Sunday, June 29, 2014

I was locked in a graveyard with Edgar Allan Poe!

I'm still not caught up on my current events reading, so let's indulge in our tradition of running non-political piffle posts on the weekends. Today's subject is Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe has been on my mind a lot this past year, because I've been toying with the idea of making a film about Baltimore's most famous mysteries. The most famous of 'em all is the strange death of the master of ornithological morbidity.

Nobody really knows how the man died. Schoolteachers used to say that he drank himself to death, but that's not really true. There was no alcohol on his breath when he was found on a Lombard Street sidewalk, drifting in and out of consciousness. (The picture shows pretty much the exact spot.)

True, he was found outside of a tavern called Gunner's Point, and he was delirious. But I don't think that drink was the cause of his condition. The place was then being used as a voting hall, and Poe's death probably had more to do with ballots than with bottles.

It was election day. The Whigs were willing to do anything to win.

The key clue in this mystery has to do with the great author's clothing. Poe habitually wore dapper dark suits -- yet when he was found on Lombard Street, he wore extremely shoddy clothing that didn't fit. Obviously, the clothing belonged to someone else.

Of all the theories that have been sounded, only one adequately accounts for the "clothing conundrum": The theory that Poe was a victim of "cooping." In those days, party operatives hoping to swing a close election would kidnap strangers or the destitute and lock them in a basement -- a "coop." They would be fed food liberally laced with laudanum.

On election day, the half-crazed cooping victims would be sent to various polling places throughout the city and told to vote for a certain candidate. By this time, they would be hooked on laudanum and told that they could have more of the stuff if they cooperated.

The victims would be given different clothes, to facilitate voting multiple times

Poe, who had lived in Baltimore at an earlier stage of his life, was passing through the city on the way to New York to start a plum new job. He went missing roughly a week before he was found in front of that tavern. The coopers must have presumed him to be a stranger.

(Hm. Maybe we should run this story by Brad Friedman. This story has turned into an argument in favor of Voter ID laws...!)

Poe was taken to a nearby hospital, and remained delirious until his death a few days later. He was heard to mutter the name "Reynolds." That just happened to be the name of the Ward Captain for the Whig Party.

There's only one problem with this solution to Baltimore's greatest mystery: It's tantamount to saying that early America's greatest writer was murdered by a political conspiracy. And such things don't happen, do they?

Grave matters. Each day, sightseers visit Poe's grave marker on the grounds of the Westminster Church, which was built directly atop a much older cemetery. (Many old graves are in a vault beneath the building.)

Legends surround this graveyard. My favorite concerns the "screaming skull" that had to be dug up and reburied encased in concrete because the sounds would drive people mad. The ghost of Poe himself has been seen here, and in a few other places.

The current Poe grave marker is actually his second (alleged) resting place. Originally, he was interred behind the church. But so many people came to visit the great man's burial spot that the Church decided to move him to a much more prominent location, easily visible from the street even after the gates have closed.

But how do we know that Poe is buried there?

This particular graveyard was a notoriously insecure resting place. It happens to be located near Davidge Hall, then and now a medical school. (It is, in fact, the medical school in longest continual operation in the United States.) The students always needed cadavers to study.

A couple of enterprising gentlemen worked out a system whereby "materials" from the Westminster churchyard would be stuffed into wine barrels and rolled through back alleys to the school. Then they would be carried up a spiral staircase and rolled into a circular auditorium.

According to longstanding lore, the suppliers ran out of "volunteers" from the graveyard and had to resort to a tactic quaintly known as Burking. I will not explain what that word means. Let's just say that it was a method of insuring freshness.

Was Poe's body one of the star attractions at Davidge Hall? Quite possibly. Those who tell the story of the medical school's gruesome past say that nearly everyone who made a home at Westminster Church found that the accommodations were quite temporary. I've seen no proof that the actual bodies of E.A. Poe, his mother-in-law and his young wife lie beneath that fancy marker that attracts so many visitors each day.

Locked in. There's another colorful piece of lore surrounding that cemetery. For more than half a century, a masked figure known as the PoeToaster would slip into the graveyard at midnight on Poe's birthday, January 19. The Toaster would leave three roses and a bottle of expensive French cognac.

In recent years, the Toaster has been a no-show. However, someone still leaves roses at the site of the original Poe grave: The photos reproduced here were taken about a week apart.

The Toaster has been photographed only once. (The shot appeared in Life magazine in 1990.) However, I have a clue as to who he really was, and what the motive might have been.

My moment of samsara came quite a few Sundays ago, while filming in the rear of that cemetery. The gatekeeper, not knowing I was there, locked me inside.

Yes, I was all alone in a graveyard at night with the corpse of Edgar Allan Poe. (The alleged corpse.)

Not to mention the Screaming Skull. (Which I did not hear.)

Naturally, I scouted the perimeter of the yard, looking for an easy way to scale the spiked fence. When I was a young man, getting over an obstacle of that sort would have been a snap. But at my current age, the task proved far from easy. My difficulty in performing such a simple stunt made me feel a bit ashamed -- in fact, it almost punctured my sense of masculinity.

While making my descent to freedom, a thought occurred to me: How could the Poe Toaster, in period garb and wearing a mask, perform this feat of athleticism on a frigid January night, unseen by the gathered crowd?

Answer: He couldn't. He must have had a key. He entered the cemetery through the church's back door.

Which means that we're dealing with someone who worked for the church.

