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Appearing As Edgar’s Father

As Union College approached its bicentennial, staging a play by the alumnus after whom the school had named its main gate seemed an appropriate feature for the celebration. And so, while visiting another campus and finding I had a few hours to kill, I entered its library’s stacks and pulled out about a half dozen large play collections with faded, faintly musty covers. The frontispiece of the first volume I opened immediately arrested my attention. Its caption read “John Howard Payne,” but the figure in the theatrical cape looked exactly like Edgar Allan Poe.

I photocopied the portrait and returned to Union. The next day, taking care to mask the caption, I ran off an additional dozen copies of the copy, which I then distributed to my American literature seminar. “Who is this writer?” I asked. All the students identified him as Poe (with “of course” implicit in their tone). I smiled, mockingly chided them for not having recognized one of Union’s most illustrious alumni, and passed around the captioned copy. For them, the matter rested there: an oddity of no consequence.

Not so for me. Years later, I mentioned the remarkable resemblance to a friend who had compiled a history of Union and probably knew more about its past than anyone else alive. “Is there a chance Payne might have been Poe’s biological father?” I asked. Given young Payne’s passion for the theater and Eliza Poe’s career as an actress, it did not seem implausible.

My friend smiled. “Another brilliant hypothesis spoiled by an inconvenient detail,” he took unseemly delight in replying. “What is Poe’s birth date?”

“January 19, 1809.”

“Yes, and nine months before Edgar was born, Payne was in Schenectady, under the watchful eye of the president of Union College, not in Boston sharing a bed with Mrs. Poe. Oh, he did meet Eliza in April, but it was April, 1809, and in New York City, where Payne was appearing in a play called Douglas–three months after baby Edgar was born.”

Such confidence in his facts did indeed spoil my speculation.

More than a decade passed before my research into the literary scene in early nineteenth-century New York City again led me to Payne. This time I was more tenacious in my pursuit of whatever truth underlay that portrait.

Who was John Howard Payne, and how might his story account for that uncanny resemblance?

Now all but forgotten, Payne briefly captured his young nation’s heart early in the nineteenth century. He soared to fame as its preeminent native actor – the first to play Hamlet – and for a few years he was among the more successful playwrights writing in English. But celebrity proved a fickle conquest. Tastes changed, and a string of bad judgments, both personal and professional, steepened his decline. By the end of his life, his fame rested almost exclusively on his authorship of the persistently popular, unabashedly sentimental “Home, Sweet Home.” President Lincoln frequently asked that the song be played in the White House through the gloom of the Civil War and once requested its performance by a visiting Italian soprano. Dickens, on his American tour, bought an accordion just so he could accompany himself singing it for his wife before going to bed. The great Australian soprano Nellie Melba embraced it as a signature song on her tours, often performed to her own piano accompaniment. Although there is no sure way to track sales of sheet music at that time, it may have been the most sold and played American tune through the nineteenth century and up to World War I. Significantly, the plaque beside the Union gate honoring Payne omits mention of any other achievement. Yet, despite its hold on the affections of several generations, “Home, Sweet Home” is a frail reed to support immortality – especially when set beside the brilliant promise that had launched him.

The son of an earnest, idealistic schoolmaster, Payne, though born in Manhattan, spent most of his early life in Boston until September, 1805, when his father’s crumbling finances forced the precocious fourteen-year-old into a New York City counting house. But care of account books did not fetter his creativity for long: by year’s end, less than four months after his arrival in the city, he was single-handedly producing The Thespian Mirror, a weekly theatrical miscellany. Word of its success spread quickly. Within a month of its initial appearance, Boston was expressing “approbation and even admiration” for the improbable success of someone who had only recently been a schoolboy in their town, and a few weeks later, a correspondent with Philadelphia’s The Port-Folio wrote the “little editor … is almost the only topic of fashionable table talk.”

William Coleman, Alexander Hamilton’s heir as owner and editor of The New-York Evening Post, at first found it difficult to believe that the writing he so admired issued from the mind of a fourteen-year-old. An interview at his invitation not only lay his doubt to rest but also convinced him that the emerging nation could stand to benefit greatly if such a gifted youth were to be trained in “the values of a republican education.” The impulsive Coleman quickly sought, and obtained, the elder Payne’s permission to recruit a sponsor for the prodigy’s college education.

Payne’s ambitions were too restive, however, to allow him to wait for Coleman to execute his plan. At some point in January, 1806 – in a week’s time, he claimed – he wrote Julia; or, The Wanderer, a comedy in five acts– immediately enlisted as highly regarded a cast as New York could muster. For the female lead, he somehow managed to secure the petite Miss Granger Jones, one of the two favorite comic actresses of the period. Payne had just singled her out for praise in the Mirror, and he apparently tailored the comedy expressly for her. But despite an appealing cast, the audience at its premiere seldom laughed. After a single performance, on February 2, the author withdrew the play.

