This year marks the 165th anniversary of the death of Edgar Allan Poe. His strange life and even stranger death contribute a great deal to the myth that surrounds him and his place in American letters. Not only is he the father of detective fiction, he took psychological horror to a new level by incorporating elements of the essay with that of fiction.
The last known place Poe was seen at was the Horse You Came In On Saloon in Baltimore, Maryland. After a night of drinking Poe wondered the streets of Baltimore only to be found lying in a gutter, incomprehensible and close to death. Several sources claimed that he was wearing clothes that belonged to someone else, and that those clothes were in an advanced state of disrepair. He was brought to Washington University Hospital on October 3, 1849 and died there on October 7th.
Today, the Horse You Came in On Saloon is still a functioning tavern in the Fells Point section of Baltimore. The building dates back to colonial times, and according to the saloon’s website, it has been in continuous operation since 1775.
A few years ago I was in Baltimore for a conference. I snuck out during the afternoon sessions to find the bar that reportedly been Poe’s last watering hole before he wandered into a deeper oblivion. Fells Point is a public square-like area that is replete with shops, restaurants, and bars, although mostly bars. Despite its touristy vibe, Fells Point is at the heart of Baltimore’s historic district, and it does have a colonial feel to it. The Horse You Came in On is located on Thames Street. The building’s exterior is a dull yellow and is fairly non-descript when compared to some of the other buildings in the area. This is all the more strange since, according to the saloon’s website, it was established in 1775 and has enjoyed being open continuously since that time. I expected an old colonial style pub that had plenty of atmosphere. What I found instead was a bar like any number of bars one finds in tourist districts in any city. It was early afternoon and a band was playing music at alarming decibels. I went to the bar and ordered a beer, my camera out and feeling very much the tourist myself. Despite the early afternoon hour, the bar was nearly full, and it was occupied with mostly young people, mostly male, getting their glow on. The girl next to me, a pretty blonde in shorts and a tee-shirt, was drinking something pink from a white plastic cup. I walked around the inside of the bar, drinking my beer, trying to get a feel for Poe. Nothing. There was the odd photo or picture of him hanging on the walls, but nothing significant to mark his patronage to the place.
I stayed only about twenty minutes and left in bitter disappointment. I do not know what I expected, but I could not help feeling that the saloon could in no way resemble the one Poe drank in 165 years ago. The saloon just wasn’t what I pictured to be in keeping with Poe’s style. I had visited Poe’s house the day before and was also disappointed to discover that it was in an advanced state of disrepair, and even though it is designated as a museum, it wasn’t open. Even his grave seemed to be a bit of a let down. For a city that claims Poe as its own, I was surprised to discover a lack of his historical presence. In another city, under different circumstances, I might have enjoyed a few drinks at the Horse You Rode in On, but I was searching for ghosts and I didn’t encounter any.
Baltimore is an interesting city, but troubled, which may be why it is so interesting. There are sections of row houses that are empty and bordered up as close to the center of the city as around the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Now that Boston has its own Poe statue, I wonder if Baltimore (or New York, or Philadelphia, or Richmond) will finally get serious about its famous resident.
Ghosts, like gods, are only powerful when people believe in them. Once belief begins to fade, so do the deities. Poe led a lonely, troubled life, and it seems that those troubles, that loneliness has followed him into the afterlife.