Category Archives: History

Mainly Victorian and Medieval, but others, too

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale

In this book’s review in the New York Times Book Review, Marilyn Stasio dubbed this a True-Lit-Hist-Myst. It is the story of a true crime, committed in 1860, so it is also history, and is truly a mystery, because we cannot, at this remove, ever know whodunit for certain.

Crime stories pose puzzles for readers, along with solutions. That’s what can be comforting about them; order emerges from chaos. Novels (and true crime, too) can tell us more. They define a culture, comment on class and society, and ask their readers big questions about morality and human nature.

I first read this story in Victorian Murderesses: A True History of Thirteen Respectable French and English Women Accused of Unspeakable Crimes by Mary S. Hartman. The focus of this book was the role of women in Victorian England and how their status affected the causes and effects of the murder. It is a fascinating book; I recommend it for anyone interested in this subject.

Constance Kent came to the notice of Britain in the summer of 1860. The murder of her young half-brother at Road Hill House shocked Britain. Dickens was enthralled by it, Wilkie Collins and others appropriated it, and the public couldn’t get enough of it. Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher attempted to solve the crime and suffered as a result.

The morning of Saturday, June 30, 1860, Saville Kent, aged three years and 10 months, was missing from his bed. Soon after he was found, stuffed down the servants’ outside toilet on the grounds of the house. His throat had been cut.

The murder of a child was appalling enough, but the public was also frightened by the possibilities. It had been an inside job. How could one protect one’s home when a murderer lurked within rather than without. Summerscale is very good on the attitudes of the time. An Englishman’s home was, indeed, very much his castle. Servants could be spies or worse.

Detectives were all the rage. Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin began the public’s fascination with the rational detection of crime. Jack Whicher was one of the eight original Scotland Yard detectives. Whicher was 45 and had a string of successes behind him. Two years before Road Hill House, he had apprehended a thief who had made off with a Leonardo da Vinci. He had also aided the hunt for some revolutionaries who had attempted the assassination of Napoleon III in Paris. Dickens (whose character of Bucket in Bleak House was broadly based on Whicher’s friend and boss Charley Field) knew Whicher and had eulogized the new breed of detective as “models of modernity” in several magazine articles and stories.

There was resentment on the art of local police to the interference of Whicher, a London man. They had already formed the view that the killers had probably been Saville’s own father and nursemaid. (Kent had married the children’s governess after his first wife went mad and died.) Whicher, however, soon formed a different conclusion, one based on psychology and instinct. For him, the prime suspect was Saville’s half-sister Constance.

Constance was arrested and brought to court. Her defense lawyer made a mockery of Whicher’s inquiries and guesses, while the local constabulary campaigned to discredit the Londoner. Public opinion was on Constance’s side. Even Dickens became disillusioned with detectives. What was needed, it was decided, was a kind of detective who was “not so much a scientist as a machine”.

All the bad publication halted Whicher’s career. But in 1865, a year after his retirement, Constance walked into Bow Street magistrates’ court and confessed to the crime. She had spent the past few years in an Anglo-Catholic convent and was accompanied to the police by the Reverend Wagner and Katharine Gream, the Lady Superior of the convent. In short time, she was tried and convicted of the murder of her half-brother.

The problem for the reader is that we do not know how anyone feels or thinks about the events. We cannot know the inner workings of anyone’s mind. This is where novels come into their own: they allow us to move beyond surface appearances towards a deeper understanding of motivation and psychology. The organizing of chaos is also what novels do well. Indeed, they do it so much better than real life, which is why we read them. What the book does well, however, is to look at notions of class, criminality, human nature and religion in an age of change.

Constance was saved from execution by Queen Victoria, but served 20 years for the crime, then disappeared. Newspapers still felt that the details of her confession didn’t add up. Whicher retired a broken man, but even after the culprit was brought to justice there were still questions that have never been answered.

Stasio recommends that the true lit-hist-myst buff move on to The Mystery of Edwin Drood, The Moonstone, or Lady Audley’s Secret. I would plan to follow this suggestion, as well as dipping into The Water Doctor’s Daughters by Pauline Conolly. in Victorian Murderesses and Death at the Priory: Love, Sex, and Murder in Victorian England by James Ruddick. These are about two other murders Hartman discusses in Victorian Murderesses.


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Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures from the Nazis by Robert M. Edsel

This book was one of the selections I read for the Kimbell Museum’s book club. The group had a lively discussion; this is an important book and very dense. The discussion didn’t cover every issue I would have like it to do, but time is always a consideration.

I must confess that I was crying much of the time I was reading this book due to the intensity of the writing and the story Edsel was telling. I was fortunate enough to have been able to visit Florence and Siena a few years ago. If you have been to the Uffizzi Gallery, the Pitti Palace, the Santa Maria Novella Basilica, or any of the other notable sites in Florence or have been to Rome, Pisa, or Milan, you will appreciate the work the Monuments Men did during World War II to save the art and architecture so elemental to Western Civilization. If these men and women had not acted to save the paintings, sculptures, and buildings, the West – the world – would have been a very different, much culturally poorer place.

