Edgar Allan Poe’s grave marker sits immediately inside the front gate of the Westminster Hall cemetery in downtown Baltimore. It’s not quite the location you’d expect for a cemetery—at the corner of Fayette and Greene streets in the downtown’s west side—at least not until you walk through the wrought-iron gate and you realize just how old and gothic the cemetery is and how it had laid claim to this space long before the city ever thought of growing so big, long before it ever would have dared to encroach upon the dead.
At least Westminster Hall, all weathered brick and moss, still looks like a church even though its days of serving a Presbyterian congregation are long gone. The building, now owned by the University of Maryland Law School, serves as a private space-for-rent banquet hall and meeting place.
The cemetery had been established some sixty years before the church was constructed—literally—over top the property; massive brick columns suspend the building above the ground. Catacombs beneath the building protect the tombs there.
The burial grounds themselves, although relatively small, are well-shaded by trees and by one of the law school’s high-rise buildings. The ground rolls and swells into odd little knolls traversed by thin walkways made of slate stepping stones. Gravestones rise from the ground like skeletonal arms, and crypts like brick pillboxes or rounded baker’s ovens huddle in clusters.
Poe had originally been buried in an unmarked grave in his grandparents’ plot behind the church. A sign in the cemetery says Poe was “born in Boston and reared in Richmond,” but he nonetheless claimed Baltimore as his home—and, ultimately, as his final resting place.
While an established writer in his day, he was, at the time, hardly the most famous person interred in the cemetery. James McHenry, a signer of the Constitution and a Secretary of War under presidents Washington and Adams, was buried a few dozen feet away. General Samuel Smith, a hero of the War of 1812, was buried nearby, too, as were various other dignitaries from the city’s past.
Philp Barton Key, son of “Star-Spangled Banner” composer Francis Scott Key, would be buried in the cemetery a decade after Poe. The younger Key was shot and killed by his lover’s husband, Daniel Sickles, who got off the hook by being the first man to ever plead temporary insanity.
The cemetery is also home to a “gravity-defying” slab of marble that’s bowed in the middle, as though the cemetery’s ghosts had all gathered together to lay the entire weight of the dead in the slab’s center. The slab was once featured in Ripley’s Believe It or Not.
The cemetery attracts dozens of visitors a day for tours, but of course, it’s Poe they mostly come to see.
Poe was first laid to rest on October 8, 1849, a day after his death under mysterious circumstances. He’d shown up in the city under mysterious circumstances a few days earlier and was found wandering the streets, delirious, wearing clothes that were not his own, supposedly muttering the name “Reynolds.” He was hospitalized with a brain fever and died a few days later. No one could ever figure out the cause, and speculation since has ranged from alcoholism to syphilis to cholera to rabies.
In a letter to Poe’s mother-in-law, Maria Clemm, Poe’s cousin Neilson wrote: “Edgar has seen so much of sorrow—had so little reason to be satisfied with life that, to him, the change can scarcely be said to be a misfortune.”
Indeed, Poe led a miserable life. The literary stardom and commercial success he sought eluded him, but the greatest blow was the 1842 death of his 24-year-old wife, Virginia, from tuberculosis. Virginia, Poe’s first cousin, had been thirteen when he married her. Her death plunged him deep into depression and drink—a hole he could never dig himself out of.
His burial was a simple affair with only a few mourners. His grave remained unmarked for years, and even when it did get a marker, courtesy of the church’s sexton, it was a small granite blocked marked “80.”
In contrast, Poe’s reburial in 1875 attracted a crowd that included dignitaries. Poet Walt Whitman attended. The ceremony included readings from letters sent by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Greenleaf Whittier, William C. Bryant, and even Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
The new marker, erected after a series of misfortunes, was designed by George A. Frederick, the same man who designed Baltimore City Hall. Frederick wanted “something simple, chaste, and dignified,” and so created a stout marble pillar just over six and a half feel tall capped by ornamental arches that would look a little like crown molding if they were made of oak instead of marble.
On the front, Poe’s name is carved along the base; on the back, the dates of his birth and death, although his birthday is incorrectly inscribed, for inexplicable reasons, as January 20 instead of January 19.
The monument also features a bronze bas-relief portrait of Poe—but, truthfully, the likeness looks like tortured rendition created by Edvard Munch: Poe-as-Scream, cast in bronze for perpetuity.
Poe’s wife and mother-in-law are buried with him, and their names are engraved on either side of the stocky pillar.
The cemetery today features a number of interpretive signs that explain the history and significance of various landmarks in the burial grounds, with several displays devoted specifically to Poe. There’s also a stone marker, depicting a raven, that sits at Poe’s original gravesite.
Near the big grave at the front of the cemetery, there’s room to sit on sun-dappled bricks, to contemplate or, like a grizzled fellow who’s there on the same day I visit, to read Poe’s work.
“Ye who read are still among the living,” Poe wrote in his story “Shadow,” from his 1840 book Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, “but I who write shall have long since gone my way into the region of shadows. For indeed strange things shall happen, and many secret things be known, and many centuries shall pass away ere these memorials be seen of men.”
Categories: Arts/Literature, History, WordsDay