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RePOEsessing RVA

Published on November 7, 2012 by

“Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence…”

“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…

You can’t argue with data, Baltimore.

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.

A picture of Capital Hill during Poe’s time. It was a silly place. It’s only a model.

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.

The beginning of a dark tale…

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.

Poe mistakenly left his walking stick behind in Richmond, and is now on display at the Poe Museum.

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.

Poe died here (Baltimore) and we kinda-sorta buried him here! Welcome to Poe-Town!

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.

But how did I die?

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.

So, what’s my point?

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”.

Disreputable figure? Put the statue in Capital Square then! That’s where most of the disreputable people go anyway…

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 nick@photorva.com!  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!

I’ll start! Elizabeth Allan Poe is buried in the St. John’s Church Cemetery. You may have Poe, you Baltimaniacs, but we have his mother!

Special thanks to:
The Poe Musuem
1914-16 E. Main St.
Richmond, VA 23223
Go there. Seriously.

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4 Comments  comments 

4 Responses

  1. Personally I think the Poe Museum does a bang up job of promoting Poe! Great exhibits, great special events, great staff, what else do you want?

    Oh right, the body of Poe.

    Jeff Jerome
    Curator Emeritus, Poe House and Museum, Baltimore

    • Nick Kotula

      Well, if you’re offering, it wouldn’t be the first time he was moved.

      Oh don’t get me wrong, The Poe Museum does a terrific job promoting Poe. I love everything about the museum, but when it boils down to it Poe doesn’t extend too much further from that small radius. I mean, you guys name your football team after him, Raven Beer, a whole Poe Society, not to mention you had a guy who would deliver quality spirits to his grave every year! It’s enough to make you think he spent his entire life in MD, when he really considered himself a Virginian.

      Just lookin’ for a little Poe love at home, is all.

      With that said, thanks for taking the time to read! I would very much like to visit that OTHER Poe Museum sometime!

  2. Sophia

    Great POEst and photos!

    Although I understand your plight to your fellow Virginians to reclaim Poe, you are correct when you state “For far too long we have not given Poe the respect he deserves.” Virginia has failed to capitalize on Poe because it seems Virginia does not want to be associated with him. The great city of Baltimore and her citizens have massive love for Poe and his legacy. Although you believe the city’s sole connection to him is that they “killed” him, do not forget Poe’s father and paternal family were from Baltimore (his mother was from England). His cousin/wife Virginia Clemm was also from Baltimore. Poe not only left “roots” in Baltimore when he died, his familial roots are there as well. So, although Poe was born in Boston to travelling actor parents, he lived with a foster family in Richmond when his English mother died, and married his Baltimore cousin in Richmond where he worked at the time, Poe has Baltimore in his blood. It is only fitting that he would die in Baltimore, the city of his family, the city where his fans can visit with him and pay their respects, the city where he belongs. Although he spent a good portion of his life in VA and considered himself a Virginian, Poe was from Baltimore and not Richmond, and that’s why Baltimore gets all the Edgar Allan Poe love. 🙂 Plus, Baltimore has the look and culture that oozes Poe’s macabre style which makes it the perfect setting to visit the haunts of such a man.

    • Nick Kotula

      I’m not sure that Poe’s father being from Baltimore is exactly the selling point that you think it is. I’m not sure how much familial attachment I would have for a guy who left me, my brother, and my pregnant mother (who would die within a year of tuberculosis) to hit the bottle and never be heard from again. You’re right that his cousin/future wife lived in Baltimore, but he scooped her up and moved her down to his boyhood home of Richmond the first chance he could get. His final trip was heading back to New York to move his life BACK to Richmond. Also, take a walk down the gas lit streets of Church Hill on a humid summer night and you will certainly get a sense of macabre that no Yankee city can recreate. 😉

      I appreciate your reading and taking the time to respond!

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