The “Monuments Men,” were a group of approximately 345 men and women from thirteen nations who comprised the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) section under the Civil Affairs and Military Government Sections of the Allied armies during World War II. Many were museum directors, curators, art historians, artists, architects, and educators. Together they worked to protect monuments and other cultural treasures from the destruction of World War II. In the last year of the war, they tracked, located, and in the years that followed returned more than five million artistic and cultural items stolen by Hitler and the Nazis. Their role in preserving cultural treasures was without precedent.

Saving Italy focuses on two Monuments Men, artist Deane Keller and scholar Fred Hartt, as they struggle to protect and save some of the world’s masterpieces, including Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper and Michelangelo’s David.

When Hitler’s armies occupied Italy in 1943, they also seized control of Western civilization’s greatest cultural treasures. As they had done throughout Europe, the Nazis plundered the masterpieces of the Renaissance, the treasures of the Vatican, and the antiquities of the Roman Empire.

On the eve of the Allied invasion, General Dwight Eisenhower created the Monuments Men to protect these historic riches. In May 1944, Keller and Hartt began the treasure hunt of a lifetime, tracking billions of dollars of missing art, including works by Michelangelo, Donatello, Titian, Caravaggio, and Botticelli.
Robert M. Edsel, who lives in Dallas and has praised the Kimbell Museum, has also written Rescuing Da Vinci and The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. He is the co-producer of the documentary film, The Rape of Europa, and Founder and President of the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art. Academy Award winner George Clooney will direct and star in a film based on The Monuments Men, which is set for theatrical release in December 2013.

Eisenhower is to be credited with establishing the Monuments Men. Their efforts to save such important cultural icons bring to mind the lack of foresight and planning to protect the art and artifacts that were looted and destroyed when we invaded Iraq. In my opinion, there was little thought involved at all when we began that war. Also, the conflict in Syria is jeopardizing that country’s cultural treasures. Similar situations exist in other parts of the world. Our collective history should be protected for future generations.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in art preservation, World War II, and the lessons we need to take from history.

Note: As of 10/23/13 –
‘The Monuments Men’ Delayed to 2014
George Clooney won’t have a chance to charm Oscar voters this year after all. His World War II drama The Monuments Men has been pushed back to 2014, the actor said Tuesday. Originally slated to be released on December 18, the move makes it ineligible for the 2014 Academy Awards. Clooney said the film’s visual effects could not be completed in time for the December release date. “If any of the effects looked cheesy, the whole movie would be cheesy,” Clooney told the Los Angeles Times. Clooney directed and stars in the film, which tells the story of artists, museum curators, and academics attempting to rescue paintings from the Nazis.
From the Los Angeles Times

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The Assassination of the Archduke by Greg King and Sue Woolmans

What do we know about World War I, much less about how it started? I remembered from some long ago history class that somebody got shot in Sarajevo, all the European countries were bound by alliances and had to fight each other, and the Tsar and his family were shot. Maybe I got some of that last from Dr. Zhivago (what a movie!).

However, like most of history, the situation was much more complicated than that and – surprise – people, real people, were involved. In this case, two people were assassinated by Serbian terrorists. Two people who loved each other deeply and had defied the very imposing, very petty, and very obsolete Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria, Apostolic King of Hungary, King of Bohemia, King of Croatia, King of Galicia and Lodomeria and Grand Duke of Cracow, by marrying. It was a morganatic marriage, a marriage between people of unequal social rank, which prevents the passage of the husband’s titles and privileges to the wife and any children born of the marriage. Probably the most famous example in modern times, the marriage took place in 1900 marriage when the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, wed Bohemian aristocrat Countess Sophie Chotek von Chotkowa. The marriage was initially resisted by Emperor Franz Joseph I, but after pressure from family members and other European rulers, he relented in 1899 (but did not attend the wedding himself). The bride was made Princess (later Duchess) of Hohenberg, their children took their mother’s new name and rank, and were excluded from the imperial succession.

The Hapsburgs, once one of the most powerful families in Europe, were in decline by the end of the 19th century. Inbreeding, separation of branches of the family, and disunity among countries all contributed to the “Twilight of the Habsburgs” (title of a biograph of Franz Joseph by Alan Palmer). The last Habsburg, Otto von Habsburg, died in 2011. At age 98, von Habsburg brought to a close 640 years of European history.

Sophie was treated as though she was invisible by the Hapsburgs and was omitted from most royal events. Deeply religious (Catholic), she seems to have been able to forgive this and find comfort and love with her husband and three children. Franz Ferdinand and Sophie profoundly loved each other and their children.

