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The Tell-Tale Bible

In Virginia, a New Exhibition Unearths Another Poe Mystery
By Karen EdwardsKaren Edwards has been a freelance writer for Woman’s Day, Health, Eating Well, Entrepreneur, Antique Week, Early American Life, and Fine Books & Collections. She last wrote for us in November/December 2008.

Book Conservators Dee Evetts (left) and Susan McCabe working on the Poe Bible
Poe Bible prior to treatment

To commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe, the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, is holding an exhibit at the Library of Virginia, from the middle of this month through December 1, 2009. The exhibit will feature various family artifacts and several first editions of Poe’s books, including one of the 12 existing copies of Tamerlane. Also included will be the Poe Family Bible.

The Bible arrived at the Poe Museum in 1940, through a friend of the Poe family. It’s a small book, about eight inches by five inches, leather-bound, and printed during the mid-19th century. What makes the Bible remarkable, however, are the pages covered with handwritten, genealogical information about the Poe family. A pasted-in page, added later at the back of the book, includes genealogical entries dating back to 1742.

Poe Bible prior to treatment

Poe himself took great interest in his family tree, says Christopher Semtner, Poe Museum curator. The museum’s collection contains a letter in which the author responds to a man named Poe about his genealogy. “There can be no doubt, I think, that our family is originally German,” Edgar Allan Poe writes, “As far back, however, as we can trace our immediate progenitors, they are Irish.”

Besides the genealogy, the Bible also contains a sketch of the Poe burial plot at Westminster Hall in Baltimore, Maryland. “The diagram is the reason we’ve displayed the Bible in the past,” says Semtner. Because of the Bible’s poor shape, it has emerged from museum storage on only a few occasions. Once the museum decided it should be a part of the bicentennial exhibit, however, it was sent to Cat Tail Run, a bookbinding shop in Winchester, Virginia, for restoration.

Mystery always surrounded Poe’s death. Now the mystery deepens in a family Bible.

“We received the Bible last October,” says Cat Tail Run’s owner Jill Deiss. The calfskin-covered bible was restored—including repair of the pasted-in page. The handwritten, genealogy notes were also digitized and will be available on the museums Web site by the end of the year.

Considering the author’s reputation as the Father of Detective Fiction, maybe it’s not surprising that during the restoration work, a mystery began to unfold. Deiss discovered that at some point the book had been split between the Old and New Testaments. A closer look revealed something strange. When family information had been written on the right-hand pages, left-hand pages had acted as a sort of blotter; yet where the two sections had been separated, left-hand pages with blotting marks didn’t match the pages opposite. “We discovered several pages were missing from the Bible,” says Deiss, and chronologically, the missing pages would have been from about the time of Edgar’s death. Both Deiss and Semtner believe pages containing information about the author were removed, possibly for sale or as a keepsake. “There wouldn’t be any other reason for the pages to have been removed,” says Semtner. As if to confirm the theory, there is no information about Edgar Allan Poe anywhere in the Bible.

Mystery always surrounded the author’s death. Now the mystery deepens in a family Bible, where, as Deiss says, “Poe exists only as a ghost”—in tell-tale marks on a left-hand page.

For more information about the Poe bicentennial exhibit, visit www.poe200th.com or www.poemuseum.org

Karen Edwards has been a freelance writer for Woman’s Day, Health, Eating Well, Entrepreneur, Antique Week, Early American Life, and Fine Books & Collections. She last wrote for us in November/December 2008.

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