At midnight on October 8, 2009, about 50 people gathered on the sidewalk before Baltimore’s Westminster Church. Some wore jeans. Some wore pajamas. Some wore capes and gowns and girdles. The drivers rolling down Fayette Street slowed to peer at the assembly, which bulged beyond the curb, into the path of traffic. A black-cloaked figure dominated the open church doorway, shouting the jangling rhymes of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” On the periphery of the church sprawled the graveyard containing Poe’s remains.
A passing cabbie bellowed: “What is this?”
* * *
On October 3, 1849, a 40-year-old Poe appeared in a Baltimore tavern, wearing a stranger’s clothes, suffering an unidentifiable condition. Too incoherent to explain himself to the authorities, he died in the hospital on October 7. He was buried in an unmarked grave in the Poe family plot, and only a handful of guests attended the funeral. No one ever discerned the cause of death, though explanations ranging from alcoholism to syphilis to rabies have surfaced over the years.
* * *
The year 2009 marked not only the 160th anniversary of Poe’s death but also the 200th of his birth, and that October weekend, Baltimore offered a series of funerary fetes: first an open-casket viewing of Poe’s “corpse”—actually a latex replica sporting a suit—followed by the all-night churchyard vigil described above. A few days later, Westminster Church hosted two funerals in a single afternoon. Before the first ceremony, a horse-drawn hearse carried the corpse to the church from the nearby Poe House (the author’s former home, which has since become a museum). Then actors portraying Sarah Helen Whitman, Charles Baudelaire, H. P. Lovecraft, and others whom Poe affected offered him tributes before an audience of 350 people. Several hours afterward, the performance recurred.
* * *
The most famous word of Poe’s most famous poem presents a paradox. “Nevermore” first appears midway through “The Raven.” Even though its meaning—and its position at the end of a stanza—generates a sense of conclusion, it becomes a refrain, repeatedly insisting on the unrepeatable.
“We decided we would avoid what other Poe sites are doing,” said Jeff Jerome, the amiable, bespectacled curator of the Poe House.
I noted that the Poe Studies Association, an organization of American Poe scholars, was meeting that same weekend in Philadelphia. Jerome mimicked a yawn.
“Lectures! You know, I’m sure it’s interesting listening to someone talk about Poe’s dramatic use of the semicolon, but I wanted to avoid that. I wanted to have fun events. I wanted events where people would come and enjoy themselves, learn something about Poe, and where visually it would be exciting. And this worked. This definitely worked.” Jerome has long honored Poe through celebrations: annual birthday festivities, Halloween parties, and, this year, a fleet of bicentennial events including a wine tasting that featured all the varietals from Poe’s story “The Cask of Amontillado.”
Jerome and I were sitting in the dim first-floor anteroom of the Poe House. It was about 8PM on October 7, and the viewings of Poe’s effigy would continue upstairs for another three hours. Longtime Poe House actor Tony Tsendeas, clad in 19th-century gear, welcomed the visitors who kept tramping in. The incongruous scent of French fries wafted through the dim space; Poe House volunteers were enjoying a dinner from McDonald’s, and Jerome seemed envious. He’d been up since five, he said, and hadn’t eaten since breakfast. That night’s vigil was scheduled to last from midnight till 7 AM.
When I asked whether Poe’s interests in death and horror influenced Jerome as he conceived of the viewing, vigil, and double funeral, he said, “That didn’t even enter my mind.”
Poe wrote humor and science fiction as well, he pointed out.
And when I asked why he was holding an open-casket viewing of Poe’s reconstructed body, he said: “Because we couldn’t have a closed casket. What’s the point of having people come up and look at a box? We wanted people to see Poe’s corpse.” (Which, I considered pointing out, they couldn’t.)
* * *
Poe looked pale in his new black suit. A white collar bunched at his chin, tight enough to choke him. A thatch of dark curls clustered above his waxen forehead, and he crossed his hands over his groin, as though anticipating a blow. A red rose and a bouquet bedecked his brand-new coffin. For a moment I thought he was humming nervously, but I soon realized a humidifier must be lurking in a corner.
The Poe House is a row house of low doorways and low ceilings. Its steep, winding staircases felt something like ladders, and as I leaned in to look at Poe, I heard visitors climbing slowly up to the viewing room. For a couple of hours, I watched them watch Poe. Some were reverent, while others barked with laughter, or chatter, or questions. Some glanced in the casket gingerly and then looked away; others poked their faces as close to Poe’s as they could. Nearly everyone brought a camera. They’d want to come back to this moment later.
* * *
“So is this him? The real guy?” asked a man with strawberry-blond hair, popping in from the hallway.
“Don’t think there’s much left of him at this point,” quipped Poe House volunteer Jessica Marxen.
* * *
A motivation that Jerome never mentioned to me, but that became evident as the weekend proceeded, is the sense among many contemporary admirers that Poe never got the funeral he deserved. A few days after the viewing, at the end of the first funeral (which exceeded two hours in length), Jerome announced, “I think we made up for his funeral in 1849, when seven people followed his coffin.”
