May 12, 2010

Death of Fanny Osgood

Frances Sargent Osgood died of tuberculosis on May 12, 1850 at her home in New York. She suffered from the disease for years, possibly as far back as the mid-1840s when she had a friendship (or possibly a romantic relationship) with Edgar A. Poe.

By the end of her life, Fanny (as she was called) had lost her ability to speak. Her last word, "angel", was written with the intention of being mailed to her husband, the painter Samuel Stillman Osgood (who painted her portrait, right). She was buried in her parents' lot at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A year later, a collection of her writings was published by her friends in order to raise money for Osgood's memorial headstone. It was reissued as Laurel Leaves in 1854 with a biographical introduction by the anthologist Rufus Wilmot Griswold, who had served as a booster during her early career (Griswold may have had romantic feelings for her). Samuel Osgood took a long time installing her monument, but it was one which he designed himself. The current family marker was inspired by her poem "The Hand That Swept the Sounding Lyre":

The hand that swept the sounding lyre
  With more than mortal skill,
The lightning eye, the heart of fire,
  The fervent lip are still!
No more, in rapture or in woe,
  With melody to thrill,
     Ah, nevermore!

But angel hands shall bring him balm
  For every grief he knew,
And Heaven’s soft harps his soul shall calm
  With music sweet and true,
And teach to him the holy charm
  Of Israfel anew,

Love’s silver lyre he played so well
  Lies shattered on his tomb,
But still in air its music-spell
  Floats on through light and gloom;
And in the hearts where soft they fell,
  His words of beauty bloom

The metal lyre that topped the family monument at Mount Auburn had five strings representing the family. Four were cut by 1851: Osgood's two surviving daughters died the year after their mother, joining another daughter who died in infancy. Samuel Osgood, the last string on the lyre, died in 1885; his was the last wire cut.


  1. Just a small correction. I am sorry to say that the last wire on the Lyre of Fanny's monument was not cut in 1885, when Sam died.
    A Boston correspondent of the New York Evening Post visited Mt. Auburn in late 1874 and recollected an earlier visit "years before" to the Osgood grave. This is what he saw: "... an open lot, marked by a white marble monument, having at the top a lyre with five broken strings crowned by a laurel wreath." While standing there he also saw the "four green mounds" a clear sign that "mother and [three] children had all passed "through the eternal gates"." Source: Skeneateles Democrat, Jan 7, 1875. It seems the fifth wire cut has become part of a romantic legend.

    A Historian, The Netherlands.

  2. Interesting. I won't question the validity of an unidentified Boston correspondent and his memory from "years before." But the story of the cut wires certainly has a life, as I've seen it mentioned in multiple places. My source was a book on Mount Auburn Cemetery by Blanche Linden (if I can find the book again, I might check her endnotes). I can assure you this much: The five wires are certainly cut, and it's not merely a lyre designed without wires. In other words, at some point, all the wires were cut. It would be interesting to see if the cemetery has any record of when it happened.

  3. Rob,

    This is a very interesting post and the last portion pulled at my heartstrings (no pun intended?). There is one thing of concern, however, and that is in regards to the last word being written and intended to be "mailed" to Osgood. According to this source, as well as another source where I have read this before, Samuel was present at her deathbed and she wrote on a slate that word, or so.

    Of course, this is minor and does not take away from the sincerity of your writing.

    Truly yours,
    A Poe Enthusiast

  4. There has been continuous contention about where Mr. Osgood was and when in relationship to his wife. The slate still exists, with the final word barely visible, and its accompanying envelope. The existence of the envelope seems to lend credence to the idea that they were not together at the time.