When Sarah Helen Whitman and her family lived in this house, it was numbered 50, then 76 Benefit Street. The bold red color of the structure was very much the same as it is today, and Whitman remarked that she loathed the color but was awed by the interior of the house, especially the woodwork. The home (now 88 Benefit) sits at the very top of Church Street overlooking St. John’s Cathedral and the adjoining cemetery, a perfect setting for the courtship of Sarah Helen Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe, in which the home would serve in 1848. It was here that Poe first spotted Whitman tending her rose garden under a midnight moon in July of 1845, inspiring his second “To Helen” poem. It was here that Anna Power urged her daughter to prepare Poe a strong cup of coffee after he showed up in a panicked, distressed state after just sitting for his infamous “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype. It was here that Poe gazed for hours at Cephas Giovanni Thompson’s Oil Portrait of Sarah Helen Whitman that hung in the parlor of the home. And finally, it was here that Poe pleaded to Whitman not to end their engagement as she pressed an ether-soaked handkerchief to her nose and uttered a final “I love you” to Poe, never to see him again.
After Whitman’s father Nicholas Power was lost at sea (having been captured by a British fleet during the War of 1812) her mother Anna Marsh Power rented this home for her and her three daughters. It was a two-family at that time, and the Powers occupied the south half (the left half, not the lower half) of the house, sharing the other half with a man named Samuel Hamlin and his family. It served as an adequate nest for the ladies until Mrs. Power’s oldest daughter, Rebecca Power, married William Staples in 1821 and moved into a home with him just a few houses down. It was shortly after this in 1824 that Sarah Helen would begin a long four year engagement with a law student from Brown University, John Winslow Whitman, finally marrying him in 1828. She fled her home in Providence to live with him in Boston, leaving her mother and mentally ill younger sister, Susan, at home. Unfortunately for Whitman, she was widowed in 1833 when John Whitman died after complications from a cold. Anna Power and her two daughters, Sarah and Susan, lived in this house on Benefit Street until Anna Power’s death in 1858. Whitman then took full responsibility for Susan, and the pair moved into a house at 37 Benevolent Street. This Benefit Street house is owned today by the Episcopal church, and has been made into four separate apartment units.
St. John’s Cathedral
It’s speculated that the cemetery of St. John’s was a frequent meeting spot for Poe and Whitman during their brief courtship. While it would have certainly been convenient considering its close proximity to Whitman’s home, it’s very unlikely that this is where they would have chosen to spend the bulk of their time, as Anna Power’s disapproving glare from the windows of the house would’ve made the couple very uncomfortable. It’s more likely that Poe and Whitman frequented Swan Point Cemetery, since Whitman specifically mentions Swan Point in her sonnets to Poe written in the subsequent years after their romance. Swan Point would’ve been a fair walk from the house, giving the couple all the more time to get to know one another. Their surroundings at Swan Point would also prove to be more scenic and definitely more private. While it’s not totally out of the question that the couple would have spent some time at St. John’s graveyard, we know that it would have been the location of their marriage, since they planned the union to take place at St. John’s Cathedral and to be conducted by the minister Dr. Crocker. But of course the ceremony never took place.