Franz Ferdinand was the Emperor’s nephew and would not have been heir to the throne if it had not been for the scandalous murder/suicide of Franz Joseph’s son, Rudolf, at Mayerling in 1889. According to official reports their deaths were a result of Franz Joseph’s demand that the couple end the relationship: the Crown Prince, as part of a suicide pact, first shot his mistress in the head and then himself. Rudolf was officially declared to have been in a state of “mental unbalance” in order to enable Christian burial in the Imperial Crypt (Kapuzinergruft) of the Capuchin Church in Vienna. Mary’s body was smuggled out of Mayerling in the middle of the night and secretly buried in the village cemetery at Heiligenkreuz. Whether this is what actually happened is still unsettled 124 years after the event.

The continuing theme in this book is that Franz Ferdinand was misunderstood; the foreword was written by the Archduke’s great-granddaughter who quotes the Archduke’s daughter explaining why she answers questions posted by journalists: “But I must defend him,” “him” being her father. He was not a personable man and was reclusive to a great degree. Some of this can be explained by the treatment given his wife, Sophie. He preferred to be with her than attending official events to which she was barred. On the other hand Franz Ferdinand was a great friend of Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and had an excellent relationship with King George V.

Why did the Archduke and his wife go to Sarajevo? Why was there so little military or police protection for them? Oskar Potiorek, an officer of the Austro-Hungarian Army, who served as Governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was responsible for Franz Ferdinand and Sophie’s stay in Sarajevo. He was clearly negligent in providing adequate protection for the royal visitors. He rejected numerous recommendations for providing safety for the two. Was this incompetence or part of the conspiracy to assassinate the couple? These are questions that perplex historians 100 years after the fact.

Franz Joseph was completely uninterested in the deaths. He gave every impression of pleasure at the death of his nephew and heir. However, as the Emperor of Austria-Hungary he had to do something. Austria-Hungary, like many in countries around the world, blamed the Serbian government for the attack and hoped to use the incident as justification for settling the question of Slav nationalism once and for all. As Russia supported Serbia, an Austro-Hungarian declaration of war was delayed until its leaders received assurances from German leader Kaiser Wilhelm that Germany would support their cause in the event of a Russian intervention–which would likely involve Russia’s ally, France, and possibly Britain as well. On July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and the tenuous peace between Europe’s great powers collapsed. Within a week, Russia, Belgium, France, Great Britain and Serbia had lined up against Austria-Hungary and Germany, and World War I had begun.

Franz Ferdinand and Sophie’s children suffered greatly after their parents’ death. Unrecognized by the Hapsburgs, they were shuffled among Sophie’s family, never knowing stability. When Hitler came to power, the sons were sent to Dachau where they almost died. Their lives after World War II saw more loss.

The causes and consequences of World War I remain with us today. For example, the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and its divisions by the European nations are with us even now in Syria, Iraq, Iran, and the other countries of the Middle East. This is history that we need to know. I recommend this book as one element of the history of the 20th and 21st centuries.

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Master of Shadows The Secret Diplomatic Career of the Painter Peter Paul Rubens by Mark Lamster

I read this for the Fort Worth Kimball Museum’s book club. I knew next to nothing about 17th century history – just a little about the Stuarts, Cromwell, and the Great Fire – but not European doings. Now I know way more than I ever wanted. Some of it little came in handy when I was teaching early American literature this summer. One never knows what random information one may pick up that might come in handy at the most unexpected times.

The audience for this book would, I think, be readers who want to know more about political history and art history. It is not for the casual reader; it is not light reading. Also, I have the paperback edition with few illustrations – all in black and white. I don’t know whether the hardback would have more painting, and in color. I was lucky enough to have Rembrandt’s Eyes by Simon Schama, which is chock full of Ruben’s paintings mentioned in Master of Shadows.

I was also relatively unfamiliar with Rubens. I knew the name, of course, but his paintings are not as ubiquitous as are those of Monet, Rembrandt, Botticelli, or Munch. Chances are, you, like myself, are much better acquainted with the adjective than the work of the painter. Few people can cite a Rubens painting by name, but “Rubenesque” has become a synonym for any amply proportioned female. Rubens has fallen out of style and is now thought of as an Old World master of a painting style—symbolic representation, heavy on Greek and biblical references—that we now think of as musty and antiquated. High Baroque, the style in which he painted, is nowadays synonymous with pointless complexity. After all, how many modern museum-strollers have the time to invest in all of the reference books needed to make sense of his allegories? But despite the one-dimensionality associated with the painter’s name, here’s a book that puts Rubens in a whole other frame.

Peter Paul Rubens got more done in one day than most of us get done in a lifetime. Rubens wasn’t content with merely being, conceivably, the world’s greatest painter during his lifetime. Instead, he filled his resume with an impressive array of occupations. Like superspy, for one—in addition to treaty negotiator, statesman, wealthy landowner, antiquities dealer, and factory head.

