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.

25 of Oscar Wilde's Wittiest Quotes

By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On October 16, 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. He would go on to become one of the world's most prolific writers, dabbling in everything from plays and poetry to essays and fiction. Whatever the medium, his wit shone through.

1. On God

"I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."

2. On the world as a stage

"The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."

3. On forgiveness

"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

4. On good vs. bad

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

5. On getting advice

"The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself."

6. On happiness

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."

7. On cynicism

"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

8. On sincerity

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

9. On money

"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."

10. On life's greatest tragedies

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

11. On hard work

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."

12. On living within one's means

"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."

13. On true friends

"True friends stab you in the front."

14. On mothers

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

15. On fashion

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

16. On being talked about

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

17. On genius

"Genius is born—not paid."

18. On morality

"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

19. On relationships

"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?"

20. On the definition of a "gentleman"

"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally."

21. On boredom

"My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s."

22. On aging

"The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything."

23. On men and women

"I like men who have a future and women who have a past."

24. On poetry

"There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."

25. On wit

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

And one bonus quote about Oscar Wilde! Dorothy Parker said it best in a 1927 issue of Life:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

Rare First Edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone Sold for More Than $56,000

UBC Library Communications and Marketing, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
UBC Library Communications and Marketing, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Publishers weren't very optimistic about the future of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone when they printed it in 1997. Only 500 first edition copies were made, 300 of which were donated to libraries. As anyone who's been to a bookstore, movie theater, or theme park in the past two decades knows, that prediction couldn't have been further off.

Book one of the Harry Potter series spawned one of the most successful literary franchises of all time and earned millions for author J.K. Rowling. That means those rare first edition prints are exceedingly valuable today, and one of the most pristine copies ever discovered just sold for $56,500 at auction, BBC reports.

The sellers, an anonymous couple from Lancashire, England, had stored their copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone—along with a first edition of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets—in a code-locked briefcase for safekeeping. The plan wasn't to wait for the books to accrue value over time; originally, they had wanted to protect them and pass them down as family heirlooms.

The couple changed their minds after learning that another first edition copy of Philosopher's Stone had sold for $35,000. That turned out to be a smart move. By locking it away, they managed to preserve one of the best first edition copies of the book experts had seen. The book also contained two errors that made it an even more appealing item for collectors. Its value was placed between $30,700 to $37,000.

At the auction, however, bidders blew past those numbers. It sold for a winning bid of approximately $56,500. The buyer will end up paying $70,000 in total to cover additional fees and taxes.

That's a significant amount to pay for a book, but it's not even the highest figure that's been bid for the title. Earlier in 2019, a first-edition print of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone with several errors sold for $90,000.

[h/t BBC]

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