Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Murder of Edgar Allan Poe

Enter the Poet

Book cover of a collection of Poe's stories
Book cover of a collection of
Poe's stories

Edgar Allan Poe anonymously published his first book of poetry, Tamerlane and Other Poems in 1827. He would continue to write poems with modest success until 1831 when he turned to the short story form for which (classic verses like "The Raven" excepted) he would become most famous.

As with his early poetry, Poe's early short stories were published anonymously, and he often entered contests, not only for the prestige, but in order to capture the contest's prize money, a necessity since his anticipated inheritance from John Allan had evaporated.

Graduating from contributor to editor, Poe spent many of his early years working on established literary journals, although he felt unsatisfied by these efforts and would spend the rest of his life attempting to establish and publish his own magazine.

In 1836, Poe married his cousin Virginia Clemm, who was barely in her teens. His aunt, Maria Clemm, became his mother-in-law. It could be argued that by this marriage Poe was  simultaneously able to fill the maternal void left by his own mother and by Frances Allan in Maria — and to find in Virginia the beautiful young woman Poe imagined his mother to have been when she died so young.

In 1840, a Philadelphia company published Poe's Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, which featured tales of terror in a genre in which Poe's name would later become synonymous.

Portrait of Maria Clemm
Portrait of Maria Clemm

A year later the story "Murders in the Rue Morgue," considered by most as the first detective mystery tale, appeared in Graham's Magazine, where Poe was then working as an editor. The story was well-received, so Poe later created a sequel that could be considered an early example of "true crime" writing. The story, while fictional and set in Paris, mirrors every aspect and character of a real New York City murder that horrified the city.

In the summer of 1841, the body of a young woman was pulled from the Hudson River. Young Mary Rogers's murder created a sensation among New York City newspapers, and every clue and theory was presented daily. Poe evidently had been reading  the newspaper accounts assiduously. His story, "The Mystery of Marie Roget," which again featured his fictional detective Auguste Dupin, presented the facts of the Mary Rogers murder and, through Dupin, Poe's own solution to the crime.

During the early 1840s Poe continued to write, barely supporting himself, his young wife, and Maria Clemm on his earnings. He became a noteworthy member of a literary society, but his fame did not necessarily lead to fortune.

After a long battle with tuberculosis, his child bride Virginia died in early 1847. Poe sunk into a severe depression as once again, a beloved young woman left him on his own. Spiritualist and writer Mary Gove visited the Poe's home during Virginia's final days and wrote:

Recovery of Mary Roger's body
Recovery of Mary Roger's body

"[Virginia] lay on the straw bed, wrapped in her husband's great-coat, with a large tortoise-shell cat on her bosom. The wonderful cat seemed conscious of her great usefulness. The coat and the cat were the sufferer's only means of warmth."

The theme of Virginia's, Frances Allan's, and his mother's death would appear again and again in Poe's writings. He once wrote that "...the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world."

Despite the emotional and career setbacks, Poe continued to pursue his dream of establishing a magazine. Cynics have pointed to a sudden courtship in late 1848 of a wealthy widow as Poe's callous attempt to woo not the woman, but to secure funding for his magazine. The engagement was broken off (some say during a violent confrontation between a very drunk Poe and his terrified intended bride). Poe entered his final year, one that would be peppered with both joys and deep mysteries.

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