The Spectre of St. John’s Churchyard

Vacant heart and hand and eye,
Easy live and quiet die.

—Sir Walter Scott


Providence, Rhode Island, 1848: The Hotel Bar

The bar in Edgar Allan Poe’s hotel is a proper bar with deep mahogany paneling, row upon row of wines to savor, great casks of low-grade by-the-barrel rum, ales unheard of except this close the place where they were brewed. It sits thumb-nosed and snug in the sight of the disapproving First Baptist Church. Let Roger Williams frown, the ladies of the Temperance Society petition—in vain, since the long polished bar was thronged and elbowed by half of the town’s lawyers. Rank upon rank of tables, along with niches and corners, sufficed for the lower sorts, from workmen in coveralls to lean, carousing sailors of uncertain parentage, ear-ringed in gold and tattooed in alien tongues no one could read.

Poe, a blur of dark hair and eyebrows in a worn-shiny raven-hued coat, sat with William Jewett Pabodie, a celebrated local, a delicate man redolent of fresh linen and lilac. Pabodie had read law but had no taste for the practice. He was a poet with a melancholy ode or two within him, but above all a useful man, a man who knew the nature of men and everyone’s business. This was just the man Poe needed to sound out details about the Power family, whose elder daughter — a widow named Helen, a poetess — he had come to woo. An answer, discreet but indefinite, affirmed her fortune a small one, but secure: property and mortgages, well-managed by old Baptist lawyers. Eyes rolled slightly around the bar as Poe asked about the late Mr. Whitman. The late Mr. Whitman, of Boston mind you, was a literary man, to be sure: a lawyer who defended atheists and defamers of preachers; a man of calamities whose winter cold went pleural, and killed him. And perhaps, they hinted, a man who did not actually like women. “There are widows,” one tippler asserted, “who are not really widows, because they were never fully wed.” A coarse joke then went around about the need for harpoons for maidenheads.

And as for Sarah’s father, Captain Power? “Ah, the less said,” was all that Pabodie would offer. A reprobate, off to sea for years on end, without so much as a letter, and then back to the wife’s door hat in hand, a door closed hard in his face. “And there’s a sister we don’t speak much about.”

“In the mother’s line we have no less than a prophetess, or a madwoman, according to your religious persuasion,” Pabodie went on. “I am speaking of Jemima Wilkinson. A hundred or more from Providence went off with her to start a holy colony in New York State.”

“I seem to have read something about her, “Poe hesitated.

“She declared that she had died and returned from the dead, and was in fact Christ in a woman’s shell. She changed her name to P.U.F., for Public Universal Friend. She preached around the state. Families who should have known better, sold all their property and went along to join her communal farm.

“Wilkinson preached to the Seneca at one of their pow-wows, and the ever-polite red men listened to her harangue and turned back to their pipes and their own business. She came back a second time with a translator and the Seneca rebuffed her saying, “If you were actually Jesus, you would preach to us in our own language.

“Before she finally died, she told her followers not to bury her, because she would be merely resting, and would rise again in but a few days. They sat by her corpse for more than a week until they could take it no more, and that was end of P.U.F., a cloud of black flies and oozy putrescence.”

Poe felt unable to pry more from Pabodie, at least so long as he remained this sober. Gossip is best extracted with the lubricant of wine. Poe talked then of his earlier visit, the summer of ’45, of his moonlight walk when he had seen Mrs. Whitman, instantly his “Helen of Helens,” behind the red house in its snug garden, her hand athwart the single rose she was cutting, the sudden turn she made, her vanishing into the cellar door whose soundless closing stopped his breathing, as though to profane this vision with any other living activity were unthinkable.

“I’ve sent her the poem with my recollection,” he tells Pabodie, and shows him a copy.

Pabodie reads it and says: “Ah, lovely! A blank verse paean to our finest lady poet. Her eyes —  what lines! —two sweetly scintillant Venuses! She will fall into your power, rest assured, Mr. Poe.”

“There was more to the poem,” Poe confided,“ but I ought not frighten this Helen of Helens with the thought of an apparition I saw, or thought I saw —”

“An apparition?” up went one of Pabodie’s black eyebrows. “You know their garden wall drops down to the Episcopal churchyard, do you not?”

“I did not note it then.”

“Tell what you saw, and I will say if it has some common thread with what some have said about that hillside and what transpires at night there.”

