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Notable Virginians: The Tragic Life of Edgar Allan Poe

Most people visiting the State Capitol building in Richmond, Virginia are drawn to the huge equestrian statue of George Washington, which sits above a circle of other famous Virginia Revolutionary war heroes including Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and John Marshall.

But just 100 feet away, fittingly in the dark shadow of some trees, is a statue of another famous Virginian who, in his own way, contributed to the world just as much as these famous generals and politicians. It is a particularly sad and lonely statue of a man sitting deep in thought. And what thoughts he had. Thoughts of insanity, deprivation, and horror…and perhaps most terrorizing of all, a plague that swept the planet.

It is a statue of one of the world’s most famous literary geniuses: Edgar Allan Poe.

Without Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle admitted, there never would have been a Sherlock Holmes. Stephen King and Alfred Hitchcock say their inspirations for the macabre came from their love of Poe’s stories. Poe is credited with creating many of the first mysteries, detective stories, science fiction, and tales of horror in literature.

Today, Poe is perhaps more known to the public for the outlandish biographical details of his life 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. And surprisingly, many of his 69 stories were comedies, which have been forgotten.

But it would be a poor Jeopardy contestant who would not recognize the famous photo of Edgar Allan Poe, which has graced everything from the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s” album cover to thousands of websites. 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 a literary genius that has turned Edgar Allan Poe into a national hero. He has been the subject of U.S. postage stamps, twice! There are Edgar Allan Poe tourism sites in New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, and Baltimore, where he is so revered the football team was named after his most famous poem: The Raven.

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But his life started in Richmond, and throughout his life Poe considered himself a Virginian. So it is fitting that the Poe Museum in Richmond has the world’s largest collection of Poe memorabilia, including first edition prints, samples of his writing, family items, the small bed he slept in as a child (and perhaps had his first nightmares), and the trunk and other items surrounding his mysterious death.

Here are some Virginia places to become acquainted with this giant of literature.

A Rough Start

Poe was born in Richmond on January 19, 1809 to a pair of popular actors, David and Eliza Poe. Within two years, his father ran off and his mother died. She is buried near Church Hill in Richmond in St. John’s Church cemetery, the same church where Patrick Henry famously said, “Give me liberty or give me death.”

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Photo Credit: Bill Crabtree Jr.

The orphan Edgar was taken in by the wealthy family of John and Frances Allan of Richmond and although Edgar adored Frances and she him, John Allan never really took to the boy and fought with him continually over money. He never adopted Edgar, meaning that Edgar would not inherit any money and had few prospects.

The Poe Museum is the best place to learn Poe’s full story. The museum was started in 1906 by Edgar Allan Poe collector and researcher James Howard Whitty and a group of literary enthusiasts who met in Poe’s hometown of Richmond to create the state’s first monument to a writer. Many of the buildings associated with Poe’s life had already been torn down, but the Old Stone House was still standing. Built in 1740, it was the oldest residential home in Richmond. Though Poe never lived there, he did grow up in the neighborhood, and in 1824, when Revolutionary War General Marquis de Lafayette visited Richmond, a 15-year-old Edgar Allan Poe was a member of the youth honor guard that escorted Lafayette to this house.

Student, Soldier, Husband, & Writer

Growing up with wealthy parents, Edgar had a fairly normal life in Richmond. He was an athlete, a swimmer, and a promising student. At 17, he became engaged to a wealthy local, Elmira Royster, and enrolled in the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. His room there has been preserved just as it would have looked in his day. He was a good student, but when John Allan wouldn’t pay the bills, Edgar took to gambling to raise funds, and finally, thousands of dollars in debt, he was reduced to breaking up furniture and burning it to keep warm.

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Photo Credit: Bram Reusen

Dropping out of school, he returned to Richmond to find that Elmira’s father had intercepted their letters, broken off the engagement, and Elmira was now engaged to someone else. At 18, he ran away and enlisted in the army under the name of Edgar A. Perry. He was at times a good soldier, rising in the ranks to Sergeant Major and even entering West Point. But it was not long before he accumulated enough demerits to be dismissed.

Despondent, he took to writing poems and stories, and in 1835, his work brought him to the attention of the Southern Literary Messenger, a small Richmond subscription magazine that was trying to project the South as a home to great literature.  Edgar was hired as editor and published his first tale of psychological terror, “Berenice,” a story about a man who becomes obsessed with his wife’s teeth. When she dies, he digs up the body, removes the teeth and keeps them like jewels in a box – only to discover that his wife was prematurely buried and that his servants had discovered her bloody body dug up and missing her teeth.

Tame by 21st century standards, of course, but it was a sensation in 1835. The magazine’s owner was horrified. After all, when the Richmond Art Museum opened shortly before this, outraged citizens had broken in at night and put clothes on the nude statues.  But Edgar claimed that this is what people wanted to read, and he was right. The magazine’s circulation increased seven times. Despite the success, Edgar was fired.

