If you visit me in Richmond and I take you on a driving tour of the city, chances are good I’ll take you past St. Paul’s Church. It’s where Patrick Henry gave his “Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Death” speech and it’s where Edgar Allan Poe’s mother is buried. I’ll tell you that on the tour, I promise, and then, when you ask about Poe’s connection to Richmond, I will tell you all that, too.
I’ll tell you that his mother died when he was three, that his father was already gone and, an orphan, he was adopted by John and Frances Allan in Richmond. I’ll tell you he considered Richmond his home, called himself a Virginian and gave one of his last readings of “The Raven” here. I’ll tell you about The Poe Museum and the two black cats who live there, kept by the museum in honor of Poe’s love of cats. They’re named Edgar and Pluto.
When I went to Philadelphia, I realized I have some very strong feelings about Poe and what cities should be able to claim him. Philly is home to the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site, and that makes sense because Poe lived and wrote there for six years. They were some of his happiest and most productive years.
While Poe lived in a bunch of houses during his Philadelphia years, the house where the National Historic Site now resides is the only one still standing. He rented the house in 1843 and probably stayed there for less than a year with his wife Virginia and mother-in-law Maria Clemm, who was said to always be busy cleaning and cooking for the couple.
He wrote some of his most-known works in Philadelphia, including “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and, in total, he published 31 stories during his time there.
While no remnants of Poe’s time in the house exist today, the National Park Service has done an incredible job telling the story of his time in Philadelphia and in the house. They fill in the details where there are none.
The site includes the original home Poe and his family lived in, along with two adjoining residences built after his time there, now used to house a welcome area, a gift shop, theater and a few exhibits.
There’s even a creepy basement.
Poe and his family moved out in the spring of 1844 and a few other families rented the house until Richard Gimbel bought it in 1933. He was a fan of Poe and opened it as a museum, leaving it in his will to the city of Philadelphia. In 1978, the National Park Service took control of the home and opened it to the public in 1980.
The ranger here was incredible, which was actually pretty standard for all the park rangers I encountered during my time in Philadelphia. As I walked up from the creepy basement, I told the ranger I thought Poe would approve of the place, that I think he would have liked it. He said he liked to think so too, especially when the spiders were busy in the basement and the slugs were sliding their way across the walls.
So, Philly can have part of Poe. They can claim him, just like Richmond can, but what I learned in Philly is that I’m really not good with Baltimore hogging all the Poe-related attention. Yes, he lived there for a bit, but mostly he died there – on his way from Richmond to Philadelphia.
He was 40 then, in 1849, when he was deliriously wandering the streets of Baltimore. He was taken to Washington Medical College but died Oct. 7, 1849, and no one really knows what happened. The clothes he was wearing weren’t his own. He allegedly called out the name “Reynolds” a handful of times the night he died, but no one knows who he was talking about, and his medical records and death certificate are lost.
That’s mostly all we know. There were rumors, of course, that he was drunk, that it was rabies that killed him, or syphilis, or heart disease. But mostly, we don’t know.
Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site is located in the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, although it’s more than a mile from the main historic district.
Admission is free and the site is open Friday-Sunday 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. You can request a tour from a ranger or you can pick up a self-guided tour guide and explore at your own pace. There’s a Reading Room on site, too, and visitors are invited to read or listen to Poe’s stories and poems.