Today, Edgar Allan Poe is regarded as the godfather of the Gothic horror literary genre. His intense tales, like "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Black Cat," and "The Pit and the Pendulum," grip readers with a terrifying immediacy, making them feel as though they are living through the protagonist’s nightmarish experiences. But it isn’t just Poe’s work that contains such drama; his own life was also quite eventful. Here are nine facts about the idiosyncratic writer that may surprise you.
1. Edgar Allan Poe’s life began with tragedy.
Born in 1809 to actors David and Elizabeth Poe, Edgar Allan Poe had an unfortunate start to life. His father was addicted to alcohol and ran out on the family soon after Poe was born, and his mother Elizabeth died of tuberculosis when he was just a toddler. After being orphaned in Richmond, Virginia, Poe got a lifeline when a wealthy tobacco merchant, John Allan, and his wife Frances took him in. Poe took the couple’s surname as his middle name.
2. To raise funds for his education, Edgar Allan Poe took up gambling.
Being adopted by a financially well-off couple like Allans should have meant that Poe’s luck had turned around. Instead, another unhappy story unraveled. The pair sent Poe off to the University of Virginia with a fraction of the funds that he required. Poe started gambling to take care of his own expenses, but ultimately had to drop out of school in 1826. The money issue caused a lasting rift in Poe’s relationship with his adoptive father. In 1827, Poe enlisted in the army and served for two years.
3. Edgar Allan Poe married his first cousin.
At age 27, Poe wed Virginia Clemm, who was just 13 years old. The pair first met in 1829, a few months after Poe was discharged from the army, when Virginia was still a young girl. Seven years later, in 1836, they married in Richmond. Although marriages between first cousins weren't particularly unusual in this era, Clemm’s age was. According to Poe biographer Kenneth Silverman, “Most people would have considered Virginia far too young.”
4. Edgar Allan Poe dabbled in love poems.
The master of literary darkness sometimes revealed his softer side in his poetry. Though his early poems self-consciously imitated the Romantic quests of Byron, Keats, and Shelley, Poe’s later works refocused on inner journeys through the human psyche—including his masterwork, "The Raven." His poem "To Helen," in which Poe extols a woman’s beauty, has been called “one of the most beautiful poems in the English language.” Poe writes of the subject Helen with a delicate joy that seems worlds apart from his horror writing, and instead pays homage to Classical poets.
5. Cryptography fascinated Edgar Allan Poe.
Poe loved ciphers and code-breaking, and once claimed that "nothing intelligible can be written which, with time, I cannot decipher." Combining his passion for code-breaking with his writing, he worked cryptography into the plot of one of his short stories, "The Gold-Bug," which tells the tale of William Legrand, a man living on Sullivan's Island in South Carolina. Legrand’s companion captures a golden beetle using a piece of parchment, and upon heating the paper, Legrand discovers cryptic writing. He deciphers the message and follows its instructions to locate treasure.
Poe was keen to bring others into his cryptography passion: In 1840, he wrote a magazine article challenging readers to produce a code that he could not crack, offering a magazine subscription as a reward for successful entries.
6. French poets brought Edgar Allan Poe’s work to a global audience.
Poets Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé were champions of Poe’s work, and did much to persuade others of Poe’s significance to literature in the 1850s. Astonished by the similarities between Poe’s vision and his own, Baudelaire wanted to introduce French readers to Poe’s explorations of consciousness and emotion, and translated many of Poe’s works between 1852 to 1865. These translations then inspired a new wave of French poets, the Symbolists, which included Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and Paul Valéry as well as Baudelaire and Mallarmé.
7. Edgar Allan Poe’s detective fiction influenced Arthur Conan Doyle.
Poe is best known for his Gothic horror, but he's also credited with writing the first detective stories. In the short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), Poe created a gripping crime tale with an amateur detective, the cunning C. Auguste Dupin, as the central character. Poe followed up with two more detective stories starring Dupin, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” in 1842 and “The Purloined Letter” in 1844. Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle said Poe was a key influence on him, writing, "Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?"
8. Edgar Allan Poe struggled with alcohol throughout this life.
Too much drinking cost Poe his job as a magazine editor in 1837, shortly after his marriage to Virginia Clemm, causing him deep worry over his finances. Poe’s struggle with substance abuse worsened in 1847 after his wife died of tuberculosis, the same cruel fate that his own mother had met. Just months before his death, he did join the temperance movement, perhaps to try to gain control over his addiction.
9. The circumstances surrounding Edgar Allan Poe's death remain suspicious.
Poe's own death, on October 7, 1849, is a story strange enough to be the subject of one of his grisly tales. Four days prior to his death, Poe was found at a Baltimore polling place associated with "cooping," a fraudulent voting practice in which victims were drugged and forced to vote for a specific candidate in multiple locations. He was shabbily dressed, in someone else's clothes, and delirious. He didn’t ever regain enough consciousness to explain the confusing circumstances in which he was discovered. He is buried in Baltimore’s Westminster Hall and Burying Ground.
This story was originally published in 2021; it has been updated for 2022.