Two locks of hair, one blond, one brown, allegedly from the head of Emily Dickinson are being offered for sale on Ebay for $450,000.
Were they stolen decades ago from The Evergreens by the poet James Merrill? See LithHub.
[A] bit of questionably obtained Dickinson memorabilia has been quietly traded among a group of literary men for years: locks alleged to be the poet’s hair (some of which are now for sale on eBay for the astronomical sum of $450,000).
How the poet—who chose to cloister her living body from all but a few visitors—would feel about pieces of it making the rounds is anybody’s guess. The dead cannot give consent. But the alleged Dickinson hair may have arrived on the market by a type of violation: theft. That’s the theory of Mark Gallagher, the English faculty member at UCLA who’s trying to sell the hair on eBay.
The story goes like this: While an undergraduate at Amherst College in the 1940s, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Merrill broke into the home (aka The Evergreens) of Dickinson’s niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi. Merrill and two friends absconded with personal effects, including a small mirror, “tiny wine glass,” and a manuscript sheet—written by whom, it is unclear. The caper was recounted by Stephen Yenser in a 1995 issue of Poetry magazine dedicated to Merrill, who had died earlier that year. Yenser, Merrill’s literary executor and the now-retired founder of UCLA’s creative writing program, said he heard the tale from Merrill himself. In Poetry, he euphemized what was essentially burglary with terms like “borrowed” and “rescued,” writing that the trio “gained clandestine entry.”
The anecdote has been whispered among Dickinson scholars for years, according to University of Maryland English Prof. Martha Nell Smith, one of the nation’s foremost experts on Dickinson.
“I’ve long been convinced James Merrill did wander off with (steal?) some Dickinson items from the Evergreens, Martha Dickinson Bianchi’s home,” Smith wrote in an email.
Gallagher believes that Merrill must have also taken the hair during the alleged break-in at The Evergreens. Gallagher got his hands on the hair by way of the poet J.D. McClatchy, who, until his death in 2018, shared Merrill’s literary executorship with Yenser. McClatchy’s estate sale, where Gallagher purchased the hair, listed Merrill as the original owner.
Yenser, for his part, denies any nefarious origin for the locks. He says the hair came from an envelope found inside an 1890 edition of Poems by Emily Dickinson that belonged to Merrill, likely purchased from a rare book dealer.
Yet the envelope was labeled in cursive “For Mrs. Dickinson,” and the book in which it was found includes notes from Susan Gilbert Dickinson, according to Yale University, which now holds the volume and provided photos of the artifacts (below). Susan was Martha’s mother, and she and her husband Austin, Emily’s brother, lived at The Evergreens until their respective deaths in 1895 and 1913. Their daughter Martha then moved into the property and “preserved it without change, until her own death in 1943,” according to the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, which controls The Evergreens. As far as Gallagher is concerned it’s quite possible Merrill took the book when he broke into the property.