The population of New York City was 515,547 at the beginning of 1849. When a cholera epidemic broke out that spring, about 100,000 people fled the city. Of those who remained, 5,071 succumbed to the disease. The July 8 issue of The Christian Intelligencer reported that 358 New Yorkers died of cholera in the week of June 30 through July 7. Also on July 7, Edgar Allan Poe wrote his mother-in-law, “I have been so ill — have had the cholera, or spasms quiet as bad, and can now hardly hold the pen…The very instant you get this, come to me. The joy of seeing you will almost compensate for our sorrows. We can but die together. It is no use to reason with me now; I must die…For your sake it would be sweet to live, but we must die together.” Poe wrote “New York” at the top of the page, but he probably wrote it in nearby Philadelphia, which was also suffering from a cholera epidemic. Twelve days later, he wrote his friend E.H.N. Patterson that he had “barely escaped with my life” from the cholera epidemic.
On August 7, Poe wrote Patterson that he had “suffered worse than death — not so much from the Cholera as from its long-continued consequences in debility and congestion of the brain — the latter, possibly, attributable to the calomel taken.” Calomel was a medicine derived from toxic mercury. One of many potentially dangerous “remedies” doctors of the time often prescribed to those suffering from a variety of maladies.
At a time before the acceptance of germ theory, doctors had little understanding of the causes of diseases and virtually no comprehension of how to cure them. Various quack remedies for cholera included prescribing opium, mercury pills, and oil of turpentine. If these failed to produce results, the doctor might perform tobacco smoke enemas or administer beeswax plugs to stop the diarrhea associated with the disease. The following article from the New York lists a few other proposed “cures.”
Unknown to North America before 1832, cholera tore a path of destruction across the continent that year as part of a worldwide pandemic that had begun in India and swept westward through Europe before crossing the Atlantic. In an April 9, 1832 letter, the German poet Henirich Heine described the arrival of cholera in Paris.
On March 29th, the night of mi-careme, a masked ball was in progress, the chabut in full swing. Suddenly, the gayest of the harlequins collapsed, cold in the limbs, and, underneath his mask, “violet-blue” in the face. Laughter died out, dancing ceased, and in a short while carriage-loads of people were hurried from the redoute to the Hotel Dieu to die, and to prevent a panic among the patients, were thrust into rude graves in their dominoes. Soon the public halls were filled with dead bodies, sewed in sacks for want of coffins. Long lines of hearses stood en queue outside Pere Lachaise. Everybody wore flannel bandages. The rich gathered up their belongings and fled the town. Over 120,000 passports were issued at the Hotel de Ville.
Out of a population of 650,000 Paris lost 20,000 of its citizens to cholera during the 1832 epidemic. In London, another 6,536 died. Cholera claimed 100,000 in France; 55,000 in the United Kingdom; 130,000 in Egypt; 100,000 in Hungary; and even more elsewhere during that pandemic. In New York City, which had a population of about 250,000 at the time, 3,000 people died, and an estimated 100,000 fled the city.
Poe was in Baltimore in 1832 and would have seen the panic brought about by the arrival of the disease. He also lost one of his closest friends Ebenezer Burling, who succumbed to cholera in Richmond. The best doctors of the time were unable to arrest the progress of the disease. It would be years before they would realize it was carried in the water. Unsuspecting victims contracted the germs from drinking water. Once they displayed symptoms, sufferers could expect about a fifty percent mortality rate.
Without a proper understanding of the causes of cholera, residents could do little to prepare for it. Writing twenty years later, Dr. George B. Wood seemed dumbfounded about how to stop it when he wrote, “No barriers are sufficient to obstruct its progress. It crosses mountains, deserts, and oceans. Opposing winds do not check it. All classes of persons, male and female, young and old, the robust and the feeble, are exposed to its assault; and even those whom it has once visited are not always subsequently exempt.”
Former New York mayor Phillip Horne was among many who thought they knew the real cause of the disease—the Irish. These immigrants, “filthy, intemperate, unused to the comforts of life and regardless of its proprieties…flock to the populous towns of the great West, with disease contracted on shipboard, and increased by bad habits on shore,” he wrote in his diary.
By the end of the 1849 epidemic, cholera had claimed 150,000 American lives. While this disease struck terror wherever it visited, cholera was not unique among the deadly pandemics that threatened Poe’s world. Yellow fever epidemics broke out multiple times in the early nineteenth century, forcing Poe’s mother to flee from an outbreak in New York and overtaking his grandmother in Charleston. His cousin George William Poe succumbed to yellow fever in Baltimore. Virginia experienced thirteen yellow fever epidemics in the 1800s. The worst of these took place in Norfolk in 1855, six years after Poe’s death. Of the city’s population of 16,000, about 6,000 fled the area, and 2,000 died.
Tuberculosis also claimed thousands of lives each year. Among those he knew, Poe’s mother, foster mother, brother, wife, and literary executor died from the extremely widespread and very contagious killer. He likely carried a latent form of the disease.
