And so we find Edgar Allan Poe in Baltimore.
Those who look to unravel the mystery of how Poe died here are chasing windmills or chasing a buck. There’s a good reason we’ll never know the truth about Poe in Baltimore on his fateful last visit.
It’s none of our business. Dying is a private affair. I never came across much of his writing detailing the death of his mother, or the other women in his life, including his wife Virginia. He wrote about how it feels, but the details he doesn’t feel the need to divulge. In so doing, his pain becomes universal.
More important, Poe, in Baltimore becomes a legend. A mystery that can never be solved. In death this helps propel him to the fame that he only brushed up against in life. He died in poverty, but now those who sell his name find it’s worth millions.
Poor Poe, in Baltimore he lies, gritting his teeth no doubt at the hand fate dealt him.
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Poe in Baltimore: The Annabel Lee Tavern
I had read about Baltimore, it’s a dangerous place now, as it was in Poe’s time. It consistently ranks in the top 10 most violent cities in America.
It was already dark when I got into town, the Holiday Inn sat up on a hill, the only time I’ve seen one of those looking ominous. I checked in, ditched my bags and headed off in search of the Annabel Lee Tavern, the last of the Poe related eateries on my list. It’s in the Canton area of Baltimore, named by an Irishman who made a fortune trading with the Chinese and gave the name to his plantation, which bordered the outer harbor of Baltimore. It’s a growing area of the city, free from much of the poverty and crime that plagues Baltimore. I found a parking spot and was almost immediately swept up in a crowd of young men beginning their Saturday night, taking advantage of the neighborhood’s bars.
It feels like a neighborhood, like you’re where people live, as opposed to a place where people eat, drink and shop. Maybe that was the source of my unease, feeling like an outsider. But I found the Annabel Lee Tavern and slipped inside and immediately felt at home, as Poe in Baltimore must have felt. It’s a shotgun style bar, one long room with a few tables beyond the bar. It feels like stepping back in time, and it feels like a neighborhood bar. As such, it felt more appropriate than either of the Poe themed restaurants I’d been in before. This wasn’t run by a company or corporation, but was a person’s dream.
The owner chatted with me a bit, and I pointed out that nearly every patron in the place was a woman. I asked if this was by design. He said, yes women attract men. There’s a college nearby with lots of literature majors, who tend to be female he said. He knew from them he’d have a steady supply of customers. As it’s still in business nearly a decade after I visited, he appeared to be right. It also gives the place more of a gentle feel. There was a TV over the bar, but it wasn’t even turned on. In America bars have TVs tuned to sports. Here there was Billy Holiday coming over the speakers.
The menu was simpler fare than Il Buco in New York City, the only Poe themed restaurant that actually had Poe walking through the front door. It was simpler, but higher quality than Poe’s Tavern on Sullivan’s Island in Charleston, South Carolina. I had the same thing I had there, a bacon cheddar cheeseburger and fries. But at Annabel Lee’s Tavern the cheeseburger was grass fed, the cheese artisan and locally sourced, and the fries cooked in duck fat. I’d never had duck fat fried fries before, and I’m not really a fan. But the cheeseburger was perfect, a staple food served in a way that stood out and made it something more.
And the beer was cold too, a blessing on a hot June evening. It had been a long drive, and I wished for a moment this was my neighborhood, for I felt at home. Baltimore is close enough to being southern that it has a bit of both worlds. The place where I come from shares a latitude and that same feeling, that same heat and smell that old wood puts off as it’s slowly baked, year after year.
But I didn’t want to experience driving across Baltimore half drunk, so made my way back to the Holiday Inn and had a rare, early night.
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Poe in Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum
Sunday morning and I park across from the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum in Baltimore. Poe lived here from 1833 to 1835. Already living there was his Aunt Clem and her daughter Virginia, then ten years old who in three years would be Poe’s wife. He had just left West Point, another failure and was looking for a new start when he moved in, at the age of twenty three. Of his time here we know very little. It wasn’t the golden age of Poe’s career, just another place to get his bearings and start anew. It’s believed he wrote a few stories and poems in this house. This time he started down the path towards being a full time writer, one of the first Americans to do so.
