Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Riley and Poe: The Great Hoax

In the summer of 1877 John Oscar Henderson, editor of the Kokomo Dispatch newspaper, received a letter seeking a “curious favor” from him. The letter, written by an assistant editor at the Anderson Democrat stung at having his poetry rejected by eastern publishers, proposed that the two men combine forces to spring on an unsuspecting public a ruse designed to “stir things from the comatose condition.”

The young Anderson editor proposed that he would prepare a verse in the style of a popular, deceased American poet (Edgar Allan Poe was selected), and Henderson would print this new discovery in the columns of his newspaper. After having made his point that having a famous name attached to a work—and not its quality—assured its success, the young poet, with Henderson’s assistance, would announce his authorship to the public and “bu’st our literary balloon before a bewildered and enlightened world!!!”

Henderson, who just a month before had praised his correspondent as beyond a doubt the finest poet in the Hoosier State, eagerly agreed to carry out the plan, which he called “a capital one and . . . cunningly conceived.” He printed the poem, titled “Leonainie,” in the Dispatch’s Aug. 2, 1877 edition. At first the hoax seemed to be succeeding, with newspapers from New York to California announcing the discovery of a heretofore unknown Poe poem. Henderson wrote his accomplice that people in his community believed the poem was a “true bill” and that he had even been able to bamboozling his rivals at the Kokomo Tribune.

In spite of the scheme’s early success, however, newspapers caught on to the ruse and raised doubts as to the poem’s authenticity. On Aug. 25 the Tribune, eager to obtain revenge on its rival, exposed the hoax to the public. The Boston Evening Telegraph spoke for many when it wrote of the incident that if Poe had actually written the poem “it is a consolation to think that he is dead.”

Although the publicly apologized for the deception, the poem’s true author, James Whitcomb Riley, lost his job at the Democrat and endured scathing comments about his character in other newspapers in Indiana and around the country. “It was the most dismal period of my life,” Riley, a former sign, house, and ornamental painter, admitted years later. “My tinsel throne was crumbling. Friends stood aside—went round the other way.” 

Riley successfully recovered from this temporary setback to his promising career. He found work on another newspaper, the Indianapolis Journal. While on the Journal staff Riley won acclaim for his work, especially “When the Frost Is on the Punkin,” part of a series he signed Benj. F. Johnson, of Boone. The series was published in book form in 1883 as The Ole Swimmin’ Hole, and ’Eleven More Poems. Riley’s cast of characters—Old Aunt Mary, Little Orphant Annie, The Raggedy Man, Doc Sifers, and Uncle Sidney—along with his sentimental style, struck a chord with the reading public. Not bad for a man who disliked the “iron discipline of school life,” but enjoyed books, music, and writing poetry. For many years, his books were published by Indianapolis’s Bobbs-Merrill Company.

In addition to reaching the public through having his work published in newspapers and books, Riley worked hard to spread his fame, and help himself financially, through appearances on the lecture circuit with, among others, Edgar W. “Bill” Nye. The grind of life on the lecture circuit took its toll on the poet, who complained he was “clean, dead tired, and fagged out and sick of the whole Bohemian business.” From the summer of 1893 until his death in 1916, Riley found more congenial surroundings as the paying guest in Major Charles L. Holstein’s home, a two-story Italianate structure at 528 Lockerbie Street in Indianapolis.

Riley settled comfortably into the Holstein home. Katie Kindall, housekeeper during Riley’s residence, noted that the poet often wrote in bed as much as at a desk, always keeping paper and pencil close by in case an idea for a poem might come to mind. His advice to young writers, said Kindall, was to “use the rubber end of your pencil as much as the point. Write and rewrite.” The Holstein’s cook, Nannie Ewing, recalled that Riley often would come to the kitchen to thank her personally when he enjoyed a meal, especially when it included his favorites, pumpkin or sweet potato pie.

The Holstein home became a regular visiting place for Indiana schoolchildren and for famous figures such as perennial Socialist presidential candidate and labor organizer Eugene Debs, who enjoyed raising a glass of spirits with Riley whenever possible. The poet’s fame grew so great that his birthday was celebrated by students throughout the country. After his death, which came as he slept in his room in the Holstein residence on the evening of July 22, 1916, more than thirty-five thousand people filed past his casket as it lay in state under the dome at the Indiana State Capitol in Indianapolis.