Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Edgar Allan Poe and James Whitcomb Riley

Today is a day of two anniversaries. On this date in 1849, Edgar Allan Poe died in Baltimore at age forty. The circumstances of his death remain mysterious. Also on this date in 1849, James Whitcomb Riley was born in Greenfield, Indiana. Two generations, six hundred miles, and the veil of death separated them. How could they ever have been connected? Both were poets. Of the two, only Edgar Allan Poe was published in Weird Tales. Riley could have been, as he wrote about ghosts, witches, and goblins. His verse even earned him a place in Dark of the Moon: Poems of Fantasy and the Macabre, edited by August Derleth and published by Arkham House in 1947. Poe was also in that volume, as were H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith, among many others. But that wasn't a connection so much as an association. The connection between Poe and Riley was far older than that. It had come about seventy years before, in fact, in July 1877, when Riley, then twenty-seven, conspired to perpetrate a hoax on the reading public by passing off his poem "Leonainie," as an undiscovered work by Edgar Allan Poe. On August 2, 1877, the Kokomo Dispatch, its editor in on the hoax, published the poem:

Leonainie--angels named her;
And they took the light
Of the laughing stars and framed her
In a smile of white:
And they made her hair of gloomy
Midnight, and her eyes of bloomy
Moonshine, and they brought her to me
In the solemn night.--

In a solemn night of summer,
When my heart of gloom
Blossomed up to meet the comer
Like a rose in bloom;
All the forebodings that distressed me
I forgot as joy caressed me--
(Lying joy that caught and pressed me
In the arms of doom!)

Only spake the little lisper
In the angel-tongue;
Yet I, listening, heard her whisper,--
"Songs are only sung
Here below that they may grieve you--
Tales are told you to deceive you--
So must Leonainie leave you
While her love is young."

Then God smiled and it was morning,
Matchless and supreme;
Heaven's glory seemed adorning
Earth with its esteem:
Every heart but mine seemed gifted
With the voice of prayer, and lifted
Where my Leonainie drifted
From me like a dream.

It didn't take long for the hoax to fall through. Newspapers all over the country were quick to recognize it and to comment on the poem and its then unknown author:

From the New York Evening Post (Aug. 7): ". . . a poetic sin has been laid at [Poe's] door . . . ."

From the Philadelphia Commonwealth (Aug. 8): "The gin mills of Maryland and the Old Dominion never turned out liquor bad enough to debase the genius of Poe to the level of these wretched verses."

From the Baltimore American (Aug. 9): "The unfortunate poet [Poe] was no doubt guilty of many indiscretions, but it is hard to suppose that in his most eccentric mood he could ever have penned such wretched doggerel as that which is now attempted to be fastened on him under the name of 'Leonainie'."

From the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Aug. 9): "The composition is wild enough to have been written under the influence of Egyptian or Terre Haute whiskey, and possesses, therefore, what an eminent journalist of this city defines as a local flavor."

And this tantalizing possibility:

From the Nashville Daily American (Aug. 10): "[Poe] will surely pay his respects to the scalp of the Indiana man who brought it out."

On August 25, the Kokomo Tribune, rival paper to the Dispatch, printed an exposé. James Whitcomb Riley was implicated as the author, and the editor of the Dispatch as his co-conspirator. Both suffered damage to their reputations. Riley lost his job. But he didn't stay down for long, and by the end of his life, all had been forgiven, as he was loved and cherished as the "Hoosier Poet" and the "Children's Poet." Even his poem was redeemed in the collection Armazindy, published on this date in 1894. In any case, Happy Birthday to the Hoosier Poet! And R.I.P. to E.A.P.

James Flora's illustration for "Nine Little Goblins" by James Whitcomb Riley, a poem reprinted in the book A Red Skelton in Your Closet (1965).

I would like to acknowledge the website James Whitcomb Riley, at this URL:

for information used to write this article.

Original text copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley


  1. That poem is like some handicapped offspring of Poe's "Ulalume" and "The Raven".

    1. Dear Marzaat,

      You're right, it is a lot like "Ulalume," a poem just right for October.

      Thanks for writing.


  2. I hope that those readers not familiar with Riley understand that his poetry is generally much better than this hoaxed "Poe" poem.

    1. Ross,

      Yes, he definitely wrote better verse. This was an early effort. It seems the main purpose of it was not art but the hoax itself. He was loved in his time. I am from Indiana and so know of him. I'm not sure how well known he is outside of Indiana today.

      Thanks for writing.


  3. Riley perpetrated this hoax on a bet, as he wagered with friends to prove that a so-so poem would gain positive recognition based not on the worth of the verse, but solely by the popularity of the author. This was early in Riley's career, and he was having a difficult time getting his poetry recognized regionally and nationally. Riley was surely motivated by frustration... at least, that is MY bet.

    1. Dear Charles,

      Thanks for filling out the story and for reading.