His first published short story “Metzengerstein” reflects the age’s tendency to romanticize the wasting disease, then called “consumption.” In the tale, the narrator says, “The beautiful Lady Mary! — how could she die? — and of consumption! But it is a path I have prayed to follow. I would wish all I love to perish of that gentle disease. How glorious! to depart in the hey-day of the young blood — the heart of all passion — the imagination all fire — amid the remembrances of happier days — in the fall of the year, and so be buried up forever in the gorgeous, autumnal leaves.”
Fifteen years later, Poe would watch his wife waste away from tuberculosis over the course of five agonizing years.
“King Pest” illustration by Harry Clarke
In the face of all these real-life terrors, Poe turned to his writing. The cholera pandemic of 1832 inspired his short stories “King Pest” and “The Masque of the Red Death” and provided a setting for his tale “The Sphinx.” The beautiful young women who succumb to wasting deaths in so many of his stories might be suffering from the same consumption that had claimed many of his loved ones.
Poe’s brother William Henry Leonard Poe, also wrote about yellow fever, setting his story “The Pirate” during an outbreak. Virginia Poe, Edgar’s wife, also wrote, in her only surviving poem, about the consumption that ravaged her lungs and how she wanted to move to a cottage in the country to “heal my weakened lungs.”
It was not until well after Poe’s death that doctors were finally able to effectively combat these illnesses. With greater understanding of the causes and cures of these diseases, the public gradually became less prone to live in fear of the next plague or to panic at the first sight of disease. That is why it is sometimes difficult to understand just how terrifying a story like “The Masque of the Red Death” might have been to the author’s contemporaries or to comprehend how deeply offensive Robert Louis Stevenson found Poe’s plague comedy “King Pest,” written just three years after the 1832 cholera pandemic. (Stevenson went so far as to write that the author of that story had “ceased to be a human being.”) This is why from June 23 through August 21, the Poe Museum will host the special exhibit Pandemics and Poe exploring the ways deadly diseases like yellow fever, cholera, and tuberculosis touched Edgar Allan Poe’s life and inspired some of his greatest work. The exhibit features rare first printings and original documents, including a Poe family bible, that trace the impact of disease and death on Poe’s world.
“The Masque of the Red Death” illustrated by Harry Clarke
British Broadsheet warning about Cholera Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images [email protected] http://wellcomeimages.org Broadsheet warning about Indian cholera symptons and recommending remedies, issued in Clerkenwell, London, by Thos. Key and Geo. Tindall: Church wardens. London, 1831. 1831 Published: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Editor Nathaniel Parker Willis once burned a manuscript of Poe’s “Fairy-Land.” That seems like pretty harsh treatment from a literary editor; and we wonder why such atmospheric lines as “Dim vales-and shadowy floods- / And cloudy-looking woods” might receive such severe critical feedback? The answer lies in comparing the poem we commonly know with its alternative publishing in Poe’s anthology of poems in 1831.
It was no secret that Poe was always at work altering lines and switching words-“Fairy-Land” was no exception.
Our readers may be familiar with the classic verse, which reads,
Dim vales—and shadowy floods—
And cloudy-looking woods,
Whose forms we can’t discover
For the tears that drip all over:
Huge moons there wax and wane—
Every moment of the night—
Forever changing places—
And they put out the star-light
With the breath from their pale faces.
About twelve by the moon-dial,
One more filmy than the rest
(A kind which, upon trial,
They have found to be the best)
Comes down—still down—and down
With its centre on the crown
Of a mountain’s eminence,
While its wide circumference
In easy drapery falls
Over hamlets, over halls,
Wherever they may be—
O’er the strange woods—o’er the sea—
Over spirits on the wing—
Over every drowsy thing—
And buries them up quite
In a labyrinth of light—
And then, how, deep! —O, deep,
Is the passion of their sleep.
In the morning they arise,
And their moony covering
Is soaring in the skies,
With the tempests as they toss,
Like—almost any thing—
Or a yellow Albatross.
They use that moon no more
For the same end as before,
Videlicet, a tent—
Which I think extravagant:
Its atomies, however,
Into a shower dissever,
Of which those butterflies
Of Earth, who seek the skies,
And so come down again
Have brought a specimen
Upon their quivering wings.
The following is what N. P. Willis had to say about this version of the poem:
It is quite exciting to lean over eagerly as the flame eats in upon the letters, and make out the imperfect sentences and trace the faint strokes in the tinder as it trembles in the ascending air of the chimney. There, for instance, goes a gilt-edged sheet which we remember was covered with some sickly rhymes on Fairy-land….Now it [the flame] flashes up in a broad blaze, and now it reaches a marked verse-let us see-the fire devours as we read:
“They use that moon no more,
For the same end as before-
Videlicet, a tent,
Which I think extravagant.”
Burn on, good fire! (From The Editor’s Table’ of the American Monthly for November, here found in The Poe Log, 99).
