5 Facts About Edgar Allan Poe

You’ve read Edgar Allan Poe’s terrifying stories. You can quote "The Raven." But how well do you know the writer’s quirky sense of humor and code-cracking abilities? Let’s take a look at a few  things you might not know about the acclaimed author, who was born 210 years ago today.

1. He was the original balloon boy.

You probably remember 2009’s infamous “Balloon Boy” hoax. Turns out the Heene family that perpetrated that fraud weren’t even being entirely original in their attempt at attention-grabbing. They were actually cribbing from Poe.

In 1844 Poe cooked up a similar aviation hoax in the pages of the New York Sun. The horror master cranked out a phony news item describing how a Mr. Monck Mason had flown a balloon flying machine called Victoria from England to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina in just 75 hours. According to Poe’s story, the balloon had also hauled seven passengers across the ocean.

No balloonist had ever crossed the Atlantic before, so this story quickly became a huge deal. Complete transatlantic travel in just three days? How exciting! Readers actually queued up outside the Sun’s headquarters to get their mitts on a copy of the day’s historic paper.

Poe’s report on the balloon was chock full of technical details. He devoted a whole paragraph to explaining how the balloon was filled with coal gas rather than “the more expensive and inconvenient hydrogen.” He listed the balloon’s equipment, which included “cordage, barometers, telescopes, barrels containing provision for a fortnight, water-casks, cloaks, carpet-bags, and various other indispensable matters, including a coffee-warmer, contrived for warming coffee by means of slack-lime, so as to dispense altogether with fire, if it should be judged prudent to do so.” He also included hundreds of words of excerpts from the passengers’ journals.

The only catch to Poe’s story was that it was entirely fictitious. The Sun’s editors quickly wised up to Poe’s hoax, and two days later they posted an understated retraction that noted, “We are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous.”

2. He dabbled in cryptography.

If you’ve read Poe’s story “The Gold-Bug,” you probably know that he had a working knowledge of cryptography. But you might not know that Poe was actually a pretty darn good cryptographer in his own right.

Poe’s first notable code-cracking began in 1839. He sent out a call for readers of his Philadelphia newspaper to send him encoded messages that he could decipher. Poe would then puzzle over the secret messages for hours. He published the results of his work in a wildly popular recurring feature. Poe also liked to toss his own codes out there to keep readers busy. Some of the codes were so difficult that Poe professed utter amazement when even a single reader would crack them.

Poe was so confident in his abilities as a cryptographer that he approached the Tyler administration in 1841 with an offer to work as a government code cracker. He modestly promised, “Nothing intelligible can be written which, with time, I cannot decipher.” Apparently there weren’t any openings for him, though.

3. The "Allan" came later.

It would sound odd to just say “Edgar Poe,” but the famous “Allan” wasn’t originally part of the writer’s name. Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809 to professional actors, but his early childhood was fairly rotten. When Poe was just two years old, his father abandoned the family—leaving the toddler's mother, Elizabeth, to raise Edgar and his two siblings. Not long after that, Elizabeth died of tuberculosis.

Poe actually had a little luck at that point. John and Frances Allan, a well-to-do Richmond family, took the boy in and provided for his education. Although the Allans never formally adopted Poe, he added their surname to his own name.

Like a lot of Poe’s fiction, his story with the Allans didn't have a particularly happy ending. Poe and John Allan grew increasingly distant during the boy’s teenage years, and after Poe left for the University of Virginia, he and Allan became estranged. (Apparently the root of these problems involved Poe’s tendency to gamble away whatever money Allan sent him to subsidize his studies.)

4. He had a nemesis.

Like a lot of writers, Poe had a rival. His was the poet, critic, and editor Rufus Griswold. Although Griswold had included Poe’s work in his 1842 anthology The Poets and Poetry of America, Poe held an extremely low opinion of Griswold’s intellect and literary integrity. Poe published an essay blasting Griswold’s selections for the anthology, and their rivalry began.

Things really heated up when Griswold succeeded Poe as the editor of Graham’s Magazine at a higher salary than Poe had been pulling in. Poe began publicly lambasting Griswold’s motivations; he even went so far as to claim that Griswold was something of a literary homer who puffed up New England poets.

Poe might have had a point about Griswold’s critical eye, but Griswold had the good fortune to outlive Poe. After Poe died, Griswold penned a mean-spirited obituary in which he stated that the writer’s death “will startle many, but few will be grieved by it” and generally portrayed Poe as an unhinged maniac.

Slamming a guy in his obituary is pretty low, but Griswold was just getting warmed up. He convinced Poe’s aunt, Maria Clemm, to make him Poe’s literary executor. Griswold then published a biography of Poe that made him out to be a drug-addled drunk, all while keeping the profits from a posthumous edition of Poe’s work.