Rubens the politico-spy is just one of his many pursuits that surface in Master of Shadows, but it’s perhaps the least likely, given what was regarded as an artist’s lack of prospects when it came to upward mobility in the 16th and 17th centuries. Painters had a relative low status in society and were viewed as manual laborers because they worked with their hands. They could, possibly, earn a fortune. Rubens certainly did, with many royal and ecclesiastical commissions, which he met, with the assistance of helpers and students executing large portions of the paintings that bore his name. Painters were rarely drafted into diplomatic service, despite what Mark Lamster cites as the most natural cover: they had the ear of kings, queens, dukes, and assorted courtiers.

Rubens was eventually put on military salary by the Spanish crown (which had dominion over his native Antwerp). He was handsome, affable, quick-witted, and a natural salesman and he knew when to keep his mouth shut. Lamster calls him “the perfect spy.” There’s no doubt that Rubens’s undertakings were useful to Europe’s volatile politics. Intrigue was everywhere, with one clandestine deal being canceled out by another, and a third in place as a fall-back.

Rubens worked primarily as an operative for the Spanish crown, which was engaged in a prolonged war with the emerging Dutch republic, a conflict that engulfed all of Europe’s powers and involved the countries’ colonies. Rubens believed he could resolve this perpetual war, and he devoted several years of his life to this effort, risking all that he had achieved. He would arrange for a peace between Spain and England, with the expectation that England would then force its Dutch ally to compromise with Spain. It was a shrewd bit of strategic thinking, but it would not work unless Rubens could convince England and Spain, traditional enemies, to come to terms. Ultimately, Rubens did not succeed, although he was knighted by both Philip IV, King of Spain, and Charles I, King of England. One can see the sources of conflict in Europe that extend even to the 21st century. Lamster does a valuable job of sorting out the tangled politics of the Low Countries during what was a violent, complex, and energetic era. I was never entirely clear exactly what was going on, but I suspect the participants weren’t either.

Rubens was able to balance affairs of state with his personal business interests. He was not an agitator, at least externally; repeatedly browbeaten by various members of the nobility, the painter/spy worked ceaselessly to please, winning the favor of kings (such as Spain’s Philip IV) who had previously held his lack of a birthright against him.

Rubens approached negotiations as he might have approached a painting. That is, as a problem to be solved, requiring just the right balance of materials and techniques—shadow, color, and symbolism on the painting side of the equation; pointed reasons, financial assurances, and talk of shared interests at court.

We see Rubens’s political concerns feeding into his art, yielding it greater narrative scope. His early work evolved into a style where the relationship between metaphor and meaning became more direct. He had to make sure that his patrons understood precisely what his art was conveying. Satisfying human vanity went a long way in Rubens’s political career, and visualizing a king as a metaphorical god of justice and happiness, beloved of his flock, made for a favorable frame of mind when a favor was needed.

Mark Lamster’s affection for his subject is so complete and his research is so thorough that “Master of Shadows: The Secret Diplomatic Career of the Painter Peter Paul Rubens” manages to be generally engaging, instructive and thought-provoking. My occasional impatience arose, undoubtedly, from my overall lack of interest and experience with 17th century European history.

Lamster demonstrates the relationship between Rubens’ diplomatic assignments and his important artistic commissions. The author also reveals Rubens to be an attractive and likable man who clearly interested and charmed those around him.

Lamster provides a portrait of a major painter at a time when artists were still fully integrated into the intellectual, social and political affairs of their time. For Ruben, the artist was very much a man of affairs — well-educated, -traveled and -schooled in the social graces. Flemish painters, like their Italian counterparts, were members of respectable, even prestigious guilds. It’s not hard to see how a man as self-possessed and as socially gifted as Rubens could find a role in high-level diplomacy.

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Red Brick Black Mountain White Clay by Christopher Benfey

This is not a book I would have selected to read, but then I have named this blog “All Books Considered.” And I was kind of assigned this book for the Artful Reading book club at Fort Worth’s Kimbell Museum. (Actually, I didn’t realize it was a book club; I thought the authors or some other experts were going to come and lecture – there are two more books in this series.) Anyway, that’s what reading is for – to open your mind to new experiences, not just entertain or inform.

The director of this long-standing book club asked us what we would say to persuade someone else to read this book. I’m still thinking about that.

Christopher Benfey is literary critic and Emily Dickinson scholar. He is the Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College. Benfey holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University. Benfey is a specialist in 19th and 20th century American literature. He is also an established essayist and critic who has been published in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, and The Times Literary Supplement.

 He also seems to be related or acquainted with everyone who mattered in the second half of the 20th century. More about that later… He seems to have been everywhere and what he doesn’t know, doesn’t matter.

