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  • Emmanuel Mehr

Edgar Allan Poe and Edwin, the Enslaved Person He Sold

Updated: Apr 1, 2023

BHW 1: February 4, 2023


 

The poet, writer, and literary critic Edgar Allan Poe spent significant portions of his life in Boston, Baltimore City, Richmond, New York City, and Philadelphia. His legacy as a poetic genius beset by darkness and demons, together with his long list of influential literary works, create an alluring target for public history institutions. Cultural attention to a historical figure can also attach a person to a city’s civic identity. This has certainly been the case with Poe in Baltimore City, ranging from the name of its current NFL team (the Ravens) to the popular Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum. However, a crucial historical imprint Poe left on Baltimore has been silenced in historical memory due to its unsavory character. On December 10, 1829, according to the deed of sale, Edgar Allan Poe sold “a negro man named Edwin aged twenty one years” to Henry Ridgway in Baltimore for forty dollars. Poe made the sale on behalf of his aunt Maria Clemm. The transaction was to take effect March 1, 1830, and Edwin was to serve Ridgway “until he shall arrive to the age of thirty years or longer.” [1]


Baltimore was one of the largest cities in the nineteenth-century United States, and it had one of the largest urban African American populations in the country. The city and its history also have deep-rooted issues of racism, violence, and poverty. These took some of their most bitter forms in Baltimore’s harbor, as it was one of the most prominent ports in the U.S. domestic slave trade. [2] This is the historical context in which Poe sold Edwin. The deed of sale thus provides a window into Baltimore’s underemphasized histories, and its broader context as one of countless sales of enslaved people in Baltimore harbor reminds us of the immense role of slavery in the city’s economy. The sale also shares a sheet of paper with a sale of “four tin candlesticks, three small mahogany tables, two pine tables, twelve chairs, seven green benches, one oyster stand,” and other household items. [3] Edwin occupies part of a page in printed historical records, in glaring contrast to the mass reprinting and redistributions of Poe’s famous literary works. The document also shows how Poe tore Edwin from the human connections he had established in his life to that point. Historian Anne Bailey illustrates this well, writing that the sale of an enslaved person in this era “was considered a kind of death since separation from loved ones was most often permanent.” [4] This case shows the death of realms of humanity and comfort Edwin had carved out, bartered away in the name of asset management. All disrupted, all dead, and a human future frighteningly unknown.


To further understand this transaction, let us explore how Baltimore City fit into the capitalist economy of slavery in the early-nineteenth century. When the Atlantic slave trade closed in 1808, Baltimore became a nexus for the domestic trade of enslaved people to Southern cotton interests. [5] A system of large-scale exchange in human beings took hold, with some of the heaviest traffic passing from the Chesapeake to the Mississippi Valley. [6] Baltimore’s economy at this time revolved around wage labor, with enslaved people making up a very small proportion of the urban workforce. Yet, enslaved people retained strong asset value in this urban economic setting. As historian Seth Rockman argues, “Less crucial as urban workers than as plantation hands, slaves [sic] were valuable in Baltimore because they were valuable elsewhere.” [7] In this way, enslavement in Baltimore was especially precarious, with constant threat of separation and disruption. It was a purgatorial experience, with the hustle and bustle of the harbor a loud reminder of the ever-present threat of sale. That Poe’s aunt Maria Clemm asked him to make the sale demonstrates the patriarchal economic entrenchment of slavery. In Poe and Clemm’s view, Edwin existed as an asset to be bought and sold in the name of smart economic management. Poe’s existence was quite different. His literary success and forays into many fields of science are remarkable. Yet, they were made possible by his freedom of life choices and ability to dedicate hours upon hours to scholarly pursuits. [8] No one will ever know what Edwin could have accomplished if given even a sliver of these opportunities.


Baltimorean attachment to Poe draws heavily on Baltimore City being where he died and was buried. This might seem morbid, but it makes sense that gravesites are natural beacons for public memorialization. For most residents of a place, their gravestone is one of if not their only long-lasting mark on the public landscape. Literary scholar J. Bowers expands upon this connecting element regarding Poe’s death, arguing, “It is the singularity of the author’s body that seems to imbue Baltimore’s Poe tourist trade with authenticity—a macabre distinction that the city’s Poe enthusiasts jealously protect and reinforce.” [9] While many cities can claim to have been graced by Poe’s presence, only Baltimore’s Poe memory institutions can advertise an experience of standing atop the poet’s literal remains. Spreading out this physicality capital even further, Baltimoreans exhumed Poe’s remains twice in 1875. He has for periods of time been buried at three different locations in Baltimore, although only the current location can claim to be the location of the bulk of his remains today. [10]


Poe’s grip on Baltimore extends far beyond public history institutions and academic circles. In 1996, when professional football returned to Baltimore, the incoming franchise conducted extensive research and compiled fan feedback to select a name for the new team. The final poll culminated in the selection of the name Ravens, inspired by Poe’s famous poem “The Raven.” Team owner Art Modell remarked that he approved of the name as it was “not common to teams at any level” and claimed it “means something historically to this community.” [11] Civic attachment to Poe thus gained official civic approval, becoming deeply ingrained within the city’s sports-industrial complex and regional collective identity. To wear the logo of a Baltimore Raven shows commitment to the city, its identities, its challenges, and its greatness. This extends beyond Poe to Baltimore itself. The pressing realities of Baltimore’s historical ties to slavery must be continually reinforced, to avoid civic conceptions of shared history based solely on white residents such as Poe. It is a predominantly African American city with an expansive African American history that exemplifies centuries of Black struggle, Black joy, and Black freedom. This history must be amplified to foster collective learning, turning Edwin’s story from capitalist violence into an opportunity for education, growth, solidarity, and better futures.


 

Cover image: Daniel Bendann, “Edgar Allan Poe,” c. 1855, tintype photograph, open access, http://collections.si.edu/search/detail/edanmdm:npg_UNL01743.


 

[1] “Bills of Sale: Josiah M. Cleaveland and Edgar A. Poe,” December 10, 1829, Enoch Pratt Free Library, State Library Resource Center (Baltimore, M.D.), 2, https://collections.digitalmaryland.org/digital/collection/mdsd/id/11/rec/2.

[2] Joshua Rothman, The Ledger and the Chain: How Domestic Slave Traders Shaped America (New York: Basic Books, 2021), 165.

[3] “Bills of Sale: Josiah M. Cleaveland and Edgar A. Poe,” December 10, 1829, 1.

[4] Anne C. Bailey, The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 29.

[5] Seth Rockman, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), https://archive.org/details/scrapingbywagela0000rock, 235.

[6] Rothman, The Ledger and the Chain, 315.

[7] Rockman, Scraping By, 235.

[8] George S. Williams, “Edgar Allan Poe and American Democracy,” Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences 105, no. 4 (Winter 2019): 9, https://www.jstor.org/stable/27130098.

[9] J. Bowers, “Chasing Edgar: The Tourist Rhetoric of the Poe Bicentennial,” Poe Studies 43, no. 1 (2010): 64, https://www.jstor.org/stable/48599388.

[10] Bowers, “Chasing Edgar,” 66.

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