The public’s fascination with crime and violence existed long before today’s cop shows and horror movies. Even in Edgar Allan Poe’s time, readers could not get enough true tales of murder and madness. Ample evidence of this fact is to be found in a curious little volume in the Poe Museum’s collection.
The Poe Museum’s next Object of the Month is The Tragic Almanack for 1843, published in 1842 by the New York Sun. Like many popular almanacs, this annual publication contains astronomical information, the dates of religious holidays, and weather predictions. Unlike those other almanacs, this one is full of facts about violent crimes and tragic deaths. One example is the case of Peter Robinson, who murdered a man and buried the corpse under his basement floor. The first time Robinson was hanged, the rope broke, so the executioner had to hang him a second time, after which, “in about two minutes [Robinson] died with great convulsions.” Another article tells of a servant who beheaded a man, was acquitted of the crime on the grounds of insanity, and went on to behead another man. Other accounts detail a steamboat fire, a “remarkable suicide,” and all manner of violent deaths. Some of the most gruesome articles are illustrated with engravings by C.P. Huestis.
One well known case is that of John Colt, brother of the future gun manufacturer Samuel Colt. John Colt murdered a man by the name of Samuel Adams in New York, stuffed his body in a box, and sent the box to New Orleans. When Adams’s friends started to miss him, they alerted the authorities, who soon found the decomposing corpse aboard a southbound ship. The sailors apparently ignored the stench of rotting flesh because they mistook it for the odor of rat poison. This story soon made headlines across the country and may have inspired a certain magazine writer named Poe to write “The Oblong Box,” a story about a man who carries his dead wife aboard a ship with him in a crate.
The cover story is the recent murder of Mary Rogers, a popular clerk in a New York cigar store. In 1841 she went to visit some relatives across town and never returned. A few days later, she was found floating in the Hudson River off the coast of Hoboken, New Jersey. The police suspected her fiancé, but, after interrogating him, they were convinced of his innocence. Not long afterwards, Payne took his own life on the very spot of her murder. The investigation stalled, so police blamed the crime on a gang of hoodlums. The caption for cover engraving reads, “A gang of lawless villains throwing MARY C ROGERS, from the cliff at Hoboken into the Hudson River, where she perished July 25, 1841.” The “villains” were never identified, and the unsolved mystery eventually caught the attention of the inventor of the detective story, Edgar Allan Poe.
Poe was never satisfied with the gang explanation because he believed Rogers’s body had been dragged and that a gang would have simply carried her to the river. Having decided that a lone murderer was responsible, Poe went to work trying to figure out just who could have done it. His investigation formed the basis of his detective story “The Mystery of Marie Roget.” In 1842, the same year of the Tragic Almanack’s publication, Poe sold the story to Snowden’s Ladies’ Companion, promising that his tale not only “indicated the assassin in a manner which will give renewed impetus to investigation” but also demonstrated a method of investigation that real police departments should emulate.
We will never know if Poe got it right. The name of the killer was withheld from the story when the final installment appeared in the February 1843 issue of Snowden’s. The case remains unsolved.
In 1844, Poe moved to New York, where he sold a sensational hoax about a balloon trip across the Atlantic to the New York Sun, the publishers of the Tragic Almanack.
While Halloween is often associated with supernatural horror, ghosts, and vampires, Poe’s most chilling tales dealt with more down-to-earth terrors inspired by the people around us and the madness that can lead them to commit horrible acts. Learning more about the crimes that commanded headlines and captured the public’s attention during Poe’s time can give us a better understanding the real-life horrors that may have inspired him.
Edgar Allan Poe lived at the perfect time in history to be able to observe and to write about many of the most dramatic technological changes that had taken place in world history. Scientist Sir Alfred Russell Wallace called the nineteenth century “The Wonderful Century” because of its “marvelous inventions and discoveries,” which he regarded as immensely superior to anything which had been developed up until that time by “our comparatively ignorant forefathers”(1). Suddenly, within the span of a few decades, the introduction of new Industrial Age technologies such as electricity, telegraphic communications, cross-country railroads, photography, astronomy, and high- speed printing presses dramatically altered the culture and lifestyle of the American public in ways in which few people who lived at the time could ever have expected. In 1903, Sir Norman Lockyer, the then President of the British Association echoed Wallace’s remarks, stating that, “The nineteenth century will ever be known as the one which the influence of science was first fully realized in western countries; the scientific progress was so gigantic that it seems rash to predict that any of its successors can be more important in the life of a nation” (Nature). By the time that Poe started writing professionally (in the early 1830s), the literacy rate was higher than it had previously ever been in America, and the average person could read and understand most articles written in the newspaper. A person could travel to distant parts of the country by rail, and communicate almost instantly via the telegraph to almost anyone in the United States. Through the development of the daguerreotype (an early prototype of photography), people could obtain realistic and long lasting images of their family members to remember for generations. Many of those taken at that time may still be clearly visible today. The introduction of a new class of highly powerful telescopes and microscopes also demonstrated that the Universe of space and the unseen space within objects are much more expansive than anyone had previously imagined.
Peter Swirski argues that it is essential for our present understanding of nineteenth century culture to explore popular writers like Edgar Allan Poe because his “writing may be a suitable barometer of the role that science and philosophy had on nineteenth century society. Poe’s science narratives are perhaps most important because he was the first American authors who was able to distill the important information and ideas that were developed by professional scientists and publish them to a national and international audience in the form imaginative poems, non-fiction essays and journalistic stories, fiction, and science fiction stories.
The next entry of the “Poe and Science” blog will discuss how a studying the stories of the non-professional science writer helps us to have a better understanding of nineteenth-century society. Please send comments or questions to [email protected] or [email protected]
Lockyer, Sir Norman. “Inaugural Address as President of the British Association.” Nature. 10 September 1903: 439.