Part of the blame lay with the cast for taking wide liberties with the script. Payne, in self-defense, spoke of his particular disappointment in Miss Jones. But much of the disaster could have as well been attributed to the lines faithfully delivered. Although New York City had already earned a reputation for uncorseted moral conduct, theater audiences could countenance neither the dialogue’s often suggestive gibes at the expense of feminine virtue nor a plot that veered on parody of the sentimental comedies then in vogue. Moreover, despite the playwright’s advertisement of himself as “Eugenius, a gentleman of New York,” gossip had left no doubt as to his true identity. Washington Irving’s elder brother Peter reflected the general condemnation of the play as “destitute of that delicacy of which the simplicity of our manners and the purity of our morals demand a scrupulous observance.” Cynicism such as one might find in a French theater piece could not be accepted from an American boy – even one whose literary prowess had shown him as anything but callow.

Had Julia a warmer reception, Payne would probably have rejected Coleman’s proffered college education to concentrate instead on the stimulating opportunities at hand, but the public rebuff enhanced the appeal of moving to a new setting. John Seaman, a New York City merchant who had envisioned a brilliant future for Payne’s older brother before the young man’s decease, eagerly stepped forward to be the sponsor Coleman sought – indeed, he even wanted to adopt the lad as his legal heir. Columbia tendered a full tuition scholarship, but Seaman, wary of the city’s influence on a youth already known for his “love of pleasure,” instead selected the College of New Jersey (later renamed Princeton). The philanthropic benefactor soon had second thoughts: Princeton was not far enough away from the siren beauties of New York and much too near Philadelphia. Despite his age, Payne’s extraordinary blue eyes, soft good looks, and facile phrases had a hypnotic effect on such “obliging girls” as he had described in Julia as “worth all the wives in heaven.” Clearly, their responsiveness would only impede his protegé’s prospects for concerted study. And so Seaman instead chose eleven-year-old Union College.

The experiment began inauspiciously. Days after turning fifteen, Payne left Manhattan on a sloop bound for Albany, escorted by the novelist Charles Brockden Brown, one of the enthusiasts who had pledged assistance in developing Payne’s talent. Another passenger, Colonel Marinus Willett, the swashbuckling leader of the Sons of Liberty and a true military hero of the Revolution, was en route to Montreal with his young third wife. Though half a century older than Payne, Willett delighted in the precocious adolescent’s company, and when the sloop reached Albany, he suggested that his new friend join them on the coach north.

It may have been the presence of two unattached females in the party – and perhaps the attentions of the new Mrs. Willett as well – that influenced Payne’s impulsive decision to defer his arrival at Union to continue the jaunt to Montreal. He may also have believed that Willett had offered to pick up his tab; if so, either he was mistaken or something in Payne’s deportment changed the Colonel’s mind. When the money Seaman had given his protege for the trip ran out in Glens Falls, just thirty-five miles north of Albany, Payne had to appeal for ninety dollars to settle his tavern bill as well as for funds to get him to the original destination. Thus, before he had even set foot on the Union campus, rumor had already painted him as something of a rascal. Seaman, on learning of the escapade, was vexed. It would not be the last time.

Eliphalet Nott, then barely two years into a term that would make him the longest-serving college president in American history, looked upon his atypical freshman as both an opportunity and a challenge. Nott prided himself on redirecting errant students to moral probity through a combination of Christian teaching, philosophical precepts, and a strict regimen; Union, sometimes scorned as Botany Bay, would carry its nickname as a blazon of its special mission. If Payne’s unbridled ways tested the discipline deemed essential for an educational community, his intellectual promise also made him a prize catch. Nott not only assumed sole responsibility for this special student’s instruction but also, being wary of his wayward ways, installed Payne in his own apartment and had him sleep in the same bed, on the side set against the wall, so that any attempt to slip out during the night would wake the president. Eventually, Nott’s “chum,” as Payne became known, was released to a more normal student life when he was assigned another tutor and moved to residence in a dormitory. Even so, his teachers were instructed to keep him under surveillance, with any hint of transgressive behavior to be reported by letter to Seaman and the committee of patrons in Manhattan.

Despite these fetters, Payne still managed to call attention to himself. Convinced he could earn a handsome profit by selling subscriptions to his fellow students, he hatched a second magazine, The Pastime. When payments fell well short of pledges, its enterprising editor was left with debts and sore feelings among subscribers. For the school’s commencement exercises, held on the Fourth of July, Payne composed an ode that rather flagrantly advertised his sense of superiority. His schoolmates were not impressed, and several collaborated in the publication of a condescending critique. Payne felt the sting, but instead of nursing his hurt he wrote a more exaggerated attack on his own poem than the one his critics had produced, making their reproaches seem petty and ridiculous by comparison. Winning the literary duel of course did not erase the resentment. President Nott sympathized with the uncommonly talented young man and went out of his way to be his advocate, but nothing could reconcile Payne to the confinement of Schenectady. Any plausible reason to break his agreement with Seaman would serve his impatience to reenter the world’s excitement.

