Written by Cat Aboudara and researched by Carol Yaster
January 19, 1809 was the day Edgar Allan Poe brought his genius into the world. Even now, 172 years after his death, he is still known as one of the most acclaimed American Gothic writers. Poe was prolific with his pen while in Philadelphia between 1838 and 1844. He and his prose were supported by several Philadelphia connections who are now laid to rest at Laurel Hill.
Writer Charles Brocken Brown may have been the initial catalyst for Poe’s move to Philadelphia. Brown used American culture as well as an actual murder case to write his debut novel, Wieland, in which an evil ventriloquist impersonates a supernatural being to persuade the hero to kill his wife and children. It is regarded as the first American Gothic novel among literary scholars and even Poe alluded to the novel as cannon: “In his Literary Criticism and Marginalia Poe is not stingy in his admiration of the author of Wieland.”
Charles Brocken Brown has a cenotaph at Laurel Hill Cemetery in section 18, lot 301 and his legacy lives on in the works of American Gothic writers.
While Brown may have brought Poe to Philadelphia, John Upton’s influence brought out his creativity through fraternal camaraderie over the consumption of alcohol. Born in 1772 in England, Upton spent 12 years in the British Navy. After his retirement from the Navy and the War of 1812, he immigrated to America and worked as a hatter until 1820, settling in Philadelphia. He also became a member of the Independent Order of Oddfellows, (Manchester Unity). The Odd Fellows protected and cared for their members and communities at a time when there was no welfare or health services. While the original Order was founded in London, England in 1730, American Odd Fellowship fractured from the original order in Baltimore in 1819, under the leadership of Thomas Wildey.
After 1820, Upton reinvented himself as the owner of Upton’s Hotel which was an eating and drinking house at 66 Dock Street in Philadelphia. In December 1821, a guest named John Robinson discovered that he and John Upton were both members of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. The two men invited a meeting of Odd Fellows at Upton’s Hotel and Pennsylvania Lodge No. 1 was formed.
In 1839, Poe came into the scene by way of proximity. Poe worked for Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine at that time and the publication’s office was located at the corner of Bank Alley and Dock Street. Bank Alley, running from South Second Street to 67 Dock Street, made it a hop, skip and a jump to Upton’s Hotel after the working day. In his Reminiscences of Edgar A. Poe, Hyman Polock Rosenbach recounted, “During his editorship of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine Poe spent much time in a drinking place on Dock below Pear Street…kept by a man named Upton.” John Upton was very successful as the proprietor of Upton’s Hotel. He owned his establishment until he died in August 1853. He was then subsequently buried at Laurel Hill, Section B, Lot 94.
While the time at Upton’s Hotel fueled Poe’s creativity, attorney Thomas Smith’s lengthy obstruction of a cushy government appointment along with the time and compensation it promised may have led to Poe‘s break with Philadelphia. Publishers during Poe’s time were able to pay writers a pittance since writers lacked the protection of copyright law. For example, the publisher of Poe’s first novel only paid royalties on the first 25 copies. Despite his popularity, Poe was barely able to make a living as a writer.
Early in 1842, Poe asked a friend in Washington, D.C. to ask President Tyler’s son, Robert, if he could provide financial backing for a magazine Poe wanted to publish. Robert Tyler could not provide any financial assistance but proposed another option which his friend relayed to Poe in a letter dated May 21, 1842:
“Last night I was speaking of you [to Robert Tyler], and took occasion to …suggest that a situation in the Custom House, Philadelphia, might be acceptable to you, as Lamb (Charles) had held a somewhat similar appointment, etc., and as it would leave you leisure to pursue your literary pursuits. Robert replied that he felt confident that such a situation could be obtained for you in the course of two or three months at farthest, as certain vacancies would then occur.
What say you to such a place? Official life is not laborious, and a situation that would suit you and place you beyond the necessity of employing your pen, he says, he can obtain for you there. Let me hear from you as soon as convenient upon this subject.”
Poe returned his enthusiastic reply in a letter dated May 25, 1842:
“What you say respecting a situation in the Custom House here gives me new life. Nothing could more precisely meet my views. Could I obtain such an appointment, I would be enabled thoroughly to carry out all my ambitious projects. It would relieve me of all care as regards a mere subsistence, and thus allow me time for thought, which, in fact, is action…If the salary will barely enable me to live I shall be content. Will you say as much for me to Mr [Robert] Tyler, and express to him my sincere gratitude for the interest he takes in my welfare?”
During the summer of 1842, the Philadelphia newspapers hinted at the firings and openings at the Custom House. President Tyler’s newly appointed Collector of Customs, Philadelphia lawyer Thomas S. Smith (who was later buried at Laurel Hill in section E, lot 18) was in charge of the new appointments of which Poe was assured he would be one from President Tyler’s own son.
Poe waited impatiently for word on his start date but no word came. Between October 11 and November 16, 1842, Poe visited Thomas Smith multiple times in an attempt to secure the promised position at the Custom House.
At the first visit, Smith told Poe to come back in four days when he would swear him in. Yet when Poe returned, Smith wasn’t there. Poe returned again the next day and Smith told him he would send a messenger for him; yet he failed to secure Poe’s forwarding address.
Poe waited nearly a month, increasing in panic, as he saw the positions fill one after another. On November 16, 1842, Poe visited Smith again and asked him if there was any good news regarding his appointment. Smith replied, “I am instructed to make no more removals.” Dashed at Smith’s obstruction of what Poe thought was a certain prospect, Poe prayed for his removal. In a letter to his friend and fellow writer, Frederick William Thomas, dated February 25, 1843, Poe wrote;
“Smith not rejected yet! — Ah, if I could only get the Inspectorship, or something similar, now — how completely it would put me out of all difficulty.”
Poe traveled to Washington, D.C. on March 8, 1843 after Smith was rejected for another term and replaced by Calvin Bylthe. Yet by March 10, Poe was drinking heavily and friends were concerned. They asked if someone from Philadelphia could come to Washington and fetch Poe. He traveled home by train to Philadelphia without the position.
In 1844, Poe moved to New York and it was the following year that he first published The Raven in the New York Evening Mirror on January 29, 1945. Though the poem was published in New York, it was conceived in Philadelphia. It took shape during brainstorming sessions with his best drinking companion, Henry Beck Hirst, the owner of a bird store. Perhaps those sessions took place at the ever-close Upton’s Hotel.