Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849)
Edgar Allen Poe was born into a creative Boston family.
His mother and father were both actors, as well as his uncle, who also took to the stage.
Poe was named Edgar Poe and had a younger sister Rosalie Poe. Poe may have been named after a character from the Shakespearian play, “King Lear”, as his family was members of an acting troupe. In the play, Edgar is the son of the Earl of Gloucester. I find this a bit prophetic as Shakespeare’s Edgar hides his true identity from the King, by pretending to be Tom O’ Bedlam, a lunatic -- bedlam being a play on the word bedlam, meaning madness. The character of Edgar has the last speech in the play that implies that he seeks to be the King, as Poe is now considered the King of the Macabre.
Poe’s early life was a sad story in itself. In 1810, his father abandoned his family and in 1811, his mother died of pulmonary tuberculosis. He is taken in by the family of John Allen and moved to Richmond, Va. The family name of Allen was used as Poe’s middle name from then on, but John Allen never adopted Poe, even though John Allen had Poe baptized “Edgar Allen Poe” in 1812.
This seem to set the course of Poe’s life: a minor notable in his own time, but not quite acceptable to the upper crust circles of society.
The Allen family lived in England 1815-1820, where Poe attended school. In the later part of 1820, the Allen family moved back to Richmond. For a time he attended the University of Virginia, but left with money troubles under rumors of a possible problem with gambling depts. Poe departed the University of Virginia, and entered into different jobs, one as a reporter and used the pseudonym “Henri Le Rennet”. He was unable to support himself, even doing odd jobs on the side.
On May 27 of 1827, Poe lied about his identity and age, claiming to be 20, when he was actually 18 and enlisted in the army as the fictitious “Edgar A. Perry.” In less than five years he had attained the rank of sergeant major, and was recommended to attend West Point. He was forced to confess the ruse about who he really was and his age, and write a letter explaining the situation to John Allen. It is not known if there was ever response to this “Letter of Admission” or not, but Poe moved back to Baltimore to stay with Poe’s relatives before attending West Point, and never lived with the Allen family again.
During his time as “Perry,” Poe managed to have a collection of poems published (“Tamerlane and Other Pomes”) only signing the work as “By a Bostonian.” Only Calvin Thomas, the publisher, knew that Poe was the poet, until 1829 when the collection was republished under his real name. The work that is signed “By a Bostonian” are rare and only a very few copies are known to exist.
Poe disliked West Point, and he conceived a plan to get court-martialed. It worked and he was drummed out of the Army in 1831. A second collection of poems was published by Poe in New York in 1831. This included “Tamerlane” and was dedicated to the cadets at West Point. He had been popular with the cadets for writing humorous antidotes about their commandant. But the collection of poems met with little success. Poe was one of the first to attempt to write as a career. In 1838, he became the editor of the Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine. Several more positions followed; this may be the reason for him showing up in so many cities and towns. It almost rivals the “George Washington slept here” craze. Many of his many residences have been turned into Poe Museums. A few of these sites are still supported by the Raven Society.
It was not until the publication of “The Raven” in 1845 that Poe received notoriety as a poet, and is attributed with conceiving the “gothic-horror” style of writing. He is also attributed with starting the “fiction detective novel” genera influencing other writer like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Homes” first published in 1887, although Doyle only referred to Poe only once in his diaries. Regardless of any disclaimers, Poe wrote some of the first known short stories in this “Detective Genre”, such as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Gold-Bug.”
“The Gold-Bug” showcased Poe’s talent for cryptography and that influenced William Friedman who was instrumental in breaking the Japanese diplomatic Purple Code during World War II. The surrounding aura of mystery, macabre, horror and unfulfilled romance that leads to the slow downfalls into madness that happens to many of Poe’s characters reflects his own life in many ways, His death was no exception.
Poe died Oct. 7, 1849, at the age of 40 under mysterious circumstances. October the 7th was an election day in the district where Poe was discovered in a delirious state near a polling place, which leads to the theory that Poe was a victim of “cooping.” The victims of “cooping” were forced to vote numerous times, and were beaten, drugged and to forcibly change clothes to repeatedly cast prearranged ballots (stuffing the ballot box) while being kept prisoner in what was referred to as a “coop”.
The clothes that Poe was found wearing were not his own and did not fit him and he was beaten up and drugged or intoxicated. This was the classic state of victims of this “cooping” practice. The other explanations for Poe’s demise are equally troubling. Nothing of what actually happened or any records exist to put a definitive answer to the question as to what caused Poe’s death, with the exception of a short letter sent to his doctor.
The practice of “cooping” persisted up to the turn of the century and was practiced widely by Tammany Hall under William “Boss” Tweed and the rival gangs of New York City in the 1860s, and was outlawed during Teddy Roosevelt’s Presidency (1901-1909).
Much of what we know of Poe’s life comes from the writings of Rufus W. Griswold. Griswold wrote that Poe was addicted to alcohol, and drugs like laudanum. It was however true that Poe suffered from fits of depression, and had few real friends. But, Griswold has been accused of the character assassination of Poe when he wrote a biography of Poe making such claims. So Edgar Allen Poe remains as much a mystery as ever.
Poe was interred on Oct. 8, 1849 in an unmarked grave at Westminster Hall and Burying Ground only marked with a sandstone marker with the number 80 craved into it; a pauper’s grave. Later a Poe relative replaced the marker with an engraved headstone that has since disappeared. There was some trouble finding Poe’s remains in November 1875. It seems that the bodies in this part of the cemetery were buried facing west rather than the customary eastward manor. After unearthing some five sets of remains Poe was identified by his skull’s prominent forehead. Poe was moved to his present burial site on the grounds of the University Of Maryland, now the Maryland School of Law.
On Oct 10, 2009, Poe got a grand funeral befitting his status as America’s Gothic Master. The whole affair was a macabre play complete with actors playing long dead authors delivering speeches parsing the works of Baltimore’s now “favorite son” at the large marble monument that marks his grave, originally dedicated on Nov. 17, 1875. A life-size waxwork figure of Poe laid out in a reproduction of his casket was also in attendance -- a melancholic eulogizing chapter in an eccentric story that Poe could have written himself.