Where Poe once lived, myths of today meet horrors of past

To residents, house is alien, but tourists find fear in streets

September 18, 1999|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Imaginative tales continue to grow from the house where Edgar Allan Poe wrote his first horror stories almost 170 years ago.

Literary tourists cross paths with city folks every Saturday at Poe's home in West Baltimore, which is surrounded by a public housing complex that bears Poe's name.

With the 150th anniversary of the author's death coming up next month, the meetings of these decidedly different cultures provides a glimpse into what frightens people today, and how perceptions and misperceptions mutate into what might be called urban vs. tourist folklore.

Though police say visiting the Poe museum is safe, many tourists are wary of urban violence. They have repeated and exaggerated the story of a 1995 tour-bus robbery near the house so often that it has blossomed into a grotesque legend, said curator Jeff Jerome.

Many local residents are also leery of the museum.

Neighbors have developed an elaborate set of stories based upon a local myth: that Poe's ghost stalks the neighborhood. They tell stories about Poe's spirit appearing as a shadow seated at a writing desk, snatching and torturing children at night, clattering loudly across rooftops and hurling furniture.

Residents sit on their porches and watch the tourists come and go from Edgar Allan Poe House & Museum at 203 N. Amity St. But many who have lived nearby for decades have never ventured inside the literary shrine.

"We've always heard that children who walk past Poe's house at night hear strange noises and see shadows by the window -- then the kids disappear," said Delores Woodson, 35, who lives down the block from the author's home.

Literary connoisseurs from London and Laurel feel comfortable exploring the dark and claustrophobic rooms where Poe conjured up images of mutilation, incest and premature burial.

Although the museum always has a police officer posted outside during visiting hours, tourists step quickly into their cars and speed off without making eye contact with the people watching from their porches.

Visitors tell patently false tales about public housing residents pointing them the wrong way through the maze of streets leading to the site, Jerome said.

"It happens all the time," said Jerome. "You'll have a car full of tourists coming down the street, and they look lost. So someone in the neighborhood raises their finger and says, `It's down there.' But of course, the tourists' windows are closed because they are frightened, and so they come in here and complain, `They are telling us to get out of the area.' In fact, the people who live here are very nice, and they are just trying to direct them here."

The false tales are told against a surreal backdrop.

The narrow rowhouse from which Poe launched his literary career is beautifully maintained, with brightly painted planters out front. But it sits across the street from a row of boarded-up townhouses haunted by drug addicts, according to local residents.

"This is the home of a great man, but you should see what it looks like down here at 4: 30 a.m. when the whole street is full of rats," said Eddie Richardson, 55, who lives in Poe Homes. "They are coming out of all the buildings, 8 inches long and mean. The cats won't even mess with them."

Strange mix

Wallace Holderby Clark III, community manager for Edgewood Management Corp. which manages the 280-unit public housing complex, describes himself as a former "redneck biker trash" tough guy. But he serves as the guardian of the poet's home.

He acknowledged that the city-owned Poe home and the public housing complex are a strange mix. "But we really try to keep things clean here, because this place represents Baltimore," he said.

The neighborhood west of downtown is poor, with boarded-up stores and weedy lots cluttered with overturned furniture and heaps of uncollected garbage.

Poverty is not new to the area.

The house on Amity Street was threatened with demolition in 1939 during the city's first "slum clearance" project. The city demolished 300 run-down houses and replaced them with its first public housing, Poe Homes.

Poe might have been poor enough to qualify for public housing if it had existed when he was alive.

An orphan neglected by a foster family in Richmond, Va., Poe moved to West Baltimore at age 23, after dropping out of the University of Virginia and being thrown out of West Point, according to Kenneth Silverman's biography "Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never Ending Remembrance."

Poe shared the five-room house on Amity Street from 1832 to 1835 with his grandmother, aunt and two cousins, one of whom, Virginia Clemm, he married when he was 27 and she was 13.

Although he kept his black frock coat clean, Poe was close to starvation, failing to find work as a teacher and editorial assistant.

"Without friends, without any means, consequently of obtaining employment, I am perishing -- absolutely perishing for want of aid. For God's sake pity me, and save me from destruction," Poe wrote in one letter during his time on Amity Street.

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