- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 25, 2006

BALTIMORE — On a recent dark, dull day in Baltimore, the sounds of rapping upon the front door of the modest brick house echoed easily up and down Amity Street. With his frock coat and ivory-han- dled cane, the gentle- man demanding admittance was instantly familiar to the neighborhood residents and visitors waiting patiently outside.

They knew him as Edgar Allan Poe himself, the master of the macabre, author of such tales as “MS. Found in a Bottle,” “Morella” and “Berenice,” all most likely penned in the very place to which he was now so furiously trying to gain admittance, this time to tell his stories.

This was not 1834, when the not-yet-famous writer regularly made his way to the small narrow space at the top of the stairs in this house to write. Nor was it October 1849, when his soon-to-be lifeless body was found in a Baltimore gutter.

But as the days run swiftly into night and the wind whips sharply down the city streets, Edgar Allan Poe comes again, even in 2006.

And in October at the E.A. Poe House and Museum on Amity Street, the connoisseur of all things ghastly comes on with a bang and a flourish. Performances of some of his most popular stories, such as “The Cask of Amontillado” or “The Tell-Tale Heart” are held in a small, cramped upstairs room, where the audience’s proximity to the performer helps intensify that sense of unlooked-for intimacy and creeping dread familiar to all readers of Poe’s tales.

“It’s a wonderful atmosphere,” says the man dressed as Poe, who has been known occasionally to take on the persona of actor David Keltz.

“There is nothing like performing in a place where Poe actually lived.”

The ever-present Poe

Around this time of year, it seems, Edgar Poe, or some facsimile thereof, is everywhere, ready to retell those dark tales of obsession and revenge that have captivated audiences for well over a century.

“He makes palpable every one of our primary fears,” says Kevin Barr, who has taught Poe as part of his American literature classes at Georgetown Day School in the District for the past 30 years.

“It’s all there, from isolation and alienation to the monster under the bed.”

Beyond what Walt Whitman called the “indescribable magnetism” of Poe’s life and work, there is something about Halloween and Poe that seems a natural — no, supernatural — fit.

Perhaps it is because so many elements of Poe’s work — dungeons, tombs, bodily rot, dismemberment and living death, not to mention black cats with eyes ripped from their sockets — are those the culture dwells upon on the day when, legend has it, the bridge opens between the world of the quick and that of the dead.

Or maybe the attraction has to do with the author’s own story, a life bounded by poverty and slander, and a death that remains to this day mysterious and unresolved.

“He wrote about things that might happen to you,” says Jeff Jerome, curator of the Poe House, who credits Vincent Price and the B movies of the late 1950s and early ‘60s with sparking his own interest in Poe.

“And it doesn’t seem to matter what time or place you’re living in,” he says.

Miserable life, puzzling death

Poe’s life itself contained more of the miserable than the macabre.Born in Boston in 1809 to a couple of less-than-always-successful actors, Poe was forced to contend with the loss of both parents before he was 3. (His father deserted the family a year after his birth.)

What followed was the stuff of the legend: his being taken in by the wealthy Richmond family of John Allan but never formally adopted (an uneasy relationship that resulted in Poe’s preferring the simple name Edgar Poe), unsuccessful stints as a college student at the University of Virginia and as a cadet at West Point, marriage in 1836 to his 13-year-old cousin, and then, finally, the lingering death that finally stole him away on Oct. 7, 1849.

“That death story grows more elaborate with each retelling,” says Jeffrey Savoye, secretary and treasurer of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore. The society, founded in 1923, was instrumental in saving the Amity Street house from demolition in 1941 yet is a separate entity from the Poe House.

“People do tend to fill in the gaps in his autobiography with whatever they can find,” Mr. Savoye says.

Poe was found on Oct. 3, 1849, Election Day, near Gunner’s Hall tavern on Lombard Street, which was being used as a polling place. Incoherent and dressed in clothing not his own, he was rushed to Washington College Hospital (now Church Home and Hospital) and taken to a room for those suffering from advanced intoxication.

He was alternately delirious and lucid (accounts vary) until he finally died just before sunrise on Oct. 7.

Some accounts of the death have him succumbing to rabies. Others point to a beating that ended in murder. Still others, proceeding from the fact that he was found outside a polling place on Election Day, suggest induced alcohol poisoning: In those days, it was common for gangs of political operatives to ply unfortunates with drugs or alcohol, then trot them around town to vote repeatedly — “early and often.”

