Tales of Enchanter October: The Mysterious
Death of Edgar Allan Poe
It was just one hundred and sixty-six years ago yesterday, October 7, 1849, that perhaps one of the greatest minds of his time, and much beloved Gothic writer of the dark and bizarre, passed from this earth. He was just forty years old at the time, and his unsolved death has become, in the century and two-thirds since, one of the greatest mysteries of all time. Especially for the ardent legions of fans of the original man in black—Edgar Allan Poe.
Born Edgar Poe, January 19, 1809, in Boston, Massachusetts, the child of two actor parents, Poe became an artist in his own right, fully equivalent to a rock star of today. Best known for his tales of mystery and the macabre, Poe was also an accomplished poet, editor, and literary critic. Poe’s parents disappeared from his life early on. His father abandoned the family in 1810, and his mother passed away the following year, leaving young Edgar an orphan. He was adopted into the household of John and Frances Allan, of Richmond, Virginia. He would take their surname as his middle and make it famous.
Poe became the first well-known author of his time to earn his living one hundred percent from his writing. It didn’t pay well, and would cause him a life of financial difficulty and penury. Some things haven’t changed from then to now. Poe also tried a stint as a West Point cadet. It wouldn’t last for long. He was destined for greater things.
Poe and his work influenced literature not only in America, but the world as well. He is considered to be the father of the detective fiction genre, and would make a mark as well in the then emerging literary field of science fiction. Poe and his work have lived on through the years, and it continues to appear in literature, music, films, and television. For the most part, Poe is best remembered for his prose and poetry centering on the subjects of death, putrefaction, re-animation of the dead, and guilt and sorrow over death and dying and murder.
Edgar was a sober-type guy.
To this very day, the Mystery Writers of America present an annual award known as the Edgar Award for distinguished work in the mystery genre. To say his work became a hallmark is something of a gross understatement. To understand the lasting impact of the artist, one only has to ponder a list of short stories by Poe, and marvel at the number of them spun-off into movies and television.
The Angel of the Odd (1844)
The Balloon Hoax (1844)
The Black Cat (1845)
The Cask of Amontillado (1846)
A Descent into the Maelstrom (1845)
The facts in the Case of M. Valdemar (1845)
The Fall of the House of Usher (1839)
The Gold Bug (1843)
The Imp of the Perverse (1850)
The Island of the Fay (1850)
The Man of the Crowd (1845)
Manuscript Found in a Bottle (1833)
The Masque of the Red Death (1850)
Mesmeric Revelation (1849)
The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841)
Never Bet the Devil Your Head (1850)
The Oval Portrait (1850)
The Pit and the Pendulum (1850)
The Premature Burial (1850)
The Purloined Letter (1845)
Silence – A Fable (1838)
Some Words with a Mummy (1850)
The Spectacles (1850)
The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether (1856)
The Tell-Tale Heart (1850)
William Wilson (1842)
His more famous poems include:
The City in the Sea
The Conqueror Worm
A Dream within a Dream
The Haunted Palace
Edgar Allan Poe’s contributions were not small. And they would turn out to have a really long shelf-life as well. Few from his era are as remembered, and well-remembered as he. Beginning in 1949, one hundred years to the day of his death, an individual known only as “The Poe Toaster” made an annual pilgrimage to pay homage at the grave of the master. The tradition continued for more than sixty years, so it seems likely that it involved more than just one person.
Each January 19th, the Poe Toaster, in the small hours of the morning, would make a toast of cognac at Poe’s original grave-site, and leave behind three roses. It is said that members of The Edgar Allan Poe Society helped to protect this tradition for years. The Toasters last appearance was on January 19, 2009, the day of Poe’s bicentennial.
I guess he finally figured enough was enough.
The death of Edgar Allan Poe was shrouded in mystery, and has remained so until this very day. The facts—at least those that are verifiable and known—are these: (From Wikipedia, the free on-line encyclopedia)
“The death of Edgar Allan Poe on October 7, 1849, has remained mysterious: the circumstances leading up to it are uncertain and the cause of death is disputed. On October 3, Poe was found delirious on the streets of Baltimore, Maryland, “in great distress, and … in need of immediate assistance”, according to the man who found him, Joseph W. Walker. He was taken to the Washington College Hospital, where he died at 5 a.m. on Sunday, October 7. Poe was never coherent enough to explain how he came to be in this condition.