The title comes from the three parts of the book, although the book’s organization is very free flowing. One of Annie Albers’, his aunt, painting is titled “Red Meander,” and that is exactly what this book does – meander throughout the world, the arts, history, people, and Benfey’s thoughts. The subtitle for the book is Reflections on Art, Family, & Survival.

As I said, there are three parts to the book. The first part concentrates on the origin of his mother’s family. Rachel Elizabeth Thomas descended from colonial explorers and Quaker craftsmen. Her family settled in the Piedmont area of North Carolina, famous for its red clay, and was a brick layer. Seagrove is in the area, which I learned, is notable for its many folk potteries reaching back more than two hundred years, and is sometimes referred to as the “pottery capital of North Carolina”, or pottery capital of the world. Jugtown, one of the premier potteries, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  I had never heard of this place; I seemed to be one of the few in the book club who hadn’t. Benfey explores the geology, history, economy, art, and family background concentrated on this area of the country.

However, he also traces his father’s family’s history in this first part. His father, Otto Theodor Benfey, had left Germany before the war. His aunt and uncle, Josef and Anni Albers, left Germany when the Nazis closed the Bauhaus school in 1933. The Bauhaus had a major impact on art and architecture trends in Western Europe, the United States, Canada, and Israel in the decades following its demise, as many of the artists involved fled, or were exiled, by the Nazi regime. The Benfeys have a distinguished, prominent family history, including Christopher’s father, a chemist, who conceived the spiral design of the period table of the elements, and Theodor Benfey, a German philologist who taught Sanskrit and made a major scholarly contribution to the study of fairy tales at the same time the Brothers Grimm were collected their tales.

If any of this seems linear, I am misleading you. This information is scattered throughout the book. Thank heavens for the index!

In the second part of the book, Denfey relates the Alberses’ careers in this country. After Josef and Anni Albers reached the United States, the architect Philip Johnson, then a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, arranged for Albers to be offered a job as head of a new art school, Black Mountain College in North Carolina.  In November 1933, he joined the faculty of the college where he ran the painting program until 1949. Black Mountain College was a new kind of college in the United States in which the study of art was seen to be central to a liberal arts education. Many of the school’s students and faculty were influential in the arts or other fields, or went on to become influential. This connection is responsible for Christopher Benfey’s acquaintance with so many well-known later 20th century artists and writers. Although notable even during its short life, the school closed in 1957 after only 24 years. In 1950, Albers left Black Mountain to head the Department of Design at Yale University.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a lover of Albers’ work. Her office walls boast works on loan from the Smithsonian, including two original Rothkos, a painting by Max Weber, and one by Josef Albers. (Another Albers painting, which usually hangs in her chambers, is currently part of a traveling exhibit. Ginsburg vows that she won’t retire until it returns.)

After digressions to Mexico, Japan, Italy, Germany, Chile, Cuba, Greece, China, France, and nearly every state in America (and I’m sure I’ve missed a few), we come to part three in which we travel to England to trace the development of Wedgwood china. Josiah Wedgwood became fixated on the white Cherokee clay in North Carolina. Several attempts were made to possess this unique material; in the end, John and William Bartram, father and son, Quakers, manage to take back five tons of the white Cherokee clay to Wedgwood, resulting in the superb china that resulted in Wedgwood being named Potter to Her Majesty.

So we come back to pottery, North Carolina, clay, and Quakers. Everything in this book is connected. I can only imagine a graphic depiction of names, places, and materials.

Back to the director’s question: What could I say to persuade someone to read this book? Many in the club were most interested in pottery. If you collect or create pottery, you must read this book. Otherwise, if you are interested in American history, from colonial times to the 20th century, this will provide you with much you may not be aware of (as I was). However, you must not expect a linear narrative; you must be ready for that meandering, I mentioned. I became very frustrated during less than interesting sections, was confused trying to make the connection between all the elements, and wished that Benfey would just get on with it. Nevertheless, I’m glad I made it through the entire book. One lesson may be that everything is connected in this world, in one way or the other. Another lesson may be that one should not close one’s mind to a book – one never knows what one may learn.

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The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl

No aspect of his life has so fascinated Poe’s readers as his death. Unfortunately, what is known is confusing and  baffling. Shrouded in opinion and contradiction, the essential details of Poe’s final days present more questions than answers. The facts surrounding Poe’s death must, probably, after more than 160 years, remain a mystery — but it is a puzzle that still teases and entices those who find Poe’s writings and life enigmatic and incomprehensible. The Poe Shadow is a terrific depiction of this mystery and of Poe’s fate.

 Edgar Allan Poe died on October 7, 1849 at the Washington College Hospital in Baltimore. The events surrounding his death have remained an enigma. In the early morning hours of October 7, Poe calmly breathed a simple prayer, “Lord, help my poor soul,” and died. His cause of death was ascribed to “congestion of the brain.” No autopsy was performed, and the author was buried two days later. In dying under such mysterious circumstances, the father of the detective story has left us with a real-life mystery which Poe scholars, medical professionals, and others have been trying to solve for over 150 years. The Poe Shadow constructs “an intriguing chain of theories” (The New York Times) using new and definitive evidence in a rational, convincing, and enthusiastic theory of Poe’s last days.

