A Fitting Halloween In the Shadow of Edgar Allan Poe
A poem set in a graveyard on Halloween night — when the souls of the dead are said to return to Earth to walk among the living — is one of the many macabre masterpieces of Edgar Allen Poe.
In “Ulalume,” ghouls in woodlands guide the lover to the tomb of his beloved.
“The Raven,” a fictionalized film from 2012 using the title of another famous (and dark) poem, features actor John Cusack as Poe, whom the actor calls “The Godfather of Goth.”
Can there be a better time to celebrate Poe than on Halloween?
The Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, this month is featuring events related to both the poet and the holiday. In pre-pandemic days, the museum offered “Unhappy Hours” and readings of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” among other events “guaranteed to send shivers down your spine.”
The museum, which had its beginnings over 100 years ago, preserves the literary genius and major artifacts of Poe’s life. He grew up in Richmond, and though as an adult he lived in Philadelphia, Baltimore and the Bronx, he often returned to his hometown to visit family and friends.
Poe, known for writing about madness, superstition and death, once said that he “became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.” He reported attempting suicide at least once in his life, with an overdose of laudanum in November 1848 after Sarah Helen Whitman rejected his marriage proposal. His dark personality has been attributed to alcoholism, mental illness, or simply a life of loss and rejection.
His parents, David and Elizabeth Poe, were theater performers. David abandoned the family and left Elizabeth to take care of her three young children on her own. When Poe was just 2 years old, his mother died of tuberculosis while performing in Richmond. Poe was separated from his older brother and younger sister and taken in by the Allan family. His relationship with his foster father, John Allan, was tumultuous.
In October 1831, Poe wrote to Allan: “I am sorry that it is so seldom that I hear from you or even of you — for all communication seems to be at an end; and when I think of the long twenty-one years that I have called you father, and you have called me son, I could cry like a child to think that it should all end in this.”
The Allan family regularly attended services at Monumental Episcopal Church, but Poe’s spiritual beliefs evolved throughout his life.
“As an adult, he remarked that he enjoyed playing cards with the Jesuit fathers at Fordham University because they ‘smoked, drank, and played cards like gentlemen, and never said a word about religion,’” said Chris Semtner, curator of the Poe Museum. “Shortly after his wife’s death, Poe released his last book, ‘Eureka,’ a long philosophical essay in which he attempted to explain origins and destiny of the universe, matter, energy, time, and spirit.”
Poe’s idea, Semtner said, was that “everything is one” and “everyone is part of God and that God is present in everything.”
‘Eureka’ also revealed Poe’s strong belief in equality.
“The utter impossibility of anyone’s soul feeling itself inferior to another (is) proof that each soul is, in part, its own God — its own Creator.”
Semtner said that Poe once helped to free a slave.
“Poe was in Maryland where the manumission laws made it nearly impossible to free a slave without either obtaining approval from the legislature or waiting to include the manumission in one’s will, so Poe acted on his aunt Maria Clemm’s behalf to use a loophole to release a man named Edwin,” Semtner said. “Poe acted as Clemm’s agent in the matter because she was a widow and had limited rights. Women could not typically sign legal documents at that time.”
Poe married his cousin Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe in 1835, when she was 13 and he was 27. She died of tuberculosis in 1847, two years before Poe’s own death. The disease claimed the lives of many of Poe’s loved ones, including his mother and his foster parents.
In another tragic episode for the poet, the father of his childhood sweetheart, Sarah Elmira Royster, did not approve of the relationship and hid Poe’s love letters from her. She married someone else, thinking Poe had forgotten her. They rekindled their relationship and became engaged several months before Poe died.
Poe was in Richmond just days before his death on Oct. 7, 1849. He died under mysterious circumstances while in Baltimore, where he was found disoriented and wearing clothes that didn’t belong to him. The cause of his death is still debated 171 years later.
One theory was that Poe died from toxins. Strands of hair were tested for mercury, lead and arsenic, among other substances. The tests showed that these substances were in his body but not at levels that cause death.
Semtner thinks Poe’s death was caused by “multiple factors,” including disease and being the victim of a crime called “cooping.”
Cooping was the practice by which political gangs grabbed out-of-towners, who nobody would miss, got them drunk or drugged them [and forced them to vote for particular candidates multiple times in different disguises].”
(Edited by Cathy Jones, Emily Crockett and Judy Isacoff)