Poe, Elizabeth (c. 1787–1811)

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Poe, Elizabeth (c. 1787–1811)

American actress who was the mother of Edgar Allan Poe. Born in London, England, around 1787; died in Richmond, Virginia, on December 8, 1811; probably the daughter of Henry Arnold and Elizabeth Smith (both actors); married Charles D. Hopkins (an actor), in 1802 (died 1805); married David Poe (an actor), in 1806; children: William Poe (b. 1807); Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849, poet and short-story writer); Rosalie Poe (b. 1810?).

Most of what is known about Elizabeth Poe is gleaned from research on her more famous son Edgar, notably from Arthur Hobson Quinn's biography Edgar Allan Poe (1941). She is believed to have been born in London, the daughter of Henry Arnold and Elizabeth Smith , who were both actors at Covent Garden. Henry Arnold died around 1790, and Elizabeth Smith continued on at Covent Garden until late 1795, when she and her young daughter sailed for the United States. Accompanying them on the voyage was an actor by the name of Charles Tubbs, whom Elizabeth Smith married either before they left London or after they landed in Boston, Massachusetts. In Boston, the newlyweds joined a troupe of touring actors, and are believed to have died of yellow fever in 1798, during a stopover in Charleston, South Carolina. Following her mother's death, young Elizabeth joined a theatrical company in Philadelphia.

Elizabeth Poe had made her stage debut in Boston at the age of nine, appearing in the second act of The Mysteries of the Castle, on April 15, 1796, at the old Boston Theater. From that time, until her untimely death around age 24, she worked as an actress in theaters up and down the East Coast, performing in comedy, drama, and musicals, and enjoying minor popularity. During her early career, she played young boys, including the Duke of York in Richard III and Little Pickle in The Spoiled Child. She then graduated to ingenue roles, among them Phoebe in the opera Rosina, Sophia in Road to Ruin, and Biddy Bellair in the farce Miss in Her Teens. Her later roles included some Shakespearean classics.

In 1802, Elizabeth married Charles D. Hopkins, a successful comedian, and with him joined the Virginia Players. The marriage was cut short by Hopkins' death in 1805, after which Elizabeth wed David Poe, another actor. Although a handsome man, David apparently had a minor speech impediment that was frequently made much of in reviews, causing him great distress.

The couple toured together in Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York, then spent three years at the Federal Street Theater in Boston. It was here that Elizabeth reportedly spent the happiest days of her life, and where two of the couple's three children were born: William Henry Poe (b. 1807) and Edgar Allan Poe (b. January 1809). The couple's third child, Rosalie Poe , was possibly born in December 1810 in Richmond, although the date and place have not been substantiated. Elizabeth continued with her career, playing such roles as Cordelia in King Lear, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, and Ophelia in Hamlet, and sharing the stage with famous actor Thomas Abthorpe Cooper in Boston and New York. Around 1809, David Poe seems to have dropped from the picture, likely the result of continual battering by the critics. It is not known whether he deserted his wife and children, or was simply unemployed or ill; whatever the case, Elizabeth endured a period of severe financial hardship. In the fall of 1811, she joined a troupe in Richmond, Virginia, where she died the following December of pneumonia. Her orphaned children were brought up by three different families.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts