by E. A. Black
I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, and Edgar Allan Poe has always been my favorite writer. When I was 17 and a junior in high school back in the 1970s, my social studies teacher gave my class the assignment of writing about a famous American. I didn’t want to merely crack open a book and write an essay about Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Abe Lincoln, or Ernest Hemingway. I craved adventure. Since I lived near Westminster Church in Baltimore, where Poe was buried, I figured why write a boring report when I could turn my essay into a huge research project, complete with actual visits to Poe’s grave?
My mother drove me to the Poe House on Amity Street, where we were given the grand tour. The house was tiny and crowded. I imagined Poe, his 14-year-old wife and cousin Virginia Clemm, and his aunt and mother-in-law Maria Clemm singing around the piano in the living room. He doted on Virginia and took care of her when she became sick with tuberculosis. The disease eventually killed her. Although it can’t be proven, the Poe Society alleges Poe wrote about a dozen stories and poems while he lived in the house, including MS Found In A Bottle, Berenice, and Morella.
After visiting the house, we went to Westminster Presbyterian Church and graveyard. I was blown away at how massive the site was. The church itself was built in the Gothic Revival style, full of nooks, crannies, and spooky airs. The brick building had a slanted A-frame roof that loomed over me. A tall tower with four spires sat in the center of the building in the front. Tall arched Gothic windows graced all sides of the church. It was a spectacular structure, especially to an impressionable 17-year-old like myself.
While many notable Baltimoreans were buried in Westminster Cemetery, including mayors, U. S. Representatives, military personnel from the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, and the son of Francis Scott Key (Key wrote The Star-Spangled Banner), the only people who interested me were Poe and his wife. Poe’s monument, which is visible from the street, was massive. A bronze plaque with his facial image is on one side of the monument, along with his birth and death dates. He, his wife/cousin Virginia, and his aunt/mother-in-law are buried beneath it. I huddled around the grave with other guests on a cold fall Saturday afternoon. Jeff Jerome, the Poe House curator, told Poe’s story and the history of the grave.
Poe’s wife Virginia died in New York. Years later, when the cemetery she was buried in was destroyed, her remains were transferred from her resting space. According to legend, the sexton in the New York cemetery held Virginia’s bones on his shovel and was ready to toss them when Poe biographer William Gill claimed them. The story was that there was so little left of her body that her remains were placed in a box the size of a shoebox. Gill stored the box under his bed and later arranged for it to be sent to Baltimore. Her remains were buried with her husband’s on his birthday in 1885.
The monument is one of two gravestones of his on the site. The original one stands towards the back of Westminster Hall, marked with an engraved raven. That’s where Poe was originally buried. It’s a family plot, where his grandfather and brother are also buried. In 1875, a local school teacher raised money for a classier monument for the writer, a “Pennies For Poe” project. The result is the massive monument I saw first – the one visible from the street. Once it was completed, Poe’s body was transferred. Because of that project, it’s customary for visitors to leave pennies on the monument. When I visited, I left a penny. Of course I did. I wanted to be a part of history.
The interior of Westminster Hall, where the catacombs were located, was dark, and creepy. It smelled of damp earth. Full of gravestones and burial vaults, it was rather smothering. I had to bend over a little when I walked. I imagined men and women buried alive in those depths, like what Poe had written in his Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Good thing I didn’t have claustrophobia. The further into the crypts I walked, the more intense was the feeling of desolation and death. If there was ever an appropriate place to bury Edgar Allan Poe, this was it.
For 75 years, a mysterious man known as the Poe Toaster would visit the large monument on Poe’s birthday (January 19) and leave roses and a half-empty bottle of cognac on the grave. Rumor stated that the tradition was handed down from the original Poe Toaster to his son. The curator of the Poe Museum allegedly knew the identity of the Poe Toaster, but never revealed who the man was. I’d heard that a small crowd would gather around Poe’s grave on his birthday, but when the Poe Toaster stopped by in the dead of night with his gifts, no one disturbed him. Sadly, I’ve never been to the cemetery on Poe’s birthday to witness this. The Poe Toaster stopped visiting in 2010. (Loren’s note: a new Poe Toaster may have taken up the tradition.)
Halloween was always a fun time at the Westminster Church cemetery. I went to the holiday festivities the year I wrote my social studies essay. The assistant curator of the Poe House, whose name I can’t recall, bore a rather striking resemblance to the writer. He dressed up in 19th-century garb, pretending to be Poe, and read from Poe’s classic The Black Cat. I was entranced, a teenager with a love for horror in her element.
If you aren’t familiar with the story, it’s about a man driven insane by his hatred for a black cat named Pluto. He kills the cat. One night when he was out drinking again, another black cat stumbled onto the scene. It looked remarkably like Pluto and his wife instantly took a liking to it. The man had been abusing her all along and his abuse escalated as the new cat made itself comfortable in their presence. Overcome by his loathing of the animal, he tried to kill it with an axe. When his wife tried to stop him, he buried the axe in her brain, killing her. He entombed her body in a space beneath the cellar wall. When the cops came around, he boasted about how well his house was built. He took them to the cellar and hit his cane against the wall in front of where he buried his wife. From behind the bricks came the sad and desperate sound of a cat mewling. When the police tore down the wall, they found the body of the man’s wife and the cat, disheveled but alive, on top of her head. The man had accidentally sealed the cat in the wall with his wife’s body. He was sent to jail and was hanged.
At the end of the assistant curator’s story, he pulled out a toy black cat and wrestled with it, complete with shrieking, startling everyone out of their wits. It was the best story reading I’d ever seen. It sure shook me up. I couldn’t stop laughing. I hadn’t had that much fun in years.
I’ve often driven past the church and caught glimpses of the Poe monument from the street. Although I have lived in New England for 20 years and I’ve seen many old and historic cemeteries, Westminster Church and Edgar Allan Poe’s grave remain the cemetery that made the biggest impression on me.
E. A. Black has written dark fiction and horror for numerous publications including Zippered Flesh 2: More Tales Of Body Enhancements Gone Bad, Mirages: Tales From Authors Of The Macabre, Teeming Terrors, and Wicked Tales: The Journal Of The New England Horror Writers Vol. 3.
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About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.