The Fall of the House of Poe

The turn of phrase of this post’s title has been used elsewhere, but it is more than a play on words. It could very well become true.

Baltimore’s Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum, located at 203 Amity Street, might be forced to close. City officials have ordered the Committee for Historic and Architectural Preservation to come up with a plan to operate the facility without public funds by July 2012. Funding was already cut last summer.

Although Poe was born in Boston while his parents were traveling there, his roots were set in Baltimore when his great-grandfather established the Poe family in that city in 1755. Poe lived at the house on Amity Street from 1832 or 1833 until 1835, moving there at the age of 23. It was most likely in Baltimore that Poe began to move from poetry to short stories.

He died in Baltimore in 1849. He was buried in an unmarked grave in the family lot at Westminster Burying Ground at Fayette and Greene streets. A movement began in 1865 to provide for a monument to Poe at the grounds. In 1875, Poe’s remains were moved to the location of the monument, which was dedicated on Nov. 17 of that year in a ceremony attended by Walt Whitman and several others.

Read the Baltimore Sun article here. Read the Edgar Allan Poe Society’s statement of the case here.

These things usually work out … with a little hope. Patrons come forth. Minds are changed. Senses are come to. There is a petition. The monument was partially paid for with pennies collected by students, after all. We can hope.

It’s just sad. And very Baltimorean. How we love our “almosts.”

Baltimore presented a year-long celebration of Poe in 2009 to mark the 200-year anniversary of his birth. On Oct. 11, a funeral was held for him. Thankfully, I saw Scott Edelman’s tweet about it that very morning and decided on an impulse to go, otherwise I wouldn’t have known it was taking place.

The service was held at Westminster Hall and its burying ground. A procession started at the Poe House a few blocks away, led by bagpipers and followed by a line of mourners dressed in period funeral attire and a horse-drawn hearse. At the hall, a coffin with a mannequin inside was carried by pallbearers. It was an eclectic crowd. There were steampunks and regular punks, millers and passers-by, people dressed in black or in jeans, young and old.

It was a sunny, chilly autumn day, perfect for exploring the cemetery and its gothic hall. What was most remarkable was the silence. How do you get a crowd of hundreds of milling Baltimoreans to fall absolutely silent? Have 20 bagpipers play “Amazing Grace” in the middle of the street, that’s how. It went straight through you.

There was a long pause before the coffin was taken out of the hearse, but all that time the crowd remained silent. A hushed reverence followed the carrying of the coffin into Westminster Hall. That is the word of that day: reverence. Poe was given the ceremony he didn’t receive but deserved in 1849.

Westminster Burying Ground is everything you want a cemetery to be. To those who owe a nod to Poe (like anyone who writes in any genre of fiction whatsoever), know that he rests in autumnal splendor, amidst tombstones that are so old they are tilted and sinking into the ground and are unreadable from erosion; gnarled trees that scrim failing sunlight; paving stones green with moss; gothic arches everywhere, and wrought-iron fences too. Roses are carefully placed.

Baltimore honors and remembers Poe. Its people take time to do so.

So go ahead. Build your house monuments and museums, your so-and-so-slept-heres; leave it to some other state, some other city you think is more worthy, and no one plants a stone on the very spot someone is born. Monuments come where someone is buried. He lies here. We have his bones.

We have his bones, and they can’t take those away, now …

Can they?


Photos: ACF