his own family Bible,” Deiss adds, “Poe exists only as a ghost.”
Life and Death
Edgar Allan Poe was found Oct. 3, 1849, on a Baltimore street, delirious and possibly wearing someone else’s clothes. He never became lucid enough to explain what happened, but supposedly called out “Reynolds” the night before he died Oct. 7. Newspapers reported “congestion of the brain,” but official records are lost. Modern theorists suggest heart disease, syphilis, epilepsy or rabies. No one knows Poe’s true cause of death, and “Reynolds” has never been idenitifed.
From the January 2010 Family Tree Magazine