Under the heading "Posthumous Poetry," Indiana's Kokomo Dispatch
published a poem titled "Leonainie" on August 3, 1877. It was an unremarkable poem except in one way. The editor of the Dispatch
, John Henderson, claimed it was a previously unpublished poem by Edgar Allan Poe. (Click here
to read the poem.)
Henderson explained to readers that he had come across the poem in the home of a local gentleman whose grandparents had once kept a country hotel near Richmond, Virginia. One night, according to this gentleman's grandparents, a dissipated young man had shown up at their inn asking for a room. He was given one, but the next morning had disappeared without paying his bill. All he left behind was a book on the fly-leaf of which he had written a poem, presumably as a form of payment for the room. The poem was signed "E.A.P."
The publication of this poem generated excitement among fans and scholars of Poe, and within a few weeks it had been reprinted in major papers throughout the United States. But in reality it was not a poem by Poe. Its true author was a struggling young Indiana poet, James Whitcomb Riley.
Riley had conceived of his hoax as a form of literary critique. Stung by rejections from national magazines, he became convinced that his poetry was being rejected not because of its quality, but because he was unknown. Therefore, he came up with the idea of composing a poem in the style of a popular deceased American poet, and then introducing it to the public as a newly discovered manuscript by that same writer. He was convinced that critics would rush to praise the poem, and then he would reveal its true authorship. He persuaded the editor of the Dispatch
to assist him in perpetrating this hoax, assuring him it would generate some excitement to "stir things from their comatose condition."
The hoax seemed to be going well until it hit an unanticipated snag. William Gill, Poe's biographer, requested that he be allowed to see the manuscript. Since there was no manuscript, the hoaxers had to quickly create one. They enlisted the help of a local artist who copied the poem onto the fly-leaf of an old edition of Ainsworth's Dictionary
, watering down the ink to simulate fading.
Soon after this the scheme began to unravel. The secret leaked out to the Kokomo Tribune
, the Dispatch
's rival, who on August 25 exposed the poem as a hoax.
Despite his high hopes, the hoax initially backfired on Riley. He was censured in the press for having deceived the public and fired from his job at a newspaper. He found that no other newspapers would hire him. But ultimately, the hoax aided him by making his name nationally known and bringing more attention to his work.
Riley's Leonainie hoax had a curious second act. Years later, in 1903, the biologist Alfred Russell Wallace came across the poem and became convinced it was the last poem Poe had written during his life. (Wallace believed that Poe also wrote two poems after his death, "through another brain.") When informed that it was well established that Riley was its true author, Wallace refused to accept this, insisting that the true hoax was that Riley had actually found the poem and merely claimed to be its author in order to enhance his reputation. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Wallace refused to abandon this belief.
Links and References
- Schwartz, Joel S. (July 1984). "Alfred Russell Wallace and 'Leonainie': A Hoax that would not Die." Victorian Periodicals Review, 17: 2-15.
- Van Allen, Elizabeth. (1999). James Whitcomb Riley. Indiana University Press. pgs. 100-110.
- Leonainie: The Art of Imitation. indiana.edu.