Edgar Allan Poe Turns 200
Published: June 2009
By Jenn Bain
January 19 marks the 200th birthday of Edgar Allan Poe, and five cities that stake a claim to the mystery writer’s life just won’t let him rest in peace
“He will appear in the enchanted garden,” Keith Kaufelt, a docent at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia says with more certainty than should be warranted (seeing as how the person in question has been dead for 160 years). But on January 19—the bicentennial birthday of Edgar Allan Poe—the museum hopes to bring the master of mystery, king of rhyme-scheme, and inventor of the detective-fiction genre back from the dead.
As part of the 24-hour birthday party, Sandi Bergman (aka Madame Sandra) of Haunts of Richmond will host a Victorian séance at 2 a.m. If all goes according to plan, the terrifyingly twisted writer will enter Madame Sandra’s body, a thought that does not faze her. “I think that Poe, while generally misunderstood, was not a malicious character,” she says.
John Astin, the actor best known for playing the doting husband of Morticia Addams on The Addams Family, couldn’t agree more. He’ll be paying tribute to Poe at his Baltimore grave on the bicentennial and on the last weekend in January. “He’s at once a tragic and an inspirational figure,” Astin says. “He was presented with one disaster after another but notwithstanding these severe obstacles, he produced a great many works.”
Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809, but Beantown has barely embraced him as one of its famous residents. “Boston and Poe have not gotten along during the years,” says Paul Lewis, English professor at Boston College. Poe shunned the writings of Boston resident writers Emerson and Longfellow and their belief that fiction should be informative—not fun. Poe’s take was to entertain and terrify with horror stories and mystify with detective tales.
But it seems that Poe is finally getting some New England recognition. Boston College is holding its first ever Poe celebration, and Boston’s mayor recently announced that the major intersection at South Charles and Boylston will soon be re-named Poe Square.
Philadelphia also lays claim to the writer; the five years Poe spent there proved to be a break in an otherwise afflicted life wrought with the early deaths of his mother, wife, and brother, and bouts of depression and drunkenness. For his bicentennial, the Edgar Allan Poe National Historical Site—the last standing house of the many that Poe occupied while there—will re-open its doors.
Get another look into Poe’s past at the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage, on the Grand Concourse in New York City’s Bronx. The cottage features a narrow staircase leading up to the tiny bedroom with six-foot-tall ceilings where Poe slept with his wife, Virginia (who was 13 when they married, and who died in the house).
Poe spent sporadic time in Baltimore, ultimately meeting his demise in mysterious circumstances there on October 7, 1849. Westminster Hall, the Gothic Revival–style former church and burial ground houses two graves for Poe. The first, plot number 27, lies in the back, where a stone engraved with a raven marked the spot. However, Poe’s body was later moved to a location that was more visitor-friendly. You can visit both and attend other Poe events in Baltimore.
So attend an event or pick up a Poe book. “His stories are universal,” says crime writer Michael Connelly. “They come from a place of loneliness and longing, and everybody can probably tap into that at some point in their life.” Connelly edited the collection of Poe stories put out for his bicentennial by the Mystery Writers of America, the organization that pays annual homage to Poe by bestowing Edgar awards to the year’s best mystery writers. Connelly points out that while Poe had success late in his short life with the poem “The Raven,” during the majority of his 40 years he was broke and underappreciated. “The full acknowledgment and accolades came after he died,” says Connelly.
Perhaps, this is why the anniversary of Poe’s death—more so than his birth—is lavishly celebrated. On October 7, Poe’s “body” will be available for viewing at the Poe House and Museum in Baltimore, and there will be an all-night gravesite candlelight vigil. Three days later, an antique horse-drawn hearse will travel from the museum with “Poe’s coffin” back to Westminster Hall for services and eulogies, after which the tortured man may rest in peace nevermore.