Critic Nathaniel Parker Willis
Whether Willis truly burned the manuscript the twenty-year-old Poe poured his heart into, or whether he figuratively made this claim to prove a striking point, we may infer that the notice may have burned Poe so severely that it caused him to turn the memorable piece into a less than memorable one. Here is the following revised version found in his 1831, Poems, just two years after Willis’ scathing review,
Sit down beside me, Isabel,
We question Poe’s motives in changing the poem, causing it to become so lengthy and awkward; even a fellow Poe enthusiast was left shaking their head in confusion, stating, “I don’t even recognize that poem. Isabel-?!” Perhaps this alternate “Fairy Land” is truly that-an alternate “Fairy Land.” Thus, shouldn’t it be treated as its own poem and published, perhaps, alongside our final version of “Fairy-Land?” It is noted in Mabbott’s Complete Poems that Poe never republished “Fairy Land” (which is noted here as “Fairy Land [II]”). He may have been ashamed of his lengthy alternative and thus stuck with his original, scathed “Fairy-Land,” pushing its popularity and thus allowing it to be the one contemporary audiences may be more familiar with. This is not to say that both poems have not been published side-by-side, in some cases, since; however, the author of this post would like to point out that two of her own Poe volumes do not contain “Fairy Land” from 1831 Poems.
What do you think about the alternate piece? Do you think both versions should be, or continue to be, published in future Poe anthologies? Which version do you prefer?
April is National Poetry Month and the perfect time to celebrate all the poetry in the world around us. Whether we read it in a book or listen to it on the radio, we enjoy poetry in countless forms. In Edgar Allan Poe’s time, when poetry was far more popular than it is today, people experienced poetry in a number of different ways. Much like today, poets gave public readings for their work or published it in books or magazines. Poe and his contemporaries also wrote their poems in ladies’ albums.
Ladies’ albums were popular gifts for girls throughout much of the nineteenth century. The owner would send her album to her friends and relatives who would fill them with poetry and drawings in much the same way today’s high school students sign each other’s yearbooks. In the nineteenth century, however, people put a lot more effort into signing their friends’ albums. Here are three good examples from the collection of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum.
The first belonged to Lucy Dorothea Henry (1822-1898), the granddaughter of Revolutionary War orator Patrick Henry. In spite of living on a rural Virginia plantation, she befriended some of the leading authors of her day by writing them to request their autographs for her collection. In the process, she befriended New York editor and autograph collector John Keese who gave her this album.
This is Keese’s inscription.
This page contains a poem by American poet Charles Fenno Hoffman.
Here is poem by Elizabeth Oakes Smith that shows off the poet’s beautiful handwriting.
The next album belonged to Louisa Anna Lynch (1825-1891), who grew up in Petersburg, Virginia. When she was a girl, Edgar Allan Poe gave her a copy of a book and autographed it for her. Read all about it here. When her descendants donated that book to the Poe Museum, they also donated her autograph album, which is full of poems dating to the early 1840s.
Somebody wrote these unsigned captions for the book’s few illustrations. The captions are quotes from various books and periodicals.
The anonymous writer of this Shakespeare quote has given Louisa the nickname Annie.
One suitor thought he could impress Louisa by writing this essay on friendship in her album.
Here are the closing lines of a poem signed “CMF” and the opening verses of a poem signed “Amicus.”
The third album belonged to Amelia Poe, the twin sister of Neilson Poe, the husband of Josephine Emily Clemm Poe Poe, half-sister of Edgar Poe’s wife Virginia Clemm Poe, who was also Edgar’s first cousin. (If that is confusing, you can read about the Poe family genealogy here.) This album is a treasure trove of poetry, artworks, and pressed flowers.
The person who wrote this poem also decorated the page with drawings.
Here is another elaborate decoration.
When writing in a lady’s album, one could either compose an original poem or quote an appropriate poem by a popular author. In the sample below, someone has quoted a couple verses of Scottish poet Thomas Campbell’s 1799 poem “The Pleasure of Hope” and signed it with a dotted line. If you look very closely, someone wrote some initials in pencil on that dotted line. They appear to be “EAP.”
In either 1829 or 1832-1836, Edgar Allan Poe wrote the first stanza of his poem “To Helen” in the album. Today this is thought to be the only surviving copy of that poem in Poe’s handwriting.
Amelia Poe’s granddaughter donated this album and other Poe family items to the Poe Museum in 1930.
This has been only a small sample of the many poems written throughout each of these albums. At a time when writing in cursive is a dying art and when writing poetry in albums has long-since gone out of fashion, we can read through the poetry in the Poe Museum’s albums to get a sense of the role poetry played in people’s daily lives back in Poe’s time.
I recently came across a curious poem in a Poe anthology entitled “To Isadore.” I was not familiar with it, but it certainly sounded like Poe’s voice throughout the stanzas, at least so I thought. The publishers sure fooled me, for lo’ and behold, it was deemed as being misattributed to Poe and it had been confirmed that it was not a Poe poem (Mabbott 509). What concerned me most about this situation was that there remain to be slipups even among our popular publishers today. The anthology I found this poem in will go unnamed; however, this post is meant to bring awareness to a few commonly misattributed “Poe poems.”