Being a Sunday morning it was closed. The museum often struggles with funding. It’s infuriating when you think of it, that a professional football team in Baltimore can co-opt his name, but can’t provide full funding for the only Poe museum in Baltimore. The neighborhood is indeed rough. I had wanted to visit the night before, but the owner of Annabel Lee Tavern advised me against it. As often is the case, the only people I saw on this morning were those dressed up and on their way to church.
There’s a scene in the TV series The Wire where a white tourist asks a gang member where the Poe House was. He replied, in a play on accents, “Look around, take your pick!” He’s right, it’s a grim neighborhood in a grim town.
But in the end, it was just a building, clinging to the past in a dreadful present. I walked up the steps to the door as Poe must have done so many times, but I still couldn’t feel the man.
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Poe in Baltimore: At his death his personal mystery begins to grow
A bit later, I found myself standing outside Washington Medical College. my next stop to find Poe in Baltimore. Today it’s an apartment building, but behind one of those windows, that on October 7, 1849, Edgar Allan Poe died. It was an inglorious end, him raving and calling out for someone named Reynolds. According to legend at least, his last words were “Lord help my poor soul.”
All we know is he was found wallowing in the gutter, apparently drunk, feverish and wearing another man’s clothes. The cause of death listed was vague, purposefully so it would appear. All the records regarding his death are long lost.
We know he had a great sense of foreboding, but that’s not particularly unusual for Poe. He expected things to go bad and they usually did, even without his help. He also played to his worst impulses, which didn’t help matters. The idea he was addicted to opium seem far fetched, the product of a disgruntled writer whom Poe had slighted, but the story has held on doggedly. But it didn’t take much to get Poe drunk. One tall glass could do it, two could tip him over the edge. Poe was no Dylan Thomas, he didn’t die after drinking all night, that much is certain. He would have been comatose.
It was standing outside the hospital, looking up at those windows that I decided I wouldn’t peer into the theories around his death too deeply. Death should be private, witnessed only by those who are there to help, not to feed an appetite for the gruesome, even if in Poe’s stories, he provided meat for those same people who loved to peer into the dark.
Poe never gave up hope. He rekindled a relationship with his childhood sweetheart, Sarah Elmira Royster, just over a year after his wife’s death, and after he had been rejected by another woman. That she loved him seems apparent, that she wanted to be there for him as well. That she was wary of him by reputation and experience is undoubted. When he proposed marriage she gave him a choice, an outright no, or time for her to consider it. In the end, it’s believed she decided to go ahead and be his wife, even though it meant losing three fourths of her late husband’s estate. Before Poe left for Baltimore, he paid her a final visit in her Richmond home. She wrote “He came up to my house on the evening of 26 Sept. to take leave of me. He was very sad, and complained of being quite sick… I felt so wretched about him all of that night, that I went up early the next morning to enquire after him, when, much to my regret, he had left in the boat for Baltimore.”
Two weeks later he was dead.
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Poe in Baltimore: Almost forgotten, and then a remembrance
Today you find the remains of Poe in Baltimore, interred in the burial ground of Westminster Hall. His original resting place was a lot less grand than the marble monument we see today.
Resting place … it’s a euphemism that I feel Poe would have spat at. We don’t rest in the grave, we decompose. The face we love, the lips we kissed, the hands we held, the body we devoured is slowly eaten by worms.
The location of his original grave is still marked, by a tombstone with a raven carved on it, not the only Poe in Baltimore, nor the only Poe in this cemetery, as his grandfather and brother lie here as well. The burial ground is quiet, compact and for America, ancient. The trees and the hulk of Westminster Hall cast shade to temper the June heat. It was here that for years an unnamed admirer brought Poe three roses and a bottle of cognac on his birthday, under the cover of darkness. But it’s possible, that had as much to do with soliciting support for the church and churchyard as it did out of respect for Poe himself. Poe is a valuable draw in many ways, and suits many purposes. The original toaster has long ago stopped his pilgrimage and it’s now done in a more theatrical, and tourism friendly style.