By spring of his freshman year, Payne knew that his mother was gravely ill, but instead of traveling to her bedside in Boston during Union’s Easter vacation, he used money received from Seaman to return to New York, and from there to visit Newark, Trenton, and Philadelphia, enjoying the company of pretty young women at each hop. Sarah Isaacs Payne died in mid-June. In a condolence to his father, the son, perhaps touched by guilt, described himself as devastated. It was the father’s grief, however, not his own, that would extricate him from college. Payne’s elder brother had died only two years earlier, and the bereaved parent was still absorbing that blow when consumption preyed first on his wife and then on his daughter. Never comfortably ahead on his financial obligations, the psychically crippled schoolmaster now lacked the strength to stave off ruin. Something had to be done, and the student reluctantly moored at Union was sure he had the answer. At the Easter break in 1808, he traveled to Boston, not only to lift his father’s spirits but also to discuss his plan to change his own future course.

* * * *
William Payne’s Berry Street Academy lay only a few paces down the block and a catercorner crossing from the Federal Street Theatre, where Charlotte and Luke Usher had joined with another stage couple for a benefit – the usual practice of that period in which proceeds from a special performance went directly to one or more designated actors. Staged the day after Easter, the benefit consisted of Schiller’s The Robbers the American premiere of James Kenney’s Ella Rosenberg. Playing the female lead in both dramas was a petite actress described in Boston’s The Emeraldas “the favorite of the public and the delight of the eye.”

Although barely twenty-one, Eliza Arnold was already a practiced navigator of life’s straits. She had been born in London to Elizabeth Arnold, an actress and singer in her mid-twenties employed at Covent Garden, who may, or may not, have been married at the time. Nine years later, mother and daughter sailed to Boston for a new start in life in the theater. Aboard the ship was Charles Tubbs, either already a piano player or someone who was learning the wildly popular new instrument; perhaps on meeting Elizabeth, Tubbs decided to attempt acting as well. Within the year, Mrs. Arnold had not only remarried but, now billed as Mrs. Tubbs, was building a good reputation as a performer. Little Eliza also enjoyed a quick taste of success: after her stage debut, she appeared in more than a dozen roles, drawing notices as flattering as those received by her mother. As their stock climbed, however, Tubbs’s fell. Critics and audiences panned his piano-playing and singing, and despite his arrogating the principal male roles to himself, his acting never measured up to his vanity. Perhaps to compensate for his deficiencies, he took on the position of manager, but in that capacity too, disasters eclipsed his occasional moderate successes. One Portland, Maine, reviewer bluntly urged him to “shut up the house and go home.” Nevertheless, Tubbs struggled on, relying on his tie to Elizabeth and Eliza to join troupes in the South. But then Elizabeth died suddenly, perhaps of yellow fever, and he feared for his survival. Eliza, a ten year-old girl, held his future in her hands. For the 1798-99 season, they went to Philadelphia, where Tubbs was seldom cast and even then in very minor roles paying scarcely enough to sustain him. Eliza, in contrast, appeared often, taking on a wide range of parts, male and female. As Tubbs’s control over her steadily diminished, the theater company’s manager and prime actor took her under his protective wing.

Midway through her second season, a handsome youth was hired to play Tony Lumpkin in Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer. Charles Hopkins had had no stage experience, yet the newcomer was an immediate hit. The manager saw an opportunity. Pairing Charles with Eliza, who already had acquired a following, he established them as a romantic couple, and audiences, as he correctly foresaw, were drawn to the theater as much by an affection for the actors as by interest in the plays. For the next two years, the couple worked together almost constantly, not only in Philadelphia but also in Baltimore and Washington. When another company then lured Charles away, the lovers decided to marry; in the summer of 1802, fifteen-year-old Eliza became a bride and joined her new husband’s company.

No signs indicate that the marriage was less than happy, and for the first year Charles and Eliza continued to exploit their appeal as virtual stage partners. By the next summer, however, this bond may have begun weakening, or at least undergoing a change. Charles lightened his duties on stage in order to assume responsibilities as a manager. Even so, he remained primarily an actor, intent on expanding the range of his talents. Perhaps nothing more than an ambition to test his capacities accounted for the fact that, when he did appear on stage now, it was not as Eliza’s lover. That role repeatedly went to a nineteen-year-old tyro, David Poe, a member of a respected Baltimore family who had abandoned his path to a career in law in order to become an actor, reputedly after seeing Eliza perform in Norfolk. Some of the Poe family, fairly or not, blamed Eliza’s spell for his persistence in this folly. Did his entrance into the theater company inject a new element of jealousy into the marriage? David’s real-life infatuation with the young woman he pursued in a file of plays was rather obvious; even so, whatever its inward effect, it did not outwardly disturb his relationship with the spouses, who embraced him as both a colleague and a friend.

In June of 1805, David briefly left the Virginia Company for an engagement in Baltimore, his home city. Several considerations may have influenced the decision. Presumably, he sought to show the skeptical Poe family that the time had come to take his theatrical aspirations seriously: the fact that Baltimore offered him shared billing with one of the stellar actors in America proved that others believed in him. And indeed, the public’s response gave good reason for congratulation: David acquitted himself well enough as Young Norval in Douglas, a favorite tragedy of the period, to be hired as a principal actor for the summer season in Alexandria. But there may also have been another purpose steering his separation from the Virginia Company. Could the proximity to a married woman who had captured his affection have grown too emotionally complicated and difficult to manage? Might the break have been a test of a possible solution? Without documentary evidence, one can only speculate, but whatever the motives for his leaving, in September he rejoined the Virginia Company in Washington.

It would prove a fateful reunion. A raging fever struck Charles down early in October, and he steadily worsened; after lapsing into delirium, he died on October 26. Eliza steeled herself; doughtily, she went before the footlights two days later as Kitty in the popular comedy Ways and Means. Kitty is the sort of ingenue Eliza had so frequently played that audiences assumed the role mirrored the actress’s own personality. In this play, Kitty’s suitor describes her as “the girl for my taste–young, wild, frank, and ready to run into my arms, without the trouble of dying or sighing. Her mind full of fun, her eyes full of fire, her head full of novels, and her heart full of love ….” Eliza evidently bore a special similarity to Kitty in her resilient temperament. When the Virginia Company moved from Washington to Richmond to open a new theater, Eliza went alone, but David soon followed and they resumed their popular collaboration in the romantic leads in comedies. Four and a half months after Charles’s burial, the Widow Hopkins became Mrs. David Poe.

Such a quick remarriage surely raised eyebrows, even among actors used to louche ways, and it may have been a factor leading the newlyweds to put Virginia behind them for theaters in the North. After brief stops in Philadelphia (where Eliza was announced as the former Eliza Arnold, with no mention of her work as Mrs. Hopkins – perhaps in deference to her new husband) and then in New York City (where they were well received at the Vauxhall Garden outdoor theater), they began the 1806 fall season at the elegant new Federal Theatre in Franklin Place, Boston’s only remaining playhouse.

The resettlement had an auspicious start when the city’s most influential critic extended a warm welcome: “we are disposed to judge favorably” of Eliza’s talents, and David should prove “a pleasing performer” as he “possesses a full manly voice, of considerable extent; his utterance clear and distinct.” Compliments for Eliza in her many roles continued throughout the fall; her husband, however, did not fare quite as well as he had in the South. Several reviewers pointed to defects in his renditions, and although other actors were often degraded by Boston’s caustic critics, David’s vanity bristled at every barb. It would require greater maturity than either the young husband or his wife possessed for the disparity in their fortunes not to have generated tensions in the marriage, and now the physical and emotional toll of Eliza’s pregnancy, which had evidently begun close to their wedding in April, was bound to elevate discord. Further exacerbating their problems, the Embargo Act was crippling the harbor city’s economy, and the theater public bought fewer and fewer tickets. Then, adding to the uncertainty, when Eliza returned to the stage after baby Henry’s birth on January 30, critics were suddenly less than generous to her; indeed, one now went so far as to question her competence. If, earlier, the praise she routinely drew had fanned the embers of David’s envy, this sudden disparagement underscored the threat to their financial stability. And all this time, Eliza not only had to contend with the strain of caring for a new-born while living in crowded quarters and memorizing lines but to manage it while dealing with an insecure husband who could not elude the shadow of his predecessor. Infidelity needed only an occasion.

Although no record of an encounter between Eliza and John Howard Payne during Easter week of 1808 has ever come to light, its probability is compelling. Payne had never forsworn his fascination with the theater world while “imprisoned” in Schenectady. Can one imagine that, on his return to Boston with his mind set on a stage career, he would not have walked the few steps from his father’s home on Berry Street to the Federal Theatre? Eliza Poe would have been an excellent source of scuttlebutt about the state of the profession, not only in Boston but in New York City as well. Besides, as everyone seemed driven to tell the world, she was a rare beauty, close to Payne’s own age and physically just the type he favored. Would she have been attracted by his well-carved good looks, wit, intelligence, and mellifluous voice? Her husband’s sullenness and explosive outbursts in response to adversity further strained their relationship, and there are indications that he had begun relying on alcohol to palliate his frustrations. After pregnancy and then three fatiguing months of interrupted sleep in caring for her infant son Henry, one can suppose her susceptible to flattering attention. One additional factor deserves attention: if Payne did encounter Eliza in April of 1808, he would have been entering her life much as had her two husbands – also handsome youths eager to plunge into theater – and at a similar point in the duration of both marriages.

Let us assume an encounter and an assignation; where might they have gone? Being seen together in the area of the Common – or, for that matter, anywhere in the center of Boston – would have posed too great a risk of gossip. The Payne family residence at the Berry Street Academy was obviously unsuitable, as was the crowded boarding house for actors where the Poes rented a room. But there were islands in Boston’s harbor, and Noddle Island lay a short distance from shore. Sparsely settled, it offered seclusion in addition to easy access: a ferry service had started in March. A few hours on Noddle would also have solved the problem of what to do with Henry: Eliza could have taken Henry along, and while the infant napped, the randy student and his sweet new acquaintance would have had the opportunity to enjoy the pleasures of each others’ company.