Going off of the “To Isadore” poem, Mabbott explains in his Complete Poems that an A. M. Ide was thought to be Poe, especially since this Ide had published four poems in The Broadway Journal of 1845, the same journal Poe briefly worked for. Mabbott explains, however, that this young writer was Abijah M. Ide (509). In fact, Ide and Poe had corresponded in a few letters, thus further proving that Poe was not Mr. Ide, and thus marking off the following poems from Poe’s “potential poems” list: “To Isadore,” “The Village Street,” “The Forest Reverie,” and “Annette,” all written by Ide.
“To Isadore” was not the first time I had been fooled by believing I had found a new Poe poem to read. A close second that seems to fool many, including private sellers on various auction websites, is “The Fire-Fiend – A Nightmare,” which can be found in the Saturday Press of November 19, 1859. According to Mabbott, this poem was a hoax by Charles D. Gadette, who later explained in his own pamphlet the truth behind the poem and that it was his own. This did not stop the prestigious Southern Literary Messenger from publishing it again, however, in their July 1863 issue (calling it “The Fire Legend”). Finally, this piece continued to fool audiences, even up until 1901, where James A. Harrison, who published it in a Complete Works of Poe, had discussed the poem with W. F. Gill, who called it “The Demon of Fire” (Mabbott 512).
Thomas Dunn English
A third poem to discuss is “The Lady Hubbard,” which can be found in Godey’s Lady’s Book of 1849. What is striking about this piece is that it has been hypothesized to have been written by Thomas Dunn English, rather than Poe, although scholars, including Ruth E. Finley in The Lady of Godey’s, adamantly attribute it to Poe. We might point out that this has not been the first time English and Poe have been mixed up regarding their writing technique; and English has been so convincing of parodying Poe’s writing that other authors blindly accepted prose sent in by English mimicking and claiming to be Poe. This includes “The Ghost of a Grey Tadpole, by Edgar A. Poe,” published in The Irish Citizen of January, 1844. According to Dwight Thomas in The Poe Log, this was a “clever burlesque of Poe’s fiction by Thomas Dunn English” (450). Later that month, George Lippard, a contemporary of Poe’s, republished the story in the Citizen Soldier, “without comment and presumably without recognizing it as a hoax by English,” according to Thomas (451). We cannot blame Lippard for his mistake, however, as English, who had editorial authority of the Irish Citizen took his own liberties to publish the false piece. Only Poe and English would know better about that story. Another poem that English wrote, mimicking Poe’s style was “The Mammoth Squash,” which also remains to be a confusing selling point for many rare booksellers. Unfortunately, again, Poe did not write this poem, and we would frankly be embarrassed if he had. Originally found in the Aristidean of October 1845, the poem caused Poe himself to rise and refute the poem as being his own in an article in the Broadway Journal of 1845. Rather, Poe directed the poem towards the editor of the Aristidean, Thomas Dunn English. This shows that Poe was even dealing with misattributions during his lifetime.
Our fourth piece is one that Mabbott deemed to be “trash,” a harsh word to use in a scholarly book. Charles Bromback assigned this poem, “First of May,” to Poe in 1917; it was originally found in the Atlantic Souvenir. According to Mabbott, the poem ends by exclaiming, “Then how can I be gay / On this merry first of May? / Ah no! I am sad, I am sad” (505). Mabbott ends his short description regarding this poem with a quip, “It is to its unknown author’s credit that no signature was affixed to this trash.” We will have to agree with Mabbott on this one.
Our final poem is one that is fairly commonly known within the Poe community, “Lines on Ale.” This drinking poem managed to confuse Poe scholars aplenty, and many still attribute it to Poe. He was “an alcoholic” after all, so why wouldn’t he write a few verses in honor of the drink? Unfortunately, this poem has been rejected and is not a Poe poem.
George Arnold, author of “Drinking Wine”
Mabbott had mistakenly claimed it as a Poe poem, stating, “Absolutely complete authentication is not possible, but the piece comes in an unsuspicious way, and I regard it as authentic…” (449). The legend claims that Poe may have written the lines at the Washington Tavern in Lowell, Massachusetts and that the manuscript of this poem hung on the wall of the tavern until around 1920. Even a firsthand account given by Jerry Murphy, a source for Mabbott, claimed to have seen it. However, doubts began to seriously arise in 2013 when, according to the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, claims were sent in pointing out strong similarities between Poe’s lines and another poet’s lines. George Arnold’s version, beginning with “Pour the mingled cream and amber,” was first published in 1867, whereas Poe’s version, “Fill with mingled cream and amber,” was supposedly written anytime between 1848-1892 (although it would have had to have been written in 1848 or 1849, considering Poe’s death in 1849, assuming Poe had written it) (EAPoe). Another argument in 2014 explained that perhaps Arnold had plagiarized Poe; however, there is no evidence that proves this either way.
