Edgar Allan Poe–The Man–The Writer

I live near the city of Baltimore and the people of Baltimore love their sports teams. Mention the word raven and a cheer goes up for the Super Bowl champs. Go Ravens!

And if you weren’t aware unlike other NFL teams the Baltimore Ravens have three team
mascots all dressed as ravens. Their names are Edgar, Allan and of course Poe. The team name comes from the poem The Raven and honors one of Baltimore’s legends–Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809 and spent much of his life in the city of Richmond which he called home. However his father was born in Baltimore and his
grandparents and much of the Poe clan were residents of the city. His wife and her family were from Baltimore and Poe died and was buried in the city, so we consider him one of our own. Aside from his lasting influence on the city let’s look at Poe’s life and writings?

Poe’s parents were divorced and his mother died in 1811 when he was only two. Her three children were split between different families and Poe was adopted by Mr. and Mrs. John Allan. John Allan was well off and at the age of 6 Poe was sent to England for schooling for five years. At 17 Poe attended the University of Virginia, but his father gave him only a portion of the amount of money he needed for college expenses. He began to drink heavily, fell into debt and had to leave school.

With no money and no education Poe joined the army and during his military time he
did well and attained the rank of sergeant major. He was accepted at West Point, but once again with no money for expenses he didn’t stay long. Poe continued to ask his father for financial support, but received nothing and when John Allan died Poe was not mentioned in the will.

In 1831 Poe was in New York City where he had some luck with publishing his poetry, but his stories continued to be rejected. Finally in 1835 Poe got a job as an editor based on winning a contest with his story The Manuscript Found in a Bottle. With his new found job he married his cousin Virginia and brought her and his mother in law, Mrs. Clemm, to live with him in Virginia.

Poe did a good job with the Southern Literary Messenger, but in 1837 he left sighting money concerns and returned to New York. He then moved to Philadelphia and published his first volume of short stories in 1839 –Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. He received copies of the book, the copyright, but no money. In 1840, Poe worked as editor for Graham’s Magazine and during the two years he worked for this magazine he wrote The Murders in the Rue Morgue.

Throughout his life Poe was successful as an editor. In each of his editing jobs he
increased the circulation for the publications. Even his story The Gold Bug achieved a circulation of 300,000. However, even with his achievements as an editor and writer he was unable to make enough money to support his family. He continued to drink heavily.

The next major event in Poe’s life concerned his beloved wife, Virginia. Her health was failing and in 1847 she died. Her death had a profound effect on Poe and he collapsed as a result. He gradually recovered his health over the next year and in 1849 joined “The Sons of Temperance” to help curb his drinking.

In September Poe left Richmond for New York but stopped off with a friend in Philadelphia. After the visit instead of catching the train to New York, by mistake, he ended up on a train heading south to Baltimore.  On October 3rd, Poe was at Gunner’s Hall, a public house, and later was discovered wandering the streets delirious and wearing mis-matched clothes. He was taken to Washington College Hospital. Poe was in and out of consciousness and his cousin Neilson Poe was told the patient was too excitable for visitors. On October 5th his cousin was told Poe was improving and sent him a change of linens. But on October 7th Poe passed away.

Poe’s body was placed in the hospital’s rotunda for viewing by many of the city’s dignitaries. He was buried in his grandfather’s lot at Westminster Burying Ground in Baltimore.

How appropriate as part Poe’s legacy his actual cause of death remains a total mystery. Theories include that he was mugged since his clothes were replaced with worn garments that did not fit. Others believe since he was previously diagnosed with a weak heart he suffered a heart attack. Also early in 1849 Poe was in Philadelphia during a major cholera outbreak and became ill, so was his collapse a recurrence of this disease. Recently a test on a lock of Poe’s hair show high concentrations of both lead and mercury so did he die of exposure to these elements. Other theories include  diabetes, epilepsy and even rabies. Although alcoholism plagued Poe all of his adult life the doctors denied that he was drunk on the day he was brought to the hospital. In the end according to the attending physician, the official cause of death was listed as congestion of the brain which today would be Meningitis.

But wait there is yet another mystery surrounding Poe—starting in 1949 on the 100th
anniversary of Poe’s passing a mysterious figure known as the “Toaster” visits Poe’s grave on his birthday and leaves three roses and a partial bottle of cognac. While it is not known why cognac was selected as the liquor, it is thought that the three roses represent Poe, his wife Virginia and his mother-in-law Mrs. Clemm who are buried in the same grave site.

Poe died at the age of 40 and we can’t help but wonder what other great works Poe might have penned had he lived beyond this young age. In his short lifetime we have hundreds of poems and stories he wrote for our enjoyment.

Next blog we’ll take a look at the influence Poe had on the mystery genre.


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