This excursion is not as fanciful a scenario as it may seem. Its confirmation may at one time have rested in a small, locked chest in which Eliza was said to keep her secrets: a bundle of letters and two sketches. Before her death, Eliza had arranged for the chest to pass to her second son. When Edgar married, the chest followed him into the household he shared with his mother-in-law, Maria Clemm (who was also, as David Poe’s sister, his aunt). Contemporaries report that she relished doling out insinuations about the cached scandal, but she is also assumed to have burnt the chest’s contents, along with other letters, to avoid the possibility that, in the future, she might “by poverty be induced to do anything so dishonorable” as to sell private communications that could sully the deceased. One watercolor kept in the chest did survive, however, and it may hint at the secret the flames were intended to keep forever concealed. Entitled “Morning 1808,” it bears on its reverse side the message: “for my little son Edgar, who should ever love Boston the place of his birth and where his mother found her best and most sympathetic friends.”

The inscription invites questions. If the scene is meant to memorialize Boston as Edgar’s birthplace, why does it only show a non-particular view of a harbor – just trees and water – with no landmark? A drawing of Faneuil Hall, or the Common (which was very close to the site of Edgar’s birth), or the State House, or any of dozens of locations identifiable with Boston would have better served that purpose. But perhaps the painting’s import, instead of being in what it shows, lies in its perspective – a perspective consistent with the distance offshore of Noddle Island (which, after the deposit of much landfill, would become the site of Logan Airport). Rather suggestive, too, the inscription addresses only Edgar, not “my little sons.” Henry, almost exactly two years older, was also born in the same city; shouldn’t he “ever love Boston” as well? And why does it not include David in the appreciation for “best and most sympathetic friends”?

To be sure, all this inference rests on conjecture, but what is not conjectural is that in 1808, Easter fell on April 17. Human gestation ranges from 259 to 294 days, with 281 as the median. Edgar’s birth on January 19, 1809, occurred 278 days after Easter Sunday.

If Edgar’s conception had indeed resulted from infidelity, it is possible that either the lover or the husband decided to try to live with the secret or that neither was aware of it. Payne returned to college, where he finished the term that stretched to July by testing his talent for his newly-chosen career as the female lead in a commencement play about Pulaski. All accounts indicate that he achieved spectacular success as Lodiska. He then headed back to Boston to train for his next step. Meanwhile, the Poes traveled to Virginia to scramble for whatever stage work they could find. The Easter benefit in Boston had, at best, failed to do more than cover their losses from their previous benefit in March; when the Federal Theatre had closed on April 25, it had run a deficit for the second straight year, and there was talk in the company that it would not reopen. All was not lost for the immediate future. In Petersburg Eliza won a leading role in a tragedy, with David as lesser member of the cast, and two weeks later the couple joined two other Boston actors performing in Richmond. They also barnstormed in the Petersburg area with short plays and crowd-pleasing scenes. Even so, the outlook for the next year was bleak. When the Federal announced a fall season, the news must have seemed a reprieve from penury.

More than halfway into her pregnancy before the Federal reopened, Eliza then had the luxury of a month to prepare for Cordelia in King Lear, and she subsequently had no new roles to learn. Three weeks after baby Edgar’s first squall, however, her usual routine resumed, and almost immediately her personal life swirled in turmoil. What happened in the marriage remains a mystery, but quite abruptly in early February, David dropped off the Federal’s cast lists and he left home, and Boston, for at least the better part of more than two months. Obviously a major crisis had come to a head.

A letter written by George Poe refers to his cousin David’s sudden appearance at his door in Stockersville, Pennsylvania, on March 22: “he told me the most awful moment in his life was arrived,” and “he said he came not to beg.” George states that they agreed to meet at an inn, but David did not show up. Nevertheless, ten days later David rebuked George for not keeping the appointment and begged for “30, 20, 15, or even 10$,” vowing “to remit it to you immediately on my arrival in Baltimore.”

David was patently in dire need, yet that in itself hardly accounts for the hasty exit from Boston. Had he been suspended from the Federal, possibly because of drunkenness? No document, history, or memoir cites a reason – but even if discretion masked such a punitive action, why would he have incurred the additional expense of travel and lodging instead of looking for temporary work in Boston? What had driven him to a Pennsylvania village to humiliate himself to his cousin for a sum not much more than would only get him to Baltimore? And what was the nature of his “most awful moment”? Eliza was still employed, and the couple had known harder times. Perhaps David’s financial plight was more the consequence of quitting Boston than its cause. If so, what devastating event might have precipitated such a desperate act?

Once again, John Howard Payne may lie at the bottom of the mystery. Following his resignation from Union in 1808, Payne returned to his room on Berry Street to concentrate on preparing for his stage career. To help the family survive, he also found work as a writer with the Mirror, a journal that covered the theater in addition to publishing literary work and general news. If Payne had engaged with Eliza at Easter and fathered her child, it is very likely that he would have renewed contact with her at this time. Might David, finally realizing he had been cuckolded, have decided to abandon his wife and her bastard child? Or perhaps the truth had exploded when Eliza returned to the Federal’s stage and Payne, on February 24, left for New York to launch his new profession at the Park theater. Ironically, the novice had been cast in Douglas‘ Young Norval, the very role that had boosted David’s aspirations in his Baltimore debut three and a half years earlier. It was surely a galling juxtaposition – and it would quickly become more bitter.