Which means that the mystery man was actually part of a long-running publicity stunt.

More than that. I don't see how the "suppliers" for Davidge Hall could have done their work without a key to either the graveyard or the Church. In other words, they must have had help from an insider. 
Interesting story.
In times gone by, when I was reading the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne (July 4, 1804 – May 19, 1864, I often wondered if Edgar Allan Poe (January 19, 1809 – October 7, 1849, was influenced by some of the subtleties found in Hawthorne's writing style.

Nice. Bet this beats the Florida psychic's version...
Great story Joseph. Was it dark out?
Probably get in through the underground tunnels which I assume to be present in any old church, especially in a city which has been at war. My own town is meant to have underground tunnels all over the place, linking to the castle and the church. All those tombs and crypts, bound to be a way in and out. Freemasons like tunnels, too.
The cooping theory always made the most sense to me. This seems to be the best discussion I've seen Even though Poe was well known in Baltimore, we're talking 1848 so well known in some circles might not equal well known in skid row. I think alcohol may well have played a part. Poe was apparently somewhat ill anyway and even though he didn't drink much, it didn't take him much to be in his cups, as the guy who found him said. He had sworn off alcohol, having taken the pledge, but just before he left Richmond, he had a couple of drinks with a doctor friend of his. We now know alcoholics can't drink at all or they fall into their old bad habits. Also, the doctor who treated him said that he died from alcohol poisoning. I'm inclined to go with the guy who was there. He might not have had the training of a modern doctor, but he was nevertheless a doctor and I'm sure had seen alcohol and opiate overuse before.
Hi. Wow...I still have a blog, don't I? Weirdly enough, the stats go UP when I stop writing. If I stay away long enough, I'll overtake Kos.

About Poe: The doctor who treated Poe later became a temperance crusader, and used Poe as exhibit A in his speeches. The doctor therefore had a bias. As I recall, he did not talk about alcohol abuse at the time.

Alcoholism was also emphasized by Poe's earliest biographer, who was actually not a friend to Poe and who was also kind of a temperance zealot.

The woman in Richmond whom Poe wanted to marry belonged to a strongly pro-temperance family -- thus, he took the pledge. I'm not sure he felt bound by it while traveling.

In my more conspiratorial moments, I suspect that the doctors were Whigs who were in a plot to hide the evidence of cooping.

On another topic, my Poe research uncovered a bill of sale in which Poe sold a slave. This was during his Maryland years. He was acting on behalf of his mother-in-law, with whom he was close.

And now, if you go to the University of Maryland (just a short distance away from MICA), you can find an excellent statue of Poe. He is, quite literally, a black man.

Snodgrass was a temperance speaker but Moran seems to have been a celebrity seeker. Nevertheless, you have to take seriously the people, or person, who were there at the time. The great baseball writer Bill James noted the same thing about Rabbit Maranville. Maranville's stats weren't that good, but he kept getting many MVP votes from contemporary writers who seemed to think he was a great shortstop.
Interesting story, but lots of false assumptions about the Poe Toaster. Just because you found it difficult to get out, and it can be tricky, only means that you don't know the grounds very well. (It is also fair to note that there have been some very serious changes over the last several years, particularly with the Law School plaza and Library. These renovations appear to have been one of the reasons that the original Toaster passed the tradition on to one or more sons, at least that is the assumption.) I have seen the Poe Toaster several times, and I know how he entered, and he was never in the Church or any of the buildings on the grounds.
And wow, reading this again I am a little taken aback to see how utterly cynical you are. What proof exactly do you expect to see that Poe's remains, and those of his wife and his mother-in-law are under the monument? Because Westminster was the resident church of some of Baltimore's most prominent families, it may have been somewhat spared from pilfering by the local body snatchers. There is no documented example of body snatching from that cemetery, although it must be admitted that the records are understandably very sketchy so it is difficult to make absolute statements. (And yes, sextons were often involved in the trade.) For Poe, we have the specific account of his burial and exhumation. The exhumation was supervised by his cousin, Neilson Poe, who attended the original burial, and George Spence, the sexton who did the original burial. Poe's mother-in-law, Mrs. Clemm, had only been buried a few years earlier (she having died in 1871). The story about Virginia's remains is more interesting, and we cannot be quite as certain about them or their story. (W. F. Gill, who claimed to have retrieved them, was something of a scoundrel and a publicity hound.)
Am I correct in presuming that both Anonymous missives came from the same writer? At any rate, I take pride in my cynicism, as did Poe.

I'd like to know how the Toaster got in and out if not through the Church. Believe me, I spent quite a long time hunting for the best means of exit. You might say that I was looking for the means of escape that would pose the least threat to my manhood.

No need for you to be coy about how the trick was done.

So what did Neilson see, exactly?

The stories about body snatching from Westminster are plentiful. In one version, the chief body snatcher himself was buried on those grounds -- and thus he was one of the few to rest there undisturbed. Baltimore residents love to tell tales about that graveyard, but I don't know how many of the claims have been documented.

Similarly, there are plenty of stories about that abandoned seminary near Ellicot City -- stories which are probably pure legend. But they're fun.

POE had his celebratory Cognac and his three roses last night! It was not a bottle of Martell nor were the roses deep red. This morning, the half drunk bottle of Cognac was gone. Maybe he shared the drink I gifted him with someone who needed a drink? It was an adventure. I hope to do it again next year.

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