On Poe’s Death Day, A Memento Mori of Lost Lenore
Diagram of a Raven’s skull, from “The myology of the raven (Corvus corax sinuatus.) A guide to the study of the muscular system in birds” (1890) (via Internet Archive Book Images)
Today in 1849, Edgar Allan Poe died after being discovered in a dire state a few days prior in the Baltimore streets. It’s still not clear what killed him, with everything from alcohol, to murder, to even rabies under speculation in the over a century since. It’s the kind of macabre mystery that seems almost too fitting for an author who arguably penned one of the first detective fictions — “Murders in the Rue Morgue” — and who continues to cast a brooding shadow over contemporary life and literature (see the new statue of Poe flanked by a soaring raven unveiled over the weekend in Boston).
It also seems like a good day to start our annual series of Halloween-themed content. As in 2011 and 2013 when we brought to you a whole October of strange and startling history for the spooky month, this year we’re focusing again on the world’s darkest corners, shining a light for you Atlas Obscura readers on true stories of horror.
“Evermore” at the Grolier Club (all photographs by Allison Meier/Atlas Obscura)
Right now in New York City, one of our favorite haunts, the Grolier Club, is hosting an exhibition called Evermore: The Persistence of Poe on Poe-related artifacts from the collection of Susan Jaffe Tane. Among the manuscripts and contemporary comics inspired by his work, you’ll see fragments from Poe’s coffin harvested when he was relocated to his current burial spot in Baltimore, as well as a lock of his hair clipped at his funeral by his cousin Elizabeth Herring, one of the few who turned up to mourn the writer. But walk directly to the large glass case at the back of the library space and you’ll see an even more intricate hair memento, where Poe’s dark strands are mixed with those of his lost love Virginia.
Jewelry from the hair of Virginia & Edgar Allan Poe
Virginia was Poe’s first love, as they met when she was 7 and he was 13. After marrying in September of 1835, she got ill with consumption in 1842, staying miserably invalid until her death on January 30, 1847. Not surprisingly, the loss of beloveds would fix in the work of Poe, as if Virginia was a phantom he could not shake. Some believe she is the “lost Lenore” of “the Raven.” However, “the Raven” was published in 1845, before Virginia was gone. Yet to have your young wife whither into illness before your eyes must have felt like a loss long before the actual death, although we will never know for sure if the agonizing despair of the “the rare and radiant maiden” was anything but a symbolic evocation of the doom of death that hangs like a specter over all of us.
Also in the Grolier Club exhibition is a manuscript of Poe’s “The Spirits of the Dead.” As we launch another year of Halloween-related content, we’ll end here with some of Poe’s shadowy words:
Be silent in that solitude,
Which is not loneliness—for then
The spirits of the dead who stood
In life before thee are again
In death around thee—and their will
Shall overshadow thee: be still. […]
Evermore: The Persistence of Poe is at the Grolier Club in New York City through November 22.
All this month we’re celebrating 31 Days of Halloween with real tales of the macabre and strange. For even more, check out our spooky stories from 2011 and 2013.
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