No previous debut in American theater had come close to the excitement that greeted Payne. Despite the doleful economic impact of the Embargo Act on American ports, New Yorkers crowded the Park. Curious to see what the munificence in the theater’s extensive remodeling had produced was part of the draw, the public was also eager to observe the latest turn in the talents of this remarkable young man of seventeen. He met their grandest expectations. The New England Palladium reported that he “was much commended in the papers. At one time, the applause of hands was seven times repeated.” As a child in Boston, Payne had been obsessed by fantasies of rivaling the famous English boy actor, Master Betty. The reception in New York justified his belief he had achieved that dream. More important, it convinced the American theater that it now had a native-born actor who, with a little more seasoning, would be on a par with the best Britain could export.

From Boston, the Federal’s management lost no time in taking advantage of the success. His home town craved a chance to see what they had let slip through their fingers, and on April 3, Payne repeated his role as Young Norval to fervid acclaim. Eager to capitalize on his sudden appeal, he made astute use of his leverage. For a six-night engagement, he averaged slightly more than $500, and for one performance he almost doubled that sum. These were astonishing earnings. And despite his youth, he relied on his value to the managers to win the right to make stipulations as to his leading lady. Significantly, in four of the six plays under contract, his prescription was tantamount to appointment of Eliza Poe. Although the pairing has usually been attributed to his desire for a petite actress in order to make himself appear taller, his special regard for her was evident. When, on the heels of portraying Young Norval, Payne dared to be the first American actor to play Hamlet, he chose Eliza for his Ophelia. And in his revival of Hamlet the round of benefits at the end of the engagement, he again asked her to play the role. Payne then repaid the favor by lending his popularity to her benefit, a performance of Sheridan’s Pizarro. The most suggestively allusive of their collaborations, however, occurred in an extra production tagged onto the end of Payne’s Boston run. The evening began with an altered version of Kotzebue’s Lovers’ Vows; or, the Natural Son, a play about a bastard son, his scorned mother, and the father who will not acknowledge him. Whatever intimations may have lain hidden in that first selection, the afterpiece contained a more obvious irony. In Lodoiska, a three-act “grand operatic drama” perhaps cobbled by Payne, Eliza sang the title role – the same Lodoiska whom Payne had impersonated in a wig and dress at Union the previous year.

How the choleric David was dealing with his wife’s close ties with his rival is unknown, but, perhaps with his tail between his legs, he returned to Boston and the Federal in time to play Laertes in Payne’s benefit, and that same week he joined the cast in Pizarro, the benefit for Eliza. What reconciliation he concluded with his wife – and surely, after his intemperate retreat from home, some sort of understanding had to have occurred – remains veiled, but, for whatever reason, they continued to operate as a couple. Although David did not appear in King Lear (Payne’s finale in Boston in which Eliza played Cordelia), after the Federal closed on May 12, the Poes made their way toward New York, sustained by their contract for a full season at the Park. There, with each production, the marriage frayed further.

David went unnoticed as his wife’s slave in the premiere, Matthew Lewis’s gothic thriller, The Castle Spectre. Humbling as that may have been, New York had worse in store for him. Less than a month after the fall opening, the critic for The Rambler’s Magazine seized upon David’s mispronunciation of “Dandoli” to dub him “Dan Dilly.” He would be derided as Dan Dilly from then on in the magazine’s reviews – with a single exception of a French pun on his surname to refer to him as a chamber pot. Despite a colleague’s attempt to defend David and an editor’s public statement that his talent, “if he would take pains, is by no means contemptible,” he withered under the incessant ridicule and retreated into apathy and drink. In October, a few days past the sixth week of his contract, he was either dismissed or he again deserted – perhaps, as related in a letter by a family acquaintance, after another quarrel with Eliza. He died sometime in December, 1811.

Eliza, now virtually a single mother, persevered through the rest of the New York season, but her star was no longer in ascent. Compliments in one play alternated with reservations about her range in another. Her gifts, it was generally agreed, were as a comedienne and singer, and although these assured her a niche in the profession, it was tragedy that built great reputations – and brought the money they commanded. Her prospects were narrowing, and the economic pinch on Northeastern theaters caused by the confrontation between England and her former colonies augured worse days to come for an abandoned woman strapped with two children and spurned by her husband’s family. At this parlous moment, however, Payne once again entered her life. The Park’s manager, seeing audiences continue to shrink into the first weeks after the winter break, set aside a petty quarrel he had had with Payne at the end of his previous New York run and hired him for six nights to reprise his Boston successes. Naturally, Eliza appeared with him. Nine months after this reunion, in December, 1810, Eliza delivered a baby girl she named Rosalie.