The applause—for Poe, for Jerome, for the crowd itself—was overwhelming.
Algernon sported a black vest, black kilt, and black boots. Frank and energetic, he was prone to emphasizing odd words and to calling Poe by his first name. When I asked what brought him here, he replied: “Edgar.”
We were standing outside Westminster Church, two hours into the all-night vigil that followed the casket visitation. The hooded figure had finished his “Raven” recitation, Jerome had been interviewed by a local radio station, and Tony Tsendeas had delivered a chilling rendition of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Now was one of the many intermissions that would help stretch this event till 7 AM.
“Edgar, in my personal opinion, touched a part of you that a lot of people don’t like to talk about,” Algernon explained. “It’s his focus on death and transformation, and his realism. He understands the world. He embraced it. He embraced the idea that it’s not always happiness and sunshine and—welcome to the real world.”
A woman clad only in a towel passed behind him.
“When I came [to Baltimore], the first thing I wanted to do was come here and pay homage,” he said. He gestured toward the graveyard abutting the church, and his nail polish gleamed. “And that’s what I did. I sat there for like an hour and a half with a bottle of wine, just sitting there. Yes, just sitting there. And I felt myself getting emotional. And I had my book with ‘The Raven.’ It was—” his speech slowed. “It was important to me. It fulfilled me.” His eyes glistened with tears. “It was important to me. And my wife just left me alone. She knew: ‘Just leave Algernon alone. It’s emotional for him.’ And it was.”
* * *
Poe’s characters aren’t known for their resilience. In “Annabel Lee,” the speaker, grieving for his love lost “many and many a year ago,” still lies down with her each night; she, dead, has become his “life.” In “Ulalume,” the speaker finds himself at his lover’s tomb, brought back for reasons he can’t identify. Lingering guilt cripples the sinners of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Black Cat,” and many other tales. Even Poe’s supremely rational detective, C. Auguste Dupin, is an excavator of backstory—one of many Poe characters whose present is defined by the past.
* * *
Two hours into the vigil, a slim young woman introduced as Didi performed a sinuous dance in front of the church. Her belly wriggled beneath her white dress, petticoats, and shawl. She looked alluringly undead. “Graveyard Picnic” by singer-songwriter Voltaire—popular for albums such as Ooky Spooky—piped over loudspeakers: “If you squirm at the Conqueror Worm / This is no place for thee, / Or if you fright at the mere sight / Of the corpse of my Annabel Lee.”
* * *
Up close, Didi—whose real name is Virginia McIntuff—was diminutive, confiding, and merry. “I’m with a Gothic fusion belly-dance troupe out of D.C.; we’re called Mortifera,” she chirped. We were standing several feet away from the church, next to Westminster’s graveyard. Virginia was dressed like a ghost, but her cheeks were flushed in the cool night air.
“When you read Poe’s stories, you can smell things, you can taste,” she said. “You literally feel like you’re there, and there are not many writers—and I read a lot!—there are not many writers that can do what he does.” To emphasize her points, she threw a hand on her breast. “A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, all the pictures of Poe are in black and white, so one would generally think you can only see it in black and white,’ but no. When I read Poe I see everything in color.”
* * *
At about 3:45 AM., a tall man with hollow cheeks, bulky hat, long hair, and pointed moustache handed out Peppermint Patties to the handful of remaining spectators. “The other day I said to someone, you want to climb a mountain, you climb Everest,” the man remarked to no one in particular. “You want Poe, you go to Baltimore.”
“That’s right,” called a blond woman in stripes, taking some candy.
* * *
Earlier that year, Jerome had participated in the “Great Poe Debate” at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Taking part in a tradition of inter-city competition for Poe, he argued—alongside a Philadelphian “literary provocateur” and a Bostonian English professor—that his city, not theirs, owns the author. All participants mounted persuasive arguments. And yet, at this moment, it was safe to say that in no other city in the world were Poe devotees clustered at an all-night churchyard vigil, chewing Peppermint Patties, hopping from one foot to the next in an effort to stay warm.
* * *
The woman in the black fur hat was holding a baby. She met the woman in the black velvet cape at 2:45 AM.
“His name is Walter,” said the first, nodding at her child.
“My youngest’s name is Ophelia,” said the second.
“I like it,” said the first.
“I thought you might,” said the second.
* * *
Like many other Goths, Algernon explained, he felt isolated as an adolescent. Poe represented a kind of “connectivity,” he said. “It’s hard to explain. It’s part of our dark heart. . . . The things he did in life, it’s like, wow, that sounds like me! That sounds like me when I was a jerk! That sounds like me when I was drunk! That sounds like me when I was an idiot!”
