by Will Raven
In the spirit of the Halloween season, here’s a new short story about the mysterious death of Edgar Allan Poe.
“The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins.”
-The Premature Burial, Edgar A. Poe
I first met Edgar Allan Poe at the old church and burial grounds in Baltimore. Under the faint glow of a full moon, amid the grim headstones and forgotten souls, I was there with three other members of The Secret Poe Society.
It was October 6, 1949 near midnight, and we had gathered at Poe’s grave. Not at his original marker at the rear of the cemetery, but at the grand memorial near the front gates. For this clandestine meeting which marked the 100th anniversary of Poe’s passing, we donned black robes with pointed hoods. We each held a burning candle in one hand and a red rose in the other. It was customary for us to convene on the eve of Poe’s death to honor the beloved poet and author—a ritual we had performed for some years now.
This year, Sarah Moore wanted to do a little more. She thought it would be cool to recite The Raven. True Poe aficionados, we agreed to the poetry reading.
Sarah was an English major at the city college. I was a cub reporter for the metro daily. And Marcus Robinson was a postal worker who knew more about Poe than anyone I had ever met.
Our paths crossed about four years ago at a public lecture on Poe’s literary works. We just sort of clicked and it was Sarah’s idea to form our little secret society and to meet annually.
On this night, Sarah was particularly happy to lead our little ceremony, for she had just aced her literature exam on Poe’s short stories. Her favorite was The Premature Burial. Marcus wavered between The Tell-Tale Heart and The Cask of Amontillado. I loved The Black Cat as it played on my fear of the dark felines.
As was our tradition, we placed the roses on Poe’s grave in remembrance of the master of the macabre.
Sarah then carefully handed her candle over to Marcus. She pulled a sheet of paper from her pocket and began reciting.
“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary.
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Before Sarah could finish the first stanza, a mysterious zephyr stirred the crisp autumn leaves, extinguishing our candles.
Out of the darkness, a shiny black bird suddenly began swirling around us. The massive fowl circled twice before landing gracefully atop Poe’s grave.
Our bulging eyes watched in amazement at the spectacle. We couldn’t help but fathom that Poe’s ghastly and ancient Raven was upon us.
Somehow, inexplicably, had we unknowingly summoned the haunting bird? Perched on the edge of the marble stone, the Raven stared at us with its fiery eyes.
In a split second, the feathered creature dropped to the foot of the gravesite. We backed away still unsure what we were witnessing.
With great pent-up energy, the Raven eerily croaked repeatedly, rising in pitch. The raucous bird then started to hop toward us when a white mist rose beneath its feet, fogging our line of sight. The winged demon vanished into the haze. We froze in fear, dreading what emerge.
The vapors quickly dissipated and Edgar Allan Poe appeared within arm’s length of us. My stomach coiled.
I had read reports that Poe’s ghost had haunted the cemetery. But I had always figured they were hoaxes. Tonight, I thought otherwise.
Poe’s pale, almost translucent face, mirrored the daguerreotypes I had seen. He measured about five feet, eight inches, supported by a slender frame. He had an ample forehead, dark hair, and a narrow nose.
Poe had the saddest eyes that I had ever seen. It seemed darkness and melancholy had long tortured him.
He wore his customary black-flock coat buttoned to the neck, white shirt, and somewhat loosely tied cravat.
For a moment, as Poe picked up one of our roses, I almost thought he was alive and in the flesh.
“Your eyes do not deceive you,” the spirit said. “ I am the very one you have come to honor.”
“Are you in the form of a ghost or some supernatural creature?” Sarah asked bravely.
Poe stood up straight and smiled at Sarah for an inordinate amount of time. He seemed attracted to her. Perhaps he saw a striking resemblance to his wife, Virginia Elisa Poe. Like Virginia, Sarah had large black eyes, indigo hair, and a pearly white complexion. And she looked younger than her years.
“I am trapped between two worlds and forever wander these confines as a ghost.”
“Mr. Poe, why are you trapped?” Marcus asked.
“Because I was murdered and there is still unfinished business,” Poe said.
We all knew about the many theories behind Poe’s death—among them epilepsy, cholera, a brain tumor, alcohol, influenza, rabies, and cooping.
Still a common practice in Baltimore during the 1800s, cooping involved kidnapping citizens to commit political fraud. Victims were often held for days, stupefied with liquor, beaten, disguised, and dragged out multiple times to vote. Then left to die in the street.
At least one theory centered on murder. Some believe that Poe was killed by the brothers of his fiancée, Elmira Shelton. He had been engaged to her following Virginia’s death. The brothers warned Poe not to marry their sister. The postulation never gained any traction with scholars, however.
Poe’s shocking revelation certainly got our attention.
“Murdered, but how and why?,” asked Marcus, almost coldly.
“Those are excellent questions,” Poe said. “No one has yet come close to the truth.”
“So you still suffer,” Sarah said sympathetically.
“I do and I want to set the record straight,” Poe said. “I want to tell you what really happened.”
At that moment, as a journalist, I realized that it was my good fortune to be at the right place at the right time. This could be a literary story for the ages, I thought.
‘But will anyone other than us believe it?” Marcus asked.
“I have evidence of my death in the form of a letter,” Poe fired back, sliding the document from his coat-pocket.
“But how can it be corroborated,” I asked, imagining what my editors might conclude.
The situation reminded me of the time when a chilling Jack the Ripper diary surfaced and was deemed a fake by experts.
The document is in the handwriting of the killer,” Poe said.
