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Flashback Photo: Sarah Helen Whitman, Providence Poet Who Dumped Edgar Allan Poe

Sarah Helen Whitman by C.G. Thompson, 1838

Sarah Helen Whitman by C.G. Thompson, 1838

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.

Born Sarah Helen Power in Providence, R.I., on Jan. 19, 1803, she moved to Boston after her marriage to John Whitman. He was a lawyer and co-editor of 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.

It was in Providence that 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. Several months later, they began a correspondence, then a romance.

Her mother didn’t approve of Poe, and so they met in the Providence Athenaeum.

Sarah Helen Whitman agreed to marry him with reluctance. According to one story, she dumped him when someone slipped her a note in the Athenaeum saying he broke his promise to her not to touch alcohol.

Before she broke up with Poe, 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.

Dr. H.L. Koopman, librarian of Brown University, who is deeply interested in Poe, had heard that Mrs. Whitman, to whom Poe was at that time engaged, had expressed admiration for an anonymous poem that appeared in the American Review in December 1847. At the time she and Poe were in the Athenaeum, and Mrs. Whitman asked Poe if he had read this poem, "Ulalume" and if he knew the author. He answered her question in the affirmative, and acknowledged that he had not only read the poem, but had written it. Before leaving the Athenaeum, he signed the poem. Dr. Koopman had heard this story, and by way of verifying it went to the Athenaeum, and looked up the issue of the American Review in which it was supposed to have appeared. The magazine was found, and also the signature.

Sarah Helen Whitman defended Poe's literary reputation after he died in 1849 and his enemies belittled him. She died on June 27, 1878.