Ramblings from the Trail

Decoding the Mystery of Elizabeth Fries Ellet’s Relationship to Edgar Allan Poe
by Vicki Pellar Price

Ye who read are still among the living; but I who write shall have long since gone my way into the region of shadows. For indeed strange things shall happen, and secret things be known, and many centuries shall pass away, ere these memorials be seen of men. And, when seen, there will be some to disbelieve, and some to doubt, and yet a few who will find much to ponder upon in the characters here graven with a stylus of iron.

From Edgar Allan Poe’s “Shadow-a Parable” (1835)

The infamous Goth poet traveled in the same literary circles as Elizabeth Fries Ellet, the 19th century writer who referred to the area now known as Eden Prairie as “the garden spot of the territory,” on her visit to Minnesota in 1852. What we know about their relationship is revealed in bits and pieces from old correspondences, newspaper clippings and in the papers and letters of distinguished literary writers of the time, who associated with both Poe and Ellet.

With the publication of the “Raven” Poe’s popularity in spring and early summer of 1845 resulted in his attendance at the same literary soirees frequented by a “Blue-stocking” coterie, female writers of New York’s Literary Society. “Blue-stocking” was a designation originally given to 18th Century European female writers associated with feminist scholarship.

During the mid-1800’s Poe was involved both professionally, personally and romantically with New York’s female literary society. His Southern drawl, distinctiveness and courteous manner made him exceedingly attractive to women, resulting in frequent invitations at literary readings and social events: the aftereffects were several proposals, forsaken admirers, intense gossip and a blight on his reputation.

The Broadway Journal, which Poe edited and was proprietor in 1845, was filled with the work of the “Blue-stocking” clique. Its pages evolved into a literary duel of secret exchanges between Poe’s many admirers competing for his attention and affections. This eventually led to jealousy, gossip and the fury of a woman scorned. Many accounts from writers associated with both Ellet and Poe tell us Ellet was that woman.

In an 1845 edition of the St Louis Reveille, it was reported that Poe accused Ellet of writing him compromising letters. At the behest of Margaret Fuller and Ann Lynch, Poe was urged to hand over Frances Osgood’s letters to them. At the time he told them “What about Ellet’s letters?” According to literary lore the “Bluestocking” scandal of 1845 was the result of Ellet’s jealousy over Frances Osgood’s letters to Poe. Ellet’s brother, Colonel William Lummis, proposed a duel with Poe to vindicate his sister. The Poe Society claims that Poe averted the duel by returning Ellet’s letters to her.

Poe’s romantic involvements with Osgood and Helen Whitman caused Ellet and other female writers in the literary clique to gossip and plot against them. Poe advised both Osgood and then Whitman not to trust Ellet, to consider her and her fellow gossipmongers as enemies. It is said that the relationship between Poe and Osgood came to an end in 1846 because of ensuing gossip; Poe’s tryst with Whitman ended similarly.

Many literary historians consider Poe’s story “Hop Frog” published in 1849, a revenge story about those enemies: Lynch, Fuller, Ellet and others. Some believe that Ellet was immortalized as the cruel Monarch in the story. The other scandalmongers and compatriots of Ellet’s circle were depicted as “ourang-outangs.” According to Poe they were “animals rarely seen in the civilized world.” As the story goes, they were finally revealed and destroyed by “Hop Frog,” who was Poe himself.

Well known in his lifetime for his peculiarities, in death, Poe has become one of most famous and influential writers in American literary history. Author of stories such as The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Gold Bug, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Tell-tale Heart, The Purloined Letter, Poe is considered a genius today for his mastery of the short story genre and skill at Cryptography. Poe was obsessed with the transcendent power of words and has left a literary legacy of secret alphabetic cryptographs and coded mysteries.

Imbued with intrigue his entire life and death, he is still surrounded with ambiguity and complexity. The enormity of his talent is reflected in a body of work that is revered, studied, read and still mystifying to his readers. Apart from his most famous contributions, Poe authored, perhaps, thousands of magazine articles ranging from literary critique to cryptography. His Literati of New York City appraised the craft of many prominent authors, while A Few Words on Secret Writing in Graham’s Magazine focused on his claim to solving over 100 cryptographs sent to him by his readers.

Poe’s notoriety during his life-time was the result of his stinging criticism, accusations of plagiarism targeted at other writers and his affairs with women. His relationships with women almost always ended with an attack on his personal character and ridicule of his literary pretensions. While he was alive Poe was the object of criticism in the newspapers from the east coast to the frontier.

In 1847 the St Louis Reveille published a public notice that Poe had received $225 in costs from a libel suit against the New York Evening Mirror for publishing an article which delivered a personal attack aimed at Poe. While Poe’s life and problems received constant coverage, Ellet received little press other than reviews of her work in newspapers and Lady’s Godey’s Magazines. In “Literary America” in 1848, Poe wrote of Ellet: “Her articles are, for the most part, in the rifacimento (a remaking or recasting of a literary work or musical composition) way, and, although no doubt composed in good faith, have the disadvantage of looking as if hashed up for just so much money as they will bring. ”

Though Ellet was criticized for her commercialization, she created a unique niche for herself in the annals of American Literature as the first female to write authentic documentation about the feminine role in American history. But, the ages have not been good to her. Instead of being remembered for her scholarly historical contribution, “The Women of the American Revolution,” (1848), and her success with the book-buying public, she is better known for her involvement with Poe and what literary critiques consider her failure to successfully combine sentiment with history.

In the early 1900’s the Minneapolis Journal published a full page article on Ellet’s visit and her rambles of Minnesota, which were published pothusmously, after her death in 1877. Her book Summer Rambles in the West described her visit to Lake Minnetonka, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Fort Snelling and her exploration of the wild landscapes, many unseen by white women. Her trip down the Minnesota River took her past Eden Prairie all the way down to Blue Earth. She penned vignettes of the local natives and settlers living in the new unexplored wildness with all its natural beauty and hardships. Rich in detail, the book reads like a travelogue of the new Minnesota territory, as it was in 1852.

Ellet was considered one of the most accomplished and prolific writers of her time. Her work covered many genres and publications including newspapers, Dime Novels, Ladies Godey’s Magazine, Graham’s Magazine and the Broadway Journal as well as housekeeping and home journals of the day. Ellet’s books include a long list of titles that reflect her interest in the feminine contribution and relevance to history and daily life in the Revolutionary Women in the War of American Independence, Pioneer Women of the West, The Queens of American Society, Characters of Schiller, The New Cyclopedia of Domestic Economy, Eminent and Heroic Women of America and hundreds of articles and poems.

Vicki Pellar Price
Elizabeth Fries Ellet Interpretive Trail at the Richard T. Anderson Conservation Area
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