In 1875, Poe’s bones were exhumed and buried in the monument now found in the front of the churchyard, more befitting his stature as one of the greats of American, or world literature. He was a pop star before pop stars were commodities, but even then a tragic death sold books. The cemetery where Virginia was buried was relocated, and unclaimed bodies were disposed of. When a Poe biographer, William Gill rushed to save her bones, they were literally on the shovel about to be thrown in with the other unclaimed bodies, and would have been lost forever. She was reburied on one side of Edgar in a small bronze casket, his Aunt Clemm on the other, the family reunited in death. If his poem Spirit of the Dead contains the truth, he still worries about them both and still mourns Virginia’s death, even in the grave. For Poe believed death didn’t set us free. It just trapped us in the grave along with our fears that plagued us during our lives.
Poe’s grave is the spot of pilgrimage for those looking for Poe in Baltimore, and traditional to leave a penny, a remnant of the original fund raising effort for the memorial. But it’s not the most enduring monument to Edgar Allan Poe.
That honor belongs to all of us. The fact that nearly 200 years after his death, when most writers of his generation are forgotten in all but name, Poe’s dark star continues to rise higher and higher. The movies that bore his name in the sixties had little resemblance to the stories that inspired them. But as time goes on, the public’s perception of Poe grows slowly more nuanced. The projects which bear his name now circle ever closer to the truth about the man. It’s quite likely that people who know his work now actually know more about the writer than those who followed his work while he was alive.
We might have reached a point where Poe would have actually been happy with his income and most important, his reputation. For despite being a known curmudgeon, one gets the sense from reading Poe’s letters and criticisms that he really did care what people thought of him, truly wanted to be thought of as an artist of the highest calibre.
Poe has managed not only that in death, but a pop culture status unknown to most writers of his generation. The man, and his work has truly proven to be immortal.
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Poe in Baltimore: The Horse You Rode In On Tavern
It’s just after noon and I’m in Fell’s Point, another pilgrim’s point for Poe in Baltimore which butts up against the harbor. Out there lies Fort McHenry. This is the setting that inspired The Star Spangled Banner. I’m walking down the cobblestone street, a million miles away from the feel of the neighborhood where the Poe House and Museum lies, more trendy, with more bars and restaurants per square foot than anywhere else in Baltimore.
This was a maritime neighborhood back in the day, and it still carries that feel. You can hear seagulls and you suddenly remember after being in the center of Baltimore, that the city is an ocean town.
The Horse You Rode In On Saloon claims to be the oldest continuously operating tavern in the United States, having opened in 1775, obviously though under a different name. The current name comes from about fifty years ago, when a new owner was looking for something that would capture visitor’s attention. Anyone who knows the curse would recognize the name certainly. But it also referred to the fact that the fellow made the money for the down payment off a lucky horse at the track.
This is oddly out of synch, for Poe in Baltimore finally ran out of luck entirely.
With bar stools shaped like saddles, and horse puns and signs scattered throughout, the tavern does an admirable job of capturing the feel of the past, albeit an old west one oddly placed on the eastern seaboard. You can even purchase a bottle of Jack Daniel’s which is kept for you behind the bar, so when you come in they have your bottle waiting for you, just like in the movies.
It’s known as the last stop of Poe in Baltimore, where it is believed he spent his last night drinking in the city, before wandering out to the street and into that mysterious realm that spat him out on the other side, just this side of death. And though there’s no evidence Poe ever set foot in the place, they certainly play up the ghost named Edgar who occasionally swings the chandeliers and other ghostly acts which you find in many a haunted pub. Bartenders even set out a full shot glass on the bar at closing for the ghost. A dubious distinction for a man who came to Baltimore trying to avoid drink, and who might have met his end because of it.
I had the place pretty much to myself, chatted up a friendly lady bartender who persuaded me to have a pizza before I left town. Now this was a surprise, for it was only the night before I’d heard about The Horse and decided to stop in before leaving Poe in Baltimore. I was after all on a culinary quest as well as scholarly.
