The Baltimore Literary Heritage Project

Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe pic
Edgar Allan Poe, article title
I might refer at once, if necessary, to a hundred well authenticated instances [of premature burial]. One of very remarkable character, and of which the circumstances may be fresh in the memory of some of my readers, occurred, not very long ago, in the neighboring city of Baltimore, where it occasioned a painful, intense, and widely extended excitement.

–from "The Premature Burial"

Though Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston and spent time in Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York, the fact that he lived for a time and died in Baltimore has made Baltimoreans just a bit possessive of his memory. In fact, locals and tourists regularly leave pennies on his grave (a tradition that began when Baltimore school children collected pennies to buy him a decent monument), and someone leaves a rose and a bottle of cognac every year on his birthday.

Here was a man who wrote lyric poetry and essays, pointed and often humorous critiques of other writers, and works of the fantastic and supernatural. With "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," he created the detective story and the model for the detective who solves cases with rationality and logic; he no doubt inspired Arthur Conan Doyle's stories of Sherlock Holmes, not to mention television's Monk, as well as William Levinson and Richard Link's Columbo. He developed rules for the writing of short stories and created the first true science fiction story. And, of course, he wrote horror stories, delicious in their scariness. The annual Halloween party sponsored by the University of Maryland Law School usually takes place near Poe's grave and features at least one late-night storyteller reciting "The Tell-Tale Heart," which-over 150 years after its publication-is still scary!

Born January 9, 1809, Poe lived with the family of John Allan (possibly a godparent) after his father deserted the family and his mother died. He received a classical education in Scotland and England, as well as Richmond, Virginia. He seemed likely to become an educated and successful gentleman. However, his first year at the University of Virginia proved to be his last. When he lost a lot of money at gambling, John Allan refused to pay for any further college education. Poe then experienced one failure after another. His love, Sarah Elmira Royster, became engaged to someone else. He moved to Boston, and published a volume of poetry but neither it nor he received much attention. Broke, he joined the army. That must not have worked out, either, because John Allan paid to have him discharged. Obviously relenting on his promise not to help him, Allan arranged to have Poe admitted to West Point. Luckily for American literature, Poe deliberately sabotaged his tenure there, failing to show up for classes, which led to his dismissal.

From there, though, he found his true path, working as an editor, reviewer, and critic for a number of publications, all the while writing his poetry and slowly receiving notice. In Baltimore, he started writing short stories, some of the most frightening and macabre stories ever published.

Poe appears to have found professional and personal success in Baltimore, where he lived from 1832 to 1835. He also tapped a rich vein of creepiness here. Charm City wasn't charming in Poe's age. According to historian Frank Shivers, Poe may have been inspired to write "Berenice" by news about people robbing graves to steal teeth to sell to dentists, and he may have been thinking of the outbreak of cholera here when he wrote "The Masque of the Red Death."

The year 1833 proved important for Poe. He won a $50 prize for his story "MS Found in a Bottle," and he met John Pendleton Kennedy, a novelist and lawyer who became his friend and benefactor. Two years later, he married his 13-year old cousin, Virginia Clemm (although he reportedly said years later that he never consummated the marriage).

Popular reception of his short stories certainly nurtured him, and in these years, he wrote extensively, everything from verse-including his most famous poem, "The Raven" (1845)-to short stories, essays, reviews, and critiques. However, he struggled to make a living, and at various times, his mother-in-law, Maria Clemm supported the household. He also lectured, and some scholars believe that his stage fright might have contributed to his alcohol dependence. Although even the smallest taste of alcohol could set him on a drinking binge, he often drank a glass of sherry to calm his nerves before speaking or reading in public.

His wife Virginia developed tuberculosis, became increasingly ill during these years, and died in 1847 at age 25. His poem "Annabel Lee" depicts his love for her and his grief over his loss. Poe remained close to his mother-in-law, Maria Clemm, for the remainder of his life.

He renewed his friendship with Sarah Elmira Royster, his youthful love, and most accounts maintain that they were to be married. Marriage to her would have given him financial security and more time to devote to his own writing.

In October, 1849, he was traveling from Richmond to Philadelphia on business and for some reason stopped in Baltimore. While here, he disappeared for several days and turned up injured and in ill health. Friends took him to Church Home and Hospital, where, on October 8, 1849, he whispered "Lord, help my poor soul," and then died. Although it was long assumed that he died of a drug overdose or alcohol poisoning, theories have ranged from a brain dysfunction, such as epilepsy, to rabies. Producing theories about how and why he died has become a popular pastime.

Poe Scholar Killis Campbell referred to Edgar Allan Poe as "the saddest and the strangest figure in American literary history." 150 years after his death, he's also one of the most widely read and beloved figures in American literary history, not just by Baltimoreans, but by people across the United States and around the world.

Places of interest: