Edgar Allan Poe is a name that conjures up daydreams of the dreadful, thoughts of graveyards and goblins, ravens, and writing desks, in many cases. But, though his story is often shrouded in mystery and punched up for tragedy, in reality, Poe’s life saw the mundane about as often as the macabre. In honor of the 171st anniversary of his death, here are some strange facts about Poe that his legend doesn’t usually tend to shine a light on.
The term “short story” was first written in one of Poe’s essays.
Although others may have used this phrase before Poe, his 1846 essay The Philosophy of Composition contains the first known written use of the term. In it, Poe was very specific about how a short story should be one “requiring from half an hour to one or two hours in its perusal.” Nowadays, we’d probably say the story could be read in one sitting. He also believed that every word, image, and event of the story should be chosen to serve its main purpose. It makes sense that Poe would be the one to solidify these stipulations, as he is often regarded as the greatest short story author who ever lived.
Arguments over the inspiration of The Masque of the Red Death still occur to this day.
One of Poe’s most famous short stories was published in 1842 and is about a prince who is attempting to hide in his protected abbey from a deadly and horrifying disease. The prince decides to throw a masquerade ball with the other wealthy and elite all while his subjects suffer and die outside his walls. In the end, the disease itself shows up at the masquerade and wipes out the entire castle.
Some scholars believe this was a story inspired by tuberculosis, which took the lives of Poe’s wife, mother, brother, and foster mother. Others say the plague was meant to mirror the cholera epidemic he witnessed in Baltimore. And while the story seems to be heavily loaded with imagery and many possible messages, Poe himself expressed that he did not care for literature that sought to instruct or provide a moral, making it hard to determine what, if anything, he was attempting to say in the tale.
Poe’s middle name, Allan, was taken from his second family.
The famous writer we know today was only called Edgar Poe when he was born with no middle name, to modern knowledge. His father abandoned him and his mother when he was still a baby, and when he was only two, his mother died of tuberculosis. Poe was taken in by another family, the patriarch of whom was called John Allan. Though he was never formally adopted by the man, he did take his last name as his own middle name. Unfortunately, the two didn’t get along, and Allan left him nothing when he died. This may be why Poe signed many of his correspondences as Edgar A. Poe or simply E. A. Poe.
Poe married his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia.
Poe’s love life—like many parts of his legend—is highly misunderstood. While he is often considered to be a tragic, lonely lover, he had quite a few women in his life, one of whom was a friend’s mother. He was so in love that, when she died, he wrote the poem To Helen about her.
And aside from passing lovers or flings, Poe did marry. Most people are aware that Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe, Poe’s only spouse, was none other than his first cousin. Many don’t know, however, that he was a mature 27 while she was only 13 when they wedded. Many biographers insist that they loved each other like a brother and sister. She referred to him as “Eddy” and he called her “Sissy.” Regardless of their romantic or non-romantic marriage, Poe was rightfully despondent when she passed of tuberculosis, a familiar disease known for taking Poe’s loved ones. He wrote a number of his most famous poems after her death, all with a running theme of women dying young, including such classics as Annabel Lee and The Raven.
A parrot was first considered to be the titular bird, rather than The Raven.
Speaking of The Raven, it is often considered to be Poe’s most widely known work. It even became a smash in his own time, causing children to chase after him and mimic the flapping of wings until he turned around to scream, “Nevermore!” Still, the poem might have fallen a bit flat if Poe had gone with his original idea: a parrot. In the same essay mentioned previously, Poe wrote that “very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself” as the prophecy-spouting specter-bird, but the author quickly became concerned about the creature’s vibrant nature not being in line with the tone of the piece. Therefore, it “was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone.”
The Baltimore Ravens NFL team is named after Poe’s famous poem.
Poe spent many of his years living in Baltimore, Maryland. He was also, eventually, laid to rest there for good. And, in 1996, when Baltimore was looking for a nickname for their new professional football team, they turned to their fans. Surveys indicated that two-thirds of the over 33,000 individuals who voted chose the Ravens for their team’s name after Poe’s most famous poem. Other potential names for the team were the Americans with 5,635 votes and the Marauders with 5,650. But the Ravens emerged victorious in the end with a whopping 22,463 tallies.
