One crisp Sunday afternoon in October 1987, tour guide Tom Rowe led a group of students across the Poe Museum’s garden to show them the treasure sitting on the pedestal in the Poe Shrine. Pointing toward the shadow recesses of the brick pergola, he announced, “And here’s the bust of Poe made by Edmond T. Quinn.”
Only after a couple kids asked, “What bust?” did Tom take a second look at the empty pedestal. The Poe Museum’s priceless sculpture was missing.Quinn Bust in the Poe Shrine
Sculpted in 1908 by Edmond Thomas Quinn (1868-1929), the white plaster bust was the original model for a bronze copy unveiled in New York on Poe’s 100th birthday, January 19, 1909 and commissioned by the Bronx Society of Arts and Sciences. Quinn was a perfect choice for the commission. He had studied at the nation’s most prestigious art school the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts under one of the nation’s most important artists, Thomas Eakins who believed only the close scrutiny of the live model as well as the dissection of cadavers could properly prepare artists to depict the subtle nuances of human faces and anatomy in their paintings. After Eakins was fired for corrupting his female students by having them paint nude male models, Quinn followed his teacher from the Academy to continue his studies at the newly formed Art Students League of Philadelphia, where he served as curator.Unveiling Quinn’s bronze Poe bust on January 19, 1909
The training he received under Eakins instilled in Quinn such a devotion to creating such realistic portraits that a New York Times art critic in a 1919 marveled at his mastery of “recording subtleties of expression that play like rippling water over the rock structure of the human head.” Quinn excelled at both painting and sculpture, exhibiting several works in both media at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the National Academy of Design, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Over the course of a distinguished career, he produced portraits of playwright Eugene O’Neill, poet Edwin Markham, and many other leading cultural figures of his day. His best known work is a full-length statue of the actor Edwin Booth in Gramercy Park in New York.
The Bronx Society of Arts and Sciences hired Quinn to sculpt its Poe bust and organized a grand unveiling across the street from Poe’s former cottage in Poe Park in The Bronx that would mark the occasion of the author’s centennial. About two hundred people stood in the snow to witness the ceremony in the snow. The Society also decorated the Poe Cottage with flags and built a platform next to the bust’s marble pedestal. After the firing of a salute by the Second Battery Field Artillery, the presenters pulled the cover off the bust and presented it to the city of New York. Afterwards, the celebrants moved the event indoors at New York University where Poe biographer George E. Woodberry presided over the day’s presentations and readings of Poe’s best-known poems. In a photo taken at this ceremony, what would one day be the Poe Museum’s plaster bust can be seen on a flag-draped pedestal on the edge of the stage.Quinn’s plaster bust of Poe takes the stage at the unveiling ceremony
Shortly after the excitement of the formal unveiling and dedication died down, someone vandalized the bronze bust, which was moved into the Poe Cottage for its protection. Edmond Quinn went on to achieve his greatest success with commissions for more public sculptures over the next two decades. Then, in May 1929, he swallowed poison in an unsuccessful suicide attempt. Four months later, he drowned himself off Governor’s Island in New York.Quinn’s bronze Poe bust on display in Poe Park in 1909 Quinn’s bronze Poe bust in its present location in the Poe Cottage
Two years later, the Bronx Society of Arts and Sciences donated the plaster version of Quinn’s bust to the new Poe Museum in Richmond. Over the next half-century, the bust moved from one part of the museum to another before it finally found a more permanent home in the Poe Shrine at the north end of the museum’s garden. Although it was protected from rain, the water soluble plaster was not well suited for display outdoors, so humid Virginia summers and air pollution gradually eroded the bust’s surface.Quinn’s plaster Poe bust in the Poe Museum’s Raven Room in 1937
In the 1970s, the Poe Museum the eccentric former physicist (who supposedly worked on the Manhattan Project) Dr. Bruce English took over as the museum’s director and president. For the more than twenty years he ran the museum Dr. English oversaw a renovation of the museum’s Old Stone House, acquired adjacent property to make a parking lot, and reinterpreted a room of the Old Stone House as a Colonial Era exhibit. This period also saw the acquisition of several important artifacts, including two daguerreotypes of Poe’s last fiancée Elmira Royster Shelton.Bruce and Virginia English in the 1970s
By October 1987, the museum was flooded with groups of visiting students from area middle schools. Dr. English discouraged the celebration of Halloween because he feared any association with the horror genre would distract from Poe’s contributions to other literary genres like detective fiction and science fiction, but teachers loved sharing Poe’s horror stories with their classes during the Halloween season. That is why, just as today, October was the busiest month for student group tours at the museum. It was during one such tour that Tom discovered the theft of the Quinn bust.
