Johns Hopkins curators examine musical mystery linked to Edgar Allan Poe

In reality, the document – a sheet music titled “Mr. Po” and bearing the intriguing inscription: “Attributed to my wife, Mrs. Poe, by EA Poe: 1835. Richmond, Va.: publisher” – is almost certainly a forgery, although that a final decision has not yet been made, but it would be such a bold and unmotivated counterfeit that it amounts to a mystery in its own right.

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

“If you’re trying to tamper with a Poe document, why would you tamper with something in musical notation instead of trying to get a ‘lost poem’ through? If it were legit, it would be the only known example of musical notation by Poe’s hand that I know of.

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

Meanwhile, Johns Hopkins curators are encouraging amateur sleuths to examine the score for themselves when it’s on display next month at the George Peabody Library in the ‘Grace Notes in American History: 200 Years of Songs’ exhibit. From the Lester Levy Sheet Music Collection”. .”

The exhibition, which runs from March 15 to July 31, will also feature around 100 songs from the library’s collection of 30,000 sheet music. Highlights include works by songwriter Ira Gershwin and aviator Amelia Earhart.

The exhibit also includes a copy of the recording of “God Bless the Child” by the late Maryland jazz great Ethel Ennis.

“We’re very excited to have ‘Mr. Po’ on display and bring the public into this puzzle,” said Bessen, Curator of Sheet Music and Popular Culture for Libraries. “Everyone loves a mystery, and there’s a lot of love for Poe here in Baltimore.”

Although the author of ‘The Raven’ and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ lived most of his life elsewhere, Poe’s family was originally from Baltimore, he died in Baltimore and Charm City has long claimed bad luck. 19th century boy as one of his own.

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

“I saw that the score appeared to be signed by Poe,” Bessen said, “and things confused me. For example, it doesn’t appear to have been written by someone familiar with musical notation.

“In the first stave, a bass clef hangs from the bottom of a treble clef, which is a conflicting set of instructions for musicians.”

It wouldn’t be surprising if a blacksmith like Poe wasn’t familiar with musical notation, Bessen thought. He consulted a colleague.

“She almost jumped out of her chair,” he said. “Things 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” pronounced with a Southern accent sounds a lot like “po.”) The woman comes to regret her stupid pride.

“I was greatly guilty,” she sings, “of refusing a good man because of his name.”

The anonymous songwriter was probably unaware of the existence of the then 18-year-old Poe, who self-
published his first book the same year. But over the next decade, the lyrics developed eerie resonances with the poet’s courtship of his young cousin.

Poe was indeed “po” and spent most of his life on the brink of financial ruin. Additionally, some close to Clemm objected to the match. In 1835, another cousin offered to take the young girl and educate her to avoid her being married to a penniless poet twice her age.

Nevertheless, on May 16, 1836, the couple married – at least officially.

Some researchers suspect they secretly fled eight months earlier. These experts point to a marriage license that Poe obtained in Baltimore on September 22, 1835.

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

He investigated further and discovered that the sheet music had been purchased in 1939 by the Edgar Allan Poe Company of Baltimore from George H. Wright of Palo Alto, California, who claimed in a letter to have found the document in “a second hand “. shop.”

Wright accepted a price of $12.50 for the score of “Mr. Po,” a sum that would be worth around $250 in 2022.

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

The following year, May Garrettson Evans, the Baltimore Sun’s first female reporter, referenced the song in the book “Music and Edgar Allan Poe: A Biographical Study.”

“The text and signature bear a distinct resemblance to examples of Poe’s handwriting,” Evans wrote. “If authentic (and its authenticity remains to be examined further), the copy was probably made by Poe for the amusement of his wife.”

The paper itself is old. Jeffrey Savoye, secretary/treasurer of the Baltimore Poe Society, said the sheet was not made of wood pulp, indicating it predates the Civil War.

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

London-based paper historian and analyst Peter Bower concluded that the watermark – a pattern on paper intended to discourage counterfeiting – was made using an electrotype. This process was created only in 1838, which is three years after the so-called composition of the score.

“After very closely examining the watermark images you sent,” Bower wrote in his report, “I can say without hesitation that this cannot be true.”

Savoye detailed other issues:

The paper was a torn flyleaf from a book, something Poe did not.

“Poe had access to stacks and stacks of paper,” Savoye said. “He didn’t need to take a flyleaf from a book like this.”

In places, the ink on the score is blurry, indicating that fresh ink may have been applied to very dry old paper and bled as it was absorbed by the sheet.

“It’s not hard to find something that looks like old ink,” Savoye said.

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

Finally, the signature contains an obvious and unusual error. He uses the word “attributed” which means “attributed to” when the author surely meant to refer to the written document as “inscribed”.

“Poe certainly knew the difference between those words,” Savoye said, estimating there’s less than a 1% chance Poe copied the song and signed it himself.

“Those are big pipes,” he said. “Some of this stuff is common counterfeit stuff.”

Nonetheless, Savoye is pretty sure that Poe would greatly appreciate the forgery and the ensuing uproar. After all, the poet was not above pulling a prank himself, as a notorious 1844 balloon hoax demonstrated.

Poe appears to have written an article for the New York Sun newspaper about a voyage 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 withdraw the article.

“Poe loved pranks,” Savoye said. “I think he would get a big kick out of it.”