Poe Museum celebrates life of renowned author

Local actor and Poe enthusiast Charles Wissinger cut the cake in costume to celebrate Edgar Allen Poe's legacy. (Photo by Jon Mirador)

Ada Romano, Contributing Writer

The Poe Museum commemorated the birthday of Richmond’s own 19th century macabre writer, Edgar Allan Poe on Saturday with 12 hours of musical performances, readings and a cake-cutting.

Born in January 1809 in Boston, Poe was the son of traveling actors who died when he was a child. After his parents’ deaths, Poe was adopted by a wealthy tobacco merchant and lived most of his life in Richmond, Virginia. In 1826, Poe began his college career at the University of Virginia and began writing poems. Not long after, he was forced to drop out due to his lacks of funds to continue at the university. He then self-published his first book, “Tamerlane and Other Poems.”

After dropping out of school, Poe joined the army and attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point only to be thrown out after eight months. This, and many other unfortunate events in Poe’s life, drove him to write some of the grim pieces he is most famous for. One of his most popular works, “The Black Cat,” was published in The Saturday Evening Post, a weekly magazine, in 1843. Poe continued to work as a poet, later publishing one of his most famous pieces, “The Raven,” which is considered one of the most well-known poems in American literature.

Enthusiasts read some of Poe’s most famous works at the event, including “The Masque
of the Red Death.” (Photo by Jon Mirador)

Charles Wissinger, a local actor and Poe enthusiast portrayed the poet for the event. He took part in a reading of some of Poe’s most famous works including “The Masque of the Red Death,” which features a deadly masquerade ball and a prince’s attempts to avoid a dangerous disease.

Given that Poe was a Richmond native, Wissinger wanted to come up with a way to honor his memory and keep his work alive in the River City. Wissinger and his acting group decided to host a graveyard tour in October with readings of Poe’s work. “Fancy Me Mad” pays homage to a line in another one of Poe’s short stories, “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

“With that, The Poe Museum caught wind of the fact that I do Poe and they started asking me to portray him. This will be my fourth year here for his birthday,” Wissinger said. “And I’ve been doing Poe for the better part of 10 or 11 years now.”

Wissinger wasn’t an avid reader growing up and did not start taking a liking to Poe’s work until college, when he fell in love with some of Poe’s early pieces. He noted that Poe wrote more comedies than horror, though he’s only well-known for the latter.

“He’s just a fascinating individual. I love the fact that there is the myth and the legend versus the real person,” Wissinger said. “Part of what I do with educating through entertainment is showing the real person, so I try to highlight a lot of the misconceptions and a lot of the flat out lies and try to make him more human, but also likeable.”

Prior to his death, Poe was believed to be an alcoholic, and his use of opium along with an attempted suicide are highlighted in one of his letters to a friend, Annie Richmond, written in 1848. Poe is also criticized for marrying his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia Eliza Clemm. The two met when Clemm was only 7 years old, shortly after the death of her father. The couple eloped in Baltimore in 1835. In January of 1842, Clemm fell ill before passing away in 1847. Her death led Poe to write the tribute poem “Annabel Lee.”

Tyler Minks, communications coordinator for The Poe Museum, wasn’t specifically interested in Poe when he started as an intern in 2016. But after researching for his position, Minks took a liking to the writer.

Minks said almost 1,000 people attended Poe’s birthday celebration, which is the museum’s biggest event.

“We have all types of people who attend the event,” Minks said. “People from downtown, people from across the street, people from California and a lot of families.”

Minks said he hopes to get more businesses and historical sites involved in the event to help gain exposure and popularity within the city. More information on the museum and upcoming events can be found at poemuseum.org.

(Photo by Jon Mirador)
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