Nasty Pieces of Work: Real-Life, Victorian-Era Villains


Rufus Wilmot Griswold

Charles Augustus Howell

Villains were easy to find in Victorian times. This is a quick glimpse at two of my personal favourites: Rufus Griswold and Charles Howell. Both men can claim to utter scoundrels, and both were two-faced to their purported friends.

Edgar Allan Poe – lucky to be so talented as to survive a smear campaign after his demise.

No one is quite sure what disease or defect killed Poe, but for a long while people were convinced he died of alcoholism. This is because Mr Griswold wrote Poe’s obituary – under the pename of ‘Ludwig’ – and then set about blackening Poe’s name. He also went on to fraudulently become Poe’s literary executor. He had a document where Poe’s aunt, Maria Clemm transferred her power of attorney to Griswold, dated October 20, 1849, but there were no witnesses signatures and Maria Clemm wasn’t even Poe’s closest relative – legally, his sister should have been left the rights to Poe’s works. Still, Griswold got what he wanted, full access to Poe’s papers.

Griswold went on to a biographical article about Poe called “Memoir of the Author”, in which he depicted Poe as a drunkard  and a drug-addled madman. Most of his claims and facts were distortions and downright lies. As Poe’s work became popular and their as increased academic recognition of his literary influence, further research into his life and legacy uncovered Griswold’s small-minded attempt to destroy Edgar Allan Poe’s reputation as a writer.

Engraving of Rufus Wilmot Griswold – a heart of darkness well disguised .

And why was Griswold so bent on removing Poe from the literary canon?

Griswold wanted American poets to be added to the American curriculum, which at that time was dominated by English poets. A noble ambition, you might think. He even went on to print a textbook with this aim in mind, The Poets and Poetry of America. Poe had the audacity to criticize the book, commenting that it ‘unduly favoured’ New England writers. Before that, the men had been on relatively friendly terms.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – even though he looks a bit grim, he isn’t the villain, but the victim.

Charles Augustus Howell was a liar, art forger, and blackmailer, that that is only the high points of his character. It really is hard to know where to start with this chap. These days, he is best known for persuading Dante Gabriel Rossetti to dig up the poems he buried with his wife, Elizabeth Siddal. He went on to have his lover, Rosa Corder, to forge drawings in Rossetti’s style. To top things off, his reputation as a blackmailer inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to use him as a basis for the antagonist in Sherlock Holmes story, “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton”. He really was two-faced, seemingly friends with the very people he was robbing and blackmailing.

Charles Augustus Howell – a bad hat.

He made up a new story of his childhood every decade or so, so his childhood is something of a mystery. Therefore, it is somewhat ironic that the circumstances of his death are somewhat muddled. In some reports, he died of tuberculosis. In others, he was found murdered outside a Chelsea public house, with his throat slip and a coin jammed between his teeth. The coin was thought to symbolise an accusation of ‘slander’.

These two are exactly the sort of men you expect to tie damsels to a train tracks.


Filed under Antagonist, Characterization, Historical Personage, History, Steampunk Genre, Victorian Era

6 responses to “Nasty Pieces of Work: Real-Life, Victorian-Era Villains

  1. I had no idea about the slander against Poe.

  2. Love all the historical revelations! Especially such cads and scoundrelsl!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s