Friday, November 20, 2009

The Mystery of the Death of Edgar Allan Poe

The jury remains out on what exactly killed writer Edgar Allan Poe in early October 1849. He had been lecturing in Richmond and was on his way back to his home in Fordham, New York, where he lived with his aunt and mother-in-law Maria Clemm, his wife Virginia having died of consumption two years previously. It is thought that Poe had aspirations to remarry and that was one reason he was in Richmond, to renew his acquaintanceship with certain ladies. . . In any case a week after leaving Richmond he was found in bad straits on a Baltimore sidewalk. What had happened to him in the intervening week is a mystery.

His body was probably weakened from years of drinking and exhaustion although it's not clear whether alcoholism killed him. The local story that he was taken round the voting polls and voted as a repeater is probably not true. He was found by Baltimore Sun compositor Joseph W. Walker in a dying condition in a drumming rain on the afternoon of 3 October 1849 on the sidewalk outside of Ryan's Tavern on East Lombard Street, where the 4th Ward polls were located. This location is a block east of the existing Carroll Mansion near the corner President Street and Lombard. The fact that Poe was wearing poor and bedraggled clothes that were not his own is suspicious and might lead us to believe he was robbed. And yet his missing trunk was later recovered and is now in the Poe Museum in Richmond. Mystery upon mystery.

Poe murmured the name of a friend, Joseph E. Snodgrass, M.D., who lived a few streets away, and Snodgrass was duly sent for. A bit of a mystery pertains here as well, because the writer's cousin Henry Herring and his family lived closer to the location of the tavern, in a house opposite to the Carroll Mansion. The fact that Herring was not sent for might indicate that Poe had been drinking and he didn't want his cousin to see him in that condition. In 1833, Dr. Snodgrass had been editor of the Saturday Evening Visiter. The newspaper sponsored a literary competition in which Poe won first prize of $50.00 -- no small sum back then! -- for his story "Ms. Found in a Bottle." It was his first literary success. No doubt fond memories of his big break remained in Poe's memory bank, as well as the thought that perhaps Dr. Snodgrass might be more sympathetic to him than his relatives.

Unfortunately for Poe, Snodgrass later became a rampant teetotaler and lecturer on the evils of drink. In his firebrand talks he cited the example of Poe as an inebriate. He described the writer as disgusting looking when he found him slumped in a seat in Ryan's tavern. He bundled the writer into a carriage bound for Washington College Hospital on Broadway, some seven blocks to the east. The fact that Snodgrass, a physician, did not attend to the ailing writer himself might be significant. In any case, four days later on 7 October, Poe died in the hospital. He apparently spent much of his last four days delirious.

In regard to Poe's final hours, more controversy exists. Poe's attending physician Dr. John J. Moran later published A Defense of Edgar Allan Poe (Washington, D.C.: W. F. Boogher, 1885) in which he claimed that the writer did not die of alcholism. However, in his a letter to Poe's mother-in-law, Mrs. Maria Clemm, on 15 November 1849, five weeks after the writer's death, Moran hints darkly that Mrs. Clemm would know of what ailment he died ("Presuming you are already aware of the malady of which Mr. Poe died. . . .") -- which most scholars take to mean the writer had taken to drink while in the city and alcoholism played a part in his demise.

According to Moran, if he is to believed, Poe called out the name "Reynolds!" several times. There was an explorer named Jeremiah N. Reynolds whose accounts Poe used as source material for his sea novella The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Could a delirious Poe on his deathbed have thought he was on the high seas with Reynolds?

In my research, I found a more mundane and Poe-like reason why the dying writer might have called out the name. According to Baltimore City street directories, around the time of Poe's death, a "Washington Reynolds" was a gravedigger living on Greene Street. On 9 October, Poe was buried in an unmarked pauper's grave in the Presbyterian graveyard at the corner of Fayette and Greene Streets. His cousins Henry Herring and Neilson Poe were among the smattering of mourners in attendance.

Follow the link through the title for a discussion of Edgar Allan Poe's life and death. The writer has a few things wrong and might overly emphasize Poe's drinking. . . but he or she covers a lot of aspects aboout Poe quite well and succinctly, and the accompanying cartoons are interesting as well. Check it out.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Lady Liberties

"Altar to Liberty", Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn

I tried to go up the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor some years ago, I think in the eighties, but since I was carrying a big briefcase I gave up on it as being a bit beyond me and a chore as well! Not sure I like such a claustrophobic feeling. Didn't enjoy the Catacombs in Paris for the same reason, and doubt I would like to try Williamson's Tunnels in Liverpool.

One of the most moving experiences I have had was a year ago when I was in New York City to give a talk on the War of 1812, which is my specialty besides Jack the Ripper! I had asked if any member of the New York Military Affairs Symposium would be willing to take me on a tour of New York City Revolutionary War sites, the city having been recaptured by the British in November 1776.

As it was, two members stepped forward one of them with a Lincoln town car with an Indian friend acting as chauffeur. We visited a number of sites in Brooklyn, one a fort right below the Verrazano Narrows Bridge close to where the British landed in a massive D-Day like landing.

It was misty out in the harbor and I could not see much as I clambered onto the damp, leaf-strewn wall of the fort. Later we visited Greenwood Cemetery where some of the fighting had taken place. They have there an "Altar to Liberty" much less well known compared with the Statue of Liberty but it looks out toward its more famous Sister. Just as we got there, the fog parted which gave us a view across the nearby rooftops of a sunlit Lady Liberty in the harbor through a parting in the mist! Magnificent!


Ghosting Through Brooklyn


Oh we are ghosting through Brooklyn
chauffered in a silver Lincoln town car.

We are a polyglot, ragtag pick-up
army, treking to sites in America's

fight for freedom, hosted by our Indian limo
driver, a husky dusky Ernest Borgnine

who mutters an ancient Hindi poem about
laughing while dying as we cruise through

Greenwood Cemetery with its plastic flowers,
its hillsides of monumental Victorian tombs

where in 1776 Yanks and Brits alike fell,
in inglorious stump-hole sacrifice.


Above our heads, traffic thunders over
the Verrazano Narrows Bridge; we look

from the damp, autumn-leaved ramparts
of Fort Hamilton out into blank white fog

toward where the British landed
in Gravesend Bay ready to trounce

the breakaway rebels; there's me
with my red Liverpool FC scarf,

my unkempt gray beard as one journalist said; Jeff,
spectacled, short with white beard, leather jacket, and

Russian winter hat, and Colonel Frank, gray-moustached
with the military maps and apology for the masking fog:

the Englishman, the Jew, the Italian, and the Indian
on a pilgrimage through modern-day Brooklyn.

We stop to tour the Old Stone House, by a playground,
kids yelling as they sweep down slides, moms with walkers.

Fortuitously saved from being swept away for Ebbets Field,
used until recently as a rest station; here perished

Maryland's four hundred saving George Washington's ass.
Stop at Chance Cuisine for miso soup, duck with plum sauce

near the site of Gowanus Creek and Corkscrew Hill where
Washington watched the ebb and flow, the touch and go.


I remember best still, how we drove the winding paths
of Greenwood Cemetery, our driver reciting the Hindi

about expecting to laugh as he dies, Colonel Frank
eating a banana (the peel of which he dropped

in the waste receptacle as we left the cemetery)
and how we climbed up Battle Hill to the "Altar

of Liberty" with its black helmeted apocryphal figure
as we gazed out into New York Harbor; luckily,

a hole had been burned in the fog at last:
Lady Liberty stood greenly shining just for us.

Christopher T. George

Monday, November 16, 2009

"He Knows Jack" - Chris George in the Baltimore City Paper

He Knows Jack | Baltimore City Paper
An old article, from 2002, but it may be of interest. Note that the Casebook Productions website is defunct. For more on the Whitechapel murders go instead to Casebook: Jack the Ripper at or JtR Forums at

Chris holding a Liston amputation knife of a type that might have been used by Jack the Ripper

Chris and Donna in the East End of London

A comment on trying to navigate the East End without a compass? Chris during his talk at the Jack the Ripper Conference, Widegate Street, 24 October, 2009. Photograph by Jeff Leahy.

First of all let me begin by saying that I have for some time felt a fake and a fraud in that although I have been an editor and a contributor to Ripper magazines for over a decade, I had not taken previously a tour of the murder sites. Not for want of trying, I might add: I was supposed to go on such a tour back in 2001 with the late great Adrian M. Phypers (aka Viper)... but for one reason or another it did not occur. I had been in the East End in 1969 and took some Super 8 movie film of Petticoat Lane Market but was not at that time interested in the Whitechapel murders.

So it was with particular interest I signed up for the London conference to be held at Kings Stores, Widegate Street, on 23-25 October, organized by Adam Wood. My wife Donna and I signed up to stay at the Ibis Hotel, Commercial Street and rented a sporty black Vauxhaull Invicta from Auto Europe (aka National) at Heathrow Airport for our whole 2-week trip, arriving on Friday, 16 October, the week before the conference. What we didn't have though was satellite navigation which would have helped greatly since the directions from Ibis were next to useless -- take the A13 from the M25 in toward the City and look for Aldgate. We spent around an hour driving round the East End trying to find the hotel in the dark on Friday night. This included an unwanted impromptu tour of the murder sites since I looked up at one point and noticed the street sign for Durward Street (formerly Buck's Row), site of the murder of Mary Ann ("Polly") Nichols on 31 August 1888.

