By RICH GRANT
There’s a small brick basement in Philadelphia that is to mystery and horror fiction readers what the basement clubs of Liverpool are to fans of the Beatles.
Though obscure and a little off the tourist path, it was in this basement and the small house above it that everything we call mysteries, detective stories, science fiction and tales of horror were invented.
Thousands come every year to pay homage, because without the stories scratched out here in the 1840s with a quill pen, Arthur Conan Doyle admitted, there would never have been a Sherlock Holmes. Stephen King and Alfred Hitchcock say their inspirations for the macabre came from their love of these stories.
Today, this simple brick dwelling is so important, it is maintained by the National Park Service.
But it is very different than other national park historic sites. Because the stories that came from here involve drunken insanity, deprivation, horror, axe murders, dismemberment, murder, premature burial … and, perhaps most terrorizing of all, a plague that swept the planet and killed all it encountered.
Of course, it is the house of Edgar Allan Poe.
Today, Edgar Allan Poe is more familiar to the public for being Edgar Alan Poe than he is for his actual writing. People may know his titles, “The Raven,” “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat,” but likely, they have not actually read any of his stories or poems since high school, if even then.
At a time where coronavirus fear is consuming the planet, conventions cancelling, museums shutting down – all with a fear of this unknown virus, it is well to remember that it was Edgar Allan Poe who envisioned just such a scenario in 1842 in his story, “The Mask of the Red Death.” And it was this story, in all its horror, that still haunts much of the 21st media century coverage of the coronavirus.
Poe in Philadelphia
Edgar Allan Poe lived in his Philadelphia house during his most productive years, from 1838 to 1844. At this time, Poe achieved fame from literary critics, including Charles Dickens. But his family lived in near poverty, surrounded by his alcoholism, bad luck, misfortune and melancholy. While he accumulated thousands of dollars in gambling debts, he received just $10 for one of his most famous short stories, “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
Despite his financial failure, there’s hardly anyone today who would not recognize a photo of Edgar Allan Poe. His little mustache, gigantic head and sorrowful eyes seem to symbolize the terror of wrestling with internal demons and insanity, while at the same time producing literary genius. His iconic photo, life story and accolades from admirers have turned Edgar Allan Poe into a national hero with Edgar Allan Poe tourism sites in; New York; Philadelphia; Richmond, Virginia; Charleston, South Carolina, and, of course, Baltimore, where he is so revered the local football team was named after his most famous poem: “The Raven.”
Following Poe’s life at these sites is a story of horror and dread, love and despair, terror and genius. So let’s begin in Richmond, Virginia.
Student, Soldier and Lover
Poe got off to a rough start. He was born on Jan. 19, 1809, in Boston, Massachusetts, to a pair of popular actors, David and Eliza Poe, but within two years, his father ran off and his mother died. The orphan was taken in by John and Frances Allan of Richmond, Virginia. Allan never adopted Edgar and always fought with him over money, but Edgar considered Richmond his home and the city now boasts the Poe Museum, started in his honor in 1906 by Poe collector and scholar, James Howard Whitty. It’s as good a place as any to be introduced to the sheer fanaticism that Poe inspires from his aficionados. Probably no one in history who lived a life as poor and tormented as Poe did, has had that life so well documented.
The Richmond museum has the world’s largest collection of Poe memorabilia, including first editions, samples of his writing, family items and a model of Richmond as it would have appeared when he was a boy.
Not too far away in Charlottesville, Virginia, the room Poe briefly stayed in as a student at the University of Virginia is preserved just as it would have looked right up until the day he dropped out of college.
Fort Moultrie in Charleston, South Carolina, makes quite a big deal out of the fact that Poe ran away at 18, enlisted in the army under a false name (Edgar A. Perry), and served here.
Across the street is the absolutely stellar Poe’s Tavern, a wonderful pub filled with even more Poe memorabilia, photos and paintings.
Incredibly, Poe was a good soldier. At least for a while. He was even accepted at West Point and the military academy honors him with a stone arch, despite the fact that Poe eventually tired of the school’s discipline and deliberately earned enough demerits to be court martialed and drummed out.
