By Cary Chapman
“It’s true! Yes, I have been ill, very ill. But why do you say that I have lost control of my mind, why do you say that I am mad?”
These opening lines of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart” plunge the reader into a story that horrifies not with a zombie apocalypse or goblins or anything overtly supernatural. Rather, it’s a tale of psychological terror—of guilt so intense that a murderer hears the beating heart of his victim buried beneath the floorboards. Before Freud was even born, Poe was a master of delving deep into the human subconscious, bringing his readers along for the dark and twisted ride. Poe’s tortured protagonists make you wonder… who was this man?
When I, literature nerd extraordinaire, visited to the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia this winter break, I was amazed at the series of eerie tragedies that occurred one after another for all forty years of Poe’s life. There are too many to repeat here, but indulge me for one of the most sinister.
As a young man, Poe was secretly engaged to a woman named Sarah Elmira Royster. Her father disapproved of the union, and Sarah married another man to become Sarah Elmira Shelton. Poe went on to marry his thirteen-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm, in 1836. She died at the age of 24 of tuberculosis in a Bronx cottage that you can visit today. But Poe never forgot his first love and when Sarah Elmira was widowed, she and Poe became engaged—in 1849.
Here’s where things get freaky: On September 27, 1849, Poe left Richmond for New York. He was a literary celebrity at this point, so the trip makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is what happened next: Poe never made it to New York. On October 3, 1849, he was found delirious on the streets of Baltimore. Four days later, on October 7, Poe died. Think about that for a second: writer, widow, and orphan Edgar finally gets engaged to his childhood sweetheart, only to die before the wedding under mysterious circumstances in a city not his own. It’s a fitting end if there ever was one for the king of the macabre—Poe’s life ended in delirium.
It’s true! Yes, he was ill, very ill. Had he lost control of his mind? Do you say that he is mad?
The museum does a great job of layering stories of Poe’s life with the stories in his work, crafting a nuanced portrait of a complex man. We meet the jock who swam six miles in the James River, a feat that has never been repeated. Here we see the orphaned son of Boston actors sent to live with the Allan family in Richmond. There’s the lover, the critic, and the man who wrote the first modern detective story, haunting lyrical poetry, morbid satire, and theories of the cosmos. Oh, and the chilling psychological horror stories for which he is most known.
Physically located in the oldest house in Richmond, the museum is not Poe’s home, but a building nonetheless rich with history. It is a fitting setting for artifacts like Poe’s boyhood bed, his white silk vest, and portraits of influential people in his life. Two black cats roam a courtyard the museum calls The Enchanted Garden, whose brick pathways are made from pieces of the Southern Literary Messenger building where Poe worked for two years.
In addition to the traditional biographical information, the museum also offers artistic interpretations of Poe’s work, a Poe shrine, and a particularly bizarre and wonderful room whose sole purpose is to offer context for the satirical short story “Some Words with a Mummy.” I’ll let you read it for yourself, but let me just give you a teaser. A group of scientists unwrap a mummy whose name is Allamistakeo. He comes to life with the help of a little electricity, engages in conversation with the scientists, and ends up resolutely unimpressed with all modern technology and innovation—with the exception of the cough drop.
I highly recommend this museum and I will conclude my review by answering a question I know is burning on all of your minds: yes, you can have your wedding here.
Cary Chapman is a junior and a writer for Barnard Bite.