Sarah Helen Whitman loved poetry and loved Edgar Allan Poe – for a while, at least.
She was a poet in her own right who used to meet Poe in the Providence Athenaeum, where he once defaced library property.
Sarah Helen Whitman
Born Sarah Helen Power in Providence, R.I., on Jan. 19, 1803, she moved to Boston after her marriage to John Whitman. A lawyer, he also co-edited the Boston Spectator and Ladies’ Album.
In Boston, Sarah Helen Whitman published poetry in her husband’s magazine. She also befriended Transcendentalist writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller. Whitman died in 1833, and she moved back to Providence to live with her mother and sister.
In Providence, she met Poe. In 1845, he was walking down the street with his friend Frances Sargent Osgood. They passed Whitman’s house and Poe saw her standing in her rose garden. It was love at first sight.
Perhaps romance was inevitable. Sarah liked to wear black clothes and a coffin-shaped charm around her neck, and she probably held seances on Sunday to communicate with the dead.
Several months later, Poe and Whitman — both widowed — began to write each other. That correspondence turned into a relationship.
Sarah’s mother didn’t approve of Poe. Not only did he drink, gamble and take drugs, but he had no money. But Sarah Helen Whitman couldn’t stay away from him, as his wild, fascinating talk and his writing captivated her. And so they met away from her mother in the Providence Athenaeum.
While at the library, she inspired him to deface library material. The story is told in Old Providence, a pamphlet published in 1918 by the Merchants National Bank of Providence.
According to the story, Brown University’s librarian, Dr. H.L. Koopman, heard that Whitman told Poe she admired an anonymous poem that appeared in the American Review in 1847. At the time she and Poe were in the Athenaeum, and she asked him if he had read this poem, Ulalume. He said he not only knew the poem, he had written it. Before leaving the Athenaeum, he found the magazine in which the poem appeared and signed it.
Koopman went to the Athenaeum and looked up the issue of the American Review in which it was supposed to have appeared. He found the magazine and the signature.
Lips That Touch Liquor
She only reluctantly agreed to marry Edgar Allan Poe. But on his way to see her, he tried to commit suicide on the train to Providence. Before he boarded at Lowell, Mass., he took four doses of laudanum. By the time he reached Boston, he was close to death.
Sarah took care of him in Providence.
But it was alcohol, not laudanum, that persuaded her to dump him. He’d promised her he wouldn’t touch the stuff. He then broke that promise a few days later.
Sarah’s mother also found out that Poe chased other women, which she no doubt shared with her daughter. And for his part, Poe didn’t like her friends, Margaret Fuller and some of the other transcendentalists.
According to one story, she broke off the engagement when someone slipped her a note saying he broke his promise not to touch alcohol. According to another, he got so drunk the night before the wedding that the police arrested him. And according to a third, she dumped him in the Providence Athenaeum on Dec. 23, 1848 — the day of the magazine defacement.
End of the Affair
Edgar Allan Poe and Sarah Helen Whitman never got married. But she defended his literary reputation after he died — less than a year after their proposed wedding date.
His enemies belittled him, and she wrote a book on behalf of his work. She also shared her letters from him with his English biographer.
Sarah Helen Whitman died on June 27, 1878, and was buried in the North Burial Ground in Providence.
This story was updated in 2022.