He had a strange affliction when it came to his physical and mental health. One drink would make him drunk and even incapacitate him for days. He was also a gambler and suffered from depression and melancholy. And then in Richmond he married his 13-year-old cousin. Even in an era where men married young women, this raised eyebrows.

The museum and most scholars present the case that when Edgar married his cousin Virginia in Richmond, he was searching for a homelife he had never enjoyed with the Allan’s. He called his wife “Sissy,” (sister) and no one will ever know their true relationship. Whatever it was, he took his new wife, his mother-in-law Maria, and two beloved cats and moved to Baltimore, Philadelphia, and then New York, and in the process became a literary legend.

Success & Poverty

It’s hard to understand today, but in an era before copyrights, Poe produced 69 stories and dozens of popular poems and was admired by other writers like Charles Dickens.  Though famous, he hardly made any money and lived in poverty all his life. Tortured by his alcoholism, bad luck, misfortune, and melancholy, he accumulated thousands of dollars in gambling debts, but received just $10 for one of his most famous short stories, “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Working 14 hours a day and writing with a quill pen before a small fireplace, he wrote the first modern detective story, “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” in about six years, for which he was paid $56. He also wrote some of the first science fiction stories and such classic tales of terror 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. 

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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 of a murderer’s confession the night before he is to be executed. It’s hard to imagine how thrilling Poe’s 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,” which had ghosts, but also had cute Tiny Tim and a happy ending. There were no happy endings in Poe’s dark stories of murder and madness and the tales were 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 payment other than a few copies of the book are heartbreaking.

His wife Virginia was always sickly, and their poverty did not help. A visitor to Poe’s last cottage in New York remarked that on a cold day, poor Virginia had only Poe’s wool coat from West Point and their cat to keep her warm. 

Virginia died at age 24, and Poe passed into a nervous breakdown and depression, offset at the same time by publishing his most famous work, “The Raven.”

Back to Richmond

It was in this erratic period that Poe became re-engaged to his first love, now the widowed Elmira Royster Shelton. He came back to Richmond, swore off alcohol and made several sensational appearances in theatres, reciting his poem “The Raven” and talking about poetry for hours without notes. However, he was also spotted walking along the James River in a drunken stupor.

He planned to move to Richmond, but first had some business to conduct in Philadelphia. On his last night in Richmond, he was staying at the Swan Tavern at 8th and Broad Street. He visited his fiancé in Church Hill, and at 4am boarded a steamship for Baltimore. No one knows what he did for the next five days, but on Oct. 3, 1849, he was found delirious in a tavern called Gunner’s Hall in Baltimore with unkempt hair and wearing soiled clothes that appeared to belong to someone else. Taken to hospital, he died four days later without gaining consciousness. He was just 40 years old.

His trunk and his possessions that he left behind in Richmond are now in the Poe Museum. Various theories, from murder and suicide to cholera and hypoglycemia have been advanced to explain his strange death and are all examined in the museum.

Into the Poe Museum

The splendid Old Stone House of the Poe Museum was built in 1740 and has quite a history. In 1781, one of the original inhabitants looked out the window and saw the traitor Benedict Arnold, now wearing a redcoat, lead British troops down the street to set fire to Richmond. The house survived the fire and has become the perfect place for a museum about Virginia’s most famous author.

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The original building contains artifacts from Poe’s life in Richmond, including his desk from the magazine the magazine, his childhood bed, and his sister’s piano. Behind the building, you enter the lovely Enchanted Garden, the name inspired by one of Poe’s poems. At the far end of the garden is the Poe Shrine, which was made from bricks and building materials of the torn down Southern Literary Messenger, where Poe wrote his first stories.

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The garden is simply wonderful and peaceful with a bust of Poe overlooking it all. Be sure to look out for two black cats that were born here and adopted by the staff. Named Edgar and Pluto (Pluto was the cat in the story “The Black Cat,”) they love to be petted and can be found in the garden and gift shop.

As the museum grew, the Elizabeth Arnold Poe Memorial Building was added, including a staircase from one of Poe’s boyhood homes. It contains exhibits on his work and celebrity as an author with rare first editions, photos, letters, and memorabilia.

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The third building examines his mysterious death. He left his clothes and trunk in Richmond when he boarded the steamship to Baltimore, and all his last items are part of the exhibit, as well as a look at more than two dozen theories on how he might have died.

You don’t have to have read any of Edgar Allan Poe recently to enjoy a visit.  The museum tells his story well and with the lovely garden, the cats, and the strange, brooding feeling of terror that hangs over the place, you’ll get into the spirit and probably end up buying some of Poe’s works in the gift shop.

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Photo Credit: Bill Crabtree Jr.

After the museum, it’s a short walk down Main Street along historic Shockoe Bottom to Church Hill, where Poe lived with John Allan and where his mother, a popular Richmond actress, is buried.  A few more blocks walk will bring you to Poe’s Pub. It’s a great Irish pub with a dart board, wonderful beers and pub food, and while there’s not a lot to do with Poe here other than some pictures and murals, it’s a great place to host a cheer to Richmond and Virginia’s most famous author – Edgar Allan Poe.


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