Mabbot’s argument using Murphy’s potentially word-of-mouth claims is not sufficient evidence that Poe would have written this poem, nor is there strictly strong evidence proving that Arnold was the original, and only, author of the poem. If the manuscript still survived, then we might completely know the truth. For now, this poem has been rejected by the Poe community.
Over all, there seem to be many numerous misattributed poems out there, many parodying “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee,” while others claim to have been inspired from Poe’s own voice from the dead. Were you familiar with any of these poems? Were there any that did not make our list? For a complete list, you can visit the following link.
In spite of being reared by a frugal businessman who discouraged his writing, Edgar Allan Poe became one of the world’s greatest authors. Why did a boy who grew up in such a home decide to devote himself to a life in the arts? Was Poe born gifted, or was his genius the result of his upbringing? Maybe we can find some of the answers by learning about the family from which Poe was separated when he was orphaned at the age of two.
Above: Handkerchief Case Painted by Rosalie Mackenzie Poe
Talent runs in Edgar Allan Poe’s family. Not only was Edgar a talented writer, but so was his brother William Henry Leonard Poe. His sister was a gifted musician and an art teacher. His mother was a popular actress and singer. In order to shed some light on these forgotten members of Edgar Allan Poe’s family, the Poe Museum in Richmond will host a new exhibit The Unknown Poes: Edgar Allan Poe’s talented Family from April 28 until June 19, 2016. The display will feature a number of Poe family artifacts including clothing, documents, and a Poe family bible. The highlight of the exhibit will be a piece of original artwork painted by Poe’s sister Rosalie. The exhibit will place Poe’s talent in the context of a gifted family of artists, writers, and performers.
Above: Negative review of a performance by Poe’s father from 1806
The exhibit will open on April 28 from 6-9 p.m. with a special Unhappy Hour in the Poe Museum’s Enchanted Garden featuring live music by The Folly.
Above: Bridget Poe’s Dancing Shoes from 1805
Above: Chest of drawers given by Poe’s uncle Henry Herring to his daughter
Above: Poe family bible opened to a page containing a diagram of a Poe burial plot
On Thursday, April 28 from 6-9 p.m. the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia will celebrate its 94th Birthday with an Unhappy Hour featuring live music by The Folly, the opening of the new exhibit The Unknown Poes: Edgar Allan Poe’s Talented Family, poetry readings, games, and a cash bar. Admission for the evening is just $5. Every Unhappy Hour has a special theme, so this month’s will be “A Dream Within a Dream.” For more information, call the Poe Museum at 804-648-5523 or write [email protected].
The event will kick off the 2016 Unhappy Hour season. Each Unhappy Hour features live music, games, a new exhibit, and a cash bar. This year’s Unhappy Hour lineup will continue as follows:
May 26 Unhappy Hour
Theme: The Oval Portrait
The Poe Museum’s new exhibit Painting the Enchanted Garden 3 featuring the works of twenty local artists will open this evening.
June 23 Unhappy Hour
Theme: Masque of the Red Death
The plague visits the Poe Museum with the opening of our new exhibit Pandemics and Poe.
July 28 Unhappy Hour
Theme: Eldorado In celebration of the opening of the Poe Museum’s new exhibit Fakes and Forgeries, the Unhappy Hour will feature a scavenger hunt.
August 25 Unhappy Hour
Theme: The Murders in the Rue Morgue
In conjunction with the opening of the Poe Museum’s exhibit CSI POE: Crime Scene Investigation in Poe’s Time, we will have a murder mystery for our guests to solve.
September 22 Unhappy Hour
Theme: Poe Goes Hollywood Kick off the Poe Film Festival with a Holly-meets-Poe evening at the Poe Museum.
October 27 Unhappy Hour
Theme: Some Words with a Mummy America in Poe’s day was obsessed with Ancient Egypt, so we will open a new exhibit about Poe’s short story “Some Words with a Mummy” about a mummy who comes back to life.
We are familiar with Poe’s ties to Scotland through his (unofficially) adoptive father, John Allan; but, did you know that Poe officially carried Celtic roots in his blood?
There is one thing that Maria Clemm Poe, David Poe Jr., and Edgar all have in common, being that they come from Irish roots. Muddy, Poe’s mother-in-law and aunt, was born March 17, 1790 to Irish father David Poe Sr., whereas David Poe Jr., Poe’s biological father, was born July 18, 1784. (We might point out that Maria Clemm’s birthday coincidentally falls on St. Patrick’s Day.)
