Thursday, May 29, 2014

Add Some Mystery to Your Summer Vacation: The Edgar Allan Poe Museum

At the Edgar Awards on May 1, I was by pure chance seated at the same table with two charming representatives of the mystery world: Jamie Fawcett & Chris Semtner — respectively Executive Director and Curator of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia. I could hardly believe my luck. The Edgars — The Oscars of mystery writing, named after the writer who invented the detective story — and I get to sit with two of the people who know the most about him. I asked them if they would guest blog, and they enthusiastically accepted. 

Chris is going first. I'll hand this over to him now. Jamie will be writing a blog of her own for us in June.

-- Sheila York

Late one October night, a phone call awoke the director of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia. The anonymous caller said he would reveal the whereabouts of the missing bust of Edgar Allan Poe if the director would read to him Poe’s poem “Spirits of the Dead.” 

The missing bust had sat on a brick pedestal in the Poe Museum’s garden pergola for nearly 60 years. Then one morning, it was gone.

The director recited the poem. The caller said, “It’s at the Raven Inn,” and hung up. That’s where the police would find it, resting on the bar in the Raven Inn, a rather seedy biker joint on Richmond’s Southside. 

Next to the bust were a mug of beer and a scrap of brown paper with some lines from “Spirits of the Dead” written on it. When asked how the 80-pound bust came to be there, the bartender told police a man in a cowboy hat had carried it into the bar, saying, “I met my friend in the alley, and he’d like a drink.”

Twenty-seven years later, the bust is still on display, though safely in the Poe Museum’s highly secure exhibit gallery. The abductor was never found.

This is just one of the enigmas lurking around every corner of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum. It is only fitting that the inventor of the detective story should have lived a life haunted by unsolved mysteries, and his museum invites the sleuths of the world to try their hand at solving them. 

[Sheila's note: The picture at right is the original bust, now in its secure location. Below, a replica that sits on the pedestal in the museum's pergola. Chris told me that they have to regularly wipe visitors' lipstick off replica Edgar's cheek.] 

One of the first conundrums is the death of Poe’s father. 

The museum’s Elizabeth Arnold Poe Memorial Building houses dozens of scripts and reviews of the plays in which Poe’s father, David Poe, Jr., performed. These documents help trace his whereabouts in the months leading to his disappearance. Poe’s contemporaries and today’s scholars still debate when David Poe left his wife, where he went, and when he died. But the best evidence leads us frustratingly to the conclusion that he simply vanished from history somewhere between New York and Norfolk sometime between 1809 and 1811. Even Edgar Poe wasn’t quite certain.

Another whodunit involves a murder Poe tried to solve. 

In the museum’s library is the first printing of Poe’s serialized detective story “The Mystery of Marie Roget.” Poe based his tale on newspaper accounts of the unsolved murder of New York cigar girl Mary Rogers, and he boasted that his story provided all the clues the police would need to identify the murderer. Regrettably, they apparently did not follow up on his theory, and the case is still open.

Then there is the question of whether someone was trying to kill Poe. 

The museum owns a letter from his friend John Sartain in which the latter describes a troubling visit from the author, who was convinced that people in Philadelphia were conspiring to kill him. In this note, Sartain expresses his certainty that Poe was not the least bit intoxicated at the time. Sartain found Poe “measured and deliberate” in everything he said, although he later recanted his story. Scholars are uncertain who might have wanted to murder Poe or if he had just imagined the whole thing. Considering he would die under suspicious circumstances a few months later while on his way to Philadelphia, some authors suspect he might have had good reason to fear for his life.

Museum guests can see the walking stick Poe left at his doctor’s house the night before the author left Richmond for the last time. Poe took the doctor’s sword cane along in its place. Why Poe exchanged walking sticks is still unknown, but we do know that Poe was planning a return visit to Philadelphia where, a few months earlier, he had feared someone wanted him dead.

Of course, Poe never reached the City of Brotherly Love. He died in Baltimore nine days after leaving Richmond. The cause of Poe’s death remains a mystery. He disappeared for five days before a Dr. Snodgrass found him semi-conscious and wearing someone else’s clothes, and took him to Washington College Hospital. Over the course of four days in the hospital, Poe was unable to tell anyone either where he had been for the past week or what had become of his luggage.  

That luggage, Poe’s trunk, is now in the Poe Museum along with its key, which was found in his pocket after his death. 
Neither the trunk, the walking stick, nor the museum’s lock of Poe’s hair Snodgrass clipped from Poe's head after he died, provide any answers to the mysteries about Poe’s final days, but there have been a dozens of published theories about what could have happened to him.

These are just a few of the puzzles guests are invited to explore at the Poe Museum, the perfect vacation destination for mystery lovers.

If you are interested in learning more about the inspirations for Poe’s detective stories, the Poe Museum is the perfect place to uncover the truth behind “The Gold-Bug” or “The Purloined Letter.” Visitors learn how Poe, as a writer for Richmond’s Southern Literary Messenger, used his own amateur sleuthing skills to expose a fake chess-playing automaton five years before he wrote his first detective story.

This summer, try solving a mystery at the Poe Museum. The museum’s four-building complex boasts the world’s largest collection of Poe personal items and memorabilia.

Finding us won’t take much detective work. Just visit our website at

Chris Semtner
Edgar Allan Poe Museum

With Chris at the Edgars

Copyright 2014 Sheila York & Chris Semtner


  1. Fascinating info. Sheila, I'm sure it was not seating by chance... somebodyupthere wanted this for you! tjs

  2. Somebodyupthere wanted somebodyelse to write a great blog for me! Actually two blogs, as Jamie is up in June. I really want to get down to Richmond. The museum sounds fascinating.

  3. Sheila, if you get down to Richmond, you might want to look up the James River Writers.... they sound like a really wonderful group, growing and expanding.... Thelma

  4. Sheila, next year pre or post malice, why don't we get a group tougher to make a pilgrimage to the Poe Museum? I would love to take an extra day and go.

  5. What a great idea! I am tacking up a big note on my corkboard!

  6. How very serendipitous, if that's a word. I recently decided that I’d like to study techniques for writing a really compelling short story, so I checked out of the library the Complete Stories of Edgar Allan Poe. There is a reason Poe is so well regarded. The language, the plotting, the pithiness. The weirdness. After reading the stories and scaring myself into half nights of wakefulness, I’m dissecting the stories with a scalpel to see how he did it. Nervous...very, very dreadfully nervous...

  7. He excels at texture. And, uh, maybe you want to not read the stories before bed. Wait, is that a heartbeat I hear?