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Arts

Johns Hopkins curators investigate musical mystery linked to Edgar Allan Poe

Call it the case of the Tell-Tale Art.

A sheet of paper the color and texture of stale toast appears at first glance to hold a key clue toward resolving a puzzle that has baffled scholars of the horror writer Edgar Allan Poe for more than a century regarding the date of the poet’s marriage to his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm.

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In reality, the document — a piece of sheet music titled “Mr. Po” and bearing the intriguing inscription: “ascribed to my wife, Mrs. Poe, by E.A. Poe: 1835. Richmond, Virginia: editor” ― is nearly certainly a forgery, though a definitive determination has not yet been made. But, it would be a forgery so audacious and without any obvious motive that it amounts to a mystery in its own right.

“It’s very confusing,” said Sam Bessen, who discovered the sheet music buried in a box at Johns Hopkins University’s Sheridan Libraries. “If it’s a forgery, it’s a pretty bold one. Why would someone go to all this trouble?

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“If you’re going to try to forge a document by Poe, why would you forge something in musical notation instead of trying to pass off a ‘lost poem’? If this were legitimate, it would be the only known example of musical notation in Poe’s hand that I‘m aware of.”

The investigation into the document’s origins and history is continuing; there’s always a chance, experts say, that an as-yet undiscovered clue will resolve the question of authenticity beyond any doubt.

Meanwhile, Johns Hopkins curators are encouraging amateur sleuths to examine the sheet music for themselves when it goes on view next month at the George Peabody Library, in the exhibit “Grace Notes in American History: 200 Years of Songs From The Lester Levy Sheet Music Collection.”

The exhibit, which runs from March 15 through July 31, also will feature about 100 songs culled from the library’s collection of 30,000 pieces of sheet music. Highlights include works signed by the composer Ira Gershwin and aviator Amelia Earhart. The exhibit also includes a copy of the late Maryland jazz great Ethel Ennis’ recording of “God Bless the Child.”

“We’re very excited to have ‘Mr. Po’ on display and to bring the public into this puzzle,” said Bessen, the curator of sheet music and popular culture for the libraries. “Everyone loves a mystery, and there’s a lot of love for Poe here in Baltimore.”

Though the author of “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” lived most of his life elsewhere, Poe’s family hailed from Baltimore, he died here, and Charm City has long claimed the 19th century bad boy as one of its own.

A musical mystery

Last year, Bessen was digging through four boxes of sheet music in preparation for the exhibit when he chanced upon a copy of the 1827 ditty “Mr. Po” with the curious inscription.

“I saw that the piece of sheet music appeared to have been signed by Poe,” Bessen said, “and things about it confused me. For instance, it didn’t appear to have been written by someone familiar with musical notation.

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“In the first staff, a bass clef is hooked onto the bottom of a treble clef, which is a conflicting set of instructions for musicians.”

It wouldn’t be surprising if a wordsmith like Poe was unfamiliar with musical notation, Bessen thought. He consulted a colleague.

“She almost jumped out of her chair,” he said. “Things kind of snowballed from there.”

“Mr. Po” is a lighthearted tune that was popular in the 1800s about a woman who refuses to marry the man she loves because she doesn’t like his last name. (The word “poor” spoken in a Southern accent sounds a lot like “po.”) The woman comes to regret her foolish pride.

“I was greatly to blame,” she sings, “to refuse a good man on account of his name.”

The song’s anonymous author was likely unaware of the then-18-year-old Poe, who self-published his first book that same year. But over the next decade, the lyrics developed uncanny resonances to the poet’s courtship of his young cousin.

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Poe was indeed “po” and spent most of his life on the brink of financial ruin. Moreover, some of Clemm’s relatives opposed the match. In 1835, another cousin offered to take the girl in and educate her to avoid her being married off to an penniless poet twice her age.

Nonetheless, on May 16, 1836, the couple were wed — at least officially. Some scholars suspect that they secretly eloped eight months earlier. These experts point to a marriage license that Poe obtained in Baltimore on Sept. 22, 1835.

If the inscription on the sheet music is legitimate, “it would be evidence that their wedding actually took place in 1835 instead of 1836,” Bessen said.

He investigated further, and found that the piece of sheet music had been purchased in 1939 by Baltimore’s Edgar Allan Poe Society from George H. Wright of Palo Alto, California, who claimed in a letter to have found the document in “a second hand store.” Wright accepted a price of $12.50 for the sheet music of “Mr. Po,” a sum that would be worth about $250 in 2022 dollars.

“George Wright basically donated that manuscript to the Poe Society,” Bessen said. “If he was the forger, his motive clearly was not financial.”

The following year, May Garrettson Evans, the first female reporter for The Baltimore Sun, referred to the song in her book, “Music and Edgar Allan Poe: A Biographical Study”:

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“The text and the signature markedly resemble examples of Poe’s handwriting,” Evans wrote. “If genuine (and its genuineness remains to be further considered), the copy was probably made by Poe for the amusement of his bride.”

The paper tells the tale

Early indications were that the document might be the real thing. Hopkins conservation researcher Patricia McQuiggan examined the paper under white, ultraviolet and infrared light and concluded: “The ink has iron in it, which would be consistent with inks of the 19th century.”

In addition, the paper itself is old. Jeffrey Savoye, secretary/treasurer of Baltimore’s Poe Society, said that the sheet was not made out of wood pulp, indicating that it dates to before the Civil War.

But as Savoye and other experts studied the manuscript further, the case for authenticity fell apart.

Peter Bower, a paper historian and analyst based in London, concluded that the watermark — a pattern on paper aimed at discouraging counterfeiting — was made using an electrotype. That process that wasn’t created until 1838, or three years after the piece of sheet music supposedly was written.

“Having looked very very closely at the watermark images you sent,” Bower wrote in his report, “I can say without any hesitation that it can’t be right.”

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Savoye detailed other problems:

The paper was a flyleaf torn from a book, something Poe didn’t do.

“Poe had access to stacks and stacks of paper,” Savoye said. “He did not have to take a flyleaf from a book like this.”

In places, the ink on the sheet music is blurred, indicating that fresh ink might have been applied to very dry old paper and bled as it was absorbed into the sheet.

“It’s not difficult to come up with something that looks like old ink,” Savoye said.

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The “A” in Poe’s signature is also atypical ― large and rounded, instead of the angular “A” the poet preferred.

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Finally, the signature contains an obvious and uncharacteristic error. It uses the word “ascribed” which means “attributed to” when the writer surely meant to refer to the written record as “inscribed.”

“Poe certainly knew the difference between these words,” Savoye said, estimating that the odds are less than 1% that Poe copied the song and signed it himself.

“These are big tipoffs,” he said. “Some of these things are common forgers’ tricks.”

Nonetheless, Savoye is pretty sure that Poe would greatly enjoy the forgery and subsequent fuss. After all, the poet wasn’t above pulling a prank himself, as was demonstrated by a notorious balloon hoax of 1844.

It seems that Poe wrote an article for the New York Sun newspaper about a trip across the Atlantic Ocean supposedly undertaken by a man named Monck Mason in just three days in a gas balloon. Unfortunately, not a single word was true. Two days later, the newspaper was forced to retract the article.

“Poe absolutely adored hoaxes,” Savoye said. “I think he’d get a big kick out of this.”


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