Take a Trip Through Edgar Allan Poe’s America

From his birth in Boston to his death in Baltimore, check out places that were important to America’s favorite macabre author

Edgar Allan Poe Travel
From New York to South Carolina, take a trip through the haunts of one of America's favorite authors. Wikimedia Commons

When Edgar Allan Poe died in October 1849—from mysterious causes in a Baltimore hospital—he left behind more than a canon of grim poems and the invention of the mystery novel: he left a legacy that would live on in popular culture for centuries. "Literature, TV, movies, theater, Poe is always around all that, either influencing that or a part of it," says J.W. Ocker, author of Poe-Land: The Hallowed Haunts of Edgar Allan Poe. "Poe has always fascinated me for his omnipresence in our culture."

Though Poe called himself a Virginian, his life took him up and down the East Coast, from New York to South Carolina. "He is one of the few authors you can really do a huge travel trip around, because he lived in so many places and is held in such high regard," Ocker says. "There's just so many Poe places to go see." Partly, Poe's poor luck with gambling and drinking might have influenced his constant wanderings (he often moved to find work or avoid debt), but writer A.N. Devers, who is working on a book about Poe and place, thinks Poe's constant wanderings had to do with more than money. "He had a real wanderlust and a sense of needing to go to new places. He just couldn't sit still, he had some sort of urgent need to keep going places," Devers says. "It's almost as if he needed to keep discovering things."

Edgar Allan Poe Square: Boston, Massachusetts

(Wikimedia Commons)

Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston, and published some of his most famous works while living in the city. But Poe never felt at home in Boston—and the city, famous for authors like Emerson and Thoreau, never welcomed Poe as one of their own, either.

The feud was partly sparked by comments Poe made about the city. He noted that its residents "[had] no soul," asserting that "Bostonians are well bred — as very dull persons very generally are." His opinion of its authors—the famous Transcendentalists of the era—was hardly kinder; he called their work flowery and overly moralistic. "Poe died happy to not like Boston. I don't think it was something that he was losing sleep over, that he and the city of Boston didn't get along," Devers says.

In recent years, however, Poe's relationship with his birthplace has started to soften, thanks in part to Boston's willingness to reclaim Poe as one of its own. In early October of 2014, the city erected a statue—depicting the author with a raven—near the Boston Common, two blocks from the house where Poe was born on January 19, 1809. "The Poe statue that went up was a huge part of claiming his legacy in Boston. It's a bold statue right in the middle of a tourist spot, which not a lot of Poe statues are around the world, " Ocker says.

Though Poe's birth house no longer exists (the entire street was torn down and replaced with a parking lot in the late 1950s), the area is marked by a plaque—on the side of a building at the intersection of Boylston and Charles Street—which was unveiled by the city in 1989. In 2009, to mark the centennial of Poe's birth, the city of Boston dubbed the intersection "Edgar Allan Poe Square." 

Poe's Dorm Room at the University of Virginia: Charlottesville, Virginia

(Wikimedia Commons)

As a boy, Poe grew up in Richmond, Virginia. His mother died when he was barely three years old, leaving him in the care of the childless Allan family. While Poe's relationship with his foster mother, Frances, was affectionate, his relationship with his foster father, John, was often rife with conflict. When Poe left Richmond for the University of Virginia in 1826, he appeared much like his classmates: white, male, fairly well-off. But Poe contends that Allan failed to support him financially during his time at the University of Virginia, forcing Poe to gamble to keep up with the opulent lifestyle lived by his classmates.

"At University of Virginia, the entering class was super privileged, spoiled, white boys," Devers says. "All of the kids who entered with his level of privilege were kind of uproarious. I would compare them to the rich kids of Instagram." Returning from his first year of college with some $2,000 in reported debts, Allan cut Poe off completely, effectively ending his time at the UVA.

Today, the second dorm room in which Poe lived during his year at the University of Virginia is open to public visitors. Though the furniture isn't original, it is faithful to what would have been available to Poe at the time. The dorm room is maintained by The Raven Society, which bills itself as the "oldest and most prestigious honorary society at the University of Virginia." Known today as "The Raven Room," the dorm room includes a settee from one of Poe's homes, a writing desk and a stuffed raven.

Fort Moultrie: Sullivan's Island, South Carolina

(© Richard Cummins/*/Design Pics/Corbis)

Upon his exit from the University of Virginia, Poe was forced—due to outstanding debt that threatened to land him in jail—to leave Richmond entirely. He went to Boston, where he published Tamerlane and Other Poems, and then enlisted in the United States military. "When he entered the military, it was truly out of necessity. He had been kicked out of the University of Virginia and had significant gambling debts," Devers says. But the military also appealed to Poe for other reasons. "Because of his lack of identity ... it being an organization that moved from place to place was very attractive to him," Devers explains.

