How Poe Got Himself Kicked Out of the Army

Hulton Archive / Getty
Hulton Archive / Getty

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.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

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When a Long Island Housewife Handed Out Arsenic to Kids on Halloween

This Halloween procession in Massachusetts was poison-free.
This Halloween procession in Massachusetts was poison-free.
Douglas DeNatale, Lowell Folklife Project Collection, American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

On October 31, 1964, 13-year-old Elsie Drucker and her 15-year-old sister Irene returned to their Long Island home after an evening of trick-or-treating and dumped their spoils onto the table. Among the assortment of bite-sized sweets were two items that looked like bottle caps and bore the warning: “Poison. Keep away from children and animals.”

It wasn’t an ill-conceived, Halloween-themed marketing ploy—the tablets were “ant buttons,” which contained arsenic and could help rid a house of insects and other pests. They could also seriously threaten the life of any small child who accidentally swallowed one.

Alarmed, the girls’ father called the police.

A Criminally Bad Joke

The authorities notified the community, and people immediately began spreading the word and inspecting their own candy bags, unearthing another 19 ant buttons around town. Meanwhile, Elsie and Irene helped the police trace the toxic treats to 43 Salem Ridge Drive, where a 47-year-old housewife named Helen Pfeil lived with her husband and children.

Once other trick-or-treaters confirmed that Pfeil had indeed doled out the poison—and police discovered empty boxes of ant buttons in her kitchen—she was arrested. Fortunately, none of her would-be victims ingested any hazardous material, which meant that Pfeil was only charged with child endangerment. If convicted, however, she could still face prison time.

At her arraignment on November 2, Pfeil tried to explain to a baffled courtroom that she “didn’t mean it maliciously.” After having spent most of Halloween bestowing actual candy on costumed kids, Pfeil had started to feel like some of them should’ve already aged out of the activity.

“Aren’t you a little old to be trick-or-treating?” she had asked the Druckers, according to the New York Post.

So Pfeil had assembled unsavory packages of ant buttons, dog biscuits, and steel wool, and dropped those into the bags of anyone she deemed “a little old” to be trick-or-treating. She maintained that it was a joke, and her husband, Elmer, reiterated her claim to reporters at the courthouse. While she had been “terribly thoughtless and she may have used awfully bad judgment,” he said, she hadn’t planned to cause harm. Elmer himself wasn’t in on the scheme; at the time, he had been out trick-or-treating with their two sons—who, ironically, were both teenagers.

Her spouse may have been sympathetic, but Judge Victor Orgera was not. “It is hard for me to understand how any woman with sense or reason could give this to a child,” he said, and ordered her to spend 60 days in a psychiatric hospital.

Dumb, Not Dangerous

The following April, Pfeil went on trial in Riverhead, New York, and switched her plea from “Not guilty” to “Guilty” when proceedings were already underway. With about two months until her sentencing date—and the possibility of up to two years in prison looming overhead—Pfeil’s neighbors got busy writing character references to send to the judge.

Though Judge Thomas M. Stark was just as bewildered by Pfeil’s indiscretion as everyone else, the letters convinced him that she was not a danger to society, and he suspended her sentence. “I don’t understand why she had done such a stupid thing as this,” Stark said, “but I feel incarceration is not the answer.”

So Pfeil got off with nothing more than a guilty conscience, and Long Island teenagers continued to pound the pavement for Halloweens to come. But the misguided ruse did scare at least one child into giving it up forever: Little Elsie Drucker never went trick-or-treating again.