We were even stopped by the police at one point ... they noticed we were driving haphazardly. The female constable gave us directions that supposedly would take us to the Ibis but she had directed us to Commercial Road not Commercial Street! Eventually I bought a spiral bound AA Street by Street Guide to Greater London from a Muslim newsagent on Whitechapel Road with a white knit cap. We eventually found the Ibis and I realized we had driven past it at least once because I recognized the lit-up sign of Toynbee Hall across the road. The hotel as it turned out was partly obscured from passing vehicles by a construction hoarding for whatever the building is that's going up at the corner of Commercial Street and Whitechapel High Street.

The Ibis is French run and I was directed by the French mademoiselle behind the desk to the nearest public parking facility, which turned out to the White's Row Parking Garage. We had purposely arrived late at night to avoid the "congestion charge" that is levied by the City of London, eight pounds a day, if you are on the streets between 7 am and 6 pm. Of course with the snafu of being lost I was way too late and too exhausted to take part in any of the conference activities on Friday evening. I was though curious to find the King's Stores so determined to seek out the convention site the following morning first thing.

One would have thought that the precious spiral bound AA Street by Street Guide to Greater London would be an aid here, wouldn't one. Well it wasn't, not unaided by outside internet help. Widegate Street although in the Index for the series of maps was not as such marked where it should have been. I eventually, through the aid of the conference website, determined that the Kings Stores is at the corner of Widegate Street and Sandy's Row, and I saw that the AA in their maps had Widegate Street, being a narrow and short road, marked as "W.S."!!! It wasn't the only such small road marked in the AA Street by Street Guide to Greater London with initials either. So much for authority!

So I discovered I could walk the following morning down the side of the White's Row Parking Garage to make my way toward the conference venue. As I neared the western end of the parking garage, I was astonished to see the stately pile of the Providence Row Night Refuge on Crispin Street right in front of me. I therefore realised that the murder site of Mary Jane Kelly at what was 13 Miller's Court, off what was on the morning of 9 November 1888 Dorset Street (now demolished) was only a few hundred yards away from me, on the opposite side of the parking garage. And this gave me what has remained an enduring impression of my visit to Spitalfields: how close together all the sites are. I had a real spooky feeling, and it impressed me how the killer was able to get away with it time and time again.

The below map by Jane Coram shows some of the sites. The Crossingham's lodging house at 35 Dorset Street is now gone, swept away to make way for the same circa 1920's warehouse built in Duval Street that replaced the site of Miller's Court, as was another Crossingham's at 16-19 Dorset Street, now under the site of the parking garage.

The Providence Row Night Refuge, since 2006 known as Lilian Knowles House and used as accommodation for students of the London School of Economics, is built in the sort of sickly looking yellow brick which is characteristic of a number of London buildings. I don't know whether it is something to do with the chalk in the London area that the brick is often yellow and not red. I am used to the red brick and red sandstone of Liverpool, blood red, like Gladstone's birthplace on Rodney Street in my home town!

I made my way up Artillery Passage, along the southern side of the former night refuge, a narrow medieval-like passage, which gives you the idea of age, and is a remainder of the old East End. There was a New Age bistro and a frou-frou store or two in the passage but otherwise, it could have been a century or more earlier. Thankfully such remainders still remind of how the area once looked even if, disappointingly, most of the murder sites are changed absolutely from what they once were. I found the Kings Stores and started on the way back to the hotel. I was serenaded on the walk back to the Ibis by two men in suits, one with a guitar, who claimed to be out-of-work bankers. I kid you not. They were singing something about Blackheath and accompanied me almost all the way to the Ibis before I eventually outdistanced them and one "banker" sang to the other that they had lost me and I was not going to fork out some money to them as they hoped. This trip was costing too damned much as it was! I did feel somewhat threatened by the experience but as a regular commuter from Baltimore to Washington D.C. on the Marc Train I am used to panhandlers at Union Station and don't usually "fold" when solicited.

To say I felt threatened while walking in Whitechapel/Spitalfields in early morning or at night and other times as well is probably an understatement. The area had a run-down look, not helped perhaps by the fact that the shops on Commercial Street all had metal shutters or grills pulled down and locked.

When walking from the Ibis Hotel, it was better to walk in a group than walking alone. Donna said she did not enjoy staying at the hotel because of the depressed feel of the area.

The Ten Bells looked from the outside paint-peeled and unattractive. I saw a prostitute or two hanging around in the area as I walked the streets.

