Because of the grisly and often mysterious themes in Edgar Allan Poe’s writing, his death in 1849 remains one of the most enduring mysteries in American literature. After traveling from Richmond to his home in New York, Poe, known for his short fiction and poetry, was found delirious in Baltimore wearing someone else’s clothes. He was taken to a nearby hospital, where after several days he died from unverifiable causes. The author, poet, editor, literary critic and early practitioner of mystery, horror, science fiction and detective writing was dead at 40.
Readers interested in re-creating Poe’s final trip are in luck, as two museums in Baltimore and Richmond serve to bookend possibly the most macabre literary trail in the Mid-Atlantic.
Poe, who spent much of his youth in Richmond, has many links to the present-day city. When the building that once housed the Southern Literary Messenger, an arts publication for which Poe served as editor and critic, was demolished, the Poe Museum salvaged enough of the bricks to build a modest shrine to the author. The shrine stands in the museum’s backyard garden, near what was once a booming district of manufacturing and slave trafficking but is now a burgeoning neighborhood of lofts and restaurants. Poe never lived on the museum’s grounds, but the city’s mix of artsy eclecticism and solemn history is reflected in the museum’s collection of Poe artifacts. Inside is an exhibit that speculates on the true identity of Annabel Lee, the subject and title of one of his most famous poems, and a lock of the author’s hair. (Poe completed his only novel, “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket,” while living in Richmond.) Many of Poe’s letters and personal effects are also on display, including an iconic daguerreotype. The image is infamous (taken four days after a suicide attempt), and you can’t help but study the holographic detail of his mustache and disheveled hair, or his eyes as they stare past you.
There’s a punny opening to an episode of “The Wire” in which the setup question is, “Where’s the Poe House?” Well, the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum is in west Baltimore. (The punchline is, “Look around. Take your pick.”) The house is sparsely appointed with items that belonged to the author: a telescope, a chair and a lap desk. The house retains its original floors, fireplace mantels and walls. Standing inside, you get an idea of the cold and cramped conditions favorable to long periods of rumination and writing. Poe lived here in his 20s with family members, including his cousin and future wife, Virginia Eliza Clemm. A few of Poe’s works were penned in the house, including “MS. Found in a Bottle” and “The Visionary.” The house’s top section is a low-ceilinged, spade-shaped room fashioned into a writer’s space. This was where Poe most likely slept and worked. To see it, you must scale a narrow stairway that twists, and as you climb, your breathing quickens, and you surprise yourself by needing to reach out and brace against the walls for comfort.
George Gonzalez is a freelance writer in Washington.