Through all these sites comes a portrait of a disturbed young man. And it was about to get worse. In 1836, he married his cousin, Virginia. She was 13. He had known, lived with and loved her since she was eight. So it was with Virginia, her mother, Maria Clemm and a beloved tortoiseshell tabby cat named Catarina that Poe finally settled into a strange household life in Philadelphia, and very soon changed literature.
The Black Cat
If you visit only one Poe site, it should be Philadelphia’s Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site. The brick house you see from the street was actually the house next door; Poe lived in the house behind it. But there’s no mistaking the large black raven statue in the yard, which casts an eerie shadow of spread black wings on the building every day in the afternoon sun. Inside, on self-guiding or ranger-led tours, you tread the same floorboards as Poe and enter the depressed little rooms where he lived and worked.
Multimedia exhibits, timelines, photos and paintings try to create the atmosphere and desperation in which Poe wrote. Sadly, his wife Virginia developed tuberculosis and was deathly ill for much of their time together. Poe at times sank into alcoholism, possible drug use and depression. Which makes it hard to believe his productivity. Working 14 hours a day, in six years he wrote the first modern detective story, “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” for which he was paid $56, some of the first science-fiction stories, and such classic tales of horror as the “Pit and the Pendulum” (paid $38), the “Tell-Tale Heart” (paid $10), and “The Black Cat,” for which the Saturday Evening Post paid him just $20.
Today, his story “The Mask of the Red Death” rings especially terrorizing. He envisioned a rich king in a land beset by plague. The king takes 1,000 followers and locks them in a castle, with special bolts and doors to keep away the disease. In the castle, they continue to party and ignore what is going on outside, until the last event – a masquerade party – where at midnight the revelers reveal their faces, and one has the blood red spots of the disease.
For anyone who has not read Poe recently, “The Black Cat” is a good place to start and you can read it here. It is a haunting, horrible and unforgettable tale. The narrator is a man condemned to be hanged in the morning. He confesses that at one time, he was a loving husband with a black cat named Pluto who adored and followed him everywhere. But then he sank into alcoholism. One night, after coming home drunk in a rage, the cat bites him. In a fury, he seizes a penknife and cuts the cat’s eye out. And then the story becomes dark.
The tale, which Poe said was inspired by his Philadelphia house, ends in its basement with “a cry, at first muffled and broken, like the sobbing of a child, and then quickly swelling into one long, loud and continuous scream, utterly anomalous and inhuman – a howl – a wailing shriek, half of horror and half of triumph, such as might have arisen only out of hell, conjointly from the throats of the damned in their agony and of the demons that exult in the damnation.” Don’t miss the opportunity to go down in the basement and see what, and where, it happened.
It’s hard to imagine how thrilling his stories were to a public who had never read anything like them. “The Black Cat” came out the same year as Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Poe’s dark stories of murder and madness were to be reprinted over and over, but in a day before copyrights, Poe was often not paid a penny beyond the initial sale. Modern writers who are asked to write for “exposure” instead of cash will understand his frustration when in the 1840s he was given the exact same option. Some of his letters asking publishers for some payment other than a few copies of the book, are on display in the house, and heartbreaking.
Despair and a Cottage in New York
As Virginia’s illness became worse and Poe’s instability increased, he decided they should move to the country north of New York for clean air. He rented a cottage for $100 a year in the village of Fordham in what was then Westchester.
Poe’s Cottage is still there, and is now a museum. However, it is no longer in the “country,” but instead in the middle of the Bronx, across the street from a subway station and surrounded by high-density housing. It is just as interesting to visit the cottage to see how much New York has changed, as it is to continue Poe’s story.
The cottage gives perhaps the best look at the poverty in which Poe lived. As you walk through the small rooms and up the creaking narrow stairs, the museum has three incredible Poe artifacts to ponder – the poor rope bed in which Virginia eventually died, the plain rocking chair in which Poe must have spent hours sitting and writing, and a gilt-frame mirror – probably their own luxury. A visitor to the cottage remarked that on a cold day, poor Virginia had only Poe’s wool coat from West Point and their cat to keep her warm.
It was here that Poe slipped into alcoholic despair and loneliness. Though “The Raven” was published while he lived here, giving him huge fame, Virginia died, and Poe became a tragic figure, known for taking long solitary walks in the woods around the neighborhood. Ask the cottage caretaker, Glen Martinez (an outstanding authority on Poe) and he can tell you places, even in modern Bronx, where you can find the solitary peace that Poe looked for on his walks. Though in wretched shape, Poe still produced works such as the poem “The Bells,” inspired by the bells of nearby Fordham College, and short stories like “The Cask of Amontillado,” one of his most famous, and the truly demented fable of a king’s jester that has become a classic of the macabre, “Hop-Frog.”
