Poe, dealer in slaves

E. A.

October 01, 1993|By Ralph Clayton

BETWEEN his discharge from the U.S. Army in 1829 and his short-lived entry into West Point early in 1830, Edgar Allan Poe revisited Baltimore. During his stay, Poe, acting as agent for his aunt, Maria Clemm, sold her 21-year-old slave, Edwin, to one Henry Ridgeway for $40. The bill of sale opened with the following statement:

"Know all men by these presents that I, Edgar Allan Poe, agent for Maria Clemm of Baltimore City and County and State of Maryland, for and in consideration of the sum of $40 in hand paid by Henry Ridgway of Baltimore City at or before the sealing and delivery of these presents, the receipt whereof is hereby acknowledged, have granted, bargained and sold and by these presents do grant, bargain and sell unto the said Henry Ridgway . . . a negro man named Edwin, aged 21 years on the first day of March next to serve until he shall arrive at the age of 30 years, no longer."

During the 19th century, a binding contract could be sealed with the mark of an X if the signer was unable to read or write. Such was the case of Henry Ridgway, who, according to all available records, was a free African-American huckster living near Guilford Alley and Charles Street in Baltimore.

During the preparation of the document, Ridgway's name was signed for him, allowing him to place his X beside the signature as a sign of agreement. The document, dated Dec. 10, 1829, was first uncovered in an underground room of the Baltimore City Courthouse in April 1940. Shortly after its discovery, the bill of sale was stolen. Its whereabouts remained a mystery until it was purchased by Poe collector William Koester from an "out-of-town dealer" in January 1954. Koester, in turn, donated the document to the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore.

Although the return of the bill of sale to Baltimore was reported in The Evening Sun almost 40 years ago, its presence eluded historians for decades. Interestingly, the very existence of the document was debated by researchers, unaware of its recovery, well into the late 1970s.

John C. Miller, a Poe scholar at Old Dominion University, commented in an issue of Poe Studies: "If this document could be verified, it would prove that Poe supported the institution of slavery . . . but also that in 1829 he was more closely associated with his aunt Maria Clemm than has heretofore been known."

Unaware of the bill of sale's return to Baltimore two decades earlier, Dr. Miller continued: "This would seem to conclude the matter, leaving the question forever in doubt."

Although a recent Poe biography by Kenneth Silverman recounts the sale of the slave by Poe, most Poe scholars seem unaware of the presence of the document in the Poe collection at the Pratt.

Poe, who died 144 years ago next Wednesday, was but one small actor on stage during a despicable period in American history when human beings were bought and sold.

Hod carriers, butchers, laborers, merchants, doctors, ministers and lawyers held slaves. Slaveholding, at least in Baltimore, had no color or economic boundaries. Poe himself commented on the matter:

"Nothing is wanting but manly discussion to convince our own people at least, that in continuing to command the services of their slaves, they violate no law, divine or human, and that in the faithful discharge of their reciprocal obligations lies their true duty."

Ralph Clayton works for the Pratt Library and is author of "Slavery, Slaveholding and the Free Black Population of Antebellum Baltimore," recently published by Heritage Books in Bowie.

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