Edgar Allan Poe’s mysterious time in Charleston

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edgar allan poe
Edgar Allan Poe | Public domain image

When it comes to Charleston’s history, the line between fact + fable tends to get a little murky. That’s especially the case when it comes to chronicling the time Edgar Allan Poe, a man who relished in the mysterious, spent here.

For instance, while we know it to be true that Poe spent thirteen months stationed at Fort Moultrie, we also know that he did so under a false identity: 18-year-old Edgar Allan Poe claimed to be 22-year-old Edgar Allan Perry when he enlisted in the U.S. Army.

The trailblazing American writer + poet died on Oct. 7, 1849 (169 years ago this week)– and, just like his life, his death is shrouded in mystery. He was discovered lying in a Baltimore gutter in what a witness describes as being “in great distress.” He was taken to a hospital, where he succumbed to his ailments days later– but he was never coherent enough to describe what exactly those ailments were.

 

Fort Moultrie
Fort Moultrie | Public domain image

Poe’s stint on Sullivan’s Island

Long before achieving fame as an author, a teenage Poe took up temporary residence on Sullivan’s Island. Starved for cash, he lied about his age + enlisted in the U.S. Army under the name Edgar A. Perry.

From Nov. 1827 to Dec. 1828, Poe was stationed at Fort Moultrie, serving in Company H, 1st U.S. Artillery Regiment. During that time, he rose from the rank of private to regimental sergeant major. He was discharged from the military a year later, where he embarked on a failed attempt to attend West Point.

In his short story, “The Gold Bug,” which takes place on Sullivan’s Island, he describes the area as such:
“This island is a very singular one. It consists of little else than the sea sand and is about three miles long. Its breadth at no point exceeds a quarter of a mile. It is separated from the mainland by a scarcely perceptible creek, oozing its way through a wilderness of reeds and slime, a favorite resort of the marsh hen. The vegetation, as might be supposed, is scant or at least dwarfish. No trees of any magnitude are to be seen. Near the western extremity, where Fort Moultrie stands and where are some miserable frame buildings, tenanted, during summer, by the fugitives from Charleston dust and fever, may be found the bristly palmetto; but the whole island, with the exception of this western point and a line of hard, white beach on the seacoast, is covered with a dense undergrowth of the sweet myrtle…” – Excerpt from “The Gold Bug,” shared via Sullivan’s Island Homes

Other than that, we don’t know much about where Poe went while he was stationed on Sullivan’s Island– but you won’t be as hard-pressed to find local spots that celebrate his stay. There’s Poe’s Tavern, an Edgar Allen Poe-themed restaurant right on Center Street, and the Charleston County Public Library branch on SI calls itself the Edgar Allen Poe Library.

 

References to Charleston

 

victoria balloon drawing
The Illustration of “The Victoria” as it appeared in The New York Sun | Public domain image

The Balloon Hoax (1844)

Long before Orson Welles’ War of the World broadcast sent Americans spiraling into a state of mass panic in 1938, Edgar Allan Poe duped the country with what’s now called the Balloon Hoax.

The hoax was simple: On April 13, 1844, Poe penned an article in The New York Sun that described a groundbreaking transatlantic flight. His report described a Mr. Monck Mason departing England in a steering balloon called ‘Victoria’ and landing on Sullivan’s Island just 75 hours later. It took less time than that, though, for editors to realize they’d been tricked. A retraction was printed two days later.

 

unitarian church graveyard
The Unitarian Graveyard, where Anna Ravenel is rumored to be buried in an unmarked grave | Photo by @gc_j27

Annabel Lee (1849)

Two days after Edgar Allan Poe died, “Annabel Lee” was published. The narrator of the poem describes his love for a woman named Annabel Lee who lives ‘in a kingdom by the sea.’ The poem describes the pair as falling in love in their youth, and sharing a bond so pure that it is envied even by angels in Heaven. Annabel Lee dies, but his love for her does not. He dreams of her every night, and believes their souls share an unbreakable bond.

The popular consensus among scholars is that ‘Annabel Lee’ represents Poe’s wife (/cousin) Virginia, whose early death Poe may have never recovered from. But some Charlestonians contend the poem may be a reference to the story of Charleston’s Anna Ravenel.

Legend has it, a 14-year-old girl named Anna Ravenel fell in love with an 18-year-old man stationed at Fort Moultrie in the 1800s (sound familiar?). Her father didn’t approve and did everything in his power to keep the two apart. Still, the two would carry on their forbidden romance via secret meet-ups. Not long after, the soldier was transferred away from Sullivan’s Island, while Annabel died and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Unitarian Church graveyard.

Today, the graveyard is open to the public during the day– and some say they’ve seen Anna Ravenel’s likeness appear there near an unmarked grave, perhaps searching for her long-lost love.

You can also find references to Charleston in “The Gold Bug,” which takes place on Sullivan’s Island (though it was published years after Poe left), + in “The Oblong Box,” a short story about a sea voyage that departs from Charleston.