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How Poe Got Himself Kicked Out of the Army

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On January 28, 1831, a court-martial tried a young cadet at the U.S. Military Academy on charges of gross neglect of duty and disobedience of orders. Sergeant Major Edgar Allan Poe was found guilty of both charges and discharged from the service of the United States only six months after he had arrived at the academy. This is the story of how the author’s military career went so wrong, so fast.

In the Army Now

Edgar Allan Poe’s return to Richmond after his first semester at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville in December 1826 was not the joyous reunion with family and friends that most college freshmen experience. Poe’s friends avoided him. He discovered that his sweetheart, Elmira Royster, had gotten engaged in his absence. A two-year feud between Poe and his foster father, John Allan, erupted in an argument that sent Poe packing.

Eighteen-year-old Poe moved to Boston three months later and quickly arranged the publication of his first book, a collection of poems under the title Tamerlane. Calvin F. S. Thomas published the book, but Poe piled the publication costs on top of the significant gambling debts he’d accrued in school. Despite his investment in the book, Poe didn’t put his name anywhere in it and instead simply gave author’s credit to “A Bostonian,” perhaps hoping that the book would get more attention since Boston was then a literary mecca.

Things didn’t go as planned.

Poe’s money and effort went down the drain when the book received poor distribution and was not reviewed by the local papers. With only a year of higher education, and skill in a single trade that cost him the last of his savings, Poe was broke and essentially unemployable. Like other young men faced with similar situations both before and after him, Poe turned to the government for help.

He enlisted in the Army on May 26, 1827, under the alias of Edgar A. Perry, claiming to be a twenty-two-year-old clerk from Boston. He first served at Fort Independence in Boston Harbor and was later moved to Fort Moultrie in Charleston, South Carolina, and then Fort Monroe, Virginia, usually earning around $5 a month.

Poe excelled under military discipline and set himself apart from his peers in the eyes of their superiors. Officers at Fort Monroe described Poe as “good, and entirely free from drinking” and “highly worthy of confidence,” and he was soon promoted to “artificer”—a tradesman position that involved preparing artillery shells—and later, sergeant major for artillery.

Poe's fast success didn’t mean he was happy with army life. On the contrary, after two years of a five-year commitment, he badly wanted out, having served “as long as suits my ends or my inclination.” An early discharge would have been difficult to secure, so he approached his commanding officer, Lieutenant Howard, for advice. He disclosed his real name and age to the lieutenant and gave him the rundown of his troubled life. Howard took pity on Poe and agreed to arrange a discharge on one condition: Poe had to reconcile with his foster father, John Allan.

Howard took a crack at Allan first, writing to him to suggest a family reunion and reconciliation with Poe, who would then be able to come home. Allan responded to say that Poe “had better remain as he is until the termination of his enlistment.” Undaunted, Poe next wrote to Allan himself, describing at length how he had changed and was inspired to make something of himself at the United States Military Academy. Allan did not reply to that letter, or several others that Poe subsequently sent.

Even if the letters went unanswered and unread, the universe forced a reconciliation between the two men. In February, 1829, Fanny Allan, John’s wife and Poe’s foster mother, fell ill and died. Both Poe and Allan were grief stricken and the latter was softened enough that he agreed to help Poe end his enlistment and go to West Point the following year.

School of Hard Knocks

While Poe found that the amount of studying required at West Point was, in his words, “incessant,” he flourished at the Academy just as he did during his enlistment. He excelled in mathematics and language, placing seventeenth in his math class and third in French. He even found time to write a few new poems.

But things went downhill when Poe learned that John Allan had fathered illegitimate twins and married a woman 20 years his junior. Poe worried that this meant his foster father would shut him out. These fears were confirmed in late 1830, when Allan wrote to say that he no longer wished to communicate with Poe.

Furious, Poe sent Allan a long letter and revealed all his long-suppressed anger. He told Allan he didn’t have the energy or the finances to stay at the academy and wished to leave. Since the academy required Allan’s permission for Poe to withdraw, he promised that if Allan did not release him, he would get himself kicked out.

Allan did not respond, and Poe did as he promised, racking up an impressive disciplinary record. He earned 44 offenses and 106 demerits in one term and topped the offender’s list the following term with 66 offenses in one month. (There is no mention in West Point’s official records, however, of Poe reporting for drills in a belt, a smile and nothing else, as has often been rumored and given as reason for his expulsion).

By the end of January, he was tried and discharged. But before he left, he squeezed a little more use out of the army. He had persuaded 131 cadets to each give him a dollar and a quarter to finance the printing of a new volume of his poems. When he arrived in New York in February 1831, he released the book, simply called Poems, and dedicated it to his fellow cadets.

This story originally appeared in 2011.

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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