Swirski, Peter. Between Literature and Science: Poe, Lem, and Explorations in Aesthetics, Cognitive Science, and Literary Knowledge. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2000.
Wallace, Alfred Russell. The Wonderful Century: Its Successes and Failures. Toronto: George N. Morang, 1898 (digital reproduction).
From January 19 until March 31, 2013, the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia will feature a special exhibit celebrating the 170th anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s horror masterpiece “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Opening on Poe’s birthday, January 19, the exhibit brings together the Poe Museum’s recently acquired first printing of the story and loans of sixteen original drawings for comic book adaptations of the story by acclaimed illustrators Richard Corben and Michael Golden.
Michael Golden is one of the world’s most popular comic artists, having provided artwork for G.I. Joe, The Adventures of Superman, Batman, The Micronauts, and several other series. The artwork in the exhibit, which is among his earliest published work, was printed in Marvel Classics #28 in 1977.
Richard Corben began his career in animation before turning to underground comics. In 1976 he adapted a Robert E. Howard story into what is considered the first graphic novel, Bloodstar. His illustrious career has included work in album covers and movie posters, collaboration on a graphic novel with rock musician and filmmaker Rob Zombie, and an award-winning short film Neverwhere. The artwork on display was printed in Edgar Allan Poe’s Haunt of Horror #2 in 2006. One of the pieces will be an unpublished alternative cover design.
Admission to the exhibit is included in the price of Poe Museum general admission. The January 19 opening will coincide with the Poe Museum’s annual Poe Birthday Bash running from noon to midnight and featuring readings, live music, and a lecture about the legacy of “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
The exhibit was made possible by loans of artwork from the collections of Richard Corben and James Vacca.
The Poe Museum celebrated its second Unhappy Hour of the season by putting the spotlight on “Berenice”, Poe’s 1835 tale of love, obsession and dentistry.
Amber Boice as Berenice and Ryan Lee as Egaeus
The evenings festivities centered around a dramatic performance of the tale produced in cooperation with Haunts of Richmond and we were honored that Jeff Jerome of the Baltimore Poe House & Museum came down to see us and even graced each performance of the story with an informative introduction.
Poe curators – Chris Semtner of the Richmond Poe Museum and Jeff Jerome of the Baltimore Poe House – posing outside the Old Stone House
Jeff Jerome getting into the spirit of the event with our “Berenice” actors
Richmond’s own Ethio-Jazz and World Groove powerhouse, Rattlemouth provided the evening’s musical accompaniment and their performance was much enjoyed by our guests.
Various shots of Rattlemouth in action
Museum docent, Jessy Mullins educated and horrified guests with a brief presentation about 19th century dental practices and folks enjoyed wandering through our exhibits and taking in the ambience of the Enchanted Garden throughout the evening (despite there being a bit of rain).
Jessy grossing people out about 19th century dentistry
Unhappy Hour atmosphere
It was a splendid evening full of bite and was enjoyed by all!
Box o’ teeth used in the performance
As always, you can see more photos from the event (or share some of your own) by paying a visit to the Poe Museum’s flickr group.
Videos will be appearing on the museum’s Youtube channel soon as well, so keep an eye out!
Thanks to all who helped to make our May Unhappy Hour such a success!
Don’t forget to mark your calendars for our NEXT Unhappy Hour, which is coming up on June 28th, 2012 and will be themed around “The Oval Portrait”. This 1842 tale by Poe inspired Oscar Wilde to write The Picture of Dorian Gray and the event should make an indelible impression on all who attend.
Some of Poe’s most popular tales of terror were inspired by true events. One example is “The Pit and the Pendulum,” which tells of the story of a prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition, an infamous program of trials in which the judges were allowed to use torture to extract confessions from the accused. Poe sets this story in a torture chamber during the Spanish Inquisition. He may have been inspired by a paragraph in Thomas Dick’s Philosophy of Religion (1825): “On entry of the French into Toldeo during the late Peninsular War, General Lasalle visited the Palace of the Inquisition. The great number of instruments of torture, especially the instruments to stretch the limbs, and the drop baths, which cause a lingering death, excited horror, even in the minds of soldiers hardened in the field of battle.” Poe’s story ends with Lasalle entering the Palace of the Inquisition and rescuing one of the prisoners. Poe imagines a series of terrifying events leading up to that conclusion.
In composing his story, Poe describes tortures that differ from those actually used by the Inquisition. In one room, for example, the victim is placed in a dark room with a seemingly bottomless pit and burning walls that close in on him. In another room, the man is tied to a table over which a sharp blade swings, gradually lowering until it almost chops him in half. Through a combination of luck and intelligence, the prisoner is able to narrowly escape each challenge set before him.
After the French invasion of Spain in 1808, Joseph Bonaparte briefly suppressed the Inquisition and appointed Llorente to take over the Inquisitions archives and to write its history. This work was published in 1812. When the Spanish drove out the French, Llorente moved to Paris where he issued a French translation of his history of the Inquisition. By 1826, two English translations were published. Any of these could have been Poe’s sources for research while writing “The Pit and the Pendulum.” The Spanish Inquisition finally ended in 1834, just eight years before Poe wrote his story, so reports of the terrors of that time would still have been fresh in the minds of the public.
The Poe Museum’s new exhibit, “The Pit and the Pendulum: Fact and Fiction,” recreates a scene from Poe’s story and brings together a rare first printing of the tale, illustrations by Harry Clarke, Mark Summers, and others, as well as translations of the work into other languages.
The show runs until August 30 in the Poe Museum’s Exhibits Building.