Poe was stationed at three forts between 1827 and 1829: Fort Independence in Boston Harbor; Fort Moultrie in Charleston County, South Carolina; and Fort Monroe, in Virginia. Serving under the pseudonym Edgar A. Perry, Poe excelled in the military, finding its discipline a good match for his personality. After two years, however, he tired of military life, writing that he had "been in the American army as long as suits [his] ends or inclination." If he were forced to serve out the rest of his five-year enlistment, he continued, he felt that "the prime of [his] life would be wasted." Poe's commanding officer at the time, Lieutenant Howard, seems to have taken a liking to Poe, and offered to decommission him from the rest of his service if he reconciled with Allan. Poe sent Allan a letter from Fort Moultrie explaining his desire to leave the military, and the need for reconciliation. For months, Poe received no response. Then, in 1829, his foster mother Frances Allan passed away, and Poe—on military leave—returned to Richmond, where he and his foster father reconciled long enough for Poe to convince Allan to help him transition from normal enlistment to the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Today, Fort Moultrie remains much as Poe would have known it during the months he was stationed there—from November 1827 to December 1828. Despite spending only a little over a year in South Carolina, Poe's memories of Sullivan's Island reverberate through his work, serving as the setting for three of his stories: "The Gold Bug," "The Balloon Hoax" and "The Oblong Box."

United States Military Academy: West Point, New York

(Wikipedia)

In the spring of 1830, Poe was admitted into the United States Military Academy at West Point. At first, he excelled, earning top scores in French and math. But his rocky home life soon caught up with him. While at school, Poe received a letter from Allan stating that he was officially severing all ties with his foster son. Poe responded by asking for Allan's permission to leave the academy (West Point required Allan's permission for Poe to withdraw). When Allan failed to respond, Poe embarked on a plan to have himself forced out via court-martialing. He began accumulating offenses, topping the offender's list one term with 66 infractions in a single month. By January 1831, Poe had been court-martialed, found guilty of gross neglect of duty and disobedience of orders, and discharged from West Point.

Today, visitors to West Point can see the Poe Arch, a monument to Poe's seven-month stay at the academy. The arch was erected on the centenary of his birth, in 1909, and cost $2,000. The arch features a portion of Poe's poem "To Helen," which Poe first published in a book dedicated to the U.S. Corps of Cadets.

Hiram Haines Coffee & Ale House: Petersburg, Virginia

(Hiram Haines Coffee & Ale House Facebook)

After being discharged from West Point, Poe spent a few months in New York City, where he wrote "To Helen." Slipping deeper into poverty, he returned to the home of his late birth father, Baltimore, attempting to take up residence with several relatives still in the area. All turned him away except his widowed aunt Maria Clemm and his nine-year-old cousin Virginia.

In Baltimore, Poe immersed himself in literature, publishing short stories and poems with more regularity. Eventually, he earned an editorial position with the Richmond-based magazine the Southern Literary Messenger, moving to Richmond in order to work for the magazine. In 1836, he brought Maria and Virginia to Richmond, and married Virginia, who was 13 at the time (though it's possible that the two were married in secret a year earlier, in Baltimore). 

Regardless of whether their marriage in Richmond was the first or second, Poe and Virginia departed for their honeymoon in Petersburg, Virginia, later in 1836. They stayed on the second floor of Hiram Haines Coffee House, located at 12 West Bank Street, honeymooning for anywhere from a few days to two weeks (depending on who is telling the story). In 2010, a man named Jeffrey Abugel reopened the coffeehouse, adding ale to the menu. Unfortunately, the establishment closed in 2014, but visitors can still gaze up at the second floor where the honeymoon suite was located.

Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

(Wikimedia Commons)

Little is known about Poe's life during the years immediately after his marriage. But scholars do know that he was unhappy with the lack of editorial control he was given at the Messenger, and he quit the magazine, moving to New York again for a little over a year before departing to Philadelphia. He spent six years in Philadelphia—years that were filled with both despair and success as he wavered between poverty and relative affluence. 

Poe lived in a number of houses in Philadelphia, but only one remains intact today—the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site at 532 North 7th Street in Philadelphia's Spring Garden neighborhood. Of all the houses in which Poe lived, Devers says, this is easily the largest, representing a time in Poe's life where money was less of a concern than usual. "It's a high point for him in terms of lifestyle," Devers says.

Though the house has portions filled with exhibits dedicated to Poe's life, most of the rooms remain completely empty. It was here that Poe wrote one of his most famous works, "The Tell-Tale Heart." The house's cellar, with a brick chimney jutting out of a wall, almost certainly inspired another of Poe's works, "The Black Cat," which features a crazed husband who hides his wife's body in a cellar wall.

"To me, going into that basement after reading the Black Cat—it was creepy and scary but it was also very moving," Devers says. "I think it showed he was able to write the types of things that he did because he was moving through these houses and rentals and he had some psychological drive to need to go to empty spaces to fill them with his stories."

Fordham Cottage: The Bronx, New York

(Wikimedia)

In 1844, Poe, along with Virginia and his aunt Maria, left Philadelphia for New York again. At first, they lived on a small farm a few miles outside of the city proper, but in 1845, they moved into Manhattan so that Poe could edit a new weekly, the Broadway Journal. Due to personal troubles, Poe was unable to keep the paper afloat, and it quickly folded. Virginia had come down with tuberculosis two years earlier, and as her health deteriorated, Poe moved the family to a cottage outside of New York in the rural village of Fordham in 1846. It was in this cottage that Poe penned one of his most successful poems, "Annabel Lee." Poe paid $100 a year for the cottage, and would rent it until his death in 1849.

