Philadelphia, Baltimore Battle Over Edgar Allan Poe Philadelphia and Baltimore are locked in a dispute over which city has the better claim to Edgar Allan Poe. The writer, novelist, editor and critic is buried in Baltimore, where he died 158 years ago, but he produced much of his best work while living in Philadelphia.
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Philadelphia, Baltimore Battle Over Edgar Allan Poe

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Philadelphia, Baltimore Battle Over Edgar Allan Poe

Philadelphia, Baltimore Battle Over Edgar Allan Poe

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

What better for Halloween than the words of Edgar Allan Poe?

Mr. EDGAR ALLAN POE (Poet): Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.

SIEGEL: Poe is now considered the master of the macabre, but he struggled most of his life for attention and income, and he never lived in one place for long. He was born in Boston. Later, he called Richmond, London, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore home. Now, those last two cities are locked in a very public dispute over Poe's legacy and his body.

For member station WHYY, Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE: This damp, dark basement in Philadelphia probably hasn't changed very much since Edgar Allan Poe lived upstairs in the early 1840s.

Ms. HELEN McKENNA-UFF (Park Ranger, Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site): Watch your head and watch out for the spider webs that are hanging from the joists.

ROSE: Those webs are not Halloween decorations, although the spiders that made them probably aren't poisonous.

Ms. McKENNA-UFF: This is the basement that Poe would've used, most likely just for storage.

ROSE: Helen McKenna-Uff is a park ranger at the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site. She says this room may have been the inspiration for Poe's story, "The Black Cat."

Ms. McKENNA-UFF: We have a nice false chimney over here, and it's in the false chimney that the corpse is concealed at the end of the story.

ROSE: Creepy basements, loose floorboards, deserted graveyards - Poe could've found those in any city. But Edward Pettit says Philadelphia left an indelible mark on the writer.

Mr. EDWARD PETTIT (Literary Blogger): It's his most productive time. I mean, his greatest stories are written here: "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Masque of the Red Death," "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Black Cat," "The Gold-Bug" - this is the time where he really blossoms as a writer.

ROSE: Pettit is working on his PhD in English literature at Lehigh University. Earlier this month, he wrote an article for the Philadelphia City Paper calling for Poe's remains to be moved to Philadelphia from Baltimore, where the author died mysteriously.

Mr. JEFF JEROME (Curator, Edgar Allan Poe House): We have his body. And no body snatcher from Philadelphia or any other city is going to come here and the middle of the night and steal away his body.

ROSE: Jeff Jerome is the curator of the Edgar Allan Poe House in Baltimore. After the Philadelphia City Paper story ran, the Baltimore Sun shot back with an editorial calling Philadelphia the home of the broken bell and the greasy cheesesteak, not Poe. Jeff Jerome even threatened to punch Edward Pettit in that article. Jerome says Baltimore was the first city to recognize Poe's talents, with an award for one of his short stories. And he says Poe wrote his first horror story in this West Baltimore house.

Mr. JEROME: He wrote "Berenice," which was a gruesome tale of premature burial grave desecration and mutilation. While people were horrified by this subject matter, they paid money to read about it.

ROSE: Poe left Baltimore to make his name in New York, but wound up in Philadelphia, where Edward Pettit says he lived for six years amid the tumult that fueled his stories.

Mr. PETTIT: The city was probably at its most violent in that antebellum period from about 1819 or so up until the Civil War.

ROSE: However, if any city has a claim on Poe, it might be New York, where he had his greatest success after "The Raven" was published in 1845. But after his wife's death, he wandered down to Virginia and turned up back in Baltimore, where he was found delirious and half-clothed on the street and where he died on October 7th, 1849.

Mr. JEROME: We're standing before the Poe monument…

ROSE: Jeff Jerome, curator of Baltimore's Poe House says the family had him quickly buried in the back of a churchyard. A generation later, Baltimore's schoolchildren came to the writer's rescue, pooling their pennies to build a proper memorial.

This is the site where the mysterious visitor leaves the Cognac and roses on Poe's birthday. But you could come here any time of the year and you'll see flowers, coins…

ROSE: That's nice, says Edward Pettit, but Poe's real contribution to American letters happened in Philadelphia, where it's widely acknowledged that Poe wrote the first mystery detective stories.

Mr. PETTIT: There have been mystery-like stories, but there had never been that kind of all-knowing detective - picking up clues to solve the crime. And that's exactly what people think of when they think of mysteries stories now. And that's what Poe invented in Philadelphia.

ROSE: Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle credited Poe's detective with inspiring the creation of Sherlock Holmes. But Baltimore's Jeff Jerome says his city actively preserved Poe's legacy more than a century ago when no one else was interested.

Mr. JEROME: What was Philadelphia doing with Poe? Nothing. What was New York doing with Poe? Absolutely nothing. What was Richmond, Virginia doing? Absolutely nothing.

ROSE: Jerome says Philadelphia is more than welcome to the body of John Wilkes Booth. The man who assassinated Abraham Lincoln is also buried in Baltimore.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

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