Over the summer I’ve had the privilege of doing research for a future project involving Edgar Allan Poe (that’s all I will say about this project for now). So, over the summer I have flooded my Facebook page with posts and pictures about Poe (without revealing what I’m working on). I have also discussed him with anyone and everyone who is willing to listen (including my loving family members who have now been over exposed – or as I would say “over exPOEd.)
With that in mind, let me share with you 12 things you may not know about Edgar Allan Poe.
1. HIS HAIR WAS NOT BLACK
Most people think “Of course his hair was black, look at his photograph”. But remember, those daguerreotypes were black and white – not color. The reality is his hair was dark brown.
The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore notes: “It has commonly been stated that Poe’s hair was black, often with the poetical note that it was ‘black as a raven’s wing.’ Several locks of his hair survive, however, and all attest clearly that his hair was dark brown.” You can see these locks online with a simple word search or follow the link below marked “Poe’s Hair”.
2. HE HAD HIS MUSTACHE FOR ONLY A FEW YEARS
Just as first impressions can be lasting, there are times when last impressions are lasting too. Such is the case of Poe and his mustache. The images of Poe in his last few years show him with his trademark mustache. But according to The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore “Poe first grew his now-famous mustache in about 1845. Prior to that time he seems to have preferred long sideburns.” Since Poe died in 1849 this means that he only had his mustache for about four years.
3. HIS MIDDLE NAME WAS NOT “ALLAN”
Poe’s mother died when he was about 3 and his father had abandoned the family about a year before that. Poe was then raised by John and Frances Allan of Richmond, VA. They were not family members but were strangers who were kind enough to give him a home. They never adopted him although Poe identified himself with the Allan family (calling John “Pa” and Frances “Ma”). It was Poe himself who added the “Allan” to his name. But it was only an association and not part of his legal name.
4. HE WAS STRONGER THAN HE LOOKED
We usually think of poets as non-athletic. And the pictures we have of Edgar Allan Poe do not display the image of a muscleman or athlete. The truth is he was very fit and strong for most of his life. He once swam 6 miles upstream on the James River in Richmond, VA, he writes about how he “greatly enjoyed boxing” and other sporting activities.
5. HE SERVED IN THE ARMY AND ATTENDED WEST POINT
In 1827, claiming to be 22 when he was really only 18, Poe enlisted in the U.S. Army under the name of Edgar A Perry. He did well and within two years had risen to the rank of Sergeant Major. In 1830 he was accepted to West Point (under his real name) where he excelled in French, Latin, mathematics and debate. But he had a falling out with his foster father, John Allan, who had helped him to get into West Point. So Poe devised a scheme to have himself dismissed via a Court Martial in what may have been an attempt to dishonor John Allan.
6. HE WAS VERY HAPPLY MARRIED
No, his wife’s name was not Lenore (nor was it Helen or Annabelle Lee). His wife was Virginia Clemm. She was also Poe’s first cousin and was only 13 years old when they were married.
Before we get too hard on Edgar we have to consider the day in which he lived. In the 19th century it was not uncommon for cousins to marry. It should also be remembered that in the 19th century women did not have equal rights or careers. Most depended on husbands or family members. His marriage to Virginia was at first more of a promise to care for her. The first year of their marriage Poe lived in Richmond while Virginia and her mother Maria lived in Baltimore. Also, during the first two years they lived together they slept in separate bedrooms, it was only after Virginia was older they shared the same bed.
Regardless, all accounts tell us that Poe and Virginia were very happily married. They openly showed their affections towards one another and were extremely close. Theirs was a loving and romantic relationship. Sadly, in 1847 Virginia died of tuberculosis in their humble little cottage in what is now the Bronx, NY. Her death shattered Poe who himself died two years later.