Poe turned over his manuscript, and read his draft of the poem’s continuation: “But stay, pale Prophetess! Hold back the moon and those hoarded clouds that would conceal it! Return and calm my frenzied observing of a glowing form that rises — a form I thought dead, that sleeps no more — it mounts to speak its dread name into my hearing. It speaks — not words in any human tongue! —Thank God it does not speak that name or mine! —A kind of half-whistled ululation. Its eyes, two darkly luminous nebulae, catch mine, and spark, and spurn me. Then, folding in its shroud-like trail, it leaps with superhuman will to the trellis, up, up, vertiginous, three stories up, and either to roof or into attic It vanishes: all this in my one heartbeat, in the darkness of one cloud’s-passing.”

“What did you make of it?” asked Pabodie. “You do not strike me, Poe, as a ‘ghost’ man.”

“Ghosts, no! Place emanations, if you will, or astral doubles our souls send out and just as easily call back. Call them wish forms, mesmeric force, visible ill-will: there are many things in the universe, and things we call to a semblance of life by dreaming them or giving name.” He paused. “I fear the wine speaks now. Perhaps I say too much and you think me but a madman. I have made enemies with my science.”

Pabodie smiled, and with a deft hand replaced Poe’s empty glass with its brim-full brother. “What you have spoken of, we know quite well. There are secrets we keep, and there are those we tell because they amuse us and harm no one. A spectre is haunting St. John’s Churchyard. Ask any of these gentlemen here—ask and you shall hear the same tale from all.” Here Pabodie tugged at the elbow of a young lawyer who had evidently been listening in , ushered him close to Poe and bade him tell.

“Sir, I could not but overhear. No lies pass muster in this establishment, where friends console and drink from sundown to midnight. St. John’s is haunted. I’ll not be found there on North Main on a moonless night; I’ll not peek down there from between the houses on Benefit Street above if there’s even a shadow in the place. Just as you said, she comes in her own shroud, hangs like a harpy in a spreading beech, or spreads her tresses on one of those cold table-top gravestones,  or darts from fence to yew to tombstone. A harmless fairy, the sexton tells us (but rum-full he sleeps, and never sees her).

“They say her eyes can catch you, and once caught, you are lured to pass the night there, amid the worms and moss and broken markers, on one of those stone slabs the size of a marriage bed. They further say that if her eyes catch you, your life is hers to do with as she pleases Night after night she will have you there for her pleasure, your pain. Point out some wreck of a man in an alley and all will say: ‘Lucy has ruined him.’”

Lucy?” Poe asked. “Why of all names, Lucy?”

“That’s what she calls herself. Sometimes she speaks her name, or a few lines of poetry.”

Here Pabodie broke in, “And then she’s gone, as thin as smoke and pale as a firefly And indeed, some say she  goes up and over a house-top as nimble as a squirrel.”

“So I have seen the spectre—the very same?”

“So, Mr. Poe, it would seem. I counsel you to keep to yourself your summer vision. The families on Benefit, you see, do have secrets, and keep them. Your Monsieur Dupin would be hard-pressed to decipher them all. There are strange births, and inconvenient children. One Captain Marsh, a forebear in the Power family line, came back with a tattooed bride from the Pacific and of the issue of that union, one can only speculate. Attics are more convenient than asylums.”

Here Pabodie would say no more, but one far voice from a distant table called out, after the name “Lucy” had made its whispered round.

An old sailor gestured that he wished to join them, was admitted and, sidling up to Poe, told them: “Aye, that’s Saucy Lucy y’er speakin o’. She ain’t no spirit, unless that ‘spectre’ word is your gentleman’s way of sayin’ what we all do see and know too well. Dark nights she haunts the St. John’s graveyard sure enough, and if she catch your eye, an’ it be late and the sexton be well into slumber, then many’s the man that’ ud go to her. And as for doin’ her biddin’, that ain’t supernatural since she be wantin’ pretty much what the sailors be wantin’.” Suppressed laughter greeted this version of the tale.

Pabodie paled and, finding a handkerchief, shielded himself from the sailor’s breath.“ I don’t give credit to these bawdy tales,” he said to Poe. “They hear, they fear—perhaps they see—and assuredly they embellish.”

Poe nodded. “For a gentleman, the notion of a ghost suffices, a lonely ghost beyond all hope, ephemeral, untouchable, some virgin ripped from life by disease.” Poe stopped, choked, put out the glass for another fill from the wine-cask.


