Benefit Street: Sarah Helen Whitman Residence, Rose Garden, & St. John’s Cathedral

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This beautifully bold red house located at 88 Benefit Street 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 Helen tending her rose garden under a midnight moon in July of 1845, inspiring his second “To Helen” poem. It was here that Mrs. Anna Power urged Helen to prepare Poe a strong cup of coffee when he showed up in a panicked delirium after sitting for the “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 it was here that Poe pleaded to Helen not to end their engagement as she pressed an ether-soaked handkerchief to her nose and uttered the final “I love you” to Poe, never to see him again.

After Helen’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 purchased this rather large home at (then) 76 Benefit Street in Providence for her and her three daughters. The home 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 up the road. It was shortly after this in 1824 that Sarah Helen would begin a long four year engagement with 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 Sarah Helen Whitman, she returned home a widow in 1833 after 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. Helen then took full responsibility for her younger sister Susan, and the pair moved into a smaller house at 37 Benevolent Street.

St. John’s Cathedral

It’s speculated that the cemetery of St. John’s was a frequent meeting spot for Poe and Helen during their brief courtship. While it would’ve been very convenient considering its close proximity to Helen’s home, it’s very unlikely that this is where they would’ve 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 Helen frequented Swan Point Cemetery, since Helen 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 Helen’s 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 more private. While it’s not totally out of the question that Poe and Helen would have spent some time at St. John’s graveyard, we know for certain that it would’ve been the location of their marriage since they planned the union to take place at St. John’s Cathedral, conducted by the minister Dr. Crocker. But of course the marriage never took place.