5. His death was a mystery worth of his writing.

In 1849 Poe left New York for a visit to Richmond, but he never made it that far south. Instead, Poe turned up in front of a Baltimore bar deliriously raving and wearing clothes that didn’t fit. Passersby rushed Poe to the hospital, but he died a few days later without being able to explain what happened to him.

Poe’s rumored causes of death were “cerebral inflammation” and “congestion of the brain,” which were polite euphemisms for alcohol poisoning. Modern scholars don’t totally buy this explanation, though. The characterization of Poe as a raging drunk mostly comes from Griswold’s posthumous smear campaign, and his incoherent state of mind may have been the result of rabies or syphilis.

Some Poe fans subscribe to a more sinister theory about the writer’s death, though. They think he may have fallen victim to “cooping,” a sordid 19th century political practice. Gangs of political thugs would round up homeless or weak men and hold them captive in a safe place called a “coop” right before a major election. On election day—and there was an election in Baltimore on October 3, 1849, the day Poe was found—the gangs would then drug or beat the hostages before taking them around to vote at multiple polling places.

This story sounds like something straight out of Poe’s own writing, but it might actually be true. Poe’s crummy physical state and delirium would be consistent with a victim of cooping, and the ill-fitting clothes jibe with gangs’ practice of making their hostages change clothes so they could cast multiple votes. With no real evidence either way, though, Poe’s death remains one of literature’s most fascinating mysteries.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

A Ring Containing a Lock of Charlotte Brontë’s Hair Found Its Way to Antiques Roadshow

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A ring that “very likely” contains a lock of Charlotte Brontë’s hair appeared on a recent episode of the Antiques Roadshow that was filmed in northern Wales, according to The Guardian. The jewelry itself isn’t especially valuable; the TV show's appraiser, jewelry specialist Geoffrey Munn, said he would have priced it at £25, or about $32.

However, an inscription of the Jane Eyre author’s name as well as the year she died (1855) raises the value to an estimated £20,000 ($26,000). That isn’t too shabby, considering that the owner found the ring among her late father-in-law’s belongings in the attic.

A section of the ring comes unhinged to reveal a thin strand of hair inside—but did it really belong to one of the famous Brontë sisters? Munn seems to think so, explaining that it was not uncommon for hair to be incorporated into jewelry in the 19th century.

“There was a terror of not being able to remember the face and character of the person who had died,” he said. “Hair wreaths” and other pieces of "hair work" were popular ways of paying tribute to deceased loved ones in England and America from the 17th century to the early 20th century.

In this case, the hair inside the ring was finely braided. Munn went on to add, “It echoes a bracelet Charlotte wore of her two sisters’ hair … So it’s absolutely the focus of the mid- to late 19th century and also the focus of Charlotte Brontë.”

The Brontë Society & Brontë Parsonage Museum, which has locks of Brontë’s hair in its collection, said that it had no reason to doubt the authenticity of the ring.

[h/t The Guardian]

25 Books Every Book Lover Should Read

iStock.com/Vladimir Vladimirov
iStock.com/Vladimir Vladimirov

Books have the power to inspire our imagination, transport us to faraway worlds, and make us think and feel deeply. Luckily, bibliophiles of all ages have a wealth of excellent fiction and nonfiction books to choose from. Here, we've gathered up 25 books every book lover should read—from classic novels to contemporary bestsellers.

1. Siddhartha // Hermann Hesse

Published in 1922, Siddhartha is loosely based on the life of Buddha. Hermann Hesse tells the story of Siddhartha, a young man who leaves his comfortable home and prosperous family to seek meaning. Throughout the novel, Siddhartha joins a group of ascetics, works for a merchant, falls in love, has a son, and becomes a ferryman. As an old man, he becomes wise and finally attains enlightenment.

Buy it on Amazon.

2. The Aeneid // Virgil

In this epic Latin poem, Virgil relates the story of Aeneas, a Trojan man who became the legendary ancestor of the Romans. Written between 29 and 19 B.C.E., during the last years of the poet's life, the Aeneid follows Aeneas and his men on their journey from Troy to Carthage, Sicily, the Underworld, and Italy. Like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, it's full of thrilling adventures, frustrating obstacles, and heroic deeds.

Buy it on Amazon.

3. Man’s Search For Meaning // Viktor Frankl

Written by Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, this 1946 book has influenced millions of readers around the world. By discussing his experiences in Auschwitz, Frankl examines how anyone can cope with horrific suffering and, eventually, move forward. Frankl also explains his theory of logotherapy, the view that all humans are primarily driven not by the need for power or pleasure, but to determine and seek their own meaning of life.

Buy it on Amazon.

