August 2, 2010

A great Poe hoax

A headline in the August 2, 1877 issue of The Dispatch announced the discovery of a "Hitherto Unpublished Poem of the Lamented Edgar Allan Poe." The poem had been discovered inside the fly-leaf of an old book, apparently written as a gift. "After a thorough investigation," the paper noted, it was confirmed as a "genuine production" of Poe's, one never before been seen by the public.

The poem, titled "Leonainie," was dropped off by "an uneducated, illiterate man" who seemingly knew nothing of the value of this discovery. The poem, it was reported, was written in such good handwriting that it resembled a typeface. The editor proudly noted the poem was printed "verbatim," as follows:

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.

The poem caused quite a stir, and word spread through major cities like New York, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Boston, Chicago, Louisville... The problem? The poem is not by Edgar Allan Poe (though he would likely have enjoyed the ruse).

The whole thing was a hoax perpetrated by James Whitcomb Riley, who used the elaborate scheme to prove that good poems by unknown poets were ignored, whereas mediocre poems by well-known writers were accepted without question. The editor of The Dispatch was Riley's only accomplice.


  1. Intriguing! Along with Poe "enjoying the ruse," as you have noted, I'm guessing that EAP the literary critic and poet would have appreciated Riley's calling attention to the disparity between "good poems by unknown poets" and "mediocre poems by well-known writers"--since Poe himself fell into the former group for at least part of his career. And, great poet that Poe was, he also could create a "mediocre poem" or two.

  2. The original correspondence surrounding the hoax as well as the "autograph" of the poem (written with watered-down ink, to make it look old) are part of the Riley papers at the Lilly Library, a wonderful resource for anyone who wants to know what happened to poetry once it went "regional." The scandal cost Riley his job. Even after Riley had outed himself as the perpetrator, some continued to believe that this was in fact a Poe poem. The most prominent holdout (for decades) was Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of evolutionary theory. Go figure.

  3. Thanks for these additional notes, Christoph! What a fascinating story (and, I have to admit, a very Poe-like poem).


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