“Where did my husband go? I think my husband disappeared.” I was saying this half to myself, but the docent at the Edgar Allan Poe House in Philadelphia heard me, too.
“That happens a lot here,” he said with a sly smile.
Bryan, my other half, had wandered off into the three-story labyrinthine house at 532 North Seventh Street, just off of Spring Garden. Perhaps he’d fallen into “A Cask of Amontillado,” or somehow ended up in a pit with a pendulum looming overhead, or he got entombed inside a wall, like the feline in Poe’s short story, “The Black Cat”?
Such scenes fire the imagination when you visit the Poe House — about an hour away from the U.S. 1 region.
The author lived in Philadelphia for six years in five different houses, and in this one for a little more than a year (1843-’44). This is the only Poe house that survives in Philadelphia, largely thanks to Colonel Richard Gimbel, son of the founder of Gimbel’s Department Store, who bought it in 1933.
An avid Poe fan, Gimbel refurbished the home, opened it as a museum, and left the property to the city of Philadelphia in his will.
The house, which was designed and built by architects William Alburger and John Evans, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1962. It is also a U.S. National Historic Site and is on the Register of Historic Places.
The National Park Service began overseeing the property in 1978, reopening the home in 1980.
The walls, windows, and exterior of the house have all been renovated, but the rooms have been left bare, and there are none of Poe’s actual possessions inside.
He struggled financially while here but was quite prolific during his time in Philadelphia. In fact these years may have been Poe’s most productive and happiest, at least for a while.
Here was where he penned some of his best-known tales, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Black Cat,” and “The Gold Bug.”
In all Poe published 31 stories during his residence in Philadelphia, as well as several literary criticism pieces, including his February, 1841, review of Charles Dickens’ novel, “Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of Eighty.”
In addition to his plentiful writing, Poe edited “Graham’s Magazine” and “Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine,” both located in what was then the publishing district of the city, around Third and Chestnut streets.
A few blocks from Poe’s workplace was the former Falstaff Hotel, on Sixth Street near Chestnut, the literary crowd’s gathering place. Poe met Charles Dickens at the Falstaff while the British author was touring the U.S. in 1842.
Among many topics of conversation, it is believed that the two men discussed Dickens’ pet raven named “Grip,” who was also a character in “Barnaby Rudge.” Was this raven the inspiration for Poe’s most famous poem?
Back on North Seventh Street, Poe’s neighbors were likely tradesmen, other authors, and even retired gentlemen living off their investments. The environs were not upper class, but genteel enough so Poe felt comfortable welcoming potential investors for “The Stylus,” the literary magazine he dreamt of launching.
The Poe House is in the Spring Garden neighborhood, considered suburban in the mid-19th century, outside of center city Philadelphia just enough to be country living — which was the perfect prescription for Virginia Eliza, Poe’s young wife.
Right before moving here, she had been diagnosed with tuberculosis, and the family moved into this bright, airy house with numerous southern exposure windows to help heal her lungs.
In addition to Edgar and Virginia, the household included Virginia’s mother Maria Clemm, or “Muddy,” and a cat named Catterina, a tortoiseshell or calico cat.
Just entering the Poe House has a mysterious quality, as a sign on the door on Seventh Street invites you to “knock only once.”
The entry and parlor room have abundant informational and interactive material to guide the visitor through Poe’s time in Philadelphia. One activity challenges you to solve a cryptogram, as Poe loved ciphers, puzzles — all kinds of enigmatology.
The residence also includes a gift shop, a film screening room, and a reading room furnished to emulate his essay, “The Philosophy of Furniture,” a satirical description of how the wealthy — especially the nouveau riche — filled their homes with gaudy decor. The room also includes a complete collection of Poe’s works, including criticism and audio interpretations of his work.
Above the mantel in the main room, I noticed an unusual portrait of a young Poe without a mustache. He is so baby-faced one has trouble imagining the twisted plots of his fiction and dark passages of his poetry.
Speaking of dark, one of the most notable details in the home is the word “death” carved into the plaster near the doorway to the kitchen. Although no one is sure whether Poe left this word behind in the rented home, Virginia was fatally ill while he lived here, so thoughts of death were certainly on his mind. (She died in 1847 in the Poe Cottage in the Bronx.)
