January 6, 2014

Guest post: Salt! Salt!: The Death of Edward Vernon Sparhawk

1837 wasn't a good year for Edward Vernon Sparhawk. He had likely contracted tuberculosis while caring for his wife, Julia, who lost a long, painful battle with the disease the previous summer. Writing as "Pertinax Placid" in the May 1835 issue of The Southern Literary Messenger — the first of three issues he edited before Edgar Allan Poe took over in August — Sparhawk addressed his young son and foretold an untimely end:

The dreaming pauses 'midst thy play, as if of sudden thought,
The speaking glances of thine eye, when with hope and gladness fraught—
These tell a tale of after times, when I no more shall guide
The wand'rings of thy youthful feet, or lead thee by my side—
When the fondness of a father's love thou never more canst know,
And I shall in an early grave sleep tranquilly and low.

Virginia Capitol, c. 1831
In June, a robber bludgeoned Sparhawk from behind as he walked home from work. The assailant broke both his jaws and left him unconscious, in exchange for a few coins and a pen knife. A frail man to begin with, by winter Sparhawk was no longer strong enough to continue his job as a reporter at the state Capitol in Richmond.

Still, the year had bright spots. In July, Sparhawk purchased and became editor of the Petersburg, Virginia, Intelligencer. Then, in August, his marriage to Eloise Warrell relieved any fear that when his disease took its final turn, there would be no one to take care of his children. By the start of 1838, he was well enough to go back to work. He arrived at the House of Delegates on the morning of January 6, where his colleagues noticed his mood was much improved.

Crossing the grounds of the Capitol after the House had adjourned, Sparhawk was stricken and called out for help. Passers by rushed to catch him as he crumpled to the ground. He cried for "Salt! Salt!", but any relief for the hemorrhage arrived too late. His body was carried to his mother-in-law's house, and he was buried the next day at Shockoe Hill.

An accomplished poet, prose writer, reporter, printer, editor, and a persistent instigator, Edward Vernon Sparhawk died a week shy of his 37th birthday. In a life marked with tragedies, he strived to be the person neither his father nor brother had the chance to become. Years earlier, coping with his brother's death at sea, he summarized the human journey:

So o'er the ocean of life as we're sailing,
    Wild waves our peace annoy;
Seeming, each blast of the tempest prevailing,
    Hope in our breast to destroy:
The calm of tranquility, softly returning,
    Quells the storms of the breast;
The rainbow of hope, in our bosom still burning,
    Points to eternal rest.

*Chris Hoffman is writing the first full biography of Edward Vernon Sparhawk. A member of the Boston Biographers Group, Chris lives with his wife, their cat, and their dog, and can be found on Twitter @xprhoff.


  1. Very interesting post - as I'm sure your Sparhawk biography will be. I wonder what you may make of Poe scholars James H. Whitty and Mary E. Phillips and their belief that Sparhawk met Poe while the later was seeking literary work in Boston in 1827, and that Sparhawk probably enabled the nearly down-and-out Poe to find a free meal or two from a relative, Oliver Sparhawk, a merchant who was living at 60 State St. at the time.

    1. Hi Dan,

      Though I’d love to believe Sparhawk lived in Boston for in 1927 (I work a literal stone’s throw from 60 State), I’m inclined to think he didn’t. First, Phillips’ assertion seems based on the idea that Sparhawk is an “unusual family name,” but a lot of Sparhawks had settled in Boston (there’s even a Sparhawk Street somewhere around here). Sparhawk’s mother reportedly moved to Boston later in life, and two of his sisters lived in the area, but I haven’t seen any evidence that Edward Vernon himself ever made his home in Boston.

      Secondly, between 1824 and the end of his life, Sparhawk reported, edited and published his way down from Montréal to Richmond via Vermont and New York, and in the Summer of 1827 he was reporting on the trials of Jesse Strang and Elsie Whipple (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_at_Cherry_Hill) for the _New York American_, making a detour to Boston seem unlikely.

      That said, putting together a picture of Sparhawk is a bit like reimagining a sweater from a few loose strands of yarn, so I won’t discount the idea entirely that Sparhawk and Poe met in Boston. I’m just not sure I believe it.

  2. Very good stuff, Chris! Another example of how much of a Gothic tragedy life 19th century life could be, with no collapsing houses or hissing black cats necessary. (But also of how much we owe it to folks like Sparhawk to remember and read them!)


  3. Another very interesting post regarding a tragic figure of the 19th Century. Thank you for sharing this little-known information. :-)