You can hardly find an American literary figure surrounded by as much myth and folklore as Edgar Allan Poe. His poetry and darkly romantic tales have made him ripe for such intrigue. Like many souls of the nineteenth century, tragedy was ever present in Poe’s short life. As a child, he was abandoned by his biological father, David Poe, in 1810, then lost his mother, Elizabeth, to tuberculosis in 1811–he was only two. Although Edgar was (informally) adopted by a wealthy merchant, John Allan, and enjoyed support during his early years, the two men became estranged over debts and family disputes. The writer was disowned by his foster father in 1830. You probably know the story from here: death of his adopted mother, death of his young wife, constant financial struggle, his own unexplained death, etc. And, as a backdrop, are all those magnificently haunting stories. A perfect excuse for a literary day-trip.
If you are traveling in the Baltimore area, you are walking some of the storied streets of America’s gloomiest genius. Though Poe was born in Boston, he lived in many locations in the northeastern United States throughout his life, and he famously drank (to cite the myth) and died in “Charm City.” Fortunately, a few significant Poe historical sites are within close proximity of one another and can be reached if you have a couple of hours to spare.
Your first visit of the day should be to the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum. Poe occupied the attic of this rented home from 1833 to 1835 after leaving West Point, sharing it with his aunt, ailing grandmother, and cousin Virginia (his future wife). The building is located at 203 North Amity Street, a short drive from the Baltimore Convention Center. It is a recognized historical site but wears its age: peeling paint, cracked wooden shutters, rotting steps. Although recently reopened, the location has suffered from a lack of funding over the years; however, the small museum is expertly maintained and is run by an informed staff.
Travel websites warn visitors of the rough area surrounding the Poe house, and yes, it is situated in an impoverished section of the city. The reality of the struggling neighborhood is not so removed from the reality families would have experienced during the economic uncertainties of early nineteenth century Baltimore. The Poe House is in a functioning, living neighborhood. It is not part of some massive museum complex or alumni funded university campus. People live here, still. When you visit, you can see that. You can feel it. The rooms are small, and the museum, which makes up about half of the interior, can be seen in its entirety in about thirty minutes. Some of Edgar Allan Poe’s earliest works were penned within these cramped and dingy walls. A visit here is an emotional step into the past and into Poe’s intimate daily existence.
While it is not chronological to Poe’s timeline, your next visit should be to the writer’s gravesite. It is literally a couple blocks away from the Amity house. Poe’s final resting place is at Westminster Hall and Burying Ground, 519 West Fayette Street, in the shadow of the historical Presbyterian church building. The churchyard is open to the public and is a who’s who of Baltimore elites dating back to the early 1700s. Poe was buried at the site in 1849, shortly after his death, but was later exhumed and relocated. The original grave was unmarked and fell into disrepair by the early 1860s despite attempts to give the poet a more fitting resting place. After several setbacks (including a derailed train crushing the first headstone replacement), a new monument was dedicated in 1875 in the front corner of the cemetery–the place where Poe, his aunt Maria, and his beloved Virginia now rest. A separate headstone now marks his first, previously unmarked, burial location–it is a lovely commemoration and a fan favorite. Don’t miss it.
The greatest mystery of Edgar Allan Poe’s life is, ironically, the final few days before his death. In 1849, Poe had been traveling, both in New York and Virginia, trying to raise funds for a future publication called the Stylus. He had recently reunited with a romantic interest from his past, Elmira Royster Shelton, and things seemed to being looking up for the widower. Then, he boards a boat for Baltimore on September 27, arrives on the 28th, and promptly disappears with only the vaguest of reports as to his whereabouts. It is not until October 3 that Joseph W. Walker finds Poe outside Ryan’s 4th Ward Polls (also known as Gunner’s Hall), incoherent, wearing someone else’s clothes, and thought to be intoxicated. He is hurried to Washington College Hospital, never recovers from his lethargy, and dies on October 7, leaving the cause of his death a mystery.
While Gunner’s Hall is long gone (the neighborhood where it once stood, Fells Point, has changed greatly over the years), one bar from the period still stands. Located at 1626 Thames Street, The Horse You Came In On is the oldest bar in Baltimore, dating to 1775, and it claims to be the “last place Edgar Allan Poe took a drink.” While it is a safe bet that Poe visited this historical drinking hole–the man lived nearby AND he liked to drink, after all–there is no way to confirm this was where Poe tipped his last glass. It is, despite the questionable claim, a location filled with history and, arguably, the writer’s spirit. Take a few hours, pour a few, and take in hundreds of years of alcohol induced inspiration. Better yet, walk the cobblestone streets and narrow alleys of Fells Point, and you will feel Edgar’s ghost around every corner. I guarantee it. It may take a few whiskeys, but I guarantee it.
If you have any favorite literary haunts, share them with us!