Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) was a horror writer and poet who died a mysterious death. Edgar Allan Poe’s Ghost is said to haunt his gravesite in downtown Baltimore. The house where he lived is also reported to be haunted, but by others.
Poe was born in Boston on January 19,1809, the son of David Poe, Jr., a traveling actor, and Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe. He was the middle child of three—a brother, William Henry (called Henry), was born in 1807, and a sister, Rosalie, was born in 1810. In 1811, Poe’s mother sickened and died in Richmond, Virginia, and his father reportedly died—or disappeared—a few days later. Orphaned, Poe was taken in by John and Frances Allan of Richmond. Rosalie was taken in by another family in Richmond. Henry was taken in by grandparents in Baltimore.
In 1816, Poe and his adopted parents went to London, where he was enrolled in a boarding school. They returned to Richmond in 1820. In 1826, Poe entered the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. The same year, he suffered a severe emotional disappointment when he learned that his childhood sweetheart, Elmira Royster, had agreed to marry another man. In 1827, he moved to Baltimore and enlisted in the U.S. Army. In 1830, he enrolled in the military academy at West Point, New York, and immediately found it not to his liking. He tried to get out by refusing to attend classes or church services. He was court martialed and expelled in 1831.
In 1835, Poe returned to Virginia, where he married his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm. He was 27.
Poe and his wife moved around the East Coast, while he pursued his literary career. His work was published, and he edited various magazines, worked for newspapers, and tried to launch a literary magazine. He enjoyed modest success. In 1847, Virginia died of tuberculosis in Fordham, outside of New York City, and was buried there. Poe continued to live in their small cottage, which he shared with his mother-in-law, Maria Clemm.
By this time, Poe—a melancholic man—had a reputation for bouts of drinking. In 1848, he proposed to Sarah Whitman, a poetess. She agreed on the condition that he stop drinking. He was unable to do so, and she called off the engagement. He then rediscovered his childhood love, Elmira Royster Shelton, who was by then a widow. He proposed to her. She accepted, but the marriage never took place, for Poe met an untimely death.
In August 1849, he joined a temperance organization in an apparent effort to control his drinking. In September, he went back to Baltimore, with intentions to travel to Philadelphia.
Accounts of his death vary. According to one, he took ill in Philadelphia and intended to return to New York, but got sent by friends to Baltimore instead. Another account holds that he was found lying in a gutter, unconscious, outside a tavern in downtown Baltimore, wearing clothes not his own and with a strange walking stick.
According to the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, there is no substantiation for the gutter story. On October 3, a Baltimore friend of Poe’s Dr. J. E. Snodgrass received a note from Joseph W. Walker saying that Poe was at Gunner’s Hall, a voting place and tavern, in great distress and requiring his immediate assistance. Snodgrass and Poe’s uncle, Henry Herring, arrived and found Poe in what appeared to be a drunken condition. They took him to Washington College Hospital, where he deteriorated rapidly. He lapsed in and out of consciousness and was incoherent, unable to give an account of what had happened to him. He cried out, “Reynolds!” After three days, he whispered, “Lord help my poor soul,” fell into a coma, and died. The cause of death was ruled “congestion of the brain.”
It is not known how much alcohol may have contributed to his death; Snodgrass believed alcohol to be the cause. There is no evidence that Poe was an abuser of opium, speculation that has arisen from the opium use of the first-person narrators of his fiction.
It has been speculated that he was killed or murdered, perhaps for a vote. A practice of “cooping” was prevalent at the time; it was a brutal way of stuffi ng the ballot box. Gangs would kidnap people off the street and force them to vote repeatedly, sometimes making them change clothing to look different. No evidence substantiates this theory—but no explanation has ever been found for the strange clothing or the identity of the mysterious “Reynolds.” The walking stick is said to have belonged to a friend in New York, Dr. John F. Carter, visited by Poe prior to his departure for Baltimore. Poe reportedly took Carter’s cane by accident and left his in its place.
Poe was buried in his grandfather’s plot in the 200- year-old Westminster Burying Ground, located at the intersection of Fayette and Green Streets in west downtown, a short distance from the Poe residence. His grave is located in the rear of the cemetery with its original marker. In 1875, a large monument was erected in the front of the cemetery, inscribed with the names of Poe, Virginia, and Maria. Many people erroneously believe this to be Poe’s true grave.
Poe is known for his gloomy short stories and poetry, especially the poem “The Raven” and the stories “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Murders in the Rue Morgan” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Purloined Letter.” His works have been made into films and continue to chill modern audiences. During his life, Poe achieved modest success.
In 1949, a mysterious visitor started a tradition of making a secretive visit to Poe’s grave on the anniversary of his birth. A man dressed in black, wearing a black hat, and carrying a walking stick leaves a tribute of three red roses and an opened and partially filled bottle of expensive cognac at the monument. Spectators began to assemble on the night of January 19 in hopes of seeing the man dressed in black, who was able to enter even though the gates of the cemetery were locked. In 1993, the Poe Toaster, as the visitor had become known, left a note on the monument that “the torch will be passed.” The Poe Toaster reportedly died in 1998 and passed the tradition on to his sons. Jeff Jerome, curator of the house and museum, said he had seen the Toaster every year since 1976. Others have speculated that the tradition is upheld by members of a secret society devoted to Poe. It is thought that the three red roses are for Poe, Virginia, and Maria. Cognac is featured in Poe’s work.
Poe House and Museum
Poe lived briefly in a house at 203 Amity Street in Baltimore; it has been a historical museum since 1949. Elizabeth Poe, the grandmother, died there in 1835. The house sat vacant from 1922 to 1949.
Haunting phenomena have been reported at the house since the 1960s. They include lights coming on by themselves when no one is present inside; visitors being tapped by unseen hands; phantom voices and noises; doors opening and closing by themselves. Most of the activity is in the attic room used by Poe. The ghost of a woman has been reported in the house, as well as a ghost known as “Mr. Eddie,” who seems to watch over the place. Electronic Voice Phenomena have been recorded at the house.
Poe himself is said to haunt the downtown streets of Baltimore around his house and the Westminster churchyard and also the cemetery itself.
- The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore Web site. Available online. URL: https://www.eapoe.org. Downloaded April 3, 2007.
- Myers, Arthur. The Ghostly Register: Haunted Dwellings— Active Spirits, A Journey to America’s Strangest Landmarks. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1986.
- Okonowicz, Ed. Baltimore Ghosts: History, Mystery, Legends and More. Elkton, Md.: Myst and Lace Publishing, 2004.