 The Poe Shadow reveals, deliberates, and evaluates existing circumstances and evidence as well as new information that has not been known until this books. In the weeks before his death, Poe asked his aunt Maria Clemm to send him a letter to Philadelphia addressed to “E. S. T. Grey,” precisely at the same time a letter from Maria Clemm addressed to Poe under that name would have arrived at the post office. This was likely the last letter sent to Poe in his lifetime. The existence of this waiting letter has never before been known, and this list is reprinted for the first time  in The Poe Shadow, where its implications are explored and the reasons why Poe used this alias in this final days are finally revealed.

 Poe had plans to Philadelphia to edit a book of poems by a writer named Maurgerite St. Leon Loud. Poe died, but Loud ultimately did publish her poetry book in 1851, two years after Poe’s death. Identified for the first time in The Poe Shadow, “The Stranger’s Doom” may be the first poem ever written about Poe’s funeral. What it reveals about Poe’s death is uncovered in The Poe Shadow.

 All we know is that on October 3, Poe was found delirious on the streets of Baltimore , “in great distress, and … in need of immediate assistance”, according to the man who found him, Joseph W. Walker. He was taken to the Washington College Hospital, where he died at 5 a.m. on Sunday, October 7. Poe was never coherent enough to explain how he came to be in this condition.

 Much of the  information that we have had about the last few days of Poe’s life came from the doctor who tended him during his last days, Dr. John Joseph Moran, though his credibility is questionable. Theories as to what caused Poe’s death include suicide, murder, cholera, rabies, syphilis, influenza, and that Poe was a victim of cooping,  a practice in which unwilling participants were forced to vote, often several times over, for a particular candidate in an election. given alcohol or drugs in order for them to comply. If they refused to cooperate, they would be beaten or even killed.

 What is known is that on September 27, 1849, Poe left Richmond, Virginia, on his way home to New York. His whereabouts between that day until a week later on October 3 are unknown, when he was found delirious in Baltimore. He was cared for by Dr. Moran at the Washington College Hospital.  He was denied any visitors and was confined in a prison-like room with barred windows in a section of the building reserved for drunk people. Moran claimed he attempted to cheer Poe up during one of the few times Poe was awake. When Moran told his patient that he would soon be enjoying the company of friends, Poe allegedly replied that “the best thing his friend could do would be to blow out his brains with a pistol.”

 Shortly after his death, an obituary which disparaged Poe’s reputation appeared in the New York Tribune signed “Ludwig,” and was soon published throughout the country. The piece began, “Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.” The author was Rufus Wilmot Griswold, an editor and critic who had borne a grudge against Poe since 1842. Griswold somehow became Poe’s literary executor and, in a campaign to destroy his  reputation after his death, Griswold depicted Poe as a depraved, drunk, drug-addled madman. Much of the evidence for this image of Poe is believed to have been forged by Griswold, and though friends of Poe denounced it, this interpretation had lasting impact.

 One theory as to the cause of Poe’s death was reached through an analysis almost 147 years after his death. Doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center believe that Edgar Allan Poe may have died as a result of rabies, not from complications of alcoholism. Poe’s medical case was reviewed by R. Michael Benitez, M. D., a cardiologist at the University of Maryland Medical Center. His review is published in the September 1996 issue of Maryland Medical Journal.

 “No one can say conclusively that Poe died of rabies, since there was no autopsy after his death,” says Dr. Benitez, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “But the historical accounts of Poe’s condition in the hospital a few days before his death point to a strong possibility that he had rabies.” “Poe’s death is one of the most mysterious deaths in literary history, and it provided us with an interesting case in which to discuss many principles of medicine,” says Dr. Mackowiak of the weekly Clinical Pathologic Conference at the medical center.

 The Poe Shadow is a novel written by Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club. It tells the story of the quest of Quentin Hobson Clark, a Baltimore young lawyer, to solve the mystery of Edgar Allan Poe’s death.  It is a work of historical and literary fiction, in which some previously unpublished details about the last days of Poe, as mentioned.

 Quentin, a Poe admirer, witnesses a somber, simple funeral on October 8, 1849. When he learns it Edgar Allan Poe’s, with whom he had previously exchanged letters about providing legal support for a new journal, The Stylus, Clark feels obliged to look into the circumstances leading to Poe’s death, despite protests from his fiancée Hattie Blum and his friend Peter Stuart.