The pizza was surprisingly good, piled high with toppings, a thick layer of cheese on top, rich sauce … I mean what the fuck can you say about pizza? It’s either good or it’s not, you like or you don’t, and every town has a few places where the pizza has a somewhat local flavor. One thing I learned on this particular quest is that I’m not cut out to write restaurant reviews. When I’m traveling and in the thick of things, if I have a companion who is complaining of hunger I usually give them a stick of gum.
But I had the place to myself, there was no music playing and it was oddly silent when the bartender went to the back. So I closed my eyes and fell back in time, letting the room fill with people around me, the noise level rising and became aware of a diminutive man to my right, standing at the bar, taking a tentative drink from his glass, looking as afraid of it as a hiker who encounters a rattlesnake coiled up on the trail. Our eyes met and perhaps he saw in me that same fear of drink that he shared, and that same inability to turn away from it completely. I know the struggles Edgar went through with alcohol, as I’ve fought with them myself, albeit a bit more successfully. That first sip from the glass we both know can end there, or it can lead us down strange, tortured paths which empty out god only knows where.
I had several hours of driving ahead of me in the hot sun, New York City my finally destination, a town he knew well, where he found his greatest success and his greatest tragedy. We shared a sad smile, raised our glasses in a subtle toast and drained it. It was then I realized I was only staring at myself in the mirror behind the bar.
Some time later when I stumbled outside I realized the scent of restaurants were wafting downstream from me, and I was instead filled with the scent of the sea. I walked down the street a few paces and sat down on the curb, my feet in the cobblestone gutter. Somewhere around here, in one of these gutters once lay Edgar Allan Poe, writhing in misery, dying. He was lucky to be identified, because if not he might have just become another unknown casualty on the streets, buried in a pauper’s grave rather than under a find bit of masonry which draws the curious to find Poe in Baltimore.
The world might never have known what became of Edgar Allan Poe, and he might have ended up merely a footnote in American literature.
As it was, he spent four days dying more or less alone, slowly slipping from life into legend, his own final act playing out like one of his own stories, mysterious and not leaving the reader with any sense of hope.
I started this quest looking for a man long dead, known throughout the world by many, but well known by few. It’s hard finding the playful side of Edgar Allan Poe. He was surprisingly athletic, a strong swimmer, curiously successful for a time in the military, was apparently a sweet little boy. And he loved collecting sea shells.
That was when it hit home, that thought along with the smell of the harbor and a seagull snatching up a bit of trash from the street in front of me.
Poe lived his life in the shadow of the sea. Boston, Richmond, Charleston, New York City, Baltimore … Poe seldom strayed far from being able to breathe air colored by the ocean. He didn’t take the train from Richmond to Baltimore on his last journey, he took a boat. One of his proudest moments as a child, which he wanted his foster mother to know, was how brave he was on the ocean crossing from Richmond to Britain.
Annabel Lee lie in a sepulcher by the sea … the last poem he would write centered around the death of his love and the ocean. His only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, recounts terror at sea. There are the relentless waves in A Dream Within A Dream which sucks the sands of life from between your fingers. In The City In The Sea, it is illuminated by a light from out of the melancholy waters. And when the ruler of that city, Death, gives way to allow Satan to rise up from the ocean, rising from a thousand thrones, that grand city slips under the waves.
Today, most of us see the ocean as a destination, a place to spend a holiday. For Poe, and certainly for Poe in Baltimore, it was an integrated part of his life. He was familiar with all aspects of it, and it comes up again and again, nearly as often as death and loss in his work. It’s the setting that ties so much of his work together.
And so I finally got up and made my way from this kingdom by the sea, to my own further north, leaving Poe in Baltimore where he was to stay for years, till I finally got around to writing this. And there he remains, lying by the side of his darling, his life and his bride, in their sepulchre there by the sea — in their tomb by the sounding sea.
Eating Poe: A look at the life of Edgar Allan Poe and a culinary literary travelogue
Part One: Poe In Richmond
Part Two: Poe in Charleston and Poe’s Tavern
Part Three: Poe in New York and Il Buco Restaurant
Part Four: Poe in Baltimore and the Annabel Lee Tavern and Horse You Came In On Saloon
Shop for Poe in the Wytchery!
The Quarterly, Eating Poe in print, art prints of locations important in Poe’s life and Poe themed greeting cards