The public’s fascination with crime and violence existed long before today’s cop shows and horror movies. Even in Edgar Allan Poe’s time, readers could not get enough true tales of murder and madness. Ample evidence of this fact is to be found in a curious little volume in the Poe Museum’s collection.
The Poe Museum’s next Object of the Month is The Tragic Almanack for 1843, published in 1842 by the New York Sun. Like many popular almanacs, this annual publication contains astronomical information, the dates of religious holidays, and weather predictions. Unlike those other almanacs, this one is full of facts about violent crimes and tragic deaths. One example is the case of Peter Robinson, who murdered a man and buried the corpse under his basement floor. The first time Robinson was hanged, the rope broke, so the executioner had to hang him a second time, after which, “in about two minutes [Robinson] died with great convulsions.” Another article tells of a servant who beheaded a man, was acquitted of the crime on the grounds of insanity, and went on to behead another man. Other accounts detail a steamboat fire, a “remarkable suicide,” and all manner of violent deaths. Some of the most gruesome articles are illustrated with engravings by C.P. Huestis.
One well known case is that of John Colt, brother of the future gun manufacturer Samuel Colt. John Colt murdered a man by the name of Samuel Adams in New York, stuffed his body in a box, and sent the box to New Orleans. When Adams’s friends started to miss him, they alerted the authorities, who soon found the decomposing corpse aboard a southbound ship. The sailors apparently ignored the stench of rotting flesh because they mistook it for the odor of rat poison. This story soon made headlines across the country and may have inspired a certain magazine writer named Poe to write “The Oblong Box,” a story about a man who carries his dead wife aboard a ship with him in a crate.
The cover story is the recent murder of Mary Rogers, a popular clerk in a New York cigar store. In 1841 she went to visit some relatives across town and never returned. A few days later, she was found floating in the Hudson River off the coast of Hoboken, New Jersey. The police suspected her fiancé, but, after interrogating him, they were convinced of his innocence. Not long afterwards, Payne took his own life on the very spot of her murder. The investigation stalled, so police blamed the crime on a gang of hoodlums. The caption for cover engraving reads, “A gang of lawless villains throwing MARY C ROGERS, from the cliff at Hoboken into the Hudson River, where she perished July 25, 1841.” The “villains” were never identified, and the unsolved mystery eventually caught the attention of the inventor of the detective story, Edgar Allan Poe.
Poe was never satisfied with the gang explanation because he believed Rogers’s body had been dragged and that a gang would have simply carried her to the river. Having decided that a lone murderer was responsible, Poe went to work trying to figure out just who could have done it. His investigation formed the basis of his detective story “The Mystery of Marie Roget.” In 1842, the same year of the Tragic Almanack’s publication, Poe sold the story to Snowden’s Ladies’ Companion, promising that his tale not only “indicated the assassin in a manner which will give renewed impetus to investigation” but also demonstrated a method of investigation that real police departments should emulate.
We will never know if Poe got it right. The name of the killer was withheld from the story when the final installment appeared in the February 1843 issue of Snowden’s. The case remains unsolved.
In 1844, Poe moved to New York, where he sold a sensational hoax about a balloon trip across the Atlantic to the New York Sun, the publishers of the Tragic Almanack.
While Halloween is often associated with supernatural horror, ghosts, and vampires, Poe’s most chilling tales dealt with more down-to-earth terrors inspired by the people around us and the madness that can lead them to commit horrible acts. Learning more about the crimes that commanded headlines and captured the public’s attention during Poe’s time can give us a better understanding the real-life horrors that may have inspired him.