Elizabeth Ellet recorded the lives of the women of the American Revolution – and meddled in the life of Edgar Allan Poe.
She was the first to treat women as fit subjects for history, and one of the first women to claim a place as a historian. In 1846 she began writing about the women who influenced the course of the American Revolution, delving into their personal letters and diaries.
She also delved into the personal affairs of Poe, her contemporary. By doing so she created a scandal that went down in history as stigmatizing Poe as a madman and a drunk.
She was born Oct. 18, 1818 Elizabeth Fries Lummis in Sodus Point, N.Y., the daughter of Sarah Maxwell, a daughter of Revolutionary War captain John Maxwell. Her father, Dr. William Nixon Lummis, had studied under Benjamin Rush.
Elizabeth had a good education and published her first work at age 16, a translation from Italian of the poem Euphemia from Messina. She then published a book of poems based on the history of Venice, which made it to the New York City stage.
As a teenager she married William Ellet, a prominent chemist. The couple then moved to Columbia, S.C., where he taught chemistry at South Carolina College.
Elizabeth continued to write poems, translations, travel essays and criticism of European literature. Some of her magazine stories appeared next to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s.
Edgar Allan Poe
In 1845 she began visiting New York City for long periods, leaving her husband in the South. In New York she joined the literary circle that included Poe, Rufus Wilmot Griswold, Margaret Fuller, Frances Sargent ‘Fanny’ Osgood and Anna Lynch Botta.
Poe was then flying high, having published the immensely popular The Raven. The ladies, including Fanny Osgood and Elizabeth Ellet, seemed to have a taste for drama. Perhaps that’s why they found him attractive and sent him flattering letters.
The exact details of what followed aren’t clear, except that a messy scandal descended into farce. Edgar Allan Poe and Elizabeth Ellet fell out after Ellet tarnished Poe’s reputation.
Poe had revealed his affection for Fanny Osgood in several poems, including A Valentine. But both he and Osgood had spouses.
Ellet may have been jealous of Osgood. The story goes she visited Poe’s home, where Poe’s wife Virginia showed her letters written by Osgood. Ellet then went to Osgood and advised her to ask Poe to return the letters, suggesting they were indiscreet. Fuller and Botta got involved, too, and asked Poe to give Osgood’s letters back to Osgood.
Poe did not appreciate the ladies’ meddling and blamed Elizabeth Ellet for spreading rumors about him. He said Ellet should ‘look after her own letters.’
One of those letters included the seductive phrase in German to ‘call for it at her residence this evening.’
An angry Poe had never called for ‘it,’ but he returned Ellet’s letters to her home.
For some unknown reason, Elizabeth Ellet asked her brother, Col. William Lummis, to demand Poe return the letters he had already returned. Lummis threatened to kill Poe. Poe asked to borrow a pistol from another writer, Thomas Dunn English, so he could defend himself.
English called Poe a liar and they got into a fistfight. English later attacked Poe in print and Poe sued English in response.
Osgood was married to the portrait painter Samuel Stillman Osgood. He threatened to sue Elizabeth Ellet unless she apologized for gossiping about Poe and his wife. Ellet retracted her statements about Fanny Osgood’s letters, saying Poe must have forged them. She then spread the rumor that Poe was insane, which was published in newspapers and used by his enemies.
Virginia Poe also received anonymous letters about her husband’s cheating, which she believed came from Elizabeth Ellet. On her deathbed, Virginia Poe claimed, “Mrs. E had been her murderer.”
Poe supposedly wrote the short story Hop-Frog in revenge against Elizabeth Ellet. The scandal permanently tarnished his personal and literary reputation.
The Women of the American Revolution
New York’s literati no longer welcomed Elizabeth Ellet, and in late 1845 she turned her hand to history. She traveled the country searching historical society records and interviewing descendants and acquaintances of revolutionary-era women. Through them she obtained unpublished letters and diaries, which she used in her research.
The 120 women she profiled included such well-known New Englanders as Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren; general’s wives Catherine Greene, Frances Allen, Margaret Arnold and Lucy Knox; women soldiers like Deborah Sampson and Prudence Cummings Wright; and ordinary women like Mary Draper and Anna Bailey who supported the patriot cause in extraordinary ways.
These women, she argued, had helped win American independence.
It is almost impossible now to appreciate the vast influence of woman’s patriotism upon the destinies of the infant republic.
Historians consider the three-volume The Women of the American Revolution her most important work.
Elizabeth Ellet continued to publish books, living in New York with her husband, who had a job with the Manhattan Gas Company.
She died on June 3, 1887, of Bright’s disease, and is buried next to her husband in Brooklyn’s Green-Lawn Cemetery.
With thanks to Constructing American Lives: Biography & Culture in Nineteenth-century America by Scott E. Casper. This story was updated in 2021.