 Quentin’s search for the truth takes him to Paris to find the real-life inspiration for Poe’s character C. August Dupin, a man of intellect who could help unravel the mystery, just as he did The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, and The Purloined Letter. If the situation weren’t already complicated, Quentin meets Baron C.A. Dupin, a famed lawyer in Paris, and a lone detective with a similar name: Auguste Duponte. After a confrontational encounter with the Baron Dupin and his companion, Bonjour, Quentin realizes that the Baron is not quite what he claims to be and that Auguste Duponte, with his approach to problem-solving through ratiocination, was the real inspired character in the stories.

 The two go back to Baltimore to investigate the final days of Poe before his death, only to find that the Baron and Bonjour have been on the same track, if not ahead, of solving the same investigation. The two pairs interview  the funeral attendants, witnesses, and secretly rummage Henry Reynolds, a funeral attendant, who obtained a written letter from Poe the day he was found in the streets of Baltimore. Other mysteries unfold through Clark’s mission to clear Poe’s name from disgrace continue on to a surprising judgment on the death of Poe, possibly the most important Gothic fiction writer of American literature.

 Auguste Duponte and Baron Claude Dupin can be seen as doubles or doppelgangers, and the book discusses Poe’s use of doubles in works such as “William Wilson,” a tale that features two identical characters with the same names. The word “shadow” is used in many different ways in the novel. Clark tells us, “Poe once wrote in a tale about the conflict between the substance and the shadow inside of us. The substance, what we know we should do, and the shadow, the dangerous and giggling Imp of the Perverse, the dark knowledge of what we must or will do or secretly want. The shadow always prevails.”

 Back in Baltimore, Quentin finds that the Baron and Bonjour have followed Auguste and himself from Paris and are promoting the Baron as the true Dupin. Quentin finds himself entangled in ominous intrigues involving political agents,  the corrupt Baltimore slave trade, and the lost secrets of Poe’s final hours. With his own life in danger, Quentin Clark must turn master detective to uncover the threat against his now jeopardized destiny.

Following his phenomenal debut novel, The Dante Club, Matthew Pearl has once again crossed created a literary history with inventive mystery to create a cunningly plotted tale of suspense. Pearl’s pioneering research which uncovered documented material never published before opens a new window on the truth behind Poe’s demise. The resulting novel does honor to Poe himself through Pearl’s skillful craftsmanship, sly humor, and crafty plot zigzags.

 A final note on Poe – His funeral was a simple one with few people attending the ceremony. Poe’s uncle, Henry Herring, provided a simple mahogany coffin, and a cousin, Neilson Poe, supplied the hearse. Moran’s wife made his shroud. The funeral was presided over by the Reverend W. T. D. Clemm, cousin of Poe’s wife, Virginia. The entire ceremony lasted only three minutes in the cold, damp weather. Reverend Clemm decided not to bother with a sermon because the crowd was too small. One attendee  wrote of the weather: “It was a dark and gloomy day, not raining but just kind of raw and threatening.” Poe was buried in a cheap coffin that lacked handles, a nameplate, cloth lining, or a cushion for his head.

 Poe was reburied on October 1, 1875, at a new location close to the front of the church. A celebration was held at the dedication of the new tomb on November 17. His original burial spot was marked with a large stone donated by Orin C. Painter, though it was originally placed in the wrong spot. Walt Whitman was the only poet to attend. Alfred Lord Tennyson contributed a poem which was read at the ceremony:

Fate that once denied him,
And envy that once decried him,
And malice that belied him,
Now cenotaph his fame.

Death Theories

The following is an annotated  list of some of the theories of Poe’s cause of death that have been published over the years:

  • Beating (1857)
    The United States Magazine Vol.II (1857): 268.
  • Epilepsy (1875)
    Scribner’s Monthly Vo1. 10 (1875): 691.
  • Dipsomania (1921)
    Robertson, John W. Edgar A. Poe A Study. Brough, 1921: 134, 379.
  • Heart (1926)
    Allan, Hervey. Israfel. Doubleday, 1926: Chapt. XXVII, 670.
  • Toxic Disorder (1970)
    Studia Philo1ogica Vol. 16 (1970): 41-42.
  • Hypoglycemia (1979)
    Artes Literatus (1979) Vol. 5: 7-19.
  • Diabetes (1977)
    Sinclair, David. Edgar Allan Poe. Roman & Litt1efield, 1977: 151-152.
  • Alcohol Dehydrogenase (1984)
    Arno Karlen. Napo1eon’s Glands. Little Brown, 1984: 92.
  • Porphryia (1989)
    JMAMA Feb. 10, 1989: 863-864.
  • Delerium Tremens (1992)
    Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar A1lan Poe. Charles Scribner, 1992: 255.
  • Rabies (1996)
    Maryland Medical Journal Sept. 1996: 765-769.
  • Heart (1997)
    Scientific Sleuthing Review Summer 1997: 1-4.
  • Murder (1998)
    Walsh, John E., Midnight Dreary. Rutgers Univ. Press, 1998: 119-120.
  • Epilepsy (1999)
    Archives of Neurology June 1999: 646, 740.
  • Carbon Monoxide Poisoning (1999)
    Albert Donnay