“His is the saddest story in American literature and culture,” says Mr. Barr, who is currently the principal at Georgetown Day’s high school. “For him, life really was a terminal disease.”

It was a disease that did not end with death.

After Poe passed away, his supposed friend and fellow editor Rufus Griswold embarked on a serious smear campaign, forging letters and spreading stories, all with an eye toward promoting the memory of Poe as an opium addict, child molester and drunk.

“You can’t talk about Poe without talking about what Griswold did to his reputation,” says Mr. Jerome, who notes that there is a lot more to Poe than racy headlines or television sound bites can convey, even sans Griswold.

The Baltimore years

Not for nothing did Baltimore name its football team the Ravens. Baltimore is “the most Poe-conscious of all American cities,” according to Frank R. Shivers, writing in “Maryland Wits and Baltimore Bards,” a literary history of the region.

Yet specifics on Poe’s time here are hard to come by.

“The least-known part of Poe’s biography are the Baltimore years,” Mr. Savoye says. “This was prior to his real fame, and things are well, shadowy. Half the time we don’t know where he was staying.”

By 1830, Baltimore was a bustling port town, second in size only to New York City, but neither its size nor its reputation brought Poe to Baltimore. Rather, it was the presence of family.

Here, the name Poe still meant something, thanks to memories of Poe’s grandfather, David Poe, who had fought in the American Revolution, participated in a mob that had attacked a newspaper editor critical of George Washington, and was buried at the Westminster Burying Ground at Fayette and Greene streets.

There the writer also is buried, his death remembered each year on Jan. 19, his birthday, by a mysterious and unknown visitor who shows up at his grave with roses and a bottle of cognac.

By 1832, Poe had settled at the home of David Poe’s daughter Maria Clemm on Amity Street, where he is believed to have lived until 1835. Maria’s daughter Virginia, 9 years old when Poe first moved in, would become Mrs. Poe in 1836. (The union proved short-lived; Virginia suffered from tuberculosis, a common complaint of the era, and died while still in her 20s.)

The Clemm home on Amity Street, which was built for transients on what was then the outskirts of town, is now the Poe House and Museum.

This is no sprawling manse. The place is so small that visitors sometimes have to wait outside.

“It was a very difficult time,” says Mr. Jerome, who notes that Poe walked to Washington twice from Baltimore to try to secure a federal job. “There were bank failures, and disease was common. The poor suffered especially hard.”

So you will find no crystal chandeliers or sweeping staircases here. The Clemms were in what was politely called “reduced circumstances,” and the layout of the modest house, with its small, crabbed rooms and narrow, winding stairs, is testament to what mid-19th-century life was like for those who weren’t wealthy.

“Maria and Virginia would go around the neighborhood with a basket,” begging for food, Mr. Jerome says. “That was common for people with no income.”

A house of mystery

Owned and managed by the City of Baltimore Commission for Historic and Architectural Preservation since 1979, the house comes with its own share of tales of the unexpected, some of which may or may not have anything to do with Poe. They are useful for telling around Halloween, nonetheless, just for the frisson one gets upon hearing them.

Like the one Mr. Keltz felt when he was working at the house more than 20 years ago. At the time, he was leading tours, not impersonating Poe, so he hardly expected what happened when he made his way to an upstairs room.

“I felt knuckles right on my shoulder blades, like someone had tapped me hard,” he says. “I remember thinking, that’s really rude, but when I turned around there was nobody there.”

Then there’s the actress who was hired several years ago for a production of “Berenice,” Poe’s tale of obsession with a lover’s teeth and of, finally, her premature burial — or, in Poe’s words, a story “of a violated grave, of a disfigured body discovered upon its margin — a body enshrouded, yet still breathing, still palpitating, still alive!”

Mr. Jerome says something happened to that actress in the Poe House.

“She was in the back room changing into her costume when she heard a loud crash and found the window in the middle of the floor,” Mr. Jerome recalls. “There is no way that window could have made it that far.”

The actress refused to go on. Mr. Jerome says she hasn’t been seen in the vicinity of the Poe House since.

Hearing the tales

Still, giving life to Poe’s tales at the place where he lived has been an increasingly popular seasonal pastime, with attendees returning year after year even when the story is the same. In part, Mr. Jerome says, that’s because the production never is.

“There are a lot of different ways of doing these works,” he says. “So each time, something different happens.”

That’s a calculated piece of spontaneity in a world where Poe has become more icon than author to be analyzed and interpreted. And while you can’t buy bobble-head Poe dolls or sweat shirts emblazoned with images of “The Raven” at the Poe House, you can purchase copies of his tales, including a few produced on reproduction parchment.