Apparently, no one had ever considered the possibility that someone might actually take the eighty pound, twenty-two inch bust over the garden’s tall brick walls, which were topped with shards of broken glass embedded in the mortar. At the very least, the thief would have needed an accomplice, if not a crane, to get it out of the garden. “They had to carry it over an eight foot wall,” English told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “They had to carry it back over an eight-foot wall. It had to be somebody very strong.”
The staff told the police that they last recalled seeing the bust on Saturday morning, October 18, around 10:40 a.m. but that nobody had noticed it was missing until 3 p.m. on Sunday, October 19. One can only imagine how many times over the weekend the guides had pointed out the empty pedestal on their hourly museum tours while the tourists played along, not bothering to point out the mistake.
By Monday, October 20, Dr. English alerted the media and announced that he would ask no questions if the culprit would simply return the bust undamaged. He told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “This is a major crime in the art world. I’m very disturbed.”
Around midnight on Tuesday he was awakened by a telephone call. The anonymous caller claimed to know the bust’s location but would only reveal it if English read him Poe’s poem “The Spirits of the Dead.” When English had looked up the early verse in a volume of Poe’s poetry and complied with the caller’s request, voice said, “It’s at the Raven Inn” and hung up the phone.
Meanwhile, across the James River in Chesterfield County, a man in a cowboy hat arrived at a biker joint called the Raven Inn and carried the sculpture up to the bar, ordering a mixed drink for himself and a beer for Poe. By the time the police arrived, the stranger was gone. Poe was sitting on the bar with his beer and a paper bag on which was written the poem “The Spirits of the Dead.”Quinn’s plaster Poe on display in the Raven Room around 2005
Quinn’s bust returned to the museum, but, for its safety, English kept it indoors and displayed a replica in the Poe Shrine where it remains securely bolted to its pedestal. On occasion, visitors leave the replica notes and gifts. Some admirers place flowers, and others kiss it on the cheek. Many more pose next to it for photos.Replica bust in the Poe Shrine in 2016
In 2008, the Poe Museum authorized the creation of more plaster copies of the bust. These soon sold, and one is even on display at the Poe House and Museum in Baltimore. More recently, in 2016, Dr. Bernard Means of the Virginia Commonwealth University Virtual Curation Laboratory brought his class to the museum to scan the bust in order to make a reduced-size 3-D print of it.Striking a pose with the Poe bust in the Poe Shrine
Now that his days of traveling to local bars are over, the original plaster bust is currently on display in the museum’s Elizabeth Arnold Poe Memorial Building with no plans for future travel. After he retired from teaching Tom returned for a couple years to his old tour guide job the Poe Museum where he enjoyed telling the story of how he discovered the purloined Poe bust. No arrest was ever made in the case, and nobody every confessed to the crime. Earlier this year, a man taking a tour of the museum admitted he had known the thief and that his motivation had been the protection of the bust from further deterioration caused by its display outdoors. The Raven Inn has long since closed and was replaced by a used car dealership. When the bartender on duty that night back in 1987 passed away several years ago, his friends asked the Poe Museum it would send the bust to attend his funeral.Replica bust in the Poe Shrine
In honor of the twenty-ninth anniversary its trip to the Raven Inn, the Poe Museum has named Edmond Quinn’s plaster bust of Poe its Object of the Month. Click here to learn about other Objects of the Month.Quinn’s 1908 plaster Poe bust on display at the Poe Museum Animation of Edmond Quinn’s bust of Poe courtesy of VCU Virtual Curation Laboratory