After the Opium

Past midnight, some in Providence were still wide awake. “The Raven” was requested, recited. Then arm in arm, Poe walked with Pabodie, who seemed admirably in command of his gait, to a Chinese laundry’s doorway; this in turn led to a passageway burrowed far into the hillside, into a damp room, a ratty, fungoid, wet-walled warren where a dozen reclining sleepers lay, beside them a dozen spent pipes, and there Poe took his place. One of the walls had chains attached, there were the ruins of rude benches where other chained wretches had starved, and expired, but the other walls were decorated with silk hangings.

Finally a reed-thin Mandarin in a flowing blue robe brought them a lamp, a pipe, and a small lump of opium, which he prepared for them. Pabodie took only a third of the proffered opium, and sent the Chinaman away with a handful of coins, as it was obvious that he knew the ways of the poppy and needed no further assist.

When all that was done, when dreams beyond Coleridge, of galaxies borne on a cosmic wind, of worlds created from mere thoughts and as readily destroyed, convinced him of his godhood, and madness—and that was quite enough of that, they fled. Poe did not even think to ask, as they came out into darkness, whether it was still the same evening, or whether they had lulled away twenty-four hours in the hillside tunnel. The ache in his belly, and the stubble of his beard, made him fear the worst.

Alone as ever, and having walked Mr. Pabodie to his High Street home, Poe did what it was Poe’s nature to do: at every moment the most awful thing he could think of. He had a courtship to commence; he needed to be clean, rational, brilliant, scintillant. Yet here he stood, at last, at the foot of St. John’s churchyard. And there were sounds, and with his raven hair and night-dark great-coat he seemed a shadow within the shadows as he climbed the slope, and he saw them, and what they were doing. The man fled, lifting and fastening his trousers as he did so. The shrouded spectre rose up from a cold limestone table marker, and her white shroud billowed around her and parted so she was full upon him in her nakedness, a lamia, her eyes afire. He felt her will like a maelstrom, insatiable, unquenchable, the fall into her arms like the nine-day drop into Hell, or the careen into an empty grave. Her lips touched hot —nails raked his neck — and Poe swooned dead away.

It was dawn when he awakened. In horror he reached for his clothes about him and found everything in place. His head seemed under a great bell, his tongue as stiff as an iron clabber, the taste of rust, of iron, in his mouth; he wiped and found blood there. He looked about and spied no footprints on the damp earth save those of his own zigzag ascent, and intermingled with his, the clumsy prints of the drunken sailor’s fleeing.

With Dupin’s eye he surveyed all: the street below, where one slow wagon was passing, pulled by a somnolent mare. The high street above the churchyard was visible only in gaps between the garden walls and the houses. Only the shrubs and trees, and the darkness of certain nights, made this a private place. From how many windows might his nightmare encounter have been seen? His perverse imp had brought him here. And what of the spectre? Did she hang even now from some rooftop, or sleep beneath the lid of a vaulted gravestone?

There were no ready clues here, but — what was this? Poe strode to a gravestone and  found upon it, in  a splendid binding, a finely-printed edition of a book he knew,“By the author of the Waverly novels” —The Bride of Lammermoor. He smiled to recall Lucy Ashton, its doomed heroine: her first love lost, she kills her bridegroom on her wedding night. On the volume’s end leaf was an inscription, rubbed out by an angry hand, and the initials “S –A –P.”

An early morning church bell tolled, summoning the Irish Catholics to early Mass. A murmur of voices began to roil up from the waterfront. Poe hurtled down the hillside, back to his hotel to make himself presentable for the morning’s courting call. Much depended on this courtship. Hand in hand with a fellow poet, a lady of means in consort with his dreams, he could start his magazine at last. He would clean the Augean stables of American literature.

St. John’s Churchyard in Providence, R.I.. Sarah Helen Whitman’s house is on the upper right.


The House on Power Street

“My mother, Mrs. Power.”

Poe bowed; perhaps he bowed too deeply, perhaps the bead-line of nervous moisture across his brow betrayed him. At his hotel, he had thrown water on his face, made a crude attempt at shaving, then gargled with cold water and sarsaparilla and mint to conceal the aromas of wine, whiskey, and opium.