4. The Handmaid’s Tale // Margaret Atwood

This dystopian novel, first published in 1985 and still one of Atwood's most acclaimed works, explores the struggles of people living under a theocratic, totalitarian government called the Republic of Gilead, which has replaced the United States. Offred, one of the Handmaids, is kept primarily for reproductive purposes, and has no control over her own body or life—she's not even allowed to read. Atwood’s haunting depiction of this authoritarian society has been turned into a film (1990), opera (2000), and most recently, a TV show from Hulu.

Buy it on Amazon.

5. Walden // Henry David Thoreau

In the first chapter of Walden (1854), Henry David Thoreau wrote: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” More than 150 years later, people still quote this line, which is a testament to Walden's influence and enduring legacy. Thoreau describes his two-year stint living alone, off the grid, in a cabin near Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. The book has a little something for everyone, whether you're a minimalist, individualist, botanist, or ecologist.

Buy it on Amazon.

6. The Unbearable Lightness Of Being // Milan Kundera

The cover of 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being'
Amazon

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) starts in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Milan Kundera, who was born in Czechoslovakia but moved to France to escape communism, sets his novel during the Prague Spring, in which Czech citizens were temporarily given more freedoms. Tomas, a womanizing surgeon, is married to photographer Tereza. Tomas has an affair with Sabina, an artist who also loves Franz, a professor. Kundera weaves love triangles (or squares) in with philosophical ideas about the meaning of life, delivering it all in beautiful prose.

Buy it on Amazon.

7. Dracula // Bram Stoker

Long before Twilight, Dracula (1897) introduced many of the conventions we now associate with the blood-sucking world of vampires. The Gothic novel takes place in Transylvania and England in the 1890s, and follows the attempts of the Count to spread his curse. Although not a commercial success during Bram Stoker’s lifetime, Dracula has continued to impact culture more than a century after it was published.

Buy it on Amazon.

8. Saving Fish From Drowning // Amy Tan

Written by the author of The Joy Luck Club, this 2005 novel is about Bibi Chen, a San Franciscan art dealer who plans to lead a dozen friends on a cultural tour of China and Myanmar. Although Chen dies mysteriously before the trip starts, her friends take the trip anyway—accidentally desecrating China’s Stone Bell Temple and later (unknowingly) getting kidnapped by a tribe in Myanmar. Chen’s spirit accompanies her friends on their misadventures, which include plenty of slapstick moments and humorous misunderstandings.

Buy it on Amazon.

9. The Phantom Tollbooth // Norton Juster

The cover of 'The Phantom Tollbooth'
Amazon

This delightful children’s book about the power of imagination combines adventure, fantasy, and tons of clever puns. Since 1961, kids have loved reading about Milo’s journey to the Kingdom of Wisdom. He literally jumps to Conclusions (an island), meets a watchdog named Tock, and helps restore Rhyme and Reason (two princesses) to power. After his adventures, Milo realizes that regular life can be exciting, not boring.

Buy it on Amazon.

10. The Tao Te Ching // Lao-Tzu

In the Tao Te Ching, ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu presents the fundamental ideas behind the philosophy and religion of Taoism. Divided into 81 short sections, the book tells readers how to live virtuously and in accordance with Tao, or the way that everything flows and happens. While supposedly written in the 6th century B.C.E., some scholars argue that multiple authors contributed to the text over hundreds of years.

Buy it on Amazon.

11. Blonde // Joyce Carol Oates

In Blonde (2000), Joyce Carol Oates offers a fictional account of Marilyn Monroe’s thoughts and feelings throughout her life. The chronological account begins with Monroe’s childhood as Norma Jeane Baker, details her life as a young woman, and explores her experiences as “Marilyn” in the 1950s. Although Oates obscures the names of some characters, readers can easily determine when she’s referring to famous figures such as Joe DiMaggio, Arthur Miller, and former President John F. Kennedy.

Buy it on Amazon.

12. Treasure Island // Robert Louis Stevenson

The cover of 'Treasure Island'
Amazon

This 1882 adventure novel, about treasure hunters and a pirate mutiny, is hard to put down. Robert Louis Stevenson pits the teenaged protagonist, Jim Hawkins, against the greedy, one-legged pirate named Long John Silver. Though geared for kids, Treasure Island has inspired countless films, TV shows, plays, songs, and games—as well as our popular idea of pirates in general.

Buy it on Amazon.

13. The Elements of Style // William Strunk, Jr. And E.B. White

Reading and writing are intimately connected, and The Elements of Style is the preeminent modern guide for writing well. In 1918, Cornell English professor William Strunk Jr. wrote a list of rules for grammar and composition, which was published in 1920. Around four decades later, his former student E.B. White—author of Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web—revised and expanded upon his professor’s book. The guidebook, which instructs writers to omit needless words and use the active rather than passive voice, is a joy to read.

Buy it on Amazon.

14. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory // Roald Dahl

The cover of 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory'
Amazon

Rivers of chocolate, magical gum, and Oompa-Loompas—it’s all in this beloved Roald Dahl classic from 1964. After poor Charlie Bucket gets one of five golden tickets, he wins the chance to tour chocolatier Willy Wonka’s magical factory. After the other four children on the tour disrespect Wonka’s rules, Wonka reveals that Charlie has won the entire factory.

Buy it on Amazon.

15. Love in the Time of Cholera // Gabriel García Márquez

Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) follows Florentino and Fermina, a pair of young lovers who live in an unnamed Caribbean port city. Because Fermina’s father disapproves of their relationship, he moves with his daughter to another city. Although the lovers write letters to each other, Fermina decides to marry another man, Dr. Juvenal Urbino. More than 50 years later, Urbino dies and Florentino proclaims that his love for Fermina had never ended.

Buy it on Amazon.

16. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings // Maya Angelou

The cover of 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings'
Amazon

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou’s first autobiography, has become a classic since it was first published in 1969. Angelou brings readers from her childhood in Arkansas and Missouri to her adulthood in California, sharing her traumatic experiences of abandonment, rape, and racism. She also shares her discovery and love of William Shakespeare’s works, revealing the transformative and healing power of books.

Buy it on Amazon.

17. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance // Robert Pirsig

Beloved by millions of readers since its publication in 1974, Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is part road trip story and part philosophical text. As a man narrates his motorcycle trip with his 11-year-old son from Minnesota to California, he also discusses philosophical ideas about how we live and how we can balance romanticism and rationalism.

Buy it on Amazon.

18. Frankenstein // Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley was only 20 years old in 1818 when Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was first published (anonymously). The Gothic novel describes how scientist Victor Frankenstein brings a monster to life, and the aftermath of his decision to interfere with nature. The book has become a classic thanks to its innovative fusion of horror, science fiction, and Romanticism. Some consider it the first science fiction story ever written.

Buy it on Amazon.

19. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe // C.S. Lewis

The cover of 'The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe'
Amazon

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is the first of seven books in C.S. Lewis’s series The Chronicles of Narnia. Published in 1950, the fantasy novel follows the four Pevensie siblings, who, during World War II in England, discover a portal to a magical land called Narnia. There they encounter talking animals, a perpetual winter, and an evil White Witch.

Buy it on Amazon.

20. The Old Man and the Sea // Ernest Hemingway

Since 1952, The Old Man and the Sea has captivated readers with its story of Santiago, an aging Cuban fisherman who hasn’t caught a fish in 84 days. After a long tussle with a huge marlin, Santiago finally kills the fish. Unfortunately, sharks devour most of the marlin’s carcass by the time Santiago gets home. The classic tale makes readers think about pain, suffering, empathy, futility, and growing old.

Buy it on Amazon.

21. The Westing Game // Ellen Raskin

The cover of 'The Westing Game'
Amazon

Readers of all ages love The Westing Game (1978) for its quirky characters, clever wordplay, and enthralling mystery. After multimillionaire Sam Westing dies, his will stipulates that his fortune will go to the person who figures out who killed him. An eclectic group of 16 characters, who are all residents of an apartment building on Lake Michigan, decipher clues to unravel the mystery.

Buy it on Amazon.

22. The Happiness Project // Gretchen Rubin

Published in 2009, The Happiness Project is a self-help book that takes readers through a year in the life of author Gretchen Rubin and her experiment to become a happier person. Each month, she makes tiny tweaks in her daily habits, focusing on everything from how to boost her energy to how to make more time for friends. Besides sharing her own experiences, Rubin also cites plenty of scientific studies on happiness and quotes writers and scholars who have written on the topic.

Buy it on Amazon.

23. Little Men // Louisa May Alcott

The cover of 'Little Men'
Amazon

Little Women was so successful that Louisa May Alcott wrote a sequel—Little Men (1871) picks up the March family saga with Jo, who is now married to Professor Friedrich Bhaer. While raising their two sons, Jo and her husband run Plumfield, a boarding school for boys. Fans of Little Women will be happy to know that characters from the novel (including Teddy and Amy) appear in the sequel.

Buy it on Amazon.

24. Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying // The Dalai Lama

Bibliophiles will love Sleeping, Dreaming, And Dying: An Exploration of Consciousness (1997). The Dalai Lama engages in a fascinating conversation with Western scientists about neuroscience, psychology, and consciousness. The scientists and His Holiness discuss everything from lucid dreaming and near-death experiences to meditation and Buddhist philosophy.

Buy it on Amazon.

25. The Devil Finds Work // James Baldwin

James Baldwin is mostly remembered for his essays and novels, but he also applied his talent for keen social criticism to film. In The Devil Finds Work (1976), Baldwin shares his views on the role of race in popular films such as The Exorcist (1973) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). He eloquently discusses everything from racial subtext and the idea of movies as an escape to the larger impact that films have on society.

Buy it on Amazon.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

A version of this article first ran in 2017.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER