Strange, but True: The Story of Edgar Allan Poe

Not only are his works of literature the stuff of legends these days, but Edgar Allan Poe himself has become a legend in his own right. He may not be the drunkard and drug-addict that an enemy claimed he was in a largely false biography, but there is certainly enough mystery to make it most appropriate that he is best known for dark and macabre works of his own.

I don’t know when my own love for Poe began. Perhaps it was when one of my teachers told the story of Poe getting thrown out of West Point on purpose, by means of coming to roll-call wearing nothing at all but a belt – a story that I have not yet heard from anyone else and so regard it as an embellishment and fictional story much like Poe’s works themselves – but something led me to try and stage my own community play of his short story “The Cask of Amontillado” with my friends when we were only in grade school.  Since then, my ears perk up and my senses sharpen when something Poe-related is mentioned.

“The Raven,”named after Poe’s famous poem and starring John Cusack as a fictionalized Poe, the film tells a tale of the last days of Poe’s life where he pursues a serial killer whose murders mirror the various ones found in Poe’s stories.

What makes this even more intriguing is that the actual cause of Poe’s death remains a mystery. Recent theories posit that it was rabies that eventually led to his demise, but other theories abound including ideas of hired henchmen, suicide, a brain tumor and more.

While we may not know the cause of his death, there are other fascinating facts about Poe (and related to Poe) that we do know. So whether you are going to see The Raven this weekend or not, we’ve put together a list of some Poe tidbits that you can read and use to impress your literary friends, trivia buff or movie pals.

–          The second of three children born to traveling actors in Boston, Massachusetts on January 19, 1809. Within three years of his birth, both his parents had died.

–          Upon parents’ death, taken in by wealthy merchant John Allan and his wife Frances Valentine Allan in Richmond, Virginia. They never officially adopted him.

–          As a child, dreamed of being a writer and emulating the British poet Lord Byron.

–          Enlisted in the United States Army using the name “Edgar A. Perry” and claiming he was 22 years old when he was only 18. Later, he joined the United States Military Academy at West Point. While Allan helped get him into West Point, Poe became furious with him and threatened to get himself thrown out. After only eight months at West Point, he did. Allan and Poe never reconciled and Allan left Poe completely out of his will upon his death.

–          At this point, moved to Baltimore and moved in with his aunt, her daughter Virginia Clemm and possibly his brother. When Poe was 26 and Virginia was only 13, the two wed. While drastic in age difference, it is believed to have been a very loving marriage.

–          While Poe’s love for Virginia is well documented in his poems, Virginia herself expressed her love for her husband in a Valentine poem now in the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

–          Virginia tragically contracted tuberculosis in 1842 and died at the age of 24 in 1847. The disease was also the death of his mother, brother and foster mother. Poe only lived another 2 years.

–          At the southern magazine Messenger, earned himself a reputation as a tough critic. One of his victims was anthologist and editor Rufus Griswold. After Poe’s death, it is Griswold that wrote the false biography and created the image of a drunken, drug-addict as the real Poe. It is not an accurate portrayal, but the image – legend, if you will – only helped rocket Poe’s works to more fame and popularity.

–          Poe only ever signed his name “Edgar A. Poe” or “E. A. Poe.” The addition of “Allan” was a product of Griswold’s biography.

–          While “The Raven” was the poem that made him a household name, he was only paid $9 for its publication. For the publication of his first book of short stories, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, he was only paid with 25 free copies of his book. He would later fight for the cause of higher wages and an international copyright law.

–          The mysterious circumstances of his death: He left Richmond for Philadelphia, but stopped in Baltimore where he disappeared for 5 days. He was found on October 3 in the bar room of a public house that was being used as a polling place for an election in clothes that were not his own. Editor Joseph Snodgrass sent him to the hospital where he spent the last days of his life. He never regained enough consciousness or strength to explain what had happened to him. Poe died on October 7, 1849, at the age of 40 and the exact cause of death still remains a mystery.

–          Only adding to the mystery of his death, beginning in 1949, an unknown visitor called the “Poe Toaster” paid homage to his grave annually by leaving a bottle of cognac and three roses on Poe’s original grave marker in Baltimore in the early hours of the morning every January 19, Poe’s birthday. It is a tradition that carried on for over 60 years. The last appearance was January 19, 2009, the day of Poe’s bicentennial. No one knows the identity of the “Poe Toaster.”

–          The bar Poe was discovered in on October 3, called “The Horse You Came in on Saloon,” is located in Fell’s Point in Baltimore and still exists and operates today.

–          In his life, Poe lived in Boston, Richmond, Baltimore, Philadelphia and the Bronx. While no childhood home of his still exists, the Old Stone House in Richmond is used as the Edgar Allan Poe Museum though he never lived there.

–          The dorm room Poe is believed to have stayed in while at University of Virginia is preserved by the Raven Society and available for visits. The earliest surviving home in which he lived in is in Baltimore, the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum. That is believed to be the house he lived in when he first moved in with his aunt and Virginia.  It, too, is open to the public. Only the last house they rented in Philadelphia remains and is preserved by the National Park Service as the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site. His final home is preserved as the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage in the Bronx, New York.

–          While we know him today for his stories and poems of mystery and macabre, he made his living as America’s first great literary critic.

–          Widely acknowledged as the inventor of the modern detective story for his short story The Murders in the Rue Morgue published in 1841.

–          Had a keen interest in cryptography and had quite the talent for it. He invited people to submit their ciphers to the magazine he works at for him to solve.

–          Met Charles Dickens when he was in US on a lecture tour. Poe was an up-and-comer at the time who requested his help getting published in England.

–          The Baltimore Ravens are named after Poe’s famed story. The mascot for the team is a raven named Poe. There were originally three raven brothers, named “Edgar,” “Allan,” and “Poe,” but after the 2008 season ended, Edgar and Allan retired.

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