For almost eighty years someone left a bottle of cognac and three roses on Edgar Allan Poe’s grave each year on his birthday. The wonderfully Gothic and slightly spooky story is close to one he would write: a shadowy figure in black formal clothes commits a mysterious act on a dark winter’s night. When the tradition stopped in 2010 I admit that I briefly entertained thoughts of heading out to his grave in Baltimore. It wasn’t that far away, and I’d fallen deeply under Poe’s spell at the tender age of sixteen when I read Annabel Lee.
Unfortunately, the pull of my warm bed was too much for me to overcome, but a trip to the Edgar Allan Poe museum went a lot smoother. There are actually a number of Poe Museums scattered across the country, but I started with the formal sounding “Edgar Allan Poe Museum” in Richmond, VA. Housed in the oldest house in the state (built in 1740, almost six decades before Poe was born), it contains a strange collection of artifacts and memorabilia.
I was impressed by the Virginia Star quilt on Poe’s bed and the chair he sat in. While the first edition manuscripts and antiques books were impressive, seeing the furniture his family owned made him come alive to me. A lock of his hair and old photos felt haunting, as if the museum was trying to grasp at the life of the man with only a few precious things. His sister’s piano, his trunk, and a chart of his sad family history all felt like threads when I wanted a rich tapestry.
I’m obviously not alone in that desire. Outside the two historic buildings, a third more modern structure is devoted to modern artwork that depicts Poe and his work. The most disturbing offer was a portrait done in the artist’s blood. It wasn’t the media that bothered me, but the deplorable smell. Upstrais, in a small attic room painted in a similarly sanguine color images from his stories were displayed along with the modern diagnosis for the characters. Most were psychological, depression was common but there were physical aliments as well, The Fall of the House of Usher may have been a horrible curse, or perhaps it was Lupus disease.
Two darling cats came and went freely, sitting on antiques and ignoring roped off areas. Named Pluto and Edgar the pair are part of a trio of black kittens found mysteriously inside the garden.
The garden is fairly perfect for that sort of thing. A small space with bricks and a tiered fountain bubbling, at the end a brick columned shrine to Poe holds his bust and vintage iron wrought seating. Poe himself had a black cat, as well as a tortoise shell cat who enjoyed riding on his shoulder.
It was facts like that, tiny humanizing things, that made the museum worth the trip for me. In South Carolina I learned about Poe’s brief military service, and listened to a tour guide swear that the real Annabel Lee was a local girl. In Philadelphia I toured the hotel hallway that inspired the Raven and heard about how he created the detective novel. But it wasn’t until Richmond that I found out about Poe as a person, with a dramatic dysfunctional family, lost loves, and a life outside of his work. I’m glad someone is working to preserve it.