Sarah Helen Whitman was born in her grandfather’s house on January 19, 1803 (six years to the day before Edgar Allan Poe) to parents Nicholas and Anna Power. The house she was born in was located at the corner of South Main and Transit Street, but was demolished a long time ago. What remains there today is a parking lot. She was the second of three children. After her grandfather died in 1808, the Powers and their two daughters (the third, Susan, having yet to be born) lived in various boarding houses in Providence until Nicholas Power set out to sea to make a living after losing his merchant business due to The War of 1812. Nicholas Power was captured by a British fleet shortly after his departure and presumed dead. This is when Anna Power purchased the quaint red home at (then) 76 Benefit Street for her and her three daughters. The home served as an adequate nest for the ladies until Anna Power’s oldest daughter, Rebecca, 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 before marrying him in 1828. She would flee her life in Providence to live with him in Boston, leaving her mother and younger sister Susan (who suffered from some form of mental illness). Little did Helen know, she would return to the home a widow in 1833 after John Whitman died after complications from a cold. She moved back in with her mother and sister and lived out the rest of her years in Providence.
Edgar Allan Poe and Sarah Helen Whitman didn’t actually meet until 1848, but in 1845, Poe was in this city attending a lecture of Frances Osgood (another one of Poe’s literary ladies). It was a hot and humid night in July as Poe and Osgood strolled the east side of Providence. While taking in the magnificent views of the city, they eventually found themselves on Benefit Street. There, a veiled woman clad all in white immediately arrested Poe’s attention. The woman was of course, Sarah Helen Whitman. She was tending her rose garden in the backyard.
Having already been friends with Helen, Osgood offered to introduce Poe to her, but he declined the introduction so adamantly that it caused a small quarrel between him and Osgood. Poe later claimed the reason he refused an introduction was that he thought Helen was a married woman. Poe and Osgood continued on their walk, but the sight of Sarah Helen Whitman would leave a perpetual mark on Poe’s mind. An introduction to the Providence poetess was inevitably to come just three years later, after the two exchanged flirtatious Valentine poems in February of 1848. They began corresponding, and finally met in late September. The two began a turbulent courtship, spending their days at The Providence Athenaeum and Swan Point Cemetery.
In this time, Helen rejected numerous proposals from Poe, spiraling him into depression and hopelessness. Two daguerreotypes were taken here in the city in November, one of which we know today as “Ultima Thule,” his most famous likenesses. Poe lectured before the Franklin Lyceum at Howard’s Hall on December 20, 1848. He spoke on “The Poetic Principle” before a sold-out crowd of 1800 people! Sarah Helen Whitman sat in the very front row. Spectators who were friends of Helen and knew of the relationship between her and Poe recounted that while Poe recited works such as “The Raven” and “The Bells” he exchanged numerous flirtatious expressions with Helen. The lecture must have impressed her so profoundly that the next day she finally agreed to an immediate marriage.
They planned a Christmas wedding to take place at St. John’s Cathedral located right in the back of Helen’s home. She had ONE condition for the marriage: Poe must abstain from alcohol. The engagement was doomed from the start. Helen’s family and friends detested Poe, and strongly discouraged her from pursuing him, and it was probably for this reason that Helen received an anonymous note while at the Athenaeum that Poe had a glass of wine at his hotel and was seen intoxicated. The relationship was over.
It was at the red house still standing on Benefit Street that Poe made his final plea to Helen. The stress of the matter was so intense that Helen pressed an ether-soaked handkerchief to her face and fainted on the couch. Poe knelt by her side, tightly gripping her hand, begging her to say she loved him. She uttered a final “I love you” to Poe before slipping into unconsciousness. Anna Power then forced Poe out of the house.
Poe and Helen never saw each other again, and Poe died less than a year later. Helen would live another 30 years, and become a staunch defender of Poe’s reputation after it was slandered by his literary rival, Rufus Griswold. She published a book in 1860 titled “Edgar Allan Poe and His Critics” refuting all the lies that Griswold had published about Poe.
She corresponded with Poe’s early biographers even while on her deathbed, ensuring an accurate portrayal of the man she loved so many years ago. She was a lovely, dedicated, and talented woman, and had a profound effect on all who knew her.
After the death of her sister Susan in 1877, Sarah Helen Whitman found herself alone in an empty house, and declining rapidly in health. Given these circumstances, it’s clear why she graciously accepted the offer of her friend, Mrs. Albert Dailey, to live with her and her family in their large home on Bowen Street. It was there that Sarah Helen Whitman took her last breath just months after moving in.
Helen had a generous room, with all her statues and portraits decorated to her liking. She was free to take guests as she pleased and had complete liberty in the home. There’s no reason to believe that Helen was financially indebted to the Dailey family, for the 75 year old was still receiving a generous income that she surely used part of to pay her caretakers. Mrs. Dailey’s oldest daughter, Charlotte “Lottie” Field Dailey, was especially fond of Mrs. Whitman and devoted much of her time to the elderly woman. Charlotte listened to Helen recount her life and talk about all the prominent names she came to know along the way. One name that came up was of course Edgar Allan Poe, whose portrait hung in Helen’s room in the home. Mrs. Whitman would often gaze at the portrait as she recollected her relationship with the poet. Sarah Helen Whitman was fearlessly ready for death. She spent her final days compiling her poetry for a posthumous edition. Friends who visited her said she had bouts of profound decline, then periods of calmness where she was never more herself. She would show off little trinkets that were tucked away in her room, and friends were just beguiled by her cheerful, uncomplaining manner during her last days.
On June 27, 1878, Sarah Helen Whitman passed away quietly at half past nine o’clock in the morning. The official cause of death was “affection of the heart, complicated by other ailments.” She was 75 years old. Helen had requested that a formal announcement of her death be sent to the papers after her funeral took place, and that no invitations to the services be sent out. But her request did not impede the large turnout of people who were so profoundly affected by the beloved poetess. The wake took place right at the home of Mrs. Dailey. Helen reposed in a coffin veiled with white cloth. Her features were very natural and youthful, with her brown hair scarcely touched with gray. Her hands pressed to the breast a bunch of beautiful and fragrant roses. Helen was surrounded by an array of gorgeous flowers with a wreath of green leaves and ripened wheat placed on the top of the coffin.
Before the coffin was closed to make its way to the North Burial Ground, a friend named Thomas Davis (who wished to marry Helen over thirty years prior) spoke very “feelingly” to her. The service closed with scriptures read by a Miss. Anna C. Garlin (secretary of the Women’s Suffrage Association), followed by a recitation of a poem from the works of the departed, “The Angel of Death.” Helen’s remains were interred towards the closing of the afternoon. Her grave was lined completely with laurel and evergreen so that none of the naked earth could be seen, and after her casket was lowered, friends tossed upon it more bunches of greens and each a scatter of flowers. Although Whitman requested that no stone be placed above her remains, her executors commissioned a “suitable tablet” in her honor. Helen left money in her will to the aid of African American orphans and to the Rhode Island Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, while the rest went to the publication of her posthumous edition of poetry. She also left $2,500 to each of the Dailey daughters for taking such good care of her in her final chapter of life, and making her last days so comfortable.
In death, Sarah Helen Whitman was smothered with emblems of immortality that truly reflected the legacy she would hold.
“Ave atque Vale.”