John Henry Ingram was a young, ambitious Englishman endeavoring to write the first true biography of Edgar Allan Poe. In 1873, he wrote to Sarah Helen Whitman appealing for her aid. Whitman, having already spent the last few decades of her life vindicating Poe and publishing her own pieces about him, wrote back to Ingram, beginning a very turbulent, dramatic, and peculiar correspondence over the next five years. Whitman was optimistic of Ingram’s prospects, but didn’t hesitate to assist other aspiring biographers where she saw fit. This often angered Ingram, as Whitman was such an asset to him that he didn’t want to share this treasure trove of information. The idea of having another biographer possibly take his spotlight or beat him to the punch made Ingram moody, unappreciative, and just plain crass. Sarah Helen Whitman never wavered and handled him with the utmost eloquence. She outwitted and outdid him, never making it obvious or gloating in her social superiority and etiquette.
Despite Ingram’s capricious nature, Whitman continued to write to him, sending him a plethora of information and materials relevant to her time with Poe. But she wasn’t the only one sending Ingram very private pieces of Poe’s life. Marie Louise Shew and Nancy “Annie” Richmond also aided Ingram in his quest after he had reached out to them. These women were involved with Poe in varying degrees of romantic intensity (mostly one-sided) and they were subject of an article published by Ingram in Appleton’s Journal in May 1878 titled “Unpublished Correspondence of Edgar Allan Poe.” This article became the final straw in the five year relationship between Whitman and Ingram.
In a hurry to get this previously unpublished material to press, Ingram made public some of the letters provided by these ladies that were written to them by Poe, and it was the letters from Poe to Annie (a married woman in Lowell Massachusetts) that had the profound effect on the seventy five year old Whitman’s ailing heart. One letter dated November 16, 1848 opens: “Ah, Annie, Annie! What cruel thoughts must have been torturing your heart during the last terrible fortnight in which you heard nothing from me—not even one little word to say that I lived…But, Annie, I know that you felt too deeply the nature of my love for you to doubt that, even for one moment, and this thought has comforted me in my bitter sorrow.” The letter continues on with more professions of love and even a request for Annie to visit him and comfort him, calling her his “pure beautiful angel.” This letter is by no means unusual for Poe in his wooing of a female interest, however, it’s the date that caused devastation for Whitman. For the first time in her life, Sarah Helen Whitman discovered Poe was writing impassioned letters to other women at the same time he was pursuing her in Providence, since November 1848 overlaps their courtship. Ingram knew the implications of this before publishing it, and he did it anyway.
But it doesn’t stop there. Ingram included even more letters from Poe to Annie that date after Poe’s relationship with Whitman where Poe says: “Indeed, indeed, Annie, there is nothing in this world worth living for except love—love not such as I once thought I felt for Mrs. —, but such as burns in my very soul for you[…].”
It’s bold to think that Ingram was doing some kind of justice to Whitman by dashing out her name in the transcription of Poe’s letter, but she wasn’t a fool. The publication of these letters absolutely crushed her, since she truly believed that she was one of the only true loves of Poe after the death of his wife. It was a posthumous betrayal from a man she loved and came close to marrying three decades prior, and a betrayal from the friend she had invested so much of her time in over the last five years. Ingram omitted other pieces entirely from the letters that would have certainly been even more damaging to Whitman, including a line where Poe calls her mother the devil. Still, Ingram’s thoughtlessness cost him everything. Not only did it tarnish his standing with Whitman, but it inadvertently worked against what they were both working so hard to achieve in defending Poe’s name. The article made Whitman look bad, and Poe even worse. In a final act of courage and redemption, Sarah Helen Whitman published her first and only attack on Ingram in The Providence Journal, discrediting his article and questioning his discretion. A month later she was in her grave, undoubtedly put there after the realization that she could no longer linger in her efforts on this cold earth. She could only hope that her work was enough to accomplish the mission she set forth despite so much adversity, and centuries later her efforts proved not in vain.