Thursday, June 26, 2014

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

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: Jaime 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 guest-blogged with us last month (May 29).

Today, it's Jamie's turn. 

Elmira Royster Shelton's Albumen Print Carte de Visite. Elmira was one of Poe's early loves.

The Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, tells the story of Poe’s life and legacy.  For over 90 years, hundreds of thousands of visitors have visited the museum, seeking inspiration and motivation from the largest collection of Poe memorabilia and manuscripts in the world.  The museum is a popular place for mystery writers, poets, and academics, including such notables of the past as Gertrude Stein, Henry Miller and H.P. Lovecraft.

A first edition manuscript of The Purloined Letter from the museum's collection.

Poe is easily one of the most recognizable authors in the literary world.  As an iconic image, admirers feel they “know Poe”.  

What we find, in fact, is that most visitors are originally attracted by Poe’s dark caricature.  Popular culture has portrayed Poe in hues of black, purple, and gray, while images of sinister black cats and dilapidated mansions usually fill the mind’s eye.

Certainly Poe’s real-life circumstances lend themselves to gloomy interpretation.  To say Poe led a difficult life is an understatement.  He was orphaned at three years old.  He lost his mother, foster mother, brother and wife to tuberculosis.  He was in constant financial distress.  He even died in tragic and mysterious circumstances, adding an ironic end for the Master of Macabre.

But as visitors to the Poe Museum soon discover, Poe’s historical figure is far more intricate than Poe’s caricature.  To really understand Poe’s genius, one has to appreciate the balance between “historical Poe” and “Poe the legend”. 

Poe’s real genius is that he was a brave writer.  Poe explored every human experience and emotion, and he expressed his observations with such resonance that his readers are left emotionally immersed in the story. 

He tried to live entirely by his craft, though he was largely unsuccessful due to the lack of international copyright laws.

Of Poe’s 70 short stories, only 15 actually fit into the gothic horror genre upon which his caricature is based.  Often drawing on current events and scientific achievements of the time, Poe pushed the boundaries of 19th century literature into the arenas of detective fiction, natural science, satire, and science fiction.

The Poe Museum’s Memorial Building is dedicated to Poe’s writing legacy.  Copies of first editions and manuscripts are on display, and visitors can explore the variety of Poe’s influence in American literature in depth.   

One exhibit explores Poe’s influence as the Father of the Detective Story. Through his character, the amateur detective C. Auguste Dupin, Poe introduced new methods of analysis and deduction.  Calling it “ratiocination,” Dupin creatively solves crimes by putting himself in the mind of the criminal in a series short stories, “The Mystery of  Marie Roget,” “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and the “The Purloined Letter.” 

This innovative technique laid the groundwork for the detective fiction genre we know today.  Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, credited Poe as a writing inspiration – and Poe even earns a mention in Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet.

To round out Poe as a historical figure, Poe’s clothing, trunk, and walking stick are also on display, providing guests with a sense of who Poe truly was.  

The Poe Museum is the perfect place for the aspiring mystery writer.  Find your own literary inspiration at the Poe Museum this summer.  Check out our website at  

Virginia’s first literary museum, the Poe Shrine (the original name of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum) opened in 1922 with a weekend of events held in what was then its newly planted Enchanted Garden. Two years later, the Poe Shrine commissioned the London firm Raphael Tuck and Sons, Publishers to the King and Queen, to immortalize the garden in a series of postcards. The artist S. Shelton produced the series pictured here.

The Garden Club of Virginia has begun a restoration of the Enchanted Garden based on these cards.

Jaime at the Edgars with Dan Stashower, who won an Edgar Award that night for Best Fact Crime for The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War

Sheila York

Copyright 2014


  1. What a great place to visit!! It certainly trumps the Poe Cottage in the Bronx.

  2. There is a genial rivalry between Baltimore and Philadelphia (also home of a Poe House) over where Edgar should rightfully be buried. I believe it's raised money for both city libraries. On at least one occasion someone from Philadelphia visited Baltimore with the tools to dig up the body.

  3. I can't wait to see how the restoration of the Enchanted Garden turns out. I'm asking Chris and Jaime to keep us posted. People are so fascinated by Poe. Threatening to abscond with his body (if only in jest); apparently people pay homage by visiting the grave and 'sharing' booze with him. Given that drink likely contributed strongly to his early death, that seems both macabre and appropriate. So much talent, so much tragedy.

  4. Well there was a person who used to leave roses and a bottle of brandy at his grave. I can't remember if this was on his birthday or his deathday, but people on the lookout never saw anyone. The roses and liquor stopped in the last few years so persumably the person who paid homage is not in a position to do so any longer. I can't someone else hasn't take up the torch (or the snifter)