He smelled in this tiny parlor, not his mother-in-law’s faint rose, or the ineffable perfume that hung about his departed Virginia, but here, camphor, mildew and dampened woolens. The odor of neglected and unattended womenfolk.

“We are honored to receive you, sir,” the widow Power said stiffly. She took him in, head to foot, no doubt summing up what he had spent on his greatcoat and shirt and shoes. (Nothing – charity all). That he had arrived hatless and on foot was already to his debit.

“The honor is mine,” Poe smiled, eyes lit up with the importuning son’s mother-plea. She seemed to soften. Mothers are mothers, and sense want, and wish to fill it. He had not slipped. He in his turn sized up the stern visage of Mrs. Power. The wrath of a woman scorned; resentment of an errant husband. Spite and embarrassment at having been a respectable widow, only to have her husband return to live in scandal outside her home. The sense of avarice about her dress and the house’s furnishing: nothing that could be put to good use should ever be thrown away or replaced.

Helen already stood in the parlor. A fair figure, a face admirable at some angles and probably not at others. Sparkling eyes. A sense of humor, and deep, deep knowledge. She was wrapped in silk scarves – diaphanous, but oh, too numerous, taking on the role of priestess. Now Helen, her scarves aflutter, turned as if to speak to him. They were appraising one another in telepathic bursts – you are as I imagined, but not so tall as I expectedyou are older than I recall, but great nobility marks your face.

This psychic dialogue went on for some time, until Mrs. Power brought them crashing down with an offer of tea. It was, in fact, already on the small table at the room’s center. Mrs. Power sat, indicating that Poe should do so. Poe sat. Helen moved between them, serving the tea. It was lukewarm. He passed on the offered milk which seemed past its prime, and eagerly accepted three cubes, each dropped into his cup with silver tongs of Oriental design.

They began to speak about the lady poets they knew in common in New York, and of the two poems they had exchanged. Just as things were going as Poe hoped they would, another woman swept down the stairs and into the dimly-lit space. His hosts seem startled. “Ah, my sister,” spoke Helen, “Miss Susan Anna Power.”

Poe bowed as the slight figure, indifferently coiffed and double-layered with a Chinese robe thrown over a haze of many-layered skirts, burst between Helen and her mother. Poe bowed again. But silently, an awkward suitor’s pause on seeing a younger sister — to outward view, an appropriate deference to an unmarried woman, but in his mind, Detective Dupin was clattering away. That inner voice spelled out: Susan — Anna — Power.

“My headache is all better now. I would not miss this moment! Poet meets poet. New England versus New York. The Raven has come to roost!” cried Susan. “The Raven comes to seize the Dove —”

The frown of Mrs. Power and Helen’s consternation (would he ever see that face softened, or would she forever be as at this moment, a stern Athena?) caused an awkward interval of silence. Did Susan Anna hesitate because the interruption had upset the intended pas de trois of mother-caller-intended?.

But no, Susan Anna cared nothing for manners. She had spied the book in Poe’s left hand against his charcoal-colored overcoat, and flying across the parlor to him, as though in salutation, half-bow, half-curtsey, she seized the marble-edge volume, nails pressed into the oak-brown leather with uncommon force. She spoke in a sepulchral voice, so low as to seem baritone, and from a distance: “When the last Laird of Ravenswood  to Ravenswood shall ride — ”

To which Poe declined his head and answered: “And woo a dead maiden to be his bride.”

She parried “He shall stable his steed in the Kelpie’s flow.”

He ended, “And his name shall be lost for evermoe!”

And deftly, as though they had done nothing but exchange a volley of quotations from Walter Scott, in good cheer — deftly, The Bride of Lammermoor  passed before the uncomprehending eyes of the wooed one and the watchful mother — deftly, The Bride of Lammermoor passed to its owner.

Poe, ever attentive to details, perceived, in that instant, how the young woman’s fingernails were caked with the soil of the graveyard. She was The Succubus of St. John’s Churchyard!

He sat, stunned and silent.

“Another cup of tea, Mr. Poe?”Now Helen’s hand, clean, soft and white, handed him the bone-china teacup. Her forearm briefly brushed against his.

He eyed the door, counted how many steps it would take to make a hasty retreat.

“Yes, please,” he replied. The Imp of the Perverse was in control. “And I hope you shall call me Edgar.”

Laughter came from above. The poetess smiled and blushed. Mrs. Power frowned.

Poe’s courtship had commenced.

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