The Truth About Edgar Allan Poe's Wife

That whole "marrying your cousin" thing, frowned upon these days, wasn't always considered such a bad choice. There are plenty of examples on Mental Floss: Jesse James married his first cousin, Zerelda "Zee" Mimms (she was even named after his mother); Albert Einstein's second wife was his second cousin, Elsa; and at the ripe old age of 27, Edgar Allan Poe married his first cousin, Virginia Clemm, who was herself a stately 13 years of age that year of 1836.

Poe had some miles on him at that point. He was 3 years old when his mother died of tuberculosis. His father, an actor, had already abandoned the family, and Poe went to live with the Allans, eventually taking their name as his middle name. He served in the Army, rising to the rank of sergeant major, and attended the Military Academy at West Point, though he was dismissed after a year for being less than dutiful. He went on to mixed success as a writer, both as a journalist and in fiction. He found more success as a critic — Biography tells us he earned the nickname "The Tomahawk Man" for his scathing critiques.

The marriage of cousins in those days was not unusual; Virginia's age probably raised an eyebrow or two, but it still wasn't utterly scandalous. They seemed to have been genuinely devoted to one another — as Women in History relates, he called her "Sissy" and she called him "Eddy."

He was 27; she was 13

The same blog further explains that some think the marriage was never actually consummated. (As Morehead State Public Radio puts it, "Biographers disagree as to the nature of the couple's relationship.") Others say the couple began (happily) to share a marital bed once she turned 16.

Just as people of that time married at a young age, death often came at a young age. Virginia Poe was one example. In January 1842, Virginia was singing and playing the piano when she began to cough up blood. It was a very visible symptom of tuberculosis — the same incurable disease which had killed Edgar's mother. After five years of suffering, Virginia died, age 24.

There's no question but that Edgar was devastated by the death of his wife. As the American Literary Blog points out, Virginia's death did not drive Edgar to drink. On the contrary, he'd been drinking far too much earlier in their marriage. After Virginia's death he rose from his depression to seek help with his alcohol abuse. He joined a temperance society and basically sobered up.

Virginia Clemm Poe was just 24 years old when she died in 1847. Edgar's mother also died of tuberculosis at age 24. Edgar followed Virginia in 1849 — to this day, his death is clouded in mystery.