MS. in a Bottle – Edgar Allan Poe and Baltimore


October seems the perfect month to feature a blog post on Gothic horror writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) and his storied history in Maryland. This circa 1830s wine bottle, recovered from a mid-19th century privy in Baltimore, inspired this post.

Figure 1. Wine bottle recovered from a mid-19th-century privy at the Federal Reserve Site (18BC27) in Baltimore.

Although born in Boston on January 19, 1809, Edgar Allan Poe’s Baltimore roots extend back before his birth. Poe’s father, professional actor David Poe, Jr., was from originally from Baltimore and Poe’s paternal grandfather moved there with his parents from Ireland in the mid-18th century.  As a result of his father’s abandonment and the subsequent death of his mother, Edgar Poe became an orphan at the age of three.  He and his siblings were split up, with Edgar Poe sent to Richmond, Virginia, to be raised by the family of John and Frances Allan. It was Poe’s relationship with this family that prompted him to take the middle name Allan.

Figure 2. Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe, late 1840s.

Edgar Allan Poe’s own relationship with Baltimore began in 1827, when he was in the city for a short time before enlisting in the Army. Later that same year, his poem “Extract—Dreams” was published in the Baltimore newspaper The North American, under the initials W. H. P. [William Henry Poe].  Some of his other early poems were published in Baltimore in 1829 in a volume entitled Al Araaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems (Quinn 1998). Limited numbers of the volume were printed and it received very little notice at the time.

On October 19, 1833, the Baltimore Saturday Visiter published Poe’s short story, “MS. Found in a Bottle”.  The story was Poe’s response to a short story contest announced in the June 15th edition of the paper. Poe submitted six stories to the contest, and “MS. Found in a Bottle” was the unanimous choice of the judges, earning Poe a $50 prize. Poe scholars agree that this short story launched the author’s career (Peeples 1998). Perhaps Poe’s story was inspired by a wine bottle like the one illustrated here, since Poe was no stranger to drinking.

Figure 3. Banner of the Baltimore Saturday Visiter edition that published Poe’s story “MS. Found in a Bottle” on October 18, 1833.

One of Poe’s greatest connections with the city was with his cousin, Virginia Eliza Clemm.  Poe married 13-year old Virginia in 1835; they remained married until her death from tuberculosis in 1847. Poe began to drink heavily after his wife’s death.

October is also the month of Poe’s rather sudden and premature death at the age of 40, during a visit to Baltimore. Scholars still disagree about the cause of Poe’s death on October 7, 1849, with at least nine hypotheses in play, including carbon monoxide poisoning, rabies, the flu and murder. Complications from his long struggle with alcohol addiction seem a likely candidate, although swelling of the brain was listed as the official reason on his death certificate (Geiling 2014). Poe was originally laid to rest in an unmarked grave in Baltimore, but in 1875 was exhumed and buried with his wife Virginia and her mother—in the city where he first gained recognition for his writing talents.

Figure 4. Poe’s gravesite in Baltimore.

Fascination with Poe and his mysterious stories and complicated life is still strong today, particularly in the cities where he made his home.  Baltimore even named their football team – the Baltimore Ravens—in homage to Poe. Today, fans of Edgar Allan Poe have a variety of Poe’s former homes where they can pay homage to the horror writer:  the Poe Museum in Richmond, The Edgar Allan Poe House & Museum in Baltimore, or even the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site in Philadelphia.

References

Geiling, Natasha. 2014. The (Still) Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe. Smithsonianmag.com. October 7, 2014. Website accessed on October 13, 2020 at https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/still-mysterious-death-edgar-allan-poe-180952936/.

Peeples, Scott.  1998.  Edgar Allan Poe Revisited. Twayne Publishers, New York.

Quinn, Arthur Hobson. 1998. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Epidemic Typhus in Baltimore


The double-sided comb has closely spaced teeth for removing the small lice.  The vulcanized rubber comb is stamped “India Rubber Comb Co. Goodyear Patent May 6, 1851”.

Figure 1. The double-sided comb has closely spaced teeth for removing the small lice.

18BC27-36B295 (2)

Figure 2. The vulcanized rubber comb is stamped “India Rubber Comb Co. Goodyear Patent May 6, 1851”.

When I found this vulcanized rubber lice comb in a Baltimore privy (Figures 1 and 2), I originally thought I would use it as a way to focus on public sanitation and the increasing importance of public health beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century.  It seemed that a discussion of drains, sewers, street cleaning and clean water supplies was in order.  But as I dug a little deeper into sources for the blog, another direction began to emerge.  With the arrival of winter, many people I know are battling the flu or actively trying to avoid getting it.  Thus, in this season of communicable disease, the comb became a way to discuss epidemics and, in particular, typhus epidemics. Continue reading