Coincidence? There are Poe scholars who, absent any evidence of contact between Eliza and David after October, 1809, nevertheless reject out of hand the compelling inference of Rosalie’s illegitimacy. The curious fact that Joseph Gallego, a wealthy Richmond miller, bequeathed two thousand dollars in a trust fund for Rosalie’s maintenance prompted rumors of his paternity, yet nothing placed Gallego in New York in the spring of 1810. No such impediment burdened the surmises of the Poe family and others in its circle, however. They had for some time looked upon Eliza as a woman of pliable morality, and the suspicions they freely traded assigned the role of her lover to John Howard Payne.

Why, if Payne fathered Edgar or Rosalie, or both, would he have avoided an avowal of responsibility? One possible answer is that Eliza chose either to keep him unaware of his paternity or to forgo any acceptance of obligation. After leaving Union, Payne made the most of his opportunity to pursue women. It seems he was briefly engaged to a young widow, and around the same time he struck a romantic spark with Maria Mayo, one of Virginia’s great belles, who later married General Winfield Scott. Payne’s jaunty self-confidence apparently enhanced his youthful charm: Dolly Madison enjoyed receiving him at the President’s Mansion and especially appreciated his ease in delighting the ladies. Eliza surely realized that it was not in his nature to wear fetters at this point of his life. Moreover, she was worldly enough to perceive that scandal could spell ruin for both. But whatever their bond may have been, that there was a bond is indisputable.

Penniless, Eliza returned to the region where she had once been so warmly received, first as a child actress and then as Mrs. Hopkins before her baneful alliance with David Poe. Soon, illness aggravated her financial woes as she steadily lost strength until she finally had to leave the stage. As she neared the end of her life, a newspaper advertisement appealed “To the Humane Heart” of her “Richmond Audience” for money to ease concern for her children. Ten days later – on December 8, 1811 – probably no more than a week prior to David’s own death, Eliza died. The fact that the Poes, a family of means, took on the responsibility of raising only Henry, the elder son, may be telling. The Allans virtually, but not legally, adopted Edgar (who would later bitterly resent being “disowned” by John Allan), and Rosalie was adopted by a family named Mackenzie

News of the loss of his intimate friend reached Payne in Baltimore, one more shock in a very difficult year. The radiance of Payne’s earlier triumphs in New York and Boston had rather quickly faded, but it still shone into the major cities to the south, and he often drew packed houses in places like Norfolk and Richmond. Whether he resumed his close relationship with Eliza during her last months on tour is unknown. There were surely opportunities, but the mood governing any such encounter would have changed since their first meeting in Boston. Eliza was dispirited and physically weak. And Payne, though he fought to preserve his buoyant optimism, began to question his course.

His father suffered a stroke in November, and on the heels of that, the actor so recently hailed by the national as “Young Roscius” met public indifference in a pair of twelve-day engagements in Philadelphia and Boston. Besides stinging his pride, the sparse attendance dashed his expectation of furnishing support for his own beleaguered family (a burden that would rest almost entirely on his sister’s shoulders after the father’s death in March of 1812). The theater world took note and its politics worked in reprisal for what some had viewed as impudence by one much their junior. For all his self-confidence, Payne was not immune to discouragement. Doubt about the value and enduring worth of acting gathered and deepened. For a while, he even toyed with the idea of opening a rental library. Instead, in 1813, he sailed for Liverpool, naively believing that, at a time a surfeit of English actors was causing a stream of them to leave for the United States to pursue better earnings, another actor – and an American at that – was just what England needed.

Presenting himself with rare humility at Drury Lane, Payne not only beat the odds but won London’s respect in what had become his signature role as Young Norval in Douglas. He was to remain in Europe for almost two decades and become one of the most prominent American expatriates. Over that time, however, his career as an actor would by eclipsed by his growing prominence as a translator, adapter, and playwright. During a stay in Paris, he translated The Thieving Magpie, mainly to improve his French. The play, performed at the Drury Lane, scored an immediate success, which quickly spread – among other places, to America. But that success also drew charges of plagiarism, and, given various degrees of reliance on previous sources for most of his approximately sixty titles for the stage, he would continue to be a vulnerable target even though the chiseled English and skillful plot refurbishments are properly his. For Brutus, written in 1818 for Edmund Kean (who regained his popularity through his association with the eponymous role), Payne braided elements from five previous treatments of the subject, including Voltaire’s, but his alone has lasted long enough to be generally regarded as one of the nineteenth century’s best representative plays.

Neither popularity nor competence nor versatility, however, warded off a constant threat of financial calamity. A turn as manager of Sadler’s Wells ended with Payne’s imprisonment for debt. Quarrels springing from jealousy or misunderstandings plagued him and reduced his opportunities. Heedlessness in business dealings usually proved costly, and the absence of effective copyright laws cheated him of the fortunes his work earned for others. Even Clari, Maid of Milan, though boosted by the incredible attraction of “Home, Sweet Home,” sold for only £135 – a pittance compared to the publisher’s £2100 profit in just the first year.