“Why haven’t you shared this evidence before?” Sarah asked coldly.
“Like you, I wondered whether it would ever get serious consideration,” Poe said.
“Yet here you are,” Sarah said.
“Telling my story is, to the degree possible, is great catharsis for releasing my lingering sorrow and pain.”
Poe’s declaration shocked us. We just stood there silent—eager to learn more.
“What is contained in this elusive letter,” I asked.
“My friends, you have so many questions,” Poe said. “Sit here beside me and you shall hear first-hand my terrifying tale.”
Marcus lit a match from inside his coat pocket and rekindled our candles one by one. Like teenage groupies, we gathered around our beloved literary rock star.
I felt it only fitting that we, as members of The Secret Poe Society, were about to solve one of the darkest mysteries ever.
Poe began as though he were reading straight from his short story collection, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. I pondered whether he was telling us fact or fiction.
“One week before my death, it must be understood that I was in good spirits. I had begun to gain financial backing for my literary journal—The Stylus.
For the record, I departed Richmond by boat on September 27, 1849. I was bound for Philadelphia to edit a collection of poems for Marguerite St. Leon Loud. It was a relatively lucrative opportunity that I could not pass up.
During the journey, I decided to first stop in Baltimore for a day or two to gain subscribers to the forementioned publication.
From the moment I left the docks, the harbor air smelled of doom. I loved Baltimore and had lived there peacefully for a time with my beloved Sissy and Muddy. There, too, I had achieved a degree of literary success. But this visit felt strangely different.
Iron factories puffed billows of grey smoke that hung oppressively in the sky. The rowdy crowds coming and going only increased my nervousness. In a paranoid state, the urban scene seemed to stalk me as I walked among the dwellers, workers, beggars, prostitutes, thieves, and ruffians.
I had started down Charles Street. Suddenly, a dark figure from a passing alley struck me from behind. The head blow knocked me to the ground—dazed. A rather stout man donning a black cloak pulled me into a dreary passageway. He opened a paneled door and dragged me inside a ramshackle brick building. It was dark, except for assorted candles that provided scarce light.
Still fuzzy, I had no idea where I was or who had assaulted me. I soon lost consciousness, for the next thing I know I was chained to a wall in a dismal room with small piles of timber, carpenter tools, and tin cans filled with nails.
It was a workshop of sorts where they apparently made coffins. I could see at least three wooden boxes resting on benches alongside grotesque skulls. Another four completed coffins were lined up in a row near the rear of the space.
Suddenly the dark figure came in from the shadows and shone his lantern at my face. His countenance was hideous. Something about his coarse face, scruffy beard, angry eyes, and fiery red hair that chilled my bones.
“So, Mr. Poe, fancy me running into you here in Baltimore,” said the man in a menacing voice.
“Who are you and what do you want with me?” I demanded, still in a stupor.
“The name is Casey Reynolds,” he said. “Ring a bell, Poe?”
“Reynolds, yes, you’re the one who sent that hateful, threatening letter.”
I had received Reynold’s note two weeks prior and contemplated writing a terse reply, but I thought the act would only provoke him more. I, in fact, had the very letter tucked inside the chamber of my coat.
“Right you are, Poe,” he said with a devilish grin. “You shouldn’t have written such nasty things about Mr. Longfellow. It was not nice.”
True, I was nicknamed the “Tomahawk Man” for my stern reviews. And yes, I had some rather harsh words for the renowned poet, but it was all true.
It was suggested that jealously fueled my attacks on Longfellow, but that’s gibberish. I believe Henry Wadsworth Longfellow committed the most barbaric class of literary robbery. He stole from Tennyson and others.
I knew reading Reynolds’ letter that he was dangerous, yet I never suspected that he would act on his fantasy.
“I have no ill-will toward Mr. Longfellow,” I said. “My motive was only to push him to higher standards, which he was quite capable of,” I said.
“You lie, Poe, and you must pay,” Reynolds said, with an insane laugh.
“I’m going to poison you first, Poe. It’ won’t kill you right away. No…No…No…I want you to suffer first,” he said.
“You are deranged,” I said.
“Then Poe, just like The Premature Burial, I’m going to bury you alive,” Reynolds said.
I later learned that Reynolds was an undertaker and coffin maker by trade. His base was Boston, but twice a year he voyaged to Baltimore where he bought wood cheap and operated a second, smaller shop.
“I have made all the arrangements. You will be entombed in the catacombs in the old church and no one will ever know.”
At that moment, glancing over my body, I realized that I no longer wore my own clothing. I was dressed in a faded, ill-fitting suit with ripped trousers. The shoes had been run down at the heels. I reached for my head. My top hat had been replaced with a soiled palm leaf version.
“Yes, Poe, I took the liberty of fitting you properly for this solemn occasion. You are garbed like the tramp you truly are, not the Southern Gentlemen you pretend to be.”
“You’ll never get away with this,” I warned.
Reynolds chuckled, then bludgeoned me with a thick board. Blurry-eyed and in great pain, I feebly resisted his injection of a syringe into my right arm.
The drug entered my bloodstream. Within minutes, I became drowsy and confused. A few hours later, I awoke inside a coffin.
It was black but for tiny rays of dull light that poked through two small holes drilled into the lid. Reynolds had intended that I breathe until at least the burial.
I felt intoxicated and a slight ringing in my ears. My heart thudded in my throat. There was a tingling sensation in my extremities. I could smell the peculiar odor of treated wood.