“Dearest Eddie, your philanderings will send me presently to my grave,” Virginia Clemm Poe spoke through her tears to her husband Edgar, the most celebrated writer in America.
He knew that her death was imminent, and a cloud of despair hung above his head. He loved her ardently but was anguished that he’d not been a more faithful consort. All of Poe’s flirtations, trysts, and adulteries rushed at him like a swarm of wasps stinging a poor sinner whose eternal torment was Dante’s ninth level of hell—home to betrayers of all sorts.
Even in the throes of death, Virginia Clemm was beautiful beyond words—more an ethereal spirit than a human woman. She was mesmerizing with her large, black eyes, raven tresses, and pearl-white complexion. But her beauty, as well as her spirit, was slipping from his grasp. One door was opening, another closing. Only now he was forced to entertain the excruciating prospect of living without her. Tears salted his cheeks and dripped from his chin.
“My darling,” he said at the instant her body was racked with coughs, resulting in a thin layer of bloody sputum imprinting her lips and giving her a ghoulish appearance momentarily. Poe dispatched a silk handkerchief from his breast pocket and dabbed at the blood. He didn’t know at the time, but he would treasure the handkerchief as a momento mori until the moment of his own death. Now he was dizzy with grief.
“You needn’t explain or apologize,” she said, following a fit of coughing. “Your singular genius makes you attractive to women of taste and refinement, and you to them.”
She was absolving him with a sincere heart. Hers was a pure spirit incapable of deception.
“I wish I’d …” Edgar began, incapable of finding words to express sorrow for his poor treatment of her.
“If I didn’t know better,” she struggled to convey her suspicion, “I’d think Elizabeth Ellet had poisoned me with some art or spell that she cast.”
Poe would have liked to assure his wife that, though bitter and rebuffed, Ellet didn’t possess the temperament for murder. However, he wasn’t sure that was true. Ellet was obsessed with Poe to the point of insanity, sending him many amorous and seductive letters while married to her husband, William Ellet, a chemist, and an expert on pharmaceuticals. William had written a dissertation on compounds of cyanogen, a highly toxic substance that deteriorated into hydrogen cyanide. Inhalation of cyanide vapors or skin exposure to the poison produced almost immediate effects like those experienced by Virginia a day earlier when she’d opened an anonymously sent envelope with an unknown powder as its contents. Virginia had pinched the substance between her fingers and sniffed the granular compound, unable to detect what it was. In that moment, it was possible that Virginia had sealed her fate by absorbing one of the most toxic substances on earth, hydrogen cyanide, discovered by Ellet’s own husband.
Unfortunately, for Poe, the sleuth, and the originator of the detective story in America, the symptoms of cyanide poisoning mimicked those of consumption, from which Virginia Clemm had suffered for the past three years. However, in the last twenty-four hours, her condition had taken a drastic turn for the worse. Even if Elizabeth Ellet was behind the anonymous envelope, she might have meant the intended recipient to be the author himself, not his wife. Poe’s mind raced over the possibilities, even as he was crushed by the weight of guilt that he might be a co-conspirator in his wife’s murder.
“I should never have admitted her into our home,” Virginia said, gasping with each word. “I counted her as a friend.”
Virginia was artless in her composition. She took everyone at his or her word. She’d even believed Poe’s story that he wasn’t romantically involved with Frances Sargent Osgood, a married poet some ten years older than Virginia, until a full-blown scandal became public, revealing amorous letters sent by Osgood to Poe. Virginia had discovered the letters, sharing their contents with her fake friend, Elizabeth Ellet, unaware of Ellet’s attraction to Edgar and fierce jealousy of Osgood. In no time, Edgar Allan Poe’s indiscretions, with multiple women, were the talk of “tattling tongues,” in Virginia Clemm’s phrase.
“If only tongues hadn’t tattled so,” she repeated a variation of the phrase in halting, gasping breaths.
A bloody bubble rose to her lips. Poe wiped it gently away.
“Try not to speak, dearest,” Poe urged. “Try to conserve your breath.”