Both descended from their great-grandfather David Poe, who, according to Quinn, is “of Dring, Cavan Co., Ireland” (16-17). Thus, Edgar, the son of David Jr. and son-in-law/nephew of Maria Clemm, descended from Irish ancestors. If we fully look at the genealogy chart provided by Quinn, as well as other sources, we see that David Poe married Sarah Poe (née Clifford), who, we assume, was of full Irish blood. Sarah bore John Poe, who married Jane McBride. According to this source, Jane was born in Bailymena, County Antrim, Ireland-thus, both John and Jane were of Irish blood. She bore David Poe Sr., of Ireland, who married Elizabeth Cairnes of Philadelphia. Elizabeth bore David Jr., who married Elizabeth Arnold, who bore Edgar. Thus, we can assume that this potentially would make Edgar 1/4 Irish.
How do you think Edgar would have celebrated his heritage? Would he have done a quick jig between breaks at the office, or perhaps indulged in a sweet Irish drink now and then? How do you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day? If you are Irish or Scottish, is there a special tradition you and your family do each year?
Carl Laemmle, Jr. needed a monster. The twenty-three year old president of Universal Pictures had produced a string of successful features since inheriting the company as his twenty-first birthday present. It was the depths of the Great Depression. Thousands were unemployed. More than ever, Americans needed an escape, and it came in the form of movies. This was an age of screwball comedies, lavish musicals, and westerns. It was also the time when Universal Pictures introduced its classic monsters — Dracula, the Mummy, and Frankenstein’s Monster. These monsters starred in the horror films that saved Universal and made stars of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. In its quest for the next great monster, Universal searched the works of Edgar Allan Poe and found Erik. If you’ve never heard of Erik that is because it is the name they gave the previously unnamed orangutan from Poe’s mystery “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” In the process of converting Poe’s detective story into one of Universal’s gothic monster movies, the producers transformed the orangutan into a classic movie monster and threw in a mad scientist for good measure.
Filming on Murders in the Rue Morgue (the studio dropped the first “The” from the title.) wrapped on December 23, 1931 at the cost of $190,099.45, far less than it had spend the previous year on Dracula. In January 1932, Universal Pictures’ publicist P. L. Hickey visited Richmond’s Poe Museum, where the Museum’s Acting Secretary Catherine Campbell led him on a guided tour of the complex. In addition to working for Universal, Hickey wrote fiction, true stories, and poetry for the pulp magazines True Detective Magazine and Weird Tales. Even though the Poe Museum had closed two of its buildings to conserve energy during the Depression, Hickey was sufficiently impressed with his visit that he told Universal’s Head of Exploitation Joe Weil.
Weil specialized in finding unique ways to promote Universal’s films. For the premiere of Dracula, Weil plastered New York City with cryptic messages like “Beware! Friday the 13th—Dracula,” “I’ll be on your neck Friday the 13th—Dracula,” and “Good to the last gasp! Dracula.” He wrote advertising copy and leaked a fake telegram in which the film’s director supposedly begged the studio not to release the movie on Friday the 13th because he was superstitious. Weil also worked with local businesses, convincing department stores have special Dracula-themed displays in their windows. Some studios of the era went so far as to station ambulances outside theaters just in case Universal’s movies frightened anyone to death.
For Murders in the Rue Morgue, Weil probably thought the Poe Museum was a natural fit to help him promote the Poe-inspired film. On January 23, 1932, he wrote Campbell, telling her how much Hickey had enjoyed his visit and promising to send her publicity stills from the film “with the compliments of Mr. Laemmle.” He also promised to send her 1,000 rotogravure heralds to distribute on the film’s behalf. Campbell wrote Weil on February 9, thanking him for the “very interesting pictures of The Murders in the Rue Morgue which your President was kind enough to send us.”
She assured him she would “certainly see the picture if it ever comes to Richmond and will try and have some of [his] pictures in a conspicuous place.” While there is no record of the stills having ever been displayed in the Poe Museum, they have remained in the museum’s collection for the past eighty-four years.
The first thing one might notice when scanning these photos is that the star of the film, the legendary horror film star Bela Lugosi does not appear in any of them. The second is that a lesser known actress named Sidney Fox appears in every one. The average fan of classic horror films might be shocked to discover that, in the film’s opening credits, Fox’s name appears before Lugosi’s—even though she was still a relative newcomer while he was at the height of a long and distinguished career. The rumor at the time attributed her sudden rise to fame to her having an affair with studio boss Carl Laemmle (or even his sixty-four year old father). The truth might be that she was seen as a promising young Hollywood star after having garnered praise on Broadway and beating out Bette Davis for the coveted role of the bad sister in 1931’s Bad Sister.
Also in 1931, Bela Lugosi’s title role in the film Dracula saved Universal from financial ruin and launched the studio’s cycle of horror films. This was the film in which Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi introduced the tuxedo- and cape-wearing interpretation of a suave Count Dracula to the silver screen. Having starred for decades at the Hungarian Royal National Theater and on Broadway, Lugosi believed he would inevitably become a leading man in Hollywood, but his thick accent and inability to master the English language doomed him to be typecast as a foreign villain.
Shortly after he starred in Dracula, Lugosi was offered the role of the monster in Universal’s upcoming adaptation of Frankenstein. Worried that the monster makeup required for the role would obscure his handsome face and that the monster did not have any dialog to showcase his acting, Lugosi declined the offer.
