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 on January 19, 1809.

1. Edgar Allan Poe 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. Edgar Allan Poe 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 for Edgar Allan Poe.

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. Edgar Allan Poe 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. Edgar Allan Poe's 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.

10 Products for a Better Night's Sleep

Amazon/Comfort Spaces
Amazon/Comfort Spaces

Getting a full eight hours of sleep can be tough these days. If you’re having trouble catching enough Zzzs, consider giving these highly rated and recommended products a try.

1. Everlasting Comfort Pure Memory Foam Knee Pillow; $25

Everlasting Comfort Knee Pillow
Everlasting Comfort/Amazon

For side sleepers, keeping the spine, hips, and legs aligned is key to a good night’s rest—and a pain-free morning after. Everlasting Comfort’s memory foam knee pillow is ergonomically designed to fit between the knees or thighs to ensure proper alignment. One simple but game-changing feature is the removable strap, which you can fasten around one leg; this keeps the pillow in place even as you roll at night, meaning you don’t have to wake up to adjust it (or pick it up from your floor). Reviewers call the pillow “life-changing” and “the best knee pillow I’ve found.” Plus, it comes with two pairs of ear plugs.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Letsfit White Noise Machine; $21

Letsfit White Noise Machine
Letsfit/Amazon

White noise machines: They’re not just for babies! This Letsfit model—which is rated 4.7 out of five with nearly 3500 reviews—has 14 potential sleep soundtracks, including three white noise tracks, to better block out everything from sirens to birds that chirp enthusiastically at dawn (although there’s also a birds track, if that’s your thing). It also has a timer function and a night light.

Buy it: Amazon

3. ECLIPSE Blackout Curtains; $16

Eclipse Black Out Curtains
Eclipse/Amazon

According to the National Sleep Foundation, too much light in a room when you’re trying to snooze is a recipe for sleep disaster. These understated polyester curtains from ECLIPSE block 99 percent of light and reduce noise—plus, they’ll help you save on energy costs. "Our neighbor leaves their backyard light on all night with what I can only guess is the same kind of bulb they use on a train headlight. It shines across their yard, through ours, straight at our bedroom window," one Amazon reviewer who purchased the curtains in black wrote. "These drapes block the light completely."

Buy it: Amazon

4. JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock; $38

JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock
JALL/Amazon

Being jarred awake by a blaring alarm clock can set the wrong mood for the rest of your day. Wake up in a more pleasant way with this clock, which gradually lights up between 10 percent and 100 percent in the 30 minutes before your alarm. You can choose between seven different colors and several natural sounds as well as a regular alarm beep, but why would you ever use that? “Since getting this clock my sleep has been much better,” one reviewer reported. “I wake up not feeling tired but refreshed.”

Buy it: Amazon

5. Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light; $200

Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light
Philips/Amazon

If you’re looking for an alarm clock with even more features, Philips’s SmartSleep Wake-Up Light is smartphone-enabled and equipped with an AmbiTrack sensor, which tracks things like bedroom temperature, humidity, and light levels, then gives recommendations for how you can get a better night’s rest.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Slumber Cloud Stratus Sheet Set; $159

Stratus sheets from Slumber Cloud.
Slumber Cloud

Being too hot or too cold can kill a good night’s sleep. The Good Housekeeping Institute rated these sheets—which are made with Outlast fibers engineered by NASA—as 2020’s best temperature-regulating sheets.

Buy it: SlumberCloud

7. Comfort Space Coolmax Sheet Set; $29-$40

Comfort Spaces Coolmax Sheets
Comfort Spaces/Amazon

If $159 sheets are out of your price range, the GHI recommends these sheets from Comfort Spaces, which are made with moisture-wicking Coolmax microfiber. Depending on the size you need, they range in price from $29 to $40.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Coop Home Goods Eden Memory Foam Pillow; $80

Coop Eden Pillow
Coop Home Goods/Amazon

This pillow—which has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon—is filled with memory foam scraps and microfiber, and comes with an extra half-pound of fill so you can add, or subtract, the amount in the pillow for ultimate comfort. As a bonus, the pillows are hypoallergenic, mite-resistant, and washable.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Baloo Weighted Blanket; $149-$169

Baloo Weighted Blanket
Baloo/Amazon

Though the science is still out on weighted blankets, some people swear by them. Wirecutter named this Baloo blanket the best, not in small part because, unlike many weighted blankets, it’s machine-washable and -dryable. It’s currently available in 12-pound ($149) twin size and 20-pound ($169) queen size. It’s rated 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with one reviewer reporting that “when it's spread out over you it just feels like a comfy, snuggly hug for your whole body … I've found it super relaxing for falling asleep the last few nights, and it looks nice on the end of the bed, too.” 

Buy it: Amazon 

10. Philips Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band; $200

Philips SmartSleep Snoring Relief Band
Philips/Amazon

Few things can disturb your slumber—and that of the ones you love—like loudly sawing logs. Philips’s Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band is designed for people who snore when they’re sleeping on their backs, and according to the company, 86 percent of people who used the band reported reduced snoring after a month. The device wraps around the torso and is equipped with a sensor that delivers vibrations if it detects you moving to sleep on your back; those vibrations stop when you roll onto your side. The next day, you can see how many hours you spent in bed, how many of those hours you spent on your back, and your response rate to the vibrations. The sensor has an algorithm that notes your response rate and tweaks the intensity of vibrations based on that. “This device works exactly as advertised,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “I’d say it’s perfect.”

