Every since I was in fifth grade and my teacher read to us “The Tell-Tale Heart,” I have been both frightened by and fascinated with Edgar Allan Poe. My mind wouldn’t let me forget the pieces of the old man with the vulture eye buried under the floorboard.
Later, when I learned more about Poe’s life story, it became evident, at least to me, that it was his own experiences that allowed him to write such fantastically gruesome tales. Poe’s father left the family when his son was just a year old and by the time he was two, consumption (tuberculosis) had claimed his mother. The orphaned boy went to live with a wealthy family, the Allans, but his stepfather was indifferent. Poe struggled all his life, barely making enough to provide for his extended family. He lost his wife Virginia to consumption as well and Poe, already a heavy drinker, sought solace in the bottle. The writer in me was compelled to retrace his steps by literally visiting places he had lived to try to understand more about what drove him to write as he did.
My family recently took a trip to Quantico, Virginia to see a friend retire from the Marine Corps. We decided to take the opportunity to go visit another friend who lived in Philadelphia. While in Quantico, I casually mentioned to my husband that, while I had been to the Poe Museum in Richmond as well as his mother Elizabeth’s grave, I never made it up to Baltimore to see his gravesite. Aware of my Poe obsession, my husband begrudgingly promised he would take me there since we passed through Baltimore on the way to Philly.
Located in the middle of downtown Baltimore, you could see Poe’s grave from the street. It was large and white, but it still had a melancholy feel to it. The top of the monument was shadowy with stains from the years of weather. In the middle was a large medal circle with Poe’s depiction, but it was so dark, you could hardly make out his grim face. How perfectly appropriate for a character such as Poe. I notice someone had left roses at the base of the monument. I was not the only Poe fan to make this pilgrimage. In fact, as we mingled around the graveyard that sunny day, several others walked up to study the monument.
As we went to leave, I saw a sign that said “Poe House” and pointed straight ahead. I knew his grave was in Baltimore, but I didn’t know there was a house – oh joy! I headed my husband in the direction of the sign. We entered what looked like a rundown housing project. My husband looked at me a bit apprehensively, but we both knew I wasn’t going to be happy until we found the house. Not wanting to hear me whine all the way to Philly, he drove around the block, but the house was nowhere to be found. We drove the block again, still missing the house. How hard could it be to find a house in the middle of a housing project?
As it turned out, the house was attached to one of the apartments in the housing project, so it was quite easy to overlook. It was in such a bad neighborhood, you had to knock on the door so the curator, Jeff Jerome, could check the close circuit camera to see you were actually a Poe fan and not some crazed gangster looking to stick him up I suppose. It was a bit disconcerting, yet at the same time it seemed appropriate that the Poe house would be in such a dilapidated neighborhood. After all, he sold “The Raven” for a mere $9.
We knocked, Jerome opened the door, and we walked into a terribly cramped, darkly lit room. Jerome told us that Poe lived there with his aunt Maria, her mother Elizabeth, her daughter Virginia, and perhaps even her son Henry at times. It seemed like there was hardly enough room in this house for one person, much less four or five. After seeing the first two rooms, we went up the incredibly narrow steep staircase to the second story.
There were two rooms on the second story, then another narrow and steep staircase that led up to an attic bedroom which was closed off. I was a bit disappointed that the house held very few items that Poe had actually owned. But, I was standing in a tiny house where Poe once ate, slept, and wrote. I was walking on the same floor he had walked on and looking at the same walls he had seen day in and day out. It was easy to physically see why his stories were so gloomy and filled with horrific tales of death. For a few moments, I was in Poe heaven.