7. HE WAS NOT A LIFE-LONG ALCOHOLIC
Poe had a problem with alcohol – but not the problem most people think of. In a wonderful talk at the Orlando Library, Chris Semtner (see link below), curator of the Poe Museum in Richmond noted that Poe’s system could not handle alcohol and that he would get drunk by drinking a half glass of wine. He also reminds us that Poe lived in a day when in many places alcohol was safer to drink than was the water. But most of his life he abstained from alcohol. However, there were times in Poe’s life when he turned to drink – mostly after some tragic event such as the death of Virginia.
8. HE WAS NOT AN ATHEIST
Poe is quoted as saying, “All religion, my friend, is simply evolved out of fraud, fear, greed, imagination, and poetry.” One major problem – Edgar Allan Poe never said this. Poe would not be considered a religious man, but he was also no atheist (as some have falsely accused).
Here are some facts: He was baptized as a child and raised by a very devote foster mother who he greatly loved. Likewise, he loved his mother-in-law, who lived with him, who was also very devote. He wrote a Catholic hymn in praise of God and of Mary (which you can read by following this link). In his letters he talks about the need to trust in God, and in his epic poem Eureka he writes about theology and the nature of God. If this is atheism it is a very strange form of it.
9. HE WROTE ABOUT SCIENCE
Poe considered Eureka his greatest work. One of the interesting things about it is that he diagrams the standard cosmological model (commonly known as The Big Bang) and talks about an expanding universe that came from an exploding single particle. Of course he did this almost 100 years before Georges Lemaître presented the theory of an expanding universe (which was later shown to be correct) and in a day when most scientist held to the steady state theory that the universe is eternal and not expanding.
Poe also wrote a forward to a book about sea shells and was interested in other forms of natural science.
10. HIS INFLUENCE ON LITERATURE IS ENORMOUS
Before there was a Sherlock Holmes, Edgar Allan Poe wrote about a detective who solved crimes deductively in The Murders in the Rue Morgue . He wrote one of the first science fiction stories in his short story The Ballon Hoax. His first novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, influenced Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. And Poe’s short stories likewise influenced Jules Verne as can be seen in Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth and Around the World in Eighty Days.
11. HE HAD A SENSE OF HUMOR
While Poe wrote some of the scariest stories for his day he also wrote funny stories too. So along with Ligeia, Berenice, The Raven, The Pit and the Pendulum and The Tell-Tale Heart you might consider also reading Lionizing, How To Write A Blackwood Article, Never Bet The Devil Your Head (which is hilarious), Bon-Bon, The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether, and The Devil in the Belfry. Professor Susan Amper has given an excellent Ted Talk on the humor of Poe (listed below) which she titles Poe’s Darkest Secret – He Was Kidding.
12. HIS DEATH REMAINS A MYSTERY
The death of Edgar Allan Poe is a mystery. He was 40 years old and on his way to New York from Richmond to start a new job when he got off a boat in Baltimore and disappeared for three days. When found, he was delirious and in clothing that was not his own. He was taken to the hospital where he died on October 7, 1849.
There are several theories about his death including heart disease, epilepsy, cholera, rabies and poisoning. Some believe he was murdered because of a very old gambling debt. The most popular belief is that of a political practice called “cooping” where individuals were drugged or given too much alcohol and then forced to vote for a particular candidate over and over again, each time changing their clothing so as to fool those working at polling stations. I have one good friend who believes Poe died from medical experimentation, which could very well have been the case (it does seem he had mysterious scars on his body around his shoulder, heart and skull – and he was known to visit doctors for reasons unknown).
The cause of his death will most likely never be known, but somehow this seems to fit Edgar Allan Poe.
Bloomfield, Shelley Costa. The Everything Guide To Edgar Allan Poe. Adams Media, 2007.
Hutchisson, James M. Poe. Jackson: University Press of Missippi, 2005.
Ocker, J. W. Poe-Land. The Countryman Press, 2015.
Ostrom, J. W. The Collected Letters of Edgar Allan Poe. Harvard University Press, 1948.
River, Charles. American Legends: The Life of Edgar Allan Poe, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013.
Thomas, Kurt. Edgar Allan Poe: The Life of a Genius Who Was Misunderstood. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015.