Poe only made $9 for The Raven.
Many people see Edgar Allan Poe as the quintessential penniless writer, and that’s not far off the mark. Allan, Poe’s foster father, did not provide him adequate funds to attend university, and Poe began gambling in order to try to make up for his deficit. He was thrown out of school and spent most of his life just trying to make enough money to get by.
His fiction hardly ever amounted to much financially. He made $9 for The Raven and just over $50 for The Murders of the Rue Morgue. To supplement his income, he wrote for the Southern Literary Messenger and was quite a fearsome critic in his day. His critiques drew the ire of Nathaniel Hawthorne (whom he accused of plagiarism) as well as another writer, Rufus Wilmot Griswold. Still, he got along fine with certain other authors of his time, one of whom was Charles Dickens. And yes, they were pen-pals.
Postmortem, Poe was painted heavily as a madman by posthumous biographer, Rufus Wilmot Griswold.
When Poe died, mysterious circumstances certainly abounded. On October 3, 1849, he was found on the street, ranting and incomprehensible—and also dressed in someone else’s clothing. Poe was taken to the hospital and never recovered enough to say what had befallen him. One of the only things he did was to repeatedly shout the name “Reynolds!” He died four days later without the world ever knowing what had happened to him.
Though all of this is true, many people believe the story to be in keeping with the idea that the author was an insane, melancholy madman who could not cope with the confines of reality. This characterization, however, came from Griswold who wrote a posthumous biography of Poe, painting him in a highly negative light. Apparently, Griswold was still smarting from some of Poe’s critiques and represented him as a depraved lunatic in his biography. While this work has since been discredited, its characterization stuck, which is why we have the view we have of Poe today.
Poe’s peculiar death may have been the result of “cooping” or voter fraud.
Although Poe was occasionally a drinker, who joined the Sons of Temperance—a sort of AA for the times—before he died, witnesses and scholars disagree on whether or not he actually died of alcohol poisoning or if he was even drunk at all when he was found in the streets. Though intoxication would easily explain the fact that Poe was rambling, ranting, and wearing someone else’s clothes, an editor and acquaintance of his, Dr. Joseph E. Snodgrass, said Poe had been intoxicated, while Dr. John Joseph Moran, the physician who attended Poe, said he “had not the slightest odor of liquor upon his breath or person.”
To make matters weirder, there was also a popular scam at the time that may explain Poe’s strange circumstances. It was a form of voter fraud where people would kidnap individuals, drug them, and force them to vote multiple times for the candidate of their choice. Known as “cooping,” this sometimes involved repeatedly dressing the individual in different clothing so they could continue to vote. Still, no conclusive proof about the cause of Poe’s death has ever surfaced.
Edgar Allan Poe was buried in an unmarked grave for the first 26 years of his passing.
Naturally, Poe’s story can’t be complete without musings on his post-death tale, which saw him buried in Baltimore’s Westminster Hall and Burying Ground without even the decency of a headstone. This was not solely because of his financial woes, as many believe, but actually, because the headstone that was created for him was destroyed in a freak accident where a train went off the tracks and smashed it to bits. In 1873, a poet saw the disrepair of Poe’s grave and published a plea in the newspaper that it be restored to a glory befitting his fame. A teacher in Baltimore raised money with her class, and after receiving extra funds from a wealthy publisher, there was finally enough to rebury Poe in 1875.
His late wife, meanwhile, had been buried in another cemetery, which was destroyed in 1875. This would have made it difficult to find her body and move it to be with her husband’s. However, a man named William Gill, a Poe fan and biographer of the late author, had already exhumed her remains. He kept them in a box under his bed for several years before finally handing them over. Virginia Clemm was finally buried with her husband in 1885.
Poe’s defamation of character and strange death certainly helped lead to the image most people have in their minds of a tortured, crazed genius who managed to write beautiful works while being plagued by supernatural torments. In reality, Poe himself was much more ordinary than we might imagine. Of course, as we know, his life did hail some eccentricities, but perhaps the most mysterious truths about Poe are those we can’t explain away with claims of insanity and unconventionality.
By Julia Tilford, contributor for Ripleys.com