During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.
Yep, it’s that kind of day in Knobite Corner: rainy, chilly, no brighter than twilight–I’ve even been known to refer to weather like this as “House of Usher” weather. And it got me thinking about the sad, contradictory genius who wrote about that dreadful place–and so many other horrors.
Easy enough, after all, to imagine Poe as never having been a living breathing man, but merely a shadow who whispered and shouted, laughed and cried, loved and lost–a shadow with no peers as a chronicler of the macabre. Yet he did live and breathe.
Trouble is, he–and his loved ones–never left some of the places where they lived–in particular, a small house in a rundown area of Baltimore, Maryland.
The little brick townhouse on North Amity Street was built, most likely, sometime around 1830: a working man’s house in a working man’s district. With four and a half rooms–two on the ground floor, two upstairs, and a tiny attic where Poe himself wrote and slept–, it was a tight squeeze for the four people who lived there: Poe, barely into his twenties, his elderly paternal grandmother, Elizabeth, his aunt Maria Clemm, and Maria’s daughter, Virginia, the young cousin whom Poe married when she turned thirteen.
It was, possibly, the most settled period of Poe’s life. The four lived there quite happily from 1832 to 1835, leaving the place, never to return, after Elizabeth Poe died in 1835.
Yet this house seems to an alarming amount of psychic residue from Poe’s time there, despite having been inhabited by others until 1922. The house sat vacant from that year until 1949, when it became a house museum and historical site.
Some of the most compelling reports of ghostly activity in the Poe House come from 1968, when rioting broke out in many cities after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. All electrical power on North Amity Street and the surrounding area was out, yet concerned neighbors summoned police when they spotted strange, flickering lights in Poe House. Unable to enter the house because they had no key, and–so they said–unwilling to break the door down lest they open the house to looters, officers waited until morning, when a tour guide arrived, to go in. A search found no evidence that anyone had been in the house at all during those dark hours.
That occurrence may be at the root of a report from the 1980s, when no less august a publication than the New York Times claimed that gang members in the area were being scared out of vandalizing the house by the ghost of Poe himself, whom the gang members referred to as “Mr. Eddie”.
But there have been other occurrences–so many that curator Jeff Jerome has on occasion been accused of putting about stories of hauntings to boost the tourist trade, although many of the events predate his tenure, which began in the 1970s.
During the 1960s, long before the flickering lights incident, tourists complained of being tapped on the shoulder by some unseen being. These taps were, without exception, reported from the bedroom that had been Elizabeth Poe’s.
In 1980, during a seance in the house sponsored by a local radio station, one pair of psychics–man and wife–complained to Jerome that he had promised “no tricks”–but they had heard voices and movement from Poe’s attic room while they were in the grandmother’s bedroom; investigation proved that no one living had been up there that night.
Psychics have also reported the presence of a heavyset elderly woman with gray hair–presumably the shade of Elizabeth Poe–in the back bedroom. After Mrs. Poe’s death, young Virginia lived in that room until she, her mother and Poe moved.
One of the most startling events happened in 1984, when a dramatic production of Poe’s story Berenice, which he had written while living in the house, was being presented. The actress playing Berenice was dressing in the upstairs back bedroom when Jeff Jerome, downstairs, heard a loud crash. He ran upstairs to find the actress near panic; a window in the room had fallen out and smashed on the floor–a window that could only have been removed by someone physically lifting it out of the frame and dropping it.
In addition to the little house in Baltimore, Poe is said to haunt at least a half-dozen sites in New York City’s Greenwich Village. One of those sites is a little house on West 3rd Street, where he, Virginia and Mrs. Clemm lived during 1844 -45 and where Virginia died.
Another place he’s said to haunt is the once-infamous General Wayne Inn–now a Jewish cultural center, from what I understand–in Merion, Pennsylvania. Poe dined there a number of times while living in nearby Philadelphia, and is said to have written several stanzas of his most famous poem, “The Raven”, while sitting by a window there. In 1843, he carved his initials into the window sill by his table.
Patrons at a pub in Baltimore’s famous Fells Point district claim to have seen Poe’s ghost there. Poe died in delirium on October 7, 1849, in a hospital nearby; he was last reported having been seen drinking in the pub, now called The Horse You Came In On, before being found in a gutter and taken to the hospital.
Arthur Myers, The Ghostly Register (1986)
Rosemary Ellen Guiley, The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits (1992)
Michael Norman and Beth Scott, Haunted America (1994)
————. Haunted Historic America (1995)
Dennis William Hauck, Haunted Places: The National Directory (1994 edition).
The quote from “The Fall of the House of Usher” comes from The Unabridged Edgar Allan Poe (1983).
And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one last Poe mystery: the “Poe Toaster”, a man dressed in black who, from 1949 to 2009, visited Poe’s grave–a saga in itself–every January 19, Poe’s birthday, leaving a fifth of cognac and three red roses before calmly walking out of Westminster Churchyard in Baltimore, not to be seen again until the next year. He was last seen in 2009, on Poe’s bicentennial, and one can only wonder if, someday, someone will resume those mysterious visits.