In short, Spitalfields in October 2009 appeared to me not that different in atmosphere to what I would imagine the atmosphere was in same area in 1888.

I believe part of my unease of being in the East End was racial. That is, I knew of course that the East End now had a large Asian population, mostly immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, many of them Muslims from Pakistan. Was the feeling of being on the streets with people that were "other" than me part of the problem. During the walking tour with Philip Hutchinson on the morning of Sunday, 25 October, we went through Petticoat Lane Market on Wentworth Street. As per tradition, the market consisted of close together stalls on both sides of the street with clothing and other goods for sale, old CDs, records, bric-a-brac, people milling in the middle of the the street and on the sidewalks shoulder-to- shoulder, trying to get through or examining goods on tables or racks of clothing. Unlike the way I remembered the market from the Sixties when I was last there, the merchants in the market and the customers too almost all had an Asian background.

I thought that Philip's intent was to make for the site of the Goulston Street graffito, but that wasn't his idea. As a result, in the melee, part of the tour party got separated from the rest. To go through the area on market day with a tour party was probably not the brightest idea. Sorry, Philip!!!

Philip was actually heading down a side street, Castle Alley, to show us the Alice MacKenzie murder site (appropriate for the 1889 theme of the convention and my particular talk on police activity between the murder of Mary Jane Kelly and MacKenzie in July 1889). The two parts of the tour party managed to get patched back up together.

So in Petticoat Lane Market today most of the traders today are Indian or Pakistani. One of the party on the tour characterized what is sold today in the market to me as "tat" or cheap and shoddy merchandise. Perhaps so. We could have been in Cairo or Islamabad not the East End of London. Is it the language barrier or the spectre of Islamic terror that heightens the unease, or both?

During the Jack the Ripper tour: Chris George with Philip Hutchinson and his newly found photograph of Dutfield's Yard circa 1900. Photograph by Jeff Leahy.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Chris and Donna in Liverpool and Northern Ireland

Donna and I have just returned from a trip to the United Kingdom. We were there October 16 through October 30.

After landing at Heathrow on Friday morning, Oct 16, we drove up to Liverpool where I was part of Poetry Kit's World Poetry Night at the Fly in the Loaf, Hardman Street.

The evening was arranged by Merseyside poet Jim Bennett.

At the Fly in the Loaf, Liverpool, Saturday, 17 October 2009

Nervous, you cross the fancy mosaic threshold of an ex-baker's shop,
nudge past garrulous and muscular young guzzlers, ascend
to the upstairs quiet hushed aerie where the poets gather.

No, it's no longer your city, though the street sign "Baltimore"
hard by the Fly in the Loaf at Hardman and Baltimore Streets
recalls your "other city" all those three thousand miles away. . .

"The Liverpool of America's East Coast" and how Adrian intro'ed
you as "a poet from Philadelphia" ha! and he told of streets
near his Mount Street home: Baltimore and Maryland,

testimony to Liverpool's slavery past. It's no longer Ade's
Liverpool or the slaver's Liverpool. Discursive as ever! Wrap
your mind round that. . . wrap your words round that, Poet!

Muscular words to tell of that evening, arc lamps burning,
sweating, drops of perspiration dot the paper. Now!
Squeeze the words out. Let the people hear. You're here.

Christopher T. George

On Monday, October 19, we left Liverpool for Lancaster, to stay at the Royal Arms on Market Street just down the hill from Lancaster Castle. We dined that night in a restaurant set in the vaults of an old merchant's house dating to 1688. The following morning we caught the car ferry from Heysham to Warrenpoint, Northern Ireland. The passage with rough with high winds and we laughed at each other trying to negotiate the rolling floor of the passengers lounge. Pretty wild.

That night we stayed at the Whistledown Hotel on the seafront at Warrenpoint. My friend and colleague Rostrevor historian Dr. John McCavitt arranged for us to stay in the bridal suite. The room had a magnificent view of Carlingford Lough looking over toward the Mountains of Mourne and General Ross's monument.

The following day, Wednesday, October 21, I gave a talk in Rostrevor, the home village of Major General Robert Ross, the man who captured Washington, D.C., on August 24, 1814, and burned the Capitol and White House and other public buildings. The 100-foot granite monument to Ross on the shoreline of Carlingford Lough has been recently restored by the District Council of Newry and Mourne. Chris is working with Dr. John McCavitt on a biography of General Ross.

Chris in Rostrevor, Northern Ireland, with Mayor John Feehan, showing the Ross Monument in the background near the shoreline of Carlingford Lough. You can access the entire news cutting from the Newry Reporter through the title above.