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Chasing Poe's ghost in Charleston

For The Baltimore Sun
Which legendary author may have left a trail in Lowcountry?

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Travelers searching for traces of the moody, mysterious scribe who famously wrote "The Raven," and classic macabre tales need not ponder weak and weary over volumes of forgotten lore.

Instead, fans of Edgar Allan Poe can journey to South Carolina's coastal Lowcountry, where his tell-tale heart can be discovered amid lush sea islands and historic cities such as Charleston.

The footprint of the writer and poet — born in Boston in 1809 and later a resident of Baltimore, Philadelphia and Richmond, Va., among other locales — crops up here in unexpected places.

Vestiges of Poe's literary legacy are revealed at an 18th-century military fort, inside a luxury hotel, at a lively beachfront tavern and beyond. The sites, which are not affiliated, tend to be steeped in legend. Nonetheless, bona fide references do exist.

"There are some records of Edgar Allan Poe" in South Carolina, says Scott Peeples, a professor of literature at the College of Charleston, who has written two books about the author. "Much of what we know about Poe comes from his own letters, those that mention him and other kinds of documentation."

Poe's narratives of horror and science fiction and his lyrical poetry never earned him much money during his lifetime, but they have inspired contemporary volumes, theatrical adaptations and movies, not to mention the name of an NFL team in Baltimore, the city where the seemingly tortured soul took his last breath in October 1849 at age 40. The circumstances were mystifying, much like the man himself.

Today, Poe remains "quite possibly America's most famous literary figure," notes Peeples. Here are some Lowcountry destinations with ties — real or imagined — to the author some have dubbed America's Shakespeare.

Sullivan's Island

Occupying an area just 3.3 miles square, tiny Sullivan's Island is a barrier island about nine miles north of Charleston's harbor. Known for its natural beauty and beaches, it is home to Fort Moultrie National Monument, where in 1776, commander William Moultrie fought off British warships trying to occupy Charleston during the American Revolution.

Fort Moultrie is also where Poe, who had enlisted in the Army under a pseudonym, Edgar Allan Perry, was stationed with his Boston regiment beginning in November 1827. About 18 years old at the time, he remained for 13 months, until December 1828.

The time Poe spent on Sullivan's Island likely provided fodder for the short story "The Gold-Bug," published in 1843, about the adventures of a man bitten by a mystical beetle made of solid gold.

"People think it was written here, but he wrote that about 15 years later, presumably from memory," says Peeples. Poe would also incorporate Charleston in subsequent writings, notably in a newspaper article titled "The Balloon Hoax" in 1844 and "The Oblong Box" in 1850.

Today, Sullivan's Island is a town of some 1,500 with street names such as Poe Avenue and Raven Drive. The main drag is Middle Street, where Poe's Tavern draws locals and tourists who appreciate its kitschy Poe-influenced decor and big front porch, perfect for catching Atlantic Ocean breezes.

Menu items have monikers like Edgar's Nachos and The Raven burger, The Starving Artist and Poe's House red and white wine. T-shirts, hats and mugs with the Poe motif can also be purchased. "We get Poe tour groups from up and down the East Coast — a lot of young folks too," says general manager Jeff Hunter.

(Fort Moultrie, 1214 Middle St., Sullivan's Island, S.C., 843-883-3123)

Belmond Charleston Place

Amid the swaying palmettos and the horse-drawn carriages of historic Charleston stands Belmond Charleston Place. The grand hotel was built to resemble a historic residence, complete with a sweeping Georgian staircase and a gigantic crystal chandelier.

Guests who pass through the Italian marble lobby may be surprised to find an image depicting a daguerreotype of a raven-haired Poe. The writer is featured on a "wall of fame" with 21 other notable South Carolinians. Called "Portraits of Charleston," those honored run the gamut from Thomas Pinckney, a former governor, to civil rights activist Septima Poinsette Clark, and country music star Darius Rucker, who first gained fame as the frontman for Hootie and the Blowfish.

"We wanted to celebrate noteworthy individuals associated with Charleston's past and present," said Paul Stracey, the property's managing director. "It went up about four years ago right near our entrances."

Besides the framed portraits on two walls, the display includes booklets that provide details about each personality and local attractions that can illuminate their stories. "Many guests do stop to look at the display, and they tell us it's interesting," says hotel bellstand coordinator, Valerie Scott.

(Belmond Charleston Place, 205 Meeting St., Charleston, S.C., 800-455-2427, belmond.com/charleston-place)

Wild Dunes Resort

The Isle of Palms is breathtaking: seven miles of scenic sea and sand, and million-dollar beach houses painted in watercolor hues. The community includes the sprawling Wild Dunes resort, a 1,500-acre waterfront playground with lodging and a bevy of amenities: a tennis center, swimming pools, restaurants, clothing boutiques, a spa/salon and two world-ranked 18-hole golf courses.

Resort staffers note that the storied Links golf course was said to be a place that Poe explored while stationed at nearby Fort Moultrie. "It's long been rumored that a large oak tree located on the fairway of the 13th hole is the tree from 'The Gold-Bug' story," says Ivie Parker, Wild Dunes' director of marketing. "And the local legend is that sometimes Poe's ghost has been seen out there."

(Wild Dunes Resort, 5757 Palm Boulevard, Isle of Palms, S.C., 843-886-2032, wilddunes.com)

Charleston

Bulldog Tours of Charleston (bulldogtours.com; 843-722-8687) has dozens of expert guides providing a variety of tours, from evening ghost walks to culinary hops. "Back in 2012, we offered our first Edgar Allan Poe Walking Tour," says longtime guide, Diane Ball. "It's now available by private appointment."

While historians say there is no definitive record of Poe in Charleston, Peeples says it's quite possible the writer visited the city during his military stint on nearby Sullivan's Island.

It's all speculation and lore, yet tales abound that a young woman named Annabel Lee Ravenel, from an old, prominent local family, supposedly became Poe's love during that period. Debates continue whether she was the inspiration for his last published poem, "Annabel Lee," — although scholars dispute that, citing Poe's wife/cousin, Virginia Eliza Clemm.

That said, the story goes that the couple, hiding from her disapproving father, would secretly meet in the cemetery of the Unitarian Church in Charleston — which is part of the tour — until Poe was eventually transferred back up North, and his lady tragically fell ill and died. Paranormal sightings of Annabel Lee sitting on a bench in the graveyard or walking along its paths seeking Poe reportedly still happen.

The church, a National Historic Landmark, has long drawn literary buffs desiring to see the courtyard tombs. "Annabel Lee was a fictional character, so she is not buried here," says Laura Moses, a church member who serves on the gardening committee. "However, we do invite visitors to come and see the chaotic beauty of our churchyard, where there's stunning foliage, butterflies and bees in their natural habitat."

(The Unitarian Church in Charleston, 4 Archdale St., Charleston S.C., 843-723-4617, charlestonuu.org)

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If you go

For more information on visiting Charleston, S.C., contact the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau at 800-774-0006 or go to charlestoncvb.com.

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