On July 8, 1822 the English Romantic poet Percy Shelley drowned in mysterious circumstances, while sailing back from Livorno, Italy on his schooner, the Don Juan.
The story commonly told is that a storm wrecked the Don Juan, but circumstances were murky and there are many conspiracy theories. One of them involves his heart: Shelley’s wife, Mary, the author of Frankenstein, reportedly kept it in a drawer in her writing desk for 30 years. But a rarely-examined 125 year-old article suggests that it was actually Shelley’s liver she may have kept. What’s the truth behind one of history’s sweetest sickest love stories?
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One of the more fun theories involves pirates. They mistook Shelley’s boat for one more valuable and attacked, seeking riches. Another explanation is that Shelley was murdered for political reasons. There is some evidence the state wanted him dead, at Plas Tan-Yr-Allt, a house he rented near the small coastal town of Porthmadog, in northwest Wales, he had reportedly been attacked in the night by a man who may have been an intelligence agent. Shelley also owed rent to his landlord, William Madocks—perhaps it was he who arranged a daring high-seas murder, say some. Edward John Trelawny, a novelist and adventurer who was good friends with Shelley relayed the supposed deathbed confession of an Italian fisherman who said that he rammed Shelley’s boat with the aim of robbing him, a plan that went astray when the Don Juan simply sunk too quickly. Shelley was a poor navigator, say others, perhaps his demise was his own fault. After all, his death may have been a self-fulfilling prophecy. Just before Shelley died he said he met his doppelganger, an event which portended doom.
The Don Juan was found about ten miles offshore, with a large gash in its side indicating it may have indeed been rammed by something very large. Oddly, the life raft was unused. And most of the victims were completely clothed, with even their boots still on. Edward Ellerker Williams, a British naval office and one of two other Englishmen on the boat with Shelley was actually found with his clothes half on and one boot missing. Shelley’s body washed ashore. According to Trelawney, “the face and hands, and parts of the body not protected by the dress, were fleshless.” In keeping with quarantine regulations Shelley was cremated on the beach. In pre-Victorian times it was English custom that women could not attend funerals for health reasons so Mary was not present. Although Louis Edouard Fournier’s famous painting, The Funeral of Shelley, which depicts his body being burnt on a funeral pyre on the beach, shows Mary kneeling on the left-hand side.
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Shelley’s ashes were interred at the Protestant Cemetery, in Rome. On his grave were written a few lines from Ariel’s Song, out of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”: “Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange.” But Shelley’s heart is not there. Apparently, while his body was blazing away on the beach, Trelawny reached into the fire and grabbed the still intact heart. He turned it over to Mary who wrapped it in a copy of a poem Shelley had written and stuck it in her drawer, where it remained for 30 years, until it was finally buried with the couple’s son, Sir Percy Florence Shelley. But an obscure 1885 New York Times article points out that Trelawny may actually have grabbed Shelley’s liver and not his heart. The piece cites an article in the London Athenoeum, which itself references the expert advice of someone from the Milan Crematory: “The heart, being hollow, is easily destroyed, while the liver, which is the most solid mass of the internal organs, resists most intense heat.” Furthermore, “Shelley’s liver was saturated with sea water, and was on that account more than normally incombustible,” the Times article points out.
It ends by suggesting that an expert anatomist, “be permitted to examine the supposed heart for the purpose of determining scientifically whether the cherished remains be really the poets heart or his liver, both of which were equally useful to him while he lived, and both of which should be regarded as equally valuable still.”
Have any clues on the truth behind Shelley’s heart? Leave a comment below…