“Much of the extant information about the last few days of Poe’s life comes from his attending physician, Dr. John Joseph Moran, though his credibility is questionable. Poe was buried after a small funeral at the back of Westminster Hall and Burying Ground, but his remains were moved to a new grave with a larger monument in 1875. The newer monument also marks the burial place of Poe’s wife, Virginia, and his mother-in-law, Maria. Theories as to what caused Poe’s death include suicide, murder, cholera, rabies, syphilis, influenza, and that Poe was a victim of cooping. Evidence of the influence of alcohol is strongly disputed.
“After Poe’s death, Rufus Wilmot Griswold wrote his obituary under the pseudonym “Ludwig”. Griswold, who became the literary executor of Poe’s estate, was actually a rival of Poe and later published his first full biography, depicting him as a depraved, drunk, drug-addled madman. Much of the evidence for this image of Poe is believed to have been forged by Griswold, and though friends of Poe denounced it, this interpretation had lasting impact.
“Poe’s original headstone of white Italian marble, paid for by Poe’s cousin Neilson Poe, was destroyed before it reached the grave when a train derailed and plowed through the monument yard where it was being kept. Instead, it was marked with a sand-stone block that read “No. 80”. In 1873, Southern poet Paul Hamilton Hayne visited Poe’s grave and published a newspaper article describing its poor condition and suggesting a more appropriate monument. Sara Sigourney Rice, a teacher in Baltimore’s public schools, took advantage of renewed interest in Poe’s grave site and personally solicited for funds. She even had some of her elocution students give public performances to raise money. Many in Baltimore and throughout the United States contributed; the final $650 came from Philadelphia publisher and philanthropist George William Childs. The new monument was designed by architect George A. Frederick and built by Colonel Hugh Sisson, and included a medallion of Poe by artist Adalbert Volck. All three men were from Baltimore. The total cost of the monument, with the medallion, amounted to slightly more than $1,500. ($31,600 in 2014 dollars)
“Poe was reburied on October 1, 1875, at a new location close to the front of the church. A celebration was held at the dedication of the new tomb on November 17. His original burial spot was marked with a large stone donated by Orin C. Painter, though it was originally placed in the wrong spot. Attendees included Neilson Poe, who gave a speech and called his cousin “one of the best hearted men that ever lived”, as well as Nathan C. Brooks, John Snodgrass, and John Hill Hewitt. Though several leading poets were invited to the ceremony, Walt Whitman was the only one to attend. Alfred Tennyson contributed a poem which was read at the ceremony:
“Probably unknown to the reburial crew, the headstones on all the graves, previously facing to the east, had been turned to face the West Gate in 1864. The crew digging up Poe’s remains had difficulty finding the right body: they first exhumed a 19-year-old Maryland militiaman, Philip Mosher, Jr. When they correctly located Poe, they opened his coffin and one witness noted: “The skull was in excellent condition—the shape of the forehead, one of Poe’s striking features, was easily discerned.”A few years later, the remains of Poe’s wife, Virginia, were moved to this spot as well. In 1875, the cemetery in which she lay was destroyed, and she had no kin to claim her remains. William Gill, an early Poe biographer, gathered her bones and stored them in a box he hid under his bed. Virginia’s remains were finally buried with her husband’s on January 19, 1885, the 76th anniversary of her husband’s birth and nearly 10 years after his present monument was erected. George W. Spence, the man who served as sexton during Poe’s original burial as well as his exhumation and reburial, attended the rites that brought his body to rest with Virginia and Virginia’s mother, Maria Clemm.”
Edgar Allan Poe. A literary giant in life, and an enduring mystery in death. One hundred and sixty-six years later, the questions continue.
Thanks so much for reading today. I’ll be back in a few days with another installment of THE RECKONING. Until then, goodnight . . . and good nightmares.
In the spirit of enchanted October, I am posting a cute cartoon from way back in 1956, called BROOMSTICK BUNNY. A departure from the dumb joke of the day for a change. Enjoy!