Sarah Helen Power Whitman (1803 - 1878)
Sarah Helen Power Whitman
1803 - 1878
I was born in Providence, Rhode Island on January 19, 1803, exactly six years before Edgar Allan Poe was born. In 1828, I married the poet and writer John Winslow Whitman. John had been co-editor of the Boston Spectator and Ladies' Album, which allowed me to publish some of my poetry using the name "Helen". My husband died in 1833. We never had any children together.
I had a heart condition that I treated with ether which I breathed in through my handkerchief.
I was a good friend of Margaret Fuller and other intellectuals in New England. I became interested in transcendentalism through this social group and after hearing Ralph Waldo Emerson lecture in Boston, Massachusetts and in Providence.
I also became interested in science, mesmerism, and the occult. I had a penchant for wearing black and a coffin-shaped charm around my neck and practiced séances in my home on Sundays, attempting to communicate with the dead.
I first met Edgar A. Poe in Providence in July 1845. He was attending a lecture by friend and poet Frances Sargent Osgood. As Poe and Osgood walked, they passed by my home while I was standing in my rose garden. Poe declined to be introduced to me. By this time, I was already an admirer of Poe's stories.
"I can never forget the impressions I felt in reading a story of his for the first time... I experienced a sensation of such intense horror that I dared neither look at anything he had written nor even utter his name... By degrees this terror took the character of fascination—I devoured with a half-reluctant and fearful avidity every line that fell from his pen".
A friend, Annie Lynch, had asked me to write a poem for a Valentine's Day party in 1848. I agreed and wrote one for Poe, though he was not in attendance. When Poe heard about the tribute, "To Edgar Allan Poe," he returned the favor by anonymously sending his previously-printed poem "To Helen". I did not know it was from Poe himself and therefore I did not respond. Three months later, Poe wrote me an entirely new poem, "To Helen," referencing the moment from several years earlier where he first saw me in the rose garden behind my house.
Poe was on his way to see me at the time of his alleged suicide attempt. Before boarding a train to Boston from Lowell, Massachusetts on his way to Providence, he took two doses of laudanum. By the time he arrived in Boston he was very sick and close to death. He spent four days in Providence with me immediately after. Though we shared a common interest in literature, Poe was concerned about my friends, many for whom he had little regard, including Elizabeth F. Ellet, Margaret Fuller, and several other Transcendentalists. He said to me, "My heart is heavy, Helen, for I see that your friends are not my own."
We exchanged letters and poetry for some time before discussing engagement. After Poe lectured in Providence in December 1848, reciting a poem by Edward Coote Pinkney directly to me, I agreed to an "immediate marriage". Poe agreed to remain sober during our engagement — a vow he violated within only a few days.
My mother discovered that Poe was also pursuing Annie Richmond and childhood sweetheart Sarah Elmira Royster. Even so, the wedding had come so close to occurring that, in January 1849, a newspaper in New London, Connecticut and others announced our union and wished us well. At one point, we chose the wedding date of December 25, 1848, despite criticism of the relationship from friends and enemies alike.
I received an anonymous letter while I was at the library suggesting that Poe had broken his vow to me to stay sober, directly leading to the end of our relationship. Poe addressed a letter to me in which he blamed my mother for our break-up.
Poe ended his relationship with me on the day before our wedding by committing unnamed drunken outrages and made a necessary a summons of the police".
I died at the age of 75 in 1878 at the home of a friend at 97 Bowen St. in Providence, Rhode Island, and was buried in the North Burial Ground. In my will, I used the bulk of my estate to publish a volume of my own poetry and that of my sister. I also left money to the Providence Association for the Benefit of Colored Children and the Rhode Island Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
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