To give the public a better idea of the variety of artifacts and memorabilia that makes up the Poe Museum’s world renowned collection, we will be profiling a different object each month. Some of these objects may be long-time favorites like Poe’s bed or Poe’s vest, but others may be lesser known pieces that are rarely, if ever, displayed. When making the list of items to profile, we began by asking which pieces tell stories or reveal unknown aspects of Poe’s life or work. We then considered which objects we wish could receive more attention or more time on display. Finally, we wondered which would be the first item to be profiled.
It made perfect sense to begin with a little known object that nonetheless attracts, repulses, and intrigues many of the guests who see it. Our tour guides regularly point it out on their tours because it is small enough to go unnoticed but too important to miss.
That is why the Poe Museum’s first Object of the Month is a lock of Eliza White’s hair.
Eliza White (ca.1820-1888) was the daughter of Poe’s employer, Thomas White, the owner of the Southern Literary Messenger. What little is known of Eliza White is a mixture of exaggeration, legend, and an occasional fact. Poe’s friend Susan Archer Talley Weiss wrote in her notoriously unreliable 1907 book Home Life of Poe, “When I was a girl I more than once heard of Eliza White and her love affair with Edgar Poe. ‘She was the sweetest girl that I ever knew,’ said a lady who had been her schoolmate; ‘a slender, graceful blonde, with deep blue eyes, who reminded you of the Watteau Shepherdesses upon fans. She was a great student, and very bright and intelligent. She was said to be engaged to Poe, but they never appeared anywhere together. It was soon broken off on account of his dissipation. I don’t think she ever got over it. She had many admirers, but is still unmarried.’”
According to Weiss, when Poe moved to Richmond in 1835 to work at the Southern Literary Messenger, “Mr. White, as a safeguard from the temptation to evil habits, received him as an inmate of his own home, where he immediately fell in love with the editor’s youngest daughter, ‘little Eliza,’ a lovely girl of eighteen [actually twenty-three]. It was said that the father, who idolized his daughter, and was also very fond of Poe, did not forbid the match, but made his consent conditional upon the young man’s remaining perfectly sober for a certain length of time. All was going well, and the couple were looked upon as engaged, when [Poe’s aunt] Mrs. Clemm, who kept a watchful eye upon her nephew, may have received information of the affair, and we have seen the result…Poe now, at once, plunged into the dissipation which was, according to general report, the occasion of Mr. White’s prohibition of his attentions to his daughter. It was she to whom the lines, ‘To Eliza,’ now included in Poe’s poems, were addressed.”
For her 1906 article “Some Memories of Poe” in Bob Taylor’s Magazine, Tula D. Pendleton interviewed Ms. White’s cousin, Miss Bell Lynes, a niece of Thomas H. White. In the resulting article, Cummings reports that, “Eliza, the handsome young daughter of Mr. White, inspired Poe with great admiration, and it was said that he singed his wings at the candles of her shrine. ‘To Eliza’ is his tribute to this fair girl.”
The poem “To Eliza,” originally published in the Southern Literary Messenger under the title “Lines Written in an Album,” reads:
Eliza! — let thy generous heart
From its present pathway part not!
Being every thing which now thou art,
Be nothing which thou art not.
So with the world thy gentle ways —
Thy unassuming beauty —
And truth shall be a theme of praise
Forever — and love a duty.
Though this poem was likely dedicated to Eliza White at that time, Poe had already written it in the album of his cousin Eliza Herring. He would later dedicate the poem to Frances S. Osgood and publish it under yet another name.
Of the supposed love affair between Poe and Ms. White, Pendleton continues, “But Mr. White would hear none of Poe as a suitor for his daughter. Miss White rarely spoke of the poet. ‘But,’ said Miss Lynes, ‘Eliza never married…’ Miss Lynes remembers seeing Poe at a party at her ‘Uncle White’s’ house. He and the fair girl made such a handsome couple that all present remarked upon it. “Mr. Poe was the most enthusiastic dancer I ever saw,” said Miss Lynes, “although he remained cold and calm, showing his delight only in his eyes.”
Poe and White remained friends for the rest of his life. She even visited Poe while he was living in Fordham, New York. In an April 22, 1859 letter to Poe’s friend Sarah Helen Whitman, Poe’s mother-in-law Maria Clemm writes of Eliza White, “She passed many months with us at Fordham, before and after Virginia’s death, but he never felt or professed other than friendship for her.”
If Poe’s relationship with White was not romantic, the two certainly shared an affinity for poetry. White’s poems appeared a number of times in the pages of the Southern Literary Messenger. Here is a poem of hers in the December 1835 issue.
The first mention of this lock of Eliza White’s hair comes from the above mentioned article by Tula D. Pendleton. The author writes of Ms. White, “Her greatest physical charm was her beautiful hair. Miss Lynes showed me a long braid of exquisite texture and of a fairness so extreme that when laid upon her own silver head there was scarcely any perceptible difference of shade. This hair was cut from Eliza White’s head many years before her death, which occurred about ten years ago.”
Pendleton acquired the lock from Miss Lynes and donated it to the Poe Museum in 1922. The piece had not been displayed for several years when the present curator, having read about it in the old accessions book, decided to take it out of storage. As a poet and as a friend of Poe’s, Eliza White deserved to have her story told. In the absence of a surviving portrait of her (since her only known portrait was destroyed in a fire in the nineteenth century) this hair serves as a tangible link to this often overlooked figure in Poe’s life.