Some Reflections on Historical Fiction and Notes on the Death of Edgar Allan Poe

The Sacred Fury is set in Baltimore in the very near future, but it includes two dramatis personae who appertain to the past: Edgar Allan Poe and John Reuben Thompson. The latter appears as a literary voice in a fictional letter written in his style, and the former as a specter avenging the desecration of his grave.

“The past is a foreign country,” wrote L.P. Hartley. As I see it, the first rule for any writer of fiction about the past is to respect the known geography of that country. One of the worst offenders against this rule is Larry McMurtry, a superb story teller who nevertheless seems compelled to rewrite history. In Streets of Laredo, for example, he has a serial killer shoot down the famous Judge Roy Bean. If a shot killed the real Judge Bean, it was a shot of whiskey, and several years after the time frame of McMurtry’s novel at that. My idea of a model is the late George MacDonald Fraser, who wrote the Flashman series. He weaves his tales in the interstices of the known events and includes helpful endnotes to inform the reader.

The death of Edgar Allan Poe is still a dark mystery. I am indebted to John Evangelist Walsh for his well-researched and informative book Midnight Dreary. His investigation into the circumstances of Poe’s death suggests that Poe was murdered by the brothers of his fiancée Elmira Royster Shelton. Her family had prevented him from marrying her more than twenty years earlier, and the poem Annabel Lee alludes to her “highborn kinsmen” who “bore her away from me.” In his morbid way, he describes himself lying down by the side of the dead Annabel Lee “in her sepulcher there by the sea.” There can be no better indication of Poe’s bizarre cast of mind than that he apparently thought the poem a fit tribute to his impending marriage. As recounted in The Sacred Fury, he really did hand the poem, on a rolled-up piece of paper, to John Reuben Thompson just before leaving on his fatal journey through Baltimore.

Here follows a chronology of relevant events:

January 19, 1809 Birth of Edgar Poe, in Boston, Massachusetts.

1811 Edgar’s father, David Poe, deserts his wife Elizabeth and his two children. Elizabeth dies of tuberculosis, and the orphaned Edgar is taken in as a foster child by John Allan, a merchant from Scotland, who gives him the middle name “Allan.”

1826 Poe leaves Richmond for college, having pledged to marry his 15-year-old sweetheart Elmira. He writes letters to her, all of which are intercepted and destroyed by her father.

December, 1828 Elmira marries the wealthy merchant Alexander Shelton, under pressure from her parents.

1836 Poe returns to Richmond, marries his cousin Virginia Clemm, and goes to work as editor of The Southern Literary Messenger, a position he holds for only a year.

1844 Alexander Shelton dies of pneumonia.

January 29, 1845 Publication of The Raven makes Poe famous but does not improve his finances.

January 30, 1847 Virginia Clemm Poe dies of tuberculosis in the impoverished couple’s chilly little cottage in Fordham, New York.

1848 Poe publishes his unreadable cosmological essay Eureka: A Prose Poem.

August 27, 1849 Poe joins a temperance society and becomes engaged to Elmira a few days later. The couple selects October 17 as the wedding date.

September 26, 1849 Poe concludes his business in Richmond and hands the manuscript of Annabel Lee to John Reuben Thompson, before departing for his home in New York, where he plans to wrap up his affairs and collect his mother-in-law Mrs. Maria Clemm, who is to attend the wedding. On the way to New York, he intends to stop in Philadelphia to edit a book of poems for a Mrs. Loud, for a fee of one hundred dollars.

September 27, 1849 Poe leaves Richmond by steamer for Baltimore, then presumably takes the train for Philadelphia the next morning.

Mysterious gap.

October 3, 1849 Poe is found at Ryan’s Tavern in Baltimore, shabbily attired and in a stupor.

October 7, 1849 Poe dies at Washington Medical College (later Church Home and Hospital) and is buried in an unmarked grave in the lot purchased by his grandfather David Poe, Sr., in the Presbyterian cemetery.

1852 Westminster Presbyterian Church is built over the cemetery.

1860 Cousin Neilson Poe orders a marble headstone from Hugh Sisson, but before it can be erected, a freight train inexplicably runs off the Northern Central track and through Sisson’s yard, demolishing the stone. (Apparently the ghost of Poe was not satisfied with the quality of the memorial.)

November 17, 1875 Poe is reinterred, and a fine marble monument is dedicated, thanks to Miss Sara Sigourney Rice, who collected many small contributions, and Mr. George W. Childs, who put up half the cost. George A. Frederick (architect of Baltimore’s City Hall) designed the memorial, and Hugh Sisson carved the stone. Maria Clemm’s remains are laid in the same grave.

1882 Friedrich Nietzsche announces the death of God.

1885 The bones of Virginia Clemm are brought down from New York and buried next to those of her husband.

1977 The Presbytery of Baltimore announces the death of the Westminster Presbyterian congregation, and the newly-created non-profit Westminster Preservation Trust takes over the care of the secularized “Westminster Hall.”