“TRUE! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses –not destroyed –not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily –how calmly I can tell you the whole story.” – Edgar Allan Poe
The cardinal is the official bird of Virginia. The dogwood is the official flower. Milk is the official beverage. (Really?) The Foxhound is the official dog. The Virginia Big-Eared Bat is the official bat. The brook trout is the official fish, and “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia” the official song. Who, then, is the official author? Well, there isn’t one. And that’s a shame. Despite a nomination in 1992 , there does not seem to be an official historical poet for Virginia. I would like to make the case to renominate one Edgar Allan Poe! Not only for the Commonwealth, but for RVA in particular.
But, wait, you say! Isn’t Poe from Baltimore? Ask a Baltimoritorian (I know that’s not right, but it SHOULD be!) and they would most likely say yes. They would point out their stupid NFL team, they would point out their preserved Poe house, and probably most central to their case is the fact that he’s buried there. (We will learn why that is a bunch of nonsense.) Poe is also claimed by other such unworthy cities as Boston, Philadelphia, and even New York. Let’s break down Poe’s short life and get our statistics on…
The bottom line is, Poe was a wanderer. Even Boston, the city of his birth, was only a stop on a touring schedule by his actor parents David Poe Jr. and Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe. When his father ran away and his mother died, where did they send him? To Richmond, Virginia of course. Poe spent his formative years living with his adoptive (actually never really adoptive, and frankly not even that nice) family of John and Frances Allan, hence the Allan in Poe.
Poe swam the James, went to St. John’s Church, and met his first love Sarah Elmira Royster as he wandered the streets of Church Hill. He would only leave to go to the newly created school of Tom Jefferson’s in Charlottesville. From that point forward, Poe was a wanderer. He went where the money was. Yes, he lived in Baltimore. Yes, he lived in Philadelphia. Yes, he even lived in New York and Boston. However, as we saw, a full third of his life was spent (both as a child and later as an adult) living and working in the city of Richmond. His career really began as he was editor of the Southern Literary Messenger right here on the corner of 15th and Main Streets. Poe even brought his 13 year old wife/cousin VIRGINIA back to live with him in Richmond and had the official ceremony right here and then honeymooned in Petersburg. (Wow, there is so much weird in that last sentence.) Once his wife, whom he affectionately nicknamed Sissy, passed and became a subject to Poe’s dark musings Poe eventually returned to RVA and was getting ready to move back to supposedly marry his childhood love Sara Elmira Royster who was also now single. And thus begins the strange tale of the death of Poe and his subsequent theft by Baltimore.
On September 27, 1849 Edgar Allan Poe set forth from Richmond on a ship to Baltimore where he was supposed to be heading back to New York to gather his mother-in-law/Aunt to bring back to Richmond. He stopped at the home of one Dr. Carter on the corner of 7th and Broad and ate across the street at Saddler’s Restaurant. (Now either The National and Gibson’s Grill, the new U.S. District Court, a parking lot , or some other non-historical building.) He ran into some friends who described him as being jovial and boasting of his eventual return to Richmond. They escorted him to the boat.
Many consider Poe the father of the mystery novel, so it is somewhat fitting that his final days are well… mysterious. Edgar was found in Baltimore at a tavern/polling place (voting used to be a lot more fun!) on the local election day of October 3rd wearing clothes that were not his own, and in a state of utter delirium. Poe spent the next four days locked in a Baltimore hospital with barred windows and refused any visitors. On October 7th Poe is said to have uttered the words, “Lord, help my poor soul,” and then died. He was rather unceremoniously buried the next day at 4:00 PM in a cheap coffin and an unmarked grave. The Reverend didn’t even deliver a service, deeming it unnecessary for such a small turn out.
We’re not talking about some penniless loafer here, either. Edgar Allan Poe was arguably at the height of his career. He is said to have had $1,500 on his person when he left Richmond, an unheard of sum for the time. (This was perhaps an exaggeration, but the man was not shabby.) There are various theories as to his death, most of them tainted by the fact that the only person who was there changed his story several times over the course of his life and had refused to let anyone else in on his captive Poe. Also, his literary estate was immediately handled by one Rufus Wilmot Grimwold, who immediately painted a picture of a drunkard and ne’er-do-well. Grimwold painted a picture of Poe that remains to this day, clearly out of hate. Poe was later reburied (1875) and an actual tombstone was provided.
That’s a fantastic question. Just how did Poe find himself in front of a tavern wearing shabby clothes that were so out of his character that everyone immediately realized that they were not his? There are plenty of speculations: rabies, syphilis, alcoholism… My favorite, though is Cooping, and is especially relevant with our own recent election.
We think of our political campaigns today as being dirty and extremely partisan, but we got nothing on the 1800s. A somewhat common practice in the 1800s was called cooping. Let’s say you really wanted your candidate to win. One of the best ways to get votes was to force people to vote for your candidate. Instead of knocking on people’s doors and talking about the candidate like they do today, or those annoying robo-calls and tv ads gangs of political activists would kidnap people, coop them up in a room, load them up with drugs and whiskey to ensure that they were incoherent and could not resist, and then take them to various polling locations and force them to vote for your candidate. Sometimes they would even take you back to the same polling location and… make you wear different clothes in disguise. I like this story, mainly because it wraps everything up rather nicely… much like a modern day detective model.
My point here is this… RVA should do a better job of celebrating Poe. As far as I am concerned (and Poe even agreed!) Poe was a Virginian, not a Marylandite. Just because Poe had the misfortune of dying in Baltimore (some might even argue that Baltimore killed Poe… just sayin’) doesn’t give them the right to steal away one of our famous sons. We have the Poe Museum, which was EXTREMELY helpful in putting together this blog, and Poe pops up in a few other places as well… but, I think we could do more. For too long Poe’s legacy has been smeared by the misinformed. Did you know there was originally supposed to be a statue of Poe on Monument Avenue? Plans were rejected because Poe was deemed, “a disreputable figure”.
For far too long we have not given Poe the respect he deserves. We have allowed others to claim him, and besmirch his legacy. Sure, dude was a little weird. Yes, he married his really young cousin. But he was OUR slightly weird, totally dark, kind of twisted author and we should celebrate him! For a city that relishes in it’s Civil War history, we have done very little to remember one of the true fathers of modern day fiction.
I challenge my readers, and those who just look at the pretty (I hope) pictures to share how they have seen Poe in the River City! Send me pictures of Poe about town, send me the Masque of the Red Death costume you wore for Halloween, send me the mp3 of your local band setting The Raven and Annabel Lee to some phat hip-hop beats! I’ll share them on a special section of the site and together we can help rePOEsess Richmond! (Screw you, Baltimore!)*
*I actually don’t have anything against Baltimore, but it’s kind of fun to encourage some rivalry here. Hey, we don’t have a sports team to speak of… what else can we really do?
Are there any other RVA natives who have been given the raw deal? Anyone else I should be RAVEN about? Leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org! And don’t forget to email your pictures, art, dirty sock mosaics, sound files, WHATEVER relating to Poe in Richmond to be shared with 10s of viewers here!