Poor Edgar seems to get a bad rap. Sure, he may run high on the bibliophile circuit, and earn honest appraisals from historians or redemption on diehard Internet fan clubs; but as far as popular opinion goes, Poe seems to be wrapped up in more suspicious legend and murky lore than any other writer in American history. As is often the case with such sensationalist buzz, there are varying degrees of veracity. Some rumors are firmly grounded in reality, some can be whittled to tight kernels of truth, and some are outright fabrications. Here are some of our favorites set straight:
- Saved by the Bell“Scarcely, in truth, is a graveyard ever encroached upon, for any purpose, to any great extent, that skeletons are not found in postures which suggest the most fearful of suspicions” –Edgar Allan Poe, The Premature BurialPoe was so afraid of being buried alive that he demanded he be interred in a “safety coffin,” complete with a string that ran from inside the casket to a bell above-ground.False. Despite the fact that many of Poe’s stories tend to err on the side of the macabre, and the fact that being buried alive is a consistent theme in them, Poe was more than likely just playing on a (not-entirely-unfounded) prevalent fear of the time. With little more sophisticated equipment than fingertips and mirrors to determine corpses from the catatonic—and the rush to get potentially contagious bodies in the ground—the risk of being buried alive was entirely plausible, a sentiment that Poe portrays with chilling, trademark clarity not only in “The Premature Burial,” a first-person narrative that was later revealed as fiction (after the requisite number of magazines were sold, of course), but also in the “Fall of the House of Usher,” “Bernice,” “A Cask of Amontillado,” and half-a-dozen other short stories.
Poe himself, however, was not interred with a safety bell—not even a headstone, truth be told. After his death (another tantalizing favorite of conspiracy theorists), he was hastily buried in an unmarked grave. It wasn’t until twenty-six years later that his body was exhumed, moved to a place of honor, and capped with a fitting headstone. Those still in doubt can take heart, however: during the move, an errant pickax clipped the side of Poe’s coffin, revealing—much to all’s relief—the skeleton still lying peacefully within, arranged as it had been when laid to rest.
- Ain’t No Party Like a Poe Party Despite rumors that paint Poe as an addict, he is said to have only tried opium once before swearing it off for life. It was following this single occurance that he sat for this daguerrotype. Poe was a mad, drunken opium addict.False. Poe’s reputation as the pickled poet is, to be fair, largely his own fault. His vice came not in the form of illicit substances, however, but that of many a writerly-type: literary uppitiness. As the literature critic for the Southern Literary Messenger, Poe delighted audiences with his scathing wit and unfiltered criticisms, earning himself an ample supply of fans—and an equal portion of enemies. Perhaps the more egregious of these was a man by the name of Rufus Griswold, a writer who may have been no match for Poe’s wit while he was alive but had ample opportunity to lambast him after his death. Following Poe’s funeral, Griswold wrote an obituary so drippingly slanderous—painting Poe as a mad, drunken, womanizing opium addict—that he didn’t even have the chutzpa to publish it under his own name. As Poe well knew during his life, salacious stories sell papers, and Griswold’s skewed sketch of Poe became the accepted standard. It’s worth a mention, however, that Poe still got the last laugh. When Griswold died, it was in a room with Poe’s portrait hanging on the wall.
- The Poe ToasterFor seven decades, the Poe Toaster has left half a bottle of cognac and three roses on Poe’s original grave A mysterious man has watched over Poe’s grave for over seventy years.True. Few writers can claim as dedicated a cadre of fans as Edgar Allan Poe, and for proof, one need look no further than the Poe Toaster, a man (or men) who, for the past seventy years, have visited Poe’s grave in the early morning hours of January 19, leaving behind three roses and half a bottle of cognac before slipping anonymously into the night. Dressed in a black cloak and white scarf, with his face carefully concealed beneath a wide-brimmed hat, the Poe Toaster has left few clues to the meaning behind his offerings, let alone his identity. As Poe fans are wont to do when faced with a mystery, speculations run wild as to the significance of the Toaster and his gifts (the three roses are thought to represent Poe, his late wife Virginia, and his mother-in-law, but the bottle of cognac remains a mystery—it doesn’t pop up in any of Poe’s stories like, say, Amontillado). On several occasions, the Toaster left a note along with his other gifts. The first notified the public of the passing of the torch from father to son—straightforward enough—but later, the content grew a bit curious, including a vaguely ominous Super Bowl prediction and cryptic commentary on the connection between French Cognac and the war in Iraq. These later notes may have been an indication that the Toaster’s own light was burning a bit low; since 2010, he’s been absent, leading many to believe that the legend of the Poe Toaster will remain a mystery fit for Poe.