Meanwhile, French Expressionist Robert Florey expected to direct Frankenstein, but Universal awarded the job to British director James Whale. Without Lugosi, the studio was in need of a new monster, and Whale found him, in the form of forty-one year old British actor Boris Karloff.
With the release of Frankenstein on November 21, 1931, Karloff was a star, Whale was a respected director, Lugosi was regretting his decision, and Florey still needed a showcase for his talents. Universal followed up on the success of Frankenstein with The Old Dark House (directed by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff) and The Mummy (also starring Boris Karloff).
While Karloff was claiming the spotlight, Lugosi appeared in minor roles in a series of long-since forgotten B-movies like 50 Million Frenchmen, Women of all Nations, The Black Camel, and Broadminded. By 1932, both Lugosi and Florey needed a chance to shine, and Universal gave it to them with Murders in the Rue Morgue.
Murders in the Rue Morgue premiered on February 21, 1932. Although it made a profit, the film helped launch the careers of many of those involved. The director Florey left Universal for Paramount and Warner Brothers where he specialized in B-movies, making about fifty of them before his death in 1979. His best-known film is probably the Marx Brothers comedy The Cocoanuts (1939).
Bela Lugosi clearly relished the part of the mad Dr. Mirakle, who abducted women to inject them with ape’s blood in order to prove the theory of evolution. When the injection invariably kills them, he dumps them into the River Seine through a trapdoor conveniently located in his laboratory floor. By the way, he is also fluent in whatever language apes speak. As implausible as that may sound, it absolutely works in the context of the unreal atmosphere of the film.
Four years later, when it came time to cast the sequel to his hit film Dracula, Universal replaced Lugosi with a dummy, which is burned at the beginning of the movie. He would, however, reprise his vampire role in films like Mark of the Vampire (1935), Return of the Vampire (1944), Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), and Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire (1951). Over the course of his prolific career, he displayed a great versatility, playing everything the Frankenstein monster’s sinister sidekick Ygor in The Son of Frankenstein and The Ghost of Frankenstein to a gangster in Black Friday (1940). He even obscured his face and grunted to perform the previously rejected role of Frankenstein’s Monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). Universal eventually released Lugosi from his contract, and the actor spent his remaining years playing villains in low-budget films until his death in 1959. His last film was Plan 9 from Outer Space, which has been named the “Worst Film Ever Made.” Per his request, he was buried in his Dracula cape.
Leon Ames portrays the hero of Murders in the Rue Morgue, the medical student Pierre (not Auguste) Dupin. His character is responsible for delivering such corny lines as “You’re like a song the girls of Provence sing on May Day. And like the dancing in Normandy on May Day. And like the wine in Burgundy on May Day.” After Murders in the Rue Morgue Ames found steady acting work until his retirement in 1986. His best known role was that of D.A. Kyle Sackett in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).
His co-star Sidney Fox was only nineteen when she filmed Murders in the Rue Morgue, and he only made a few more films. The persistent rumors of her affair with Carl Laemmle were among the factors that caused her to move to Europe. Her career never recovered. Her poor acting and grating, high-pitched voice have been blamed (a little unfairly, considering the writing) for ruining Murders in the Rue Morgue. She died from an overdose of sleeping pills ten years later.
The cinematographer, Karl Freund, went on to a celebrated career. By the time he made Murders he had already been the cinematographer for Dracula and the director for The Mummy. After working on several films, he became the cinematographer for the television comedy I Love Lucy in 1951. In so doing, he innovated television by introducing flat lighting, a technique that illuminates all parts of the scene evenly so that three different cameras can be used at the same time from different angles without having to adjust the lighting for each camera.
The producer, Carl Laemmle, saved Universal with his series of monster movies and defined pop culture depictions of Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Mummy for decades. Regrettably, he lost control of the studio in 1936 and retired a few years later. His influence on later horror films is incalculable.
The real star of the film, Erik the Ape, dies in the film, and he would not be resurrected to appear in any sequels like his fellow Universal monsters Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Mummy. The chimp who portrayed Erik in close-ups lived out his remaining years in the Selig Zoo, which provided animals for films. Joe Bonoma, who wore the ape suit in action shots, went on to a career as a stuntman. Charlie Gemora, who designed the ape suit and wore if for stationary shots, became renowned for his “realistic” ape costumes and would wear them in several films including The Monster and the Girl (1941), the Marx Brothers movie At the Circus (1939), the Laurel and Hardy comedy Swiss Miss (1938), and the Marlene Dietrich feature Blonde Venus (1932). He also found success as a special effects artist at Paramount Studios.
Murders from the Rue Morgue gradually became a cult classic and is considered a fine example of Expressionist filmmaking in America. Universal decided Poe’s name was bankable enough that they added his name and the titles of his works to films like The Black Cat (1935) and The Raven (1935) that bear absolutely no relation to anything Poe ever wrote. This tradition of adding Poe’s names and the titles to unrelated horror films continues to this day.
