Edgar Allan Poe was a notable eccentric who had already been orphaned, abandoned by his foster parents, and kicked out of West Point by the time he published “The Raven” in 1845. He promptly became popular at New York’s literary salons, where the poet Fanny Osgood, frail, dark-haired, and a consummate flirt, was a rising star. Poe attracted her interest with a public compliment—during a lecture about the terrible state of American poetry, he called her out as a rare exception. Their subsequent meeting set off a flurry of somewhat sappy poems; many were published under pen names, but the writers’ identities were thinly veiled, and the city’s literary ladies gossiped that Poe and Osgood were carrying on a semi-public courtship.
The issue was that they both were married, Fanny to the painter Samuel Osgood, from whom she was estranged, and Poe to his first cousin Virginia, who had been 13 at the time of the wedding. Now 23, Virginia heard of the affair via a series of unsigned letters likely from the poet Elizabeth Ellet, who’d been competing for Poe’s attentions. During a visit with Virginia, Ellet managed to read a letter from Fanny to Poe filled with, she claimed, “fearful paragraphs.” Ellet took this incriminating information straight to Fanny, who was already worried about her reputation in light of a new development—she was pregnant. Fanny sent two friends to retrieve her letters from Poe, who gave them over, but not before suggesting Ellet look to her own compromising letters, and this loaded remark led to a threatened duel with Ellet’s brother.
The talk among the city’s literati reached a fever pitch, and Virginia, now housebound with tuberculosis, was notably affected. On Valentine’s Day, 1846, her health failing, she wrote Poe her only known poem, expressing her desire to escape the “tattling of many tongues.” Awkwardly, Poe had also written a poem, “A Valentine,” but for Fanny.
The affair was resolved in a manner appropriate to the time—within four years the three main parties were dead. Virginia died in 1847, fingering Ellet as her murderer on her deathbed. Shortly before he died, in 1849, Poe was still scarred enough by the experience to describe literary women as “a heartless, unnatural, venomous, dishonorable set, with no guiding principle but inordinate self-esteem.” (The one exception, he added, was Mrs. Osgood.)