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.

First Editions of Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Other Jane Austen Novels Can Be Yours

GeorgiosArt, iStock via Getty Images
GeorgiosArt, iStock via Getty Images

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen hasn't been out of print since its initial publication in 1813. Now, fans of the British classic have a chance to own an original copy. On February 20, first editions of all of Austen's beloved books—including Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion—are hitting the auction block.

Born in England in 1775, Austen is one of the most influential British writers of all time. Her stories are famous for their witty commentary of English society, and they've been adapted into everything from modern rom-coms to an apocalyptic zombie novel.

First editions of her books from the early 19th century will go up for bid at an auction organized by Swann Auction Galleries in New York. A three-volume print of Pride and Prejudice from 1813 is expected to fetch between $20,000 and $30,000. The copy of Emma, which was printed in 1816, has an estimated value of $15,000 to $20,000, while Sense and Sensibility from 1816 is projected to earn $30,000 to $40,000. The first edition of Sense of Sensibility (published as "By a Lady") comes from a run of no more than 1000 copies that sold out in less than two years. The two other novels up for bid are Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park.

The Austen works for sale are part of Swann's upcoming auction of fine books and manuscripts. A signed limited-edition copy of the Virginia Woolf short story "Kew Gardens" will be sold at the same event. You can view the items here before the auction goes live on Thursday.

First-edition of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
Swann Auction Galleries

First-edition of Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen.
Swann Auction Galleries

The Scottish Play: Why Actors Won’t Call Macbeth by Its Title

Macbeth and the three witches in Shakespeare's possibly cursed play.
Macbeth and the three witches in Shakespeare's possibly cursed play.
Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images

If you see someone burst from the doors of a theater, spin around three times, spit over their left shoulder, and shout out a Shakespearean phrase or curse word, it’s likely they just uttered “Macbeth” inside the building and are trying to keep a very famous curse at bay.

As the story goes, saying “Macbeth” in a theater when you’re not rehearsing or performing the play can cause disaster to befall the production. Instead, actors commonly refer to it as “the Bard’s play” or “the Scottish play.”

According to History.com, the curse of Macbeth originated after a string of freak accidents occurred during early performances of Shakespeare’s 1606 play. In the very first show, the actor portraying Lady Macbeth unexpectedly died, and Shakespeare himself had to take over the role. In a later one, an actor stabbed King Duncan with an actual dagger rather than a prop knife, killing him on stage.

Macbeth has continued to cause calamity after calamity throughout its four centuries of existence. Harold Norman died from stab wounds sustained during a fight scene while playing Macbeth in 1947, and there have been several high-profile audience riots at various performances, too—the worst was at New York’s Astor Place Opera House in 1849, when fans of British actor William Charles Macready clashed with those of American actor Edwin Forrest. Twenty-two people died, and more than 100 others were injured.

Since Macbeth has been around for so long and performed so often, it’s not exactly surprising its history contains some tragic moments. But many believe these accidents are the result of a curse actual witches cast on the play when Shakespeare first debuted it.

As the Royal Shakespeare Company explains, Shakespeare really did his research when creating the three witches in Macbeth: “Fillet of a fenny snake,” “eye of newt and toe of frog,” and other lines from the “Song of the Witches” were supposedly taken from “real” witches’ spells from the time. According to legend, a coven of witches decided to punish him for using their magic by cursing his play.

For skeptics, Christopher Eccleston—who played Macbeth in a Royal Shakespeare Company production in 2018—offers a slightly more believable theory about the origin of the curse. In the interview below, he explains how theater companies that were struggling financially would stage Macbeth, a crowd favorite, to guarantee ticket sales. Therefore, saying “Macbeth” in a theater was an admission that things weren’t going well for your company.

[h/t History.com]

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