Buy it: Amazon

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11 Facts About To Kill A Mockingbird

el cajon yacht club, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
el cajon yacht club, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird still resonates with readers 60 years after its publication. The coming-of-age tale about racial injustice in the South was a phenomenal success from the start, and has only become more popular with time.

1. To Kill a Mockingbird drew on Harper Lee’s childhood in Alabama.

While To Kill A Mockingbird is not autobiographical, there are similarities between the novel and Lee’s life. The book is set in Maycomb, Alabama, the fictional name for Monroeville, where Lee grew up. Like the main character Scout, Lee was a tomboy who was uncomfortable with traditional femininity. She and Scout would have been the same age and her brother Edwin was four years older, just like Scout's brother Jem. She even gave the family her mother’s maiden name, Finch.

2. Harper Lee based To Kill a Mockingbird’s Dill on Truman Capote.

Lee modeled the neighbor boy Dill after Capote. As a child, Capote—the author of In Cold Blood and Breakfast At Tiffany’s—lived next door to Lee. They played together and even shared Lee’s typewriter. Both children were outside the social circles of their close-knit Southern town. As Gerald Clarke wrote in Capote: A Biography, “Nelle was too rough for most other girls, and Truman was too soft for most other boys.” Capote’s first book, Other Voices, Other Rooms, has a tomboy character resembling Lee. Her name is Idabel Thompkins.

3. Harper Lee grew up in the courtroom.

Like the character Atticus, Lee’s father, AC Lee, was a lawyer. Soft-spoken and dignified, he defended two Black men accused of murder and lost the case. Lee spent much of her childhood in the Monroeville courthouse. “Her father was a lawyer, and she and I used to go to trials all the time as children," Capote said. "We went to the trials instead of going to the movies." Lee herself went to law school, but hated it and dropped out.

4. Harper Lee may have modeled To Kill a Mockingbird’s Boo Radley after a childhood neighbor.

In the book, Boo Radley is a recluse who leaves presents for the children in a tree. Lee may have modeled him after a real man, Alfred “Son” Boulware, who lived in Monroeville when the author was a child. According to Capote, “He was a real man, and he lived just down the road from us. We used to go and get those things out of the trees. Everything [Lee] wrote about it is absolutely true.”

5. Harper Lee wrote Go Set A Watchman before To Kill a Mockingbird.

Lee wrote Go Set A Watchman in the 1950s. Set 20 years after To Kill A Mockingbird, it contains many of the same characters and themes. An editor who read the manuscript loved a flashback about Scout’s childhood and told Lee to write a book from the child’s point of view. Lee then started To Kill A Mockingbird. Go Set A Watchman was thought to be lost until Tonja Carter, Lee’s lawyer, found it in the author’s archives in 2014.

6. Harper Lee was able to write To Kill a Mockingbird because of a gift from her friends.

After withdrawing from law school, Lee moved to New York and worked as an airline reservationist. One Christmas, her friends Joy and Michael Brown gave her a gift: enough money to write for one year. In an essay for McCall’s in 1961, Lee wrote that they told her to quit her job and write whatever she wanted, no strings attached. “Our faith in you was really all I had heard them say. I would do my best not to fail them.”

7. To Kill A Mockingbird changed considerably during editing.

Lee’s agent sent To Kill A Mockingbird to 10 publishers and all of them turned it down. Finally, the publisher Lippincott accepted the manuscript, even though it needed a lot of work. “There were dangling threads of a plot, there was a lack of unity—a beginning, a middle, and an end—that was inherent in the beginning,” editor Tay Hohoff said. “It is an indication of how seriously we were impressed by the author that we signed a contract at that point.”

There followed “a long and hopeless period of writing the book over and over again,” Lee said. It was published in 1960.

8. Harper Lee thought To Kill A Mockingbird would fail.

In 1964, Lee said she “[N]ever expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I didn't expect the book to sell in the first place.” But the novel was an immediate success. Not only was it a best-seller, it was followed up with an Oscar-winning movie starring Gregory Peck. It also won a Pulitzer Prize in 1961. Today, the book sells almost a million copies a year, more than fellow 20th century classics The Great Gatsby or The Catcher in the Rye.

9. Truman Capote did not write To Kill A Mockingbird.

At some point, a rumor started that Capote wrote To Kill A Mockingbird, or at least edited it. Aside from the fact that Lee’s writing sounds nothing like Capote’s, he only saw the manuscript once. In 1959, Lee accompanied Capote to Kansas to research In Cold Blood. During that trip, she showed him a finished version of Mockingbird, which was about to go to print. Since the book was done, it would have been impossible for Capote to edit it, let alone write it.

10. It's said Truman Capote was jealous of To Kill a Mockingbird’s success.

While Capote initially seemed supportive, his friendship with Lee soured as her novel was increasingly lauded. According to Lee’s sister Alice, “Truman became very jealous because Nelle Harper got a Pulitzer and he did not. He expected In Cold Blood to bring him one, and he got involved with the drugs and heavy drinking and all. And that was it. It was not Nelle Harper dropping him. It was Truman going away from her.”

11. Harper Lee hated the spotlight.

When asked about her success in 1964, Lee called it frightening, saying her reaction was “sheer numbness. It was like being hit over the head and knocked cold.” While she never became the “Jane Austen of south Alabama” as she once hoped, she did work on a true crime novel in the 1970s. The book remains unfinished, though a 2019 book called Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee picks up the case.