This was not the last time Hollywood came to the Poe Museum. A decade after the release of Murders in the Rue Morgue, Twentieth Century Fox approached the museum for help with its upcoming romance The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe. The museum consulted the studio on the life of Poe in order to make the film as true to life as possible. Then the studio’s writers promptly ignored this advice and wrote a film that bore only a passing resemblance to the author’s life. Regrettably, the thoroughly historically inaccurate The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe (1942) remains one of the most accurate Poe biopics so far.
Even earlier, in 1928, director James Watson wrote the Poe Museum to see if the institution could assist him in getting the avant-garde film The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) shown in Richmond. The Museum’s secretary replied that she was not sure of any place in town that would be willing to screen it. In recent years, the Poe Museum has shown the film in its Enchanted Garden.
Even when the Poe Museum opened in 1922, Edgar Allan Poe and his works were no strangers to film. No less prestigious a director than D.W. Griffith had already made a Poe film. In fact, the first cinematic adaptation of a Poe story dates to 1907.
Over the years, the Poe Museum has had several visitors from Hollywood. In 1975, Vincent Price, star of several Poe adaptations, visited and toured the museum, Shockoe Hill Cemetery, and Talavera, where he recited some verses from “The Raven” on the spot on which Poe once stood when he recited the poem. Around 1990, writer/director/actor Sylvester Stallone visited the museum and spoke about his own desire to write a new Poe biopic. With the critical success of his recent film Creed, maybe he will find the support he needs to make his Poe film a reality.
While the Poe Museum is best known for its collection of rare Poe manuscripts and historical artifacts dating to the early nineteenth century, but the Museum also collects pop culture ephemera like movie posters and comic books. While the core of the Museum’s movie poster collection was donated by Dr. Harry Lee Poe in 2006, the collection of Poe movie memorabilia dates to the 1932 gift of these Murders in the Rue Morgue film stills. Items like these serve as evidence of Poe’s lasting impact and our culture and the ways writers, visual artists, filmmakers, musicians, and other creatives continue to be inspired by his works. That is why–just in time for this year’s Oscars– this set of publicity stills is the Poe Museum’s Object of the Month.
From March 18 until May 22, Art students from Petersburg, Virginia’s Appomattox Regional Governor’s School for the Arts and Technology will display their new Poe-inspired artwork at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond. Under the supervision of their instructors David Bartlett, Susanne Whittier, Jason Taylor, and Patty Lyons; the students have produced both 2-D and 3-D artwork in a variety of media. In addition to the visual art, the students will also provide live music at the March 18, 6-8p.m. opening reception in the form of the small ensemble Descendants of Tamerlane. The exhibit will be a great opportunity for the public to see the work of some of the great artists of tomorrow.
“Bits and Pieces” by Olivia Nash
The Appomattox Regional Governor’s School for the Arts and Technology provides gifted and talented students a differentiated and rigorous education, cultivates a supportive environment that inspires unique artistic and technological visions, promotes cultural tolerance, nurtures community partnerships, and produces active, engaged citizens.
“Emergence” by Branden Berkey
The exhibit is part of the Poe Museum’s “Poe Inspires” initiative to collaborate with a diverse variety of outside groups to interpret Poe’s influence through writing, visual art, performing art, gardening, and science. On March 19 and 20, the Latin Ballet of Virginia will perform the Poe-inspired ballet POEMAS at the Poe Museum.
Millions of students have memorized Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” but what great work of literature did the author of that famous speech memorize? According to one of his friends, John T. Stuart, Lincoln “carried Poe around on the Circuit—read and loved ‘The Raven’—repeated it over & over.” How might Lincoln have sounded when reading Poe’s solemn poem of death and despair? William H. Herndon wrote in an 1887 letter that “Lincoln’s voice was, when he first began speaking, shrill, squeaking, piping, unpleasant.”
Ever since he was young, Lincoln loved reading. His biographer, Michael Burlingame, wrote that among Lincoln’s favorite works were Poe’s mystery “The Gold Bug” and his science fiction/horror tale “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.” Lincoln even tried his hand at writing his own true-crime story based on a murder trial for which he had served as the defense attorney. The story “Remarkable Case of Arrest for Murder” was reprinted over a century later in the March 1952 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.
He also wrote a number of poems. Here is one he wrote in his arithmetic book when he was about sixteen:
Abraham Lincoln is my nam[e]
And with my pen I wrote the same
I wrote in both hast and speed
and left it here for fools to read…
In 1858, Lincoln wrote this poem in his landlord’s daughter’s album:
You are young, and I am older;
You are hopeful, I am not—
Enjoy life, ere it grow colder—
Pluck the roses ere they rot.
Teach your beau to heed the lay—
That sunshine soon is lost in shade—
That now’s as good as any day—
To take thee, Rose, ere she fade.
Even though Poe and Lincoln were born a few weeks apart in 1809, they never met. One wonders what might have happened if they had.