The Power Family Home & St. John’s Cathedral

 

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This beautifully bold red house located today 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 Mrs. Anna Power purchased a quaint 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 a man named 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 Whitman would begin a considerably long four year engagement with John Winslow Whitman (a student at Brown University) finally marrying him in 1828. She fled her home in Providence to live with him in Boston, leaving her mother and younger sister Susan (who was developmentally disabled) at the home. Little did Helen know, she would return to the 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 the Benefit Street home until Anna Power’s death in 1858. It was at this point that Helen took on full responsibility for her younger sister Susan. She moved her and her sister into a smaller house at 37 Benevolent Street.

St. John’s Cathedral

It’s common speculation that during Poe and Helen’s courtship, they wandered through the cemetery of St. John’s Cathedral which is located right at the bottom of the hill below the Power family home. It would’ve been very convenient considering its close proximity, but, in my opinion, it’s very unlikely that this is where they would’ve chosen to court. If you look right up the hill at Helen’s home, you can clearly see the windows, and I can picture Anna Power’s disapproving glare from said windows, if the couple chose to spend their time together here in this cemetery. It’s more likely that Poe and Helen frequented Swan Point Cemetery. While it’s not totally out of the question that Poe and Helen would’ve at least visited St. John’s Cathedral cemetery, we know for sure that this would’ve been the location of their marriage since they planned the union to take place at St. John’s and for it to be conducted by the minister Dr. Crocker. But of course, the marriage never took place.