- Tippled to Death With his smooth verses and dashing good looks, Edgar Allan Poe was a notorious ladies’ man Alcohol played a primary role in Poe’s death.False. It’s safe to assume that this is yet another case of opportunism. Poe’s death was a mystery to be sure; he went missing for days, only to pop up, reeling and delirious, at a polling station in clothes not his own, and died in a hospital days later, never having had the lucidity to explain his condition. Modern theories abound as to what brought Poe to this untimely end—rabies, syphilis, even cooping (a terrifying process by which vagrants were rounded up, drugged, and dropped off at polling stations to vote)—but his contemporaries took a slightly different approach. Teetotalers of the time exploited the puzzling details of his end, taking up Poe’s death as a standard for the wretched fate that awaited those who dabbled in the devil’s brew. In truth, the attending physician who sat with Poe until he died swore that he was not drunk and spent the rest of his life lobbying to clear his name. Poe himself had just become a card-carrying member of the Sons of Temperance and had only tried opium once—years before—before swearing it off for life. No one knows exactly how Poe died, but he almost certainly had the misfortune of doing it sober.
- Love Is Blind Despite the fact that Poe married his 13-year-old cousin Virginia, their union has found some redemption in the fact that by most accounts the marriage was never consummated Poe had unconventional taste in the ladies.Perhaps no part of Poe’s existence creates such a heated stir as his love life. Somewhere along the line, rumor, fact, and the sordid details of Poe’s stories became so entangled that Poe has been accused of everything from incest to necrophilia. Though the more popular portrait of Poe may be the wild-eyed daguerreotype that was taken shortly after his (one and only) stint with opium, young Poe was actually quite the looker and popular with the ladies still very much in the heartbeat circuit. Rumors of necrophilia were almost certainly started as slander and bolstered by a rather broad interpretation of the famed poem, “Annabel Lee” (“And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side / Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride / In her sepulcher there by the sea”), and though he did, in fact, marry his cousin, many modern scholars now agree that their relationship was more like brother and sister than husband and wife, and that it was almost certainly never consummated. Poe’s life was marked by loss—he was abandoned by his father early on, then lost his mother at age two, his first love at fifteen, and his foster mother at twenty—and it’s speculated that when Poe’s cousin Virginia and her mother, the only consistent family that Poe had ever known, notified him of their plans to move away, Poe was sent into such a panic of separation anxiety that he married Virginia immediately.
- Calling It In Poe spent twenty-six years buried in an unmarked grave in Westminster Burying Ground. This memorial marks the spot today Poe communicated from beyond the grave.Depends on who you ask. Following his death, one of Poe’s ex-fiancés (again, he was quite the ladies’ man) was so convinced that her former love was trying to commune with her from beyond the grave that she hired a psychic to follow her around. Fourteen years later, psychic medium Lizzie Doten claimed to have been the beneficiary of post-mortem dictation, and published Poems from the Inner Life, a tome that included a rich sampling of teeth-itching poems she wrote while allegedly channeling Poe’s spirit. The late poet’s fans, however, found little comfort in the posthumous publication—either Poe’s eloquence was deeply affected by his interment or Doten’s ghost suffered from a case of mistaken identity.
- NevermoreIn January, 2001, the Poe Toaster left an ominous note predictng the future of the Baltimore Ravens (named after Poe’s poem), “The New York Giants. Darkness and decay and the big blue hold dominion over all. The Baltimore Ravens. A thousand injuries they will suffer. Edgar Allan Poe evermore.” Apparently, fortunetelling was not his strong suit: they won. Poe never made any money from “The Raven.”False . . . kind of. Though “The Raven” was an overnight success, catapulting Poe to the forefront of the national consciousness and to the tip-top of the literati, it was not the financial boon he might have hoped for. Some accounts claim that he was paid $9 for the poem, others $15, but parsing pennies over what is ostensibly the most recognizable poem ever seems a bit absurd. Though Poe was a champion of the artistic copyright, spending his life fighting valiantly for the cause of the writers’ paycheck, it was full of uphill battles, and “The Raven” was one that he never won.
- A Cat Had His Tongue Surprisingly, Poe’s muse was not a raven but a tortiseshell cat named Catterina (photo courtesy of Sarah Braun) Poe had a thing for cats.True! Believe it or not, Poe’s muse was covered not in feathers but fluff. He was said often to write with a cat poised on his shoulder for inspiration. Perhaps the story “The Black Cat”—which features a feline that meets a very Poe-esque, gruesome end—might give the impression that he didn’t care for the creatures, but he was actually quite fond of them, none so much as his tortoiseshell, Catterina. So connected were the two that one could not exist without the other. When Poe passed, his mother-in-law—miles away—discovered that at the same moment of his death, his dear Catterina had died as well.