Grave mistakes and other mysteries about Poe


October 29, 1998|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,SUN STAFF

Halloween is a time for witches, goblins, ghosts - and mysteries. One of the longest and most endearing mysteries centers on the life and death of Edgar Allan Poe.

Literary critic, author, editor, and one-time Baltimore resident, Poe continues to haunt the imagination of local people. People such as George Figgs, who owns the Orpheum Cinema in Fells Point and who will be the artistic director of the soon-to-be-refurbished Grand Theater in Highlandtown.

"I freely admit that I am obsessed," says Figgs while in the room where Poe is believed to have died on Oct. 7, 1849.

Figgs has been fascinated by Poe since he was a boy. He once quit his job and dedicated 18 months to researching Poe's life. He has also written a screenplay about Poe and wants to "vindicate" the literary figure and set the record straight.

The first mystery is the true character of the man himself. Many believe he was a drunkard with few outside interests other than work and family. A man Poe thought his friend, Rufus Griswold, perpetuated that characterization.

"Rufus Griswold was the enemy," says Figgs.

Griswold was a newspaper editor who wrote malicious and damaging things about Poe, such as his being an alcoholic drug addict.

Figgs disputes that Poe drank himself to death.

"There's evidence that he had diabetes," Figgs says. "He would have been very susceptible to even one glass of wine."

Poe's burial place is also shrouded in - if not mystery - a bit of confusion.

Right inside the burial grounds at Westminster Hall, Fayette and Greene streets, is a large monument marking the burial plot of Poe, his wife, Virginia (who was also his cousin), and her mother.

It is located in easy viewing distance of the passing public. On a recent sunny afternoon there were bunches of dried flowers around the gravesite. People walked in to visit the site and to pay their respects.

But is that really where Poe is buried?

Figgs says no.

In the back, around the corner and out of view of passers-by, there is another grave site, barren of flowers.

"This is where Eddie is," Figgs says while gazing at the grave.

"Are you here to visit Eddie?" Figgs asks a woman who had wandered into the cemetery and found her way to the burial plot.

"Yes," the woman nods as she stares at the grave.

According to Figgs and some other Poe scholars, the confusion happened when, in 1875, Poe's remains were supposed to have been moved from the back of the burial grounds to the front.

However, according to a 20-year-old article in the Maryland Historical Society's magazine, the skeleton was that of a young soldier.

"Because of the excellent condition of the teeth," the corpse was believed to have been a young man, the article states. Poe died at the age of 40.

Even the place where Poe died is up for some discussion.

That his life ended in what is now Church Home & Hospital, at 100 N. Broadway, is accepted as fact. A plaque in the southwest tower of the East Building in the hospital reads: "Here, before alterations in this building was the room in which Edgar Allan Poe died, Oct. 7, 1849."

However, a book, titled "Poe Died Here: Recollections of Church Home & Hospital" by Frederick T. Wehr (Church Home & Hospital, 1994) claims otherwise. "William N. Batchelor, who lived here with his caretaker family in the 1850s, states that the stairs were here at the time. This and the lack of evidence that the tower has ever been modified suggest that Mr. Poe died elsewhere in the building."

Figgs explained how Poe ended up in Church Home & Hospital in the first place.

"He took the steamer from Richmond to Baltimore and then went to Philadelphia to edit some poetry. He got on a train in Philadelphia thinking he was heading for New York. He wasn't intending to come back to Baltimore.

"He thought he was going to step out at a station in New York. He stepped out at a station in Baltimore," Figgs says.

It was an election eve night on Oct. 3, 1849, when Poe fell ill. He was purported to have been drunk, but evidence shows otherwise. The doctor at Washington Medical College (which later became Church Home & Hospital) said he smelled no liquor on his breadth, according to research by Figgs.

"The doctor thought he might have been drugged," Figgs says.

Perhaps Poe was or wasn't an alcoholic. He probably wasn't in the best of health to begin with.

"It was the time of a cholera epidemic. Baltimore got hit, but not as much as the larger cities like Philadelphia and New York - and when he left Philly, he had a touch of cholera," according to Figgs' research.

Poe was found at Gunner's Hall and Saloon, which was located at Lombard Street between High and Exeter streets. There isn't a building on the site now.

Poe was taken in a cab to the hospital where he died four days later. According to Dr. J.F.C. Handel, then Baltimore Health Commissioner, the cause of death was "congestion of the brain."

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