In early United States history, before Slavery became the really hot issue of the day, forcing everyone to take sides in the heated atmosphere that boiled over into our American Civil War, newspaper headlines and American heads of state were deeply embroiled in another issue: the secret society as old as the Middle Ages: the Freemasons.

Freemasonry was not a minor side-issue: major political players came to prominence as Anti-Mason party candidates, including William Seward, Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state, who survived the assassination plot against the U.S. on the same day Lincoln was murdered. Seward, who many thought would become president in 1860, was a prominent anti-slavery and prison-reform activist, and is probably most famous for purchasing Alaska from Russia under president Andrew Johnson.

Thurlow Weed, a leading anti-Masonist, was the most powerful Whig/Republican party boss of his day, a key backer of the presidential nominations of William Henry Harrison (1840), Henry Clay (1844), Zachary Taylor (1848), Winfield Scott (1852), John Charles Frémont (1856) and Abraham Lincoln (1860).

John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States, published an anti-Masonic work,  Letters on the Masonic Institution, in 1847.  In a letter written in 1831, Adams, wrote: “All that my father knew of masonry in 1798, was that it was favorable to the support of civil authority; and this he inferred from the characters of intimate friends of his, and excellent men who had been members of the Society.  To speak of the Masonic Institution as favorable to the support of civil authority at this day, and in this country, would be a mockery of the common sense and sensibility of mankind.”

Masonry may have been part of America’s founding, but after the William Morgan murder case broke in 1826, anti-Masonic feelings ran high in the U.S, and the founders of the Whig party—which became Lincoln’s Republican party—were swept along by outspoken anti-Masonic fervor.

John Quincy Adams, again: “It has therefore been in my opinion, ever since the disclosure of the Morgan-murder crimes, and of the Masonic oaths and penalties by which they were instigated, the indispensible duty of the Masonic order in the United States, either to dissolve itself, or to discard forever from its constitution and laws all oaths, all penalties, all secrets, and as ridiculous appendages to them, all mysteries and pageants.”

What makes all this deliciously interesting in terms of Letters, is that the famous poet Edgar Allan Poe was quietly connected to these anti-Masonic Whig forces, during the now forgotten time in our history when Masonry, more than Slavery, was the divisive issue of the day. 

John P. Kennedy (1795-1870) was novelist, long-time Maryland congressman and secretary of the Navy overseeing Perry’s trip to Japan and other missions, including one to explore the Amazon.  Kennedy helped found the Whig party—and Kennedy got Poe his first job—at the Southern Literary Messenger.  Kennedy also shared Poe’s publisher, Matthew Carey; Carey was a Benjamin Franklin and General Lafayette associate, and Carey, Poe’s publisher, was also an important ally of the above-mentioned John Quincy Adams.

“Conspiracy nuts,” as they’re justly called, make much ado about the evils of freemasonry, and how nearly every important person is overtly, or secretly, a freemason; we don’t wish to get involved in this wild goose chase, though obviously facts, here and there, can be devilishly thrilling.  We refuse to choose sides or make accusations, and we understand the whole issue is immensely complex; just witness John Quincy Adams attacking the society, while acknowledging his father and many great men belonged to it.  We admit the case of Grand Master of the Rite and Confederate general Albert Pike is a fascinating one, and, who knows, perhaps Masons killed both Poe and Lincoln.  But again, all this is far more than we could possibly look into, at present, much less prove.

What we do find interesting is something we discovered when reading how Jesuit followers of Loyola attempted to stamp out Freemasonry in the mid-15th century; apparently  in 1512, an anti-Masonic society called The Trowel was formed in Florence, and the Society of the Trowel was suppressed by clergy during Spain’s Inquistion.  Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” takes place during the Inquisition, but look at this passage from “The Cask of Amontillado and recall that Poe sets his story in Italy, where the Society of the Trowel was born:”

I looked at him in surprise. He repeated the movement — a grotesque one.

“You do not comprehend?” he said.

“Not I,” I replied.

“Then you are not of the brotherhood.”


“You are not of the masons.”

“Yes, yes,” I said; “yes, yes.”

“You? Impossible! A mason?”

“A mason,” I replied.

“A sign,” he said.

“It is this,” I answered, producing a trowel from beneath the folds of my roquelaire.