“My teacher told us about it, so we wanted to come here,” says Jasmine Williams, a freshman at Randalls- town High School, who brought along her friend Dawn Drummond and her mother, Monica.

Being in Poe’s house has sparked some memories for Mrs. Williams.

“I remember reading ‘The Raven,’ she says, just before picking up a copy. “And I really remember the teacher who taught it.”

In fact, the three are so taken by the entire Poe package that they venture back upstairs to attend the Poe/Keltz rendition of “The Cask of Amontillado.”

They’re rapt, along with everyone else, as the actor takes them through its delighted narrator’s retelling of how he lured the tipsy (and ironically named) character Fortunato into the wine cellars of a Venetian palazzo at carnival time, there to wrap him in chains and entomb him.

Suddenly Mr. Jerome, who is watching the performance on a closed-circuit security camera, notices that a member of the audience who is sitting in the back row against the wall suddenly turns around.

“It’s almost like somebody tapped her on the shoulder,” he says.

Did she feel something? Who knows? Because this time, when the performance draws to a close with Fortunato walled in for all eternity, the visitors do not linger.

• • •

Looking for your own piece of Poe this Hal- loween? One of the best and eeriest places to start is on the Web, at the site of a Mary- land Public Television production Knowing Poe, which contains a virtual tour of the writer’s Baltimore, ruminations on his death and links to his works and other resources. See knowingpoe.thinkport.org.

Then find these other resources in Maryland and Virginia:

Maryland

• The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore: Founded in 1923, the Poe Society continues the work of earlier organizations bent on preserving Poe’s memory in Baltimore. In 1941, it saved the E.A. Poe House from demolition for project housing; society members sat in their cars throughout the night to prevent any unscheduled demolition “accidents.” At one time, the society administered the Poe House, but in 1979, it turned over the house to the city of Baltimore. See eapoe.org.

• E.A. Poe House and Museum: 203 N. Amity St., Baltimore. Run by Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, this is the house in West Baltimore where Poe lived for three years with his aunt and eventual mother-in-law, Maria Clemm, and his young cousin and future wife, Virginia. Local actors provide theatrical presentations during the Halloween season (celebrated here on the weekends before and after Halloween). Open noon to 3:45 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Admission charge. 410/396-7932 or www.ci.baltimore.md.us/government/historic/poehouse.html. See also www.eapoe.org/balt/poehse.htm.

• Westminster Hall and Burial Grounds: 519 W. Fayette St., at Greene Street. The grounds are the property of the University of Maryland School of Law and are maintained by the Westminster Preservation Trust. The monument, erected in 1875 as part of a Pennies for Poe campaign undertaken by Baltimore schoolchildren, is the cemetery’s most prominent feature. You also can see his original gravesite in the Poe family plot. Cemetery gates open to the public daily 8 a.m. to dusk. Tours are available for a fee on the first and third Fridays of each month from April to July. 410/706-2072 or www.eapoe.org/balt/poegrave.htm.

• The Sir Moses Ezekiel Statue of Poe: On the plaza of the University of Baltimore School of Law at the corner of Maryland and Mount Royal avenues. Commissioned in 1907, this bronze casting is the last piece constructed by famed sculptor Moses Jacob Ezekiel. The first model was destroyed in a fire and the second in an earthquake. When it finally was completed, it was placed in Wyman Park by the Baltimore Museum of Art and dedicated on Oct. 20, 1921. Time, weather and vandalism took their toll on the piece, and at the recommendation of the Poe Society, it was moved to its current location in 1978.

Virginia

• Poe in Alexandria: Actor David Keltz, in costume and character, portrays Edgar Allan Poe, with his criticism, short stories and poems, including “The Raven.” The Lyceum, 201 S. Washington St., 7:30 p.m. Oct. 30 and 31. $12. 703/838-4994 or alexandriahistory.org.

• The Edgar Allan Poe Museum: 1914-16 E. Main St., Richmond. Built in the late 1680s, this quaint cottage and its surrounding garden courtyard are where Poe spent the greater part of his life. The building houses a large collection of first-edition copies of many of Poe’s books, among them an 1845 copy of “The Raven and Other Poems,” and many historic artifacts, including the lock of hair a friend clipped from the poet’s famously lofty brow after he died. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission $5 to $6. 804/648-5523 or www.poemuseum.org.

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