* * *
In his neat beard and wool sweater, Sean Bolivar—the final reader at the vigil—stood out simply by looking unremarkable. Earlier, he had told me he’d driven from the Catskills with his wife and son, arriving after midnight.
Sean looked serious up on the church steps, as though he was confiding to a group of friends. “I just wanted to offer up a piece that I wrote in appreciation for Edgar Allan Poe and the validation that he gives to all of us who live half to two-thirds in the shadowy realm,” he said. “I think we all feel a certain solidarity, and much of it necessarily leads back to Mr. Poe himself.”
The brief poem ended, “I am steeped in Americana, eerie, weird, and comforting. I am an apparition randomly occurring. I can’t help it—just another veil-jumper.”
I heard the bagpipes before I saw the carriage. Sitting beside a costumed coachman as horses pulled Poe’s hearse toward Westminster on Sunday, October 11, Jeff Jerome waved to the crowd, recalling, for a surreal instant, Princess Diana. They parked, and a sea of capes, hoopskirts, bonnets, and bowler hats swelled around the hearse—about 150 mourners altogether. Cameras in hand, the observers scuttled to follow Poe’s coffin from street to graveyard to church. I scuttled with them, accidentally stepping on the real grave of one Sophie Anderson, who died so long ago that the date on the tomb has weathered away.
* * *
In 1860, Neilson Poe ordered a tablet to mark his cousin’s grave. It was destroyed in a freak train crash. Only after a Baltimore schoolteacher started a movement called “Pennies for Poe,” in 1865, did the author get a marked plot. The teacher raised enough money for a new monument and transferred Poe’s body to the northwest corner of Westminster Cemetery. According to Poe House materials, on the day Poe’s body was moved to its new location, onlookers grabbed pieces of the original, collapsing coffin for keepsakes.
* * *
Inside Westminster Church, light filtered down through the high stained-glass windows lining the walls, glinting off the organ pipes. A half-circle of mourners—all actors playing historical personages who knew Poe or his work—sat onstage. One by one they delivered accounts of Poe’s character and talent, all adapted from these personages’ actual testimony. Photographers and journalists lingered in the standing room when they weren’t striding up and down the aisles, shutters clicking, press cards dangling. From the back row, I squinted over the heads of hundreds of onlookers. Many were dressed in mourning, some in period mourning.
Immediately after Poe’s death, his longtime nemesis Rufus Griswold published an influential obituary in the New York Tribune that cited his “shrewd and naturally unamiable character” and condemned him as “a carping grammarian.” At the funeral, an actor playing Griswold delivered that obituary as a speech. Almost as one, the audience groaned, and a man sitting in front of me protested, “Who let him in here, anyway?”
* * *
When it was all over—the first funeral, anyway—Lauren Iser, who planned to attend the second, stood by the churchyard gate with her mother. Both clasped bouquets of red roses. Lauren wore a velvet cape, bodiced gown, mourning veil, and black lace gloves. Beneath her dress clustered white crinoline petticoats, which she revealed with an upward swish of the skirt. A Baltimore native, she said she had always felt connected to Poe, partly because of “how much he was misunderstood by the people who don’t get he wasn’t his characters,” she said. “He wasn’t a crazy guy, he was just a writer.”
Rena Finkel, a petite Johns Hopkins student who wore a wide-brimmed black hat with fake bloody teeth looped into the hatband, waited nearby. She described the day’s ceremony as a joyous occasion. “We’re all here dressed in mourning, but so happy about what Poe did,” she said. She saw the funeral as transforming tragedy into joy, a corollary to the alchemy Poe works in his narratives.
Added Lauren: “I think he would appreciate this. It’s very much in the vein of his work.”
She mentioned that her favorite poem is “Alone,” and Rena said: “‘Alone’ is so important.” She recited from memory: “‘From childhood’s hour I have not been / As others were—I have not seen / As others saw.’ I remember reading that the first time and I was like, ‘Whoa, yes, exactly!’”
“Exactly,” echoed Lauren.
* * *
The narrator of Poe’s story “Ligeia”—whose title hints at the word “elegy”—falls in love with a woman who dies young. He moves across Europe and marries someone else, but he never stops loving her. After his second wife dies too, the narrator spends a night sitting vigil with her body, and observes her return to life only to die again, over and over. Ultimately, the corpse seems to turn into his first wife:
The greater part of the fearful night had worn away, and she who had been dead, once again stirred—and now more vigorously than hitherto, although arousing from a dissolution more appalling in its utter hopelessness than any. . . . “Here then, at least,” I shrieked aloud, “can I never—can I never be mistaken—these are the full, and the black, and the wild eyes—of my lost love—of the lady—of the LADY LIGEIA.”
Both spooky and wrenching, the tale is primarily, I think, about heartbreak. It describes the ways in which the dead can refuse to die, and the living, in turn, refuse to live. I remember T.S. Eliot’s phrase “the recurrent end of the unending”: the lives of many Poe characters, like that of Poe himself, seem to end and unend, forever.