A Mysterious Death in Baltimore
Befitting the rest of his life, Poe’s death is a great mystery. He hoped to publish a literary magazine and went to Philadelphia to discuss it, and then went on to Richmond. What happened after, no one knows. He left Richmond on Sept. 27, 1849, bound for New York. On Oct. 3, he was found on the streets of Baltimore, delirious with unkempt hair and wearing soiled clothes that did not fit him and appeared to belong to someone else. Taken to hospital, he died four days later without gaining consciousness. He was just 40 years old.
Various theories, from murder and suicide to cholera and hypoglycemia have been advanced. As has alcoholism. Baltimore’s oldest operating saloon, The Horse You Came in On, goes so far as to claim they have a stool where Poe sat and had his last drink. It’s not possible, but it is a good story, and the bar’s location in Fell’s Point is certainly the highlight of any visit to Baltimore. The city makes great claims on Poe. The house he lived in with his aunt Maria and cousin and future wife, Virginia, is here and open as the Edgar Allan Poe House & Museum. Though unfurnished, the house is unchanged and now offers exhibits on the writer’s early life, when he first met and fell in love with Virginia.
A short distance away, in the pretty graveyard behind Westminster Church. The three household companions, Edgar, Virginia and Maria, are all buried together, at peace at last.
IF YOU GO
One of the best things about following the Edgar Allan Poe trail is that his life involves nearly the entire Eastern seaboard and he lived near wonderful things to see: The Poe museum in Richmond is in the city’s historic Shockoe Bottom district, near the St. John’s Church where Patrick Henry gave his famous “Give Me Liberty” speech. The University of Virginia was designed by Thomas Jefferson and is one of the nation’s most gorgeous campuses. Fort Moultrie in Charleston was the site of a large battle in the American Revolution. Poe would have absolutely loved the Poe Tavern, one of Charleston’s most popular pubs, that now sits across the street. Few spots in the world offer as much natural beauty as West Point, which is located at a strategic bend of the Hudson River. You have to contend yourself with looking at the same view Poe saw, because the Poe arch is off limits to visitors.
In Philadelphia, the Poe historic site is just two blocks from Yards Brewery, an absolutely perfect place to stop and sample 20 craft beers on tap, and a true Philadelphia specialty – a soft pretzel. History lovers will want to do a taster tray of their Revolutionary ales: three historic beers made from recipes originally owned by George Washington, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.
New York’s Poe Cottage is easy to reach on the D subway, and is only 15 minutes from D subway stops along the western edge of Central Park. From the cottage, it is just a short stroll to Fordham University, where Poe went on many walks. The bells from the campus bell tower allegedly inspired his poem, “The Bells.”
Fells Point in Baltimore, near where Poe was discovered unconscious, is one of America’s most fun neighborhoods, filled with historic buildings, taverns, all sorts of crab houses, breweries and cafes. The most picturesque way to arrive is by water taxi from Baltimore’s main harbor. The name of Baltimore’s football team, The Ravens, was selected by a popular vote of the people in 1996, with The Ravens receiving more than four times as many votes as the other choices.
Poe’s grave is as famous for the Poe Toaster as it is for Poe. For 50 years (from 1949, Poe’s 150th birthday, to 2009, his 200th), someone would appear on Poe’s birthday in a wide brim hat and white scarf, have a toast of cognac, leave the bottle and three roses on the grave and then disappear into the night. Despite many attempts to catch him (or her), no one knows who it was. Though numerous imposters and official attempts to revive the tradition have been tried since 2009, the real Poe Toaster appears to have ended, perhaps appropriately, about the same time that cell phone photos took off, and the world of fantasy ended.
Some things are best left to legends. Like the basement of the Black Cat. And Edgar Allan Poe. But Poe would also be the first one to tell you fear is an illusion. In this time of coronavirus madness and anti-travel attitudes, remember that Poe wrote about the same fears in 1842: Be safe, but be unafraid.
…Dec. 1, 2020