“You jest,” he exclaimed, recoiling a few paces. “But let us proceed to the Amontillado.”

The Cask of Amontillado, Edgar Poe

When Freemasonry took root in France, and influenced the French revolution, initiations took place in a grotto, strewn with human bones.

One more rather interesting tidbit: Masonic literature may have given Poe his idea for the differently colored apartments in his Masque of the Red Death.  From a description of the symbolism of degrees in the Rite: “There are four apartments, first hung with black, lit up by a solitary lamp of triangular form from a vaulted ceiling…then white, then blue, then red…”  Poe’s character, Prince Prospero, who attempts to hide, with a clique of friends, walled off from the rest of the world, is brought down by the Red Death.  Poe seems to be saying: Death to secretive elites, who would cut themselves off from the world!   Like the great diplomat and president John Quincy Adams, Poe disliked oaths, pageants and secrecy; and championed science and code-breaking in everything he wrote.

Poe’s friend, the author and congressman, the previously-mentioned John P. Kennedy, introduced a bill which guaranteed federal funding for the artist and inventor Samuel F.B. Morse’s telegraph.

There is speculation that Poe’s mysterious friend in Poe’s “Letter To B__” is none other than Samuel F.B. Morse, himself.


“A poet should not marry” –old saying.

The unhappy marriage, or the marriage that never happened, is the marriage of American poetry.

Emerson’s livelihood came from marrying a woman he knew was dying and suing his wife’s family for the fortune after her death.

Longfellow found his wealth in marriage, and sorrow when his wife and the mother of his children burned to death while melting wax to seal a letter.

Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman never married.

After the death of Edgar Poe’s wife, his life was marked by marriages that never quite happened.

Also, Poe’s immense reputation was ruined in 1846 by rumors involving love outside the marriage contract.

Whitman (Helen, not Walt) almost married Poe until others got in the way, including the most powerful media mogul in the U.S. at the time, editor and owner of The New York Tribune, Horace Greeley.  Imagine CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, the New York Times and the New York Post combined: that was Horace Greeley.   Unfortunately for Poe, Greeley was friends with Rufus Griswold.

In a stunning letter Horace Greeley wrote to Griswold in January, 1849 :

“Do you know Sarah Helen Whitman ? Of course you have heard it rumored that she is to marry

Poe. Well, she has seemed to me a good girl, and— you know what Poe is.

Now I know a widow of doubtful age will marry almost any sort of a white man, but this seems to me a terrible conjunction.

Has Mrs. Whitman no friend within your knowledge that can faithfully explain Poe to her ? I never attempted this sort of thing but once, and the net product was two enemies and a hastening of the marriage; but I do think she must be deceived. Mrs. Osgood must know her.”

Poe scholars have been beating the bushes recently for the real story behind the scandalous relationship of Poe and Frances Osgood, and what’s coming out is that their relationship was no dime-store romance or starry-eyed love affair, but something far more complicated.   It turns out Osgood was probably, like Elizabeth Ellet and Margaret Fuller, more foe than friend.

The middle-aged Poe was the kind of tied-to-his-desk, scornful genius who had no interest in the sort of tawdry relationship which his enemies (and the gullible with their dime-store imaginations) have drawn up for him.  True, Poe recited poems in his soft, charismatic voice at literary salons, and as steward of American Letters he did take an interest in a literary society which included women, but he was not a romantic in life; he was an editor looking for a magazine and an American who hated in his blood puffery and British “ill will” towards the United States.  Poe even wrote in a ‘throwing-off-the-gloves’ mood, that America would take its quarrel with Britain “into Africa,” which is quite an ambitious, multi-layered, and belicose thing to say.  That stern anglophile, Emerson, must have been appalled.

Britain and America’s divorce was still an ugly one in the middle of the 19th century. Poe’s famous quarrel with his own northern brethren—New England writers—is not nearly as important as has been claimed.

Poe, in fact, was always reaching out to Boston authors.

In 1842, Poe wrote to the abolitionist poet James Russell Lowell: “Dear Sir,  Learning your design of commencing a Magazine, in Boston, upon the first of January next, I take the liberty of asking whether some arrangement might not be made, by which I should become a regular contributor.”  Lowell’s magazine was launched, and Poe was a regular contributor— while Lowell’s unprofitable venture lasted.   Poe and Lowell remained good friends.