Finally, in 1832, he chose to trust his luck again to America. Payne had from childhood an irrepressible faith that publication of a magazine could command influence and, with relatively little effort, ensure a steady, comfortable income. None of the magazines he launched ever justified that faith, and several contemplated ventures never came to fruition. Nevertheless, he revived that dream in returning to his native land. Jam Jehan Nima (Persian, he explained, for “The World From Within the Bowl”) was meant to lay a foundation for peace between the United States and Great Britain by acquainting each with the idiosyncratic cultural qualities of the other. Although hundreds subscribed, including many of America’s most prominent citizens, the project fell short of minimum support and collapsed. But Payne’s travels to promote the magazine stimulated his interest in the American West and especially in the plight of the Cherokee. Consequently, he recorded fourteen volumes about the tribe’s history which, despite his conviction that the Cherokee descended from Biblical Israelites, still serve as a major source of information. Jacksonian America was more interested in westward expansion than in the story of those it displaced, however, and Payne’s devotion to a great cause left him at the edge of indigence until Union friends coaxed an appointment as consul to Tunis in 1842. After a four-year interruption due to a change of administration in Washington, he was reappointed in 1851, but it was not to be a happy return, despite an ardent welcome from his Tunisian friends. Beset by diarrhea, the after-effects of extraction of all but one of his upper teeth, rheumatism, and catarrhal congestion in his chest, he subsisted on a constant diet of rice and powdered valerian until his death in April 1852.

Although Payne outlived Eliza Poe’s second son by three years, there has never been any mention of a meeting between them. If for no other reason than the close friendship between the two actors and Edgar’s near veneration of his mother, this may seem strange, but Payne and Poe were on the same continent for less than a decade as adults – and distant from one another at that. Moreover, Poe had pretended to be four years older than he actually was, and he sometimes went by pseudonyms; if Payne came across the name “Edgar Allan Poe” by chance, casual investigation might have led him to dismiss the thought this was the infant he remembered. Conversely, if Poe’s foster parent John Allan passed on his belief that Payne was Edgar’s father (as Allan had intimated in at least one letter), or if he heard the rumor from others in Richmond, or if the information was among the contents of the box Eliza had bequeathed the son “who should ever love Boston,” protection of a mother’s reputation and the obvious fact that nothing – certainly not money – was to be gained would have prevailed against a confrontation. But even though the pair had had no contact, their lives displayed similar talents, traits, and patterns.

Both were literary. Not only did they distinguish themselves as critics with a bent, unusual for their period, toward analysis, but they were also both poets. Had he not chosen what he assumed would be the remunerative application of his gift for word to the stage – to “carve the goose,” as he put it, instead of starving in a garret – Payne might have become his nation’s first major poet. And curiously, even though style and meter are not conveyed through DNA, his verses anticipate Poe’s. Indeed, in at least one instance – a poem probably written on his initial trip to Union in 1806 and published in 1813 – it would be excusable to misidentify the author as Poe.

        On the deck of the slow-moving vessel, alone,
As I silently sat, all was mute as the grave;
It was night – and the moon brightly beautiful shone,
Lighting up with her soft smile the quivering wave.

So bewitchingly gentle and pure was its beam,
In tenderness watching o’er nature’s repose,
That I liken’d its ray to Christianity’s gleam
When it mellows and soothes, without chasing, our woes.

And I felt such an exquisite wildness of sorrow
While entranced by the tremulous glow of the deep,
`        That I longed to prevent the intrusion of morrow,
And stay there forever, to wonder and weep.

Both Payne and Poe chased the dream of holding the reins of a literary journal, even though neither could do so successfully for very long. And perhaps because they both affected an air of superiority yet could never master the conduct of their financial affairs, they seemed to attract round after round of quarrels and to invite being cheated by dissemblers. Each hungered for fame yet never digested the fruits of success.

Patently the most telling suggestion of paternity, however, lies in their physical similarity. Their contemporaries comment on unusually good looks that almost instantly captivated women. Payne’s height is most often recorded as 5′ 6″ or slightly above; Poe’s as 5′ 8″ or slightly below. More to the point are the observations that their long necks and broad shoulders above thin, well-proportioned bodies, made them appear taller – an illusion abetted by their carriages and by their prominent foreheads. (The one portrait of Rosalie reveals the same forehead and brows.) Their skin shaded toward light olive. Their very dark hair resisted being combed straight and showed the same progressive balding pattern. Their noses were identical. And virtually everyone who writes of their appearance agrees that their “most striking feature” was their their “brilliant” and “lively” eyes; although each man is assigned an array of colors – grey, hazel, violet, bluish grey, and emerald blue – the observers commonly note that hazel flecks in concert with the rapid variation in the size of the pupil seemed to affect the surrounding color. And there is consensus as well in accounts of their voices as “very theatrical,” and “soft, mellow, and melodic” in the low tenor range.

What would speak loudest that Payne was of greater consequence for world literature than the abiding memory of “Home, Sweet Home,” of course, is the frontispiece that has stirred my investigation and speculation. But alas! although a clutch of portraits of the two writers evince their resemblance, an exhaustive search through every portrait index known to librarians has failed to turn up that first startling image. I have witnesses, including my own daughter, who vividly remember the photocopy I passed around almost two decades ago, but no plausible explanation for its vanishment in a detective story without solution to the mystery.

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This is Frank Gado‘s first contribution to Open Letters.