Up a winding wooden staircase to the second floor, I found Poe’s room and study, decorated with a painting of Catterina sprawled on a pile of papers, encroaching on the author as he writes with a quill pen. With his other hand, he is either petting the cat or keeping her in place — or both. (He apparently loved cats enough to tolerate their mischief, and Catterina sometimes sat on Poe’s shoulder to watch him write.)
Poe may have slept in this room, too, because Virginia’s tuberculosis was highly contagious. The windows look out to a lovely lawn, all the way to Spring Garden Street, which is what Poe would have seen in his time, before construction boxed the house in.
The lawn is home to a large raven statue, of course, a tribute to Poe’s 1845 poem “The Raven.”
Sculpted in 1979 by David Caccia, a graduate of the Tyler School of Art, the big black bird was modeled on Dickens’ Grip, who lives on through the magic of taxidermy in the Rare Books Department at the Free Library of Philadelphia on Vine Street. (See sidebar.)
Back inside, another set of winding stairs takes you to the third floor, to Virginia’s room, and the stove that helped keep her warm during the winter months. Her mother slept in the adjacent third floor room.
There is a loose floorboard in this particular space, which evokes the tale of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” in which a murderer dismembers his victims and stashes their bits and pieces beneath the floorboards — only to be betrayed by a haunting heartbeat.
I headed down the stairs again to the basement, which I thought would be the kind of place you would see in a gory horror movie, with cobwebs, mysterious odors, and dripping liquid, but the stand-up basement is really not so bad.
There are remnants of a false brick chimney, with a stuffed black cat arching its back resting on top, a fun way for visitors to make the connection with Poe’s horror story “The Black Cat.”
Maybe he was inspired by the look and aura of the 19th-century cellar and imagined a cat getting itself stuck behind the bricks.
It was also just outside of the basement (near the restrooms) where I found my husband. Mystery solved.
The Poe House was certainly historic and thought-provoking, but not as spooky as I imagined it might have been. Then again, we visited on a warm, sunny day. Go on a dreary Philadelphia winter day and the whole feel might be different.
There is a little more Poe to experience as you exit the house and museum: look north up the block on Seventh Street to a colorful mural of Edgar as most probably know him, dressed in a Victorian-era black evening coat and tie, but with a weary face and expression that forebodes his death at age 40.
It’s part of the Mural Arts Philadelphia project and was painted by Peter Pagast, an artist formerly based in Philadelphia, who created numerous other murals in town while he lived here.
The Poe portrait stands about 10 feet tall and adorns the brick wall of an apartment complex. I wondered what it might be like to live behind that wall, perhaps going to sleep with the visage of Poe just on the other side.
Toward the end of his life, Poe returned to Philadelphia to stay with a friend near Seventh and Sansom streets. The author was very sick at this time, sliding in and out of serious mental illness, suffering from hallucinations and thoughts of suicide.
In late September, 1849, Poe was in Richmond, Virginia, and due to return north, but stopped off in Baltimore for unknown reasons.
He was found a few days later on Lombard Street (Baltimore), outside Ryan’s Tavern, dressed in dirty and ill-fitting clothing. Taken to Washington College Hospital, he lapsed in and out of a coma until he died on October 7, 1849.
Poe could have been the victim of “cooping,” a kind of electoral fraud when political gangs would kidnap people, drug them, beat them, and force them to vote repeatedly at different ballot boxes all over the city, wearing an assortment of disguises.
The cooping theory is supported by the fact that Ryan’s Tavern was also a polling place, and Poe was found on Election Day, delirious and unable to explain how he came to be in this condition. It’s noted that his clothes were dirty, threadbare, and didn’t fit, which is not like Poe at all, who prided himself on his neat and stylish appearance.
Other notions about Poe’s death suggest suicide, murder, influenza, cholera, venereal disease, and hypoglycemia.
There is also a recent theory that says Poe might have died of rabies. Dr. R. Michael Benitez, a cardiologist at the University of Maryland Medical Center, reviewed Poe’s case, and thinks the first-person accounts of the author’s last days make a strong case for rabies.
It’s not unusual for people in the final stages of the infection to be disoriented with periods of lucidity. Also, Poe refused water during his last days, and hydrophobia is another common symptom of rabies.
In the absence of a thorough autopsy report, though, we will probably never know for sure.
With all the strange stories Poe dreamt up in his lifetime, he probably never imagined the macabre circumstances of his own death.
The Edgar Allan Poe House, 532 North Seventh Street, Philadelphia. Open Friday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 5 p.m. Free admission. 215-597-8780 or www.nps.gov/edal/index.htm