As editor of Graham’s, on at least two separate occasions, Poe asked Longfellow to contribute to the magazine.

Poe wrote to Joseph Snodgrass in 1841, “You are mistaken about The Dial.  I have no quarrel in the world with that illustrious journal, nor it with me.”

It wasn’t New England that was the problem; Poe did resent, but more in the name of democracy, Northern monopoly in American Letters—a reasonable  complaint.  The larger shadow was that Britain was in a cunning position to enjoy U.S. difficulty on the slavery issue—which, after Poe’s murder—did blow up into the holocaust of civil war: a divorce inside of a divorce.  The American civil war gave birth to a creature of Poe-like dimensions in politics: poet and Poe fan Abraham Lincoln.

The best known marriage in 19th century Letters occured in Europe, when Elizabeth Barrett, who had been corresponding with Poe, eloped with Robert Browning.   Later, we can see by reading the letters, that Elizabeth Browning, with many others in Europe, hoped for a divorce between south and north in America over the slavery issue; to those like Barrett Browning, this was a simple moral issue; to others, and this would include those like Poe and Lincoln, it was more complicated and meant loss of unity, and thus a destruction of, the United States.

Margaret Fuller eloped with an Italian count in Italy after dallying with the hearts of Hawthorne and Emerson (though Emerson was like Poe; women found it impossible to dally with a heart of high seriousness set against mere romance).

In a letter on Poe to Elizabeth Barrett Browning just after Poe’s death, Fuller, friends with Emerson and Horace Greeley—the publisher of Griswold’s “Ludwig” obituary—shows herself to be Griswold-like:  “…several women loved him, but it seemed more with passionate illusion which he amused himself by inducing than with sympathy; I think he really had no friend.”

In another odd twist, Osgood published a poem in the Broadway Journal in 1845 when Poe was the editor there, called “To the Lady Geraldine,” in which a gossipy woman is attacked.  “Geraldine” is not identified, but “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship” was the name of a famous poem published in 1844 by Barrett, before she met Robert, and in that poem she refers to Wordsworth,—the old poet wished to visit her, but could not, on account of her health—Tennyson, whom she adored, and Robert Browning.   Barrett had not eloped with Robert yet in 1845, and Poe was pictured as one of the many male poets hungering after Barrett’s affection during this time.

Poe dedicated his 1845 Poems to Elizabeth Barrett.

A marriage of sane and profitable domesticity versus insane and passionate divorce (Osgood, for instance, was separated from her painter husband during the time of her Poe-scandal in the period around 1845) was the ruling trope in Letters during the tumultuous pre-Civil War, Poe and Barrett era during the 1840s.   Poe wished for domestic bliss, not wild affairs; he wished for a growing America, not one torn apart by the slavery issue.

As a Southerner acheiving great fame in the North in 1845 and then crashing and burning in scandal in 1846, Poe is a symbol of America’s failed marriage as a nation.

In the 20th century, what does marriage and romance between poets symbolize?

T.S. Eliot’s marriage to an Englishwoman was an impetuous “burning of boats” in Eliot’s own words, to leap from America to England.   Reading “Prufrock,” one is not surpised at the poet’s disastrous marriage.

W.H. Auden marrying—to help someone escape the Nazis.  That might be the most symbolic marriage of the 20th century.

The tragedy of  the English Ted Hughes and the American Sylvia Plath doesn’t transcend what it is; that tragedy and the tragedy of Hughe’s subsequent marriage is a mere festering of flesh: petty, personal, stupid, wrong.

The most famous marriage among the Beats ended in a stupid “William Tell” death.

Further on in American literary history, we have the marriage of American, Jorie Graham, and South African-born Peter Sacks, a relationship best known for something even more petty: an act of foetry with partner Bin Ramke.

How sad that in Letters, the landmark history of marriage is the landmark history of the broken.

Surely happy marriages in Letters exist; we just don’t know about them.

Unfortunately for the muse of love, the “NO” of Maud Gonne, the Irish patriot, refusing the William Butler Yeats of dubious politics, rings more profoundly, down the years, in the annals of literature, than any affirmation.

Had Whitman married Poe, perhaps it would have all been different.

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