Today, the Bronx occupies what was once Fordham, and Poe's cottage still stands, relocated in its entirety about a half a block to Poe Park. Now operated by the Bronx County Historical Society, the cottage underwent a massive restoration in 2011 that included the construction of a new visitor center. In the cottage, visitors can see a bust of Poe sculpted in 1909 by Edmond T. Quinn. The cottage also features three items said to have been used by Poe and his family during their time in Fordham: a rocking chair, a mirror and a bed. The bed, located in the room where Virginia died, is her actual deathbed.

Providence Athenaeum: Providence, Rhode Island

(Wikimedia Commons)

In 1847, Virginia died from tuberculosis. Devastated, Poe was unable to write for months—and when he did return to the literary scene, it was mostly in the form of traveling for lectures and seeking funders for a new magazine. Though he maintained his cottage in Fordham until his death, he spent the next few years bouncing from town to town along the East Coast. Though Poe never lived in Providence, he spent a considerable amount of time there in his final years, courting the poet Sarah Helen Whitman.

In the story of their short courtship, the Providence Athenaeum—a library built in 1836—plays a significant role. The two visited the library together many times, and it was here, on December 23, 1848, that the relationship came to a halt, when an anonymous person passed Whitman a note saying that Poe had broken his promise to her and been drinking again. Immediately, within the halls of the Athenaeum, Whitman called off their engagement.

The library, which remains open to the public today, holds a special collection that contains two medieval manuscripts, books dating back to colonial times and rare editions of books by famous American authors such as Whitman and Melville. 

Poe's Grave: Baltimore, Maryland

(© Lee Snider/Photo Images/Corbis)

Around the same time that Poe's romance with Whitman soared and fizzled, he became reacquainted with his childhood sweetheart, Elmira Royster Shelton, who had since become a widow. He courted her while visiting Richmond, and it is assumed that the two believed themselves engaged in the final months of Poe's life.

On September 27, 1849, Poe departed from Richmond, intending to make a trip to Philadelphia and New York—the first to meet with Mrs. St. Leon Loud, a minor American poet, and the second to bring his aunt Maria back to Richmond for his wedding. But after leaving Richmond, Poe disappeared for five days. On October 3, 1849, he reemerged—delirious and dressed in clothes not his own—in a bar-turned-polling-place in Baltimore. He was admitted to a hospital by an acquaintance, Joseph E. Snodgrass, a Baltimore magazine editor. Poe remained in the hospital for four days, wavering between consciousness and delirium. On October 7, Poe died in the hospital. Hospital records state that he died from phrenitis, or swelling of the brain, though the true cause of his death has become something of a mystery in the years since.

After Poe's death, the rich families of Baltimore visited his corpse as it laid in state, each reportedly taking locks of the dead poet's hair. His funeral, however, was a less well-attended affair. According to Chris Semtner, curator of the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, only seven people attended the funeral, which an attendee described as the "most cold-blooded un-Christian like thing [he'd] ever seen." Poe was buried in an unmarked grave, and remained there for 26 years, until he was moved to a place of honor in the cemetery. Today, markers indicate both the original place of Poe's burial as well as his current grave.

"His grave is still the place for me," says Ocker. "If someone came up to me and said, 'I can only go to one Poe place, where should I go?' I would immediately tell them the grave. It's a fun grave to visit. It's literally the closest you're going to get to Poe right now—six feet above his bones."

For years, Poe's grave was marked by another mystery—the Poe Toaster, an anonymous individual who, each year on Poe's birthday, would leave three roses and a half-drunk bottle of cognac on the grave. The tradition, by most accounts, lasted from 1949 (Poe's 150th birthday) through his 200th birthday in 2009. To this day, no one is sure of the mysterious Toaster's true identity. 

The Poe Toaster is just one example of the lengths to which Poe fans will go to feel a connection with the long-dead poet. "Poe fans are fanatical and they'll go to the ends of Earth to see Poe places, because he's such a mystery and cipher and they want to understand his work and understand him," Devers says. Still, a visit to a single location can hardly reveal all the intricacies of Poe's life and work. "He spread himself so thin that you really only get glimpses of him at these places," she adds.

And some of the most remarkable Poe artifacts aren't located in places that the poet himself ever occupied. The Poe Museum in Richmond, for example, features a massive collection of Poe paraphernalia—but it's in a house where Poe never lived. Still, to Ocker, the museum is a must for any Poe fan. "The biggest thing that you get out of visiting a dead author's house, or his bust or statue or an artifact from his life, is the reality of it," he says, "so that when you go back to his work, or you read his biographies, you suddenly have a sense of this real person, and to feel the real person behind the literature is extremely powerful. It strips away a lot of the disconnect between a piece of literature and a person."