Filed under Fiction, History, Mystery

The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl

How was I to know when I was reading this book that I would be teaching a class on American Literature from the Beginning til the Civil War. The literary celebrities of that era appear in this fascinating novel. Maybe I could sneak this in as required, except it takes place in Boston in 1865; so, unfortunately, it just slips over the limit. However, coincidences are crucial: “Coincidences mean you’re on the right path.” ~ Simon Van Booy, Love Begins in Winter: Five Stories

In this excellent novel, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and J. T. Fields, members of the Dante Club, solve a series of murders, all inspired by Dante’s Inferno. The Dante Club is a great book not just because of the mystery, but because it is solved by this group of immortal literary luminaries.

(For those unfamiliar with him, as I was, J. T. Fields was an American  publisher, editor, and poet. In 1839, he joined William Ticknor in the publishing and bookselling firm which became in 1846 as Ticknor and Fields  (which is very important in the book). Ticknor oversaw the business side of the firm, while Fields was its literary expert. He became known for being likeable, for his ability to find creative talent, and for his ability to promote authors and win their loyalty. Fields became the publisher of leading contemporary American writers, with whom he was on terms of close personal friendship. He was also the publisher of some of the best-known British writers of his time, some of whom he also knew intimately. The company paid royalties to these British authors, including Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, at a time when other American publishers pirated the works of those authors. Ticknor and Fields had such a substantial influence in the literary scene that writer and editor Nathaniel Parker Willis acknowledged in a letter to Fields: “Your press is the announcing-room of the country’s Court of Poetry.”In 1859 Ticknor and Fields purchased The Atlantic Monthly for $10,000.

His second wife aided Mr. Fields in establishing literary salons at their home in Boston, where they entertained many well-known writers. One such writer was Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne said he owed his success as a writer to him: “I care more for your good opinion than for that of a host of critics, and have excellent reason for so doing; inasmuch as my literary success, whatever it has been or may be, is the result of my connection with you”.

At Hawthorne’s death in 1864, Fields served as a pallbearer for his funeral alongside Bronson Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.,  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Edwin Percy Whipple.

Fields was particularly successful as a publisher because of his ability to build close relationships with writers. As author Rebecca Harding Davis (1831-1910), a pioneer of literary realism in American literature, said, he was “the shrewdest of publishers and kindest of men. He was the wire that conducted the lightning so that it never struck amiss.” He knew the tastes of the reading public. Fields was reputedly able to ascertain what book a visitor to his Old Corner Bookstore would purchase within 10 minutes of arrival(Wikipedia).

As can be discerned, J. T. Fields may not be known today, but he during the nineteenth century was the most influential publisher in America. Ticknor and Fields  was later bought by H. O. Houghton, and became part of Houghton Mifflin.

Please forget my very lengthy digression. I find these people fascinating. For example, why have we never heard of Rebecca Harding Davis? Perhaps because she was a woman? Once more I digress.

On to the story:

In 1865 Boston, a small group of literary geniuses are working on the finishing touches on America’s first translation of The Divine Comedy and prepare to reveal the marvelous visions of Dante to otherwise ignorant United States. The powerful, reactionary members of Harvard College want to prevent Dante out of this country. They believe that the infiltration of such foreign superstitions into our libraries would be morally corrupting as the foreign immigrants landing in Boston harbor. The members of the Dante Club, poets and Harvard professors Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell and publisher J. T. Fields, suffer the harassment of these intransigent Boston Brahmins for, what is to them, a sacred literary cause.

However the plans of the Dante Club are cut short when a there are a series of murders in Boston and Cambridge. With their familiarity with Dante, only Longfellow, Holmes, Lowell, and Fields realize that the mode and manner of the killings duplicate Dante’s Inferno and its distinctive descriptions of Hell’s punishments. With the police baffled, lives endangered and Dante’s literary future at stake, the Dante Club must emerge from its isolated literary quest and find a way to stop the killer.

Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes carries the major burden of the investigation due to his unique literacy in both poetry and medicine. A noteworthy policeman, Nicholas Rey, the first and only black member of the Boston police department, risks his career after discovering the secrets of the Dante Club. Together, they find the key to the murders where they least expect it.

This is a fantastic book. You don’t have to know anything about these historical, literary gentlemen (although it helps). The mystery is engaging, clever, and unforeseen. I just wish I had learned about the book when it was published. Just look at the list below; many others have recognized its quality.

US News & World Report: Best Books.
NYPL: Books to Remember.
A Booksense 76 Selection.
Booklist: Top 10 Historical Fiction.
Library Journ.: season’s Best 1st Novels.
A People Magazine Page-Turner.
A Borders Original Voices Selection.
Borders: Best Mysteries/Thrillers of the Year.

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Filed under History, Mystery