Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination

illustration of orangutan holding razor
Illustration for Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue”

This post is part of a series written by Alison Hobbs, curator of the 2017 Archives and Special Collections exhibition, “Tales of Mystery and Imagination.”

Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was most likely inspired by two articles published in the Philadelphia newspaper Saturday News. Published in May 1838, the first was titled “Orang Outang” in which an orangutan at the London Zoo was described as having “prodigious” strength in attempting to escape from its confinement. The second story likely to have influenced Poe was of Edward Coleman who was suspected of having murdering his wife on a busy New York City street by slitting her throat with a razor. The article in the Saturday News stated that Coleman had killed his wife by “nearly severing her head from her body with a razor.” In “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Poe work states of the razor-wielding orangutan, “With one determined sweep of its muscular arm it nearly severed her head from her body. The Saturday News piece also refers to Coleman’s then “dropping her [his wife] upon the pavement;” Poe’s story relates that the orangutan “hurled [the body of Madam L’Espanaye] through the window headlong” to “the stone pavement.”

illustration from "The Black Cat"
Illustration for Poe’s “The Black Cat”

The illustrations by Harry Clarke found in Tales of Mystery and Imagination, currently on display in Archives and Special Collections (and seen here), are often grotesque and definitely very scary. Perfect for Halloween!

Fun fact: Since the 1930’s, a mysterious figure has paid annual tribute to Edgar Allan Poe by visiting the cenotaph marking his original grave in Baltimore and pouring himself a glass of cognac, raising a toast to Poe’s mystery. The anonymous stranger disappears into the night leaving three roses and the unfinished bottle of cognac. In 2006 an unsuccessful attempt was made to unmask the Toaster. From 2010 to 2015, no Toaster appeared. In 2016, the Maryland Historical Society selected a new Toaster to revive the tradition in a less mysterious – but still anonymous – form.

Illustration from Poe's "The Oblong Box"
Illustration for Poe’s “The Oblong Box”