& Company


In Search of A 1904 Story, With Toe-notes *

by Matthew-Daniel Stremba

Yes, indeedy. I had lunch with Edgar Allan Poe and I'm not even that crazy about "The Raven" or "The Tell-Tale Heart." But, now, "Annabel Lee" — I like that one.

  • It was many and many a year ago,
  • In a kingdom by the sea,
  • That a maiden there lived whom you may know
  • By the name of Annabel Lee;
  • And this maiden she lived with no other thought
  • Than to love and be loved by me.

And I paid for the lunch, too. No martinis. No cigars. This was in the Spring, 1995 — this lunch with Poe — shortly after Easter.

Mr. Poe, with whom I shared a table, is really Edgar Allan Poe the IIIrd. No, he is not the famous 19th-century writer's grandson. This Poe at lunch, though most certainly related, is not in the direct line. Poe the Poet sired no children; some retellers of history even suggest Poe never consummated the marriage to his girl-bride, Virginia.

Edgar Allan Poe III is neither short, nor coiffed with thick black hair, nor sporting a Charlie Chaplin mustache. Nor is he short-lived. The famous poet died in Baltimore, 1849, just 40 years of age. My lunch-company Poe has actually thrived in the Baltimore region for over 70 years, which includes a second marriage. And his grandfather, Edgar Allan Poe, SR, lived long, too: 1871 to 1961. And it's that man of yesteryear, my luncheon guest's long-lived grandfather, in whom I'm interested.

This lunch, one of many contacts I tried with descendants of certain Maryland families, is the only face-to-face meeting I've had the pleasure of. The phone was the closest I got to the other families. Families whose turn-of-the-20th-century progenitors had roles of some importance in the stories of Baltimore City.

My lunch guest still remembers his grandfather, who a century earlier was simply Edgar Allan Poe, one of many sons of John Poe, a well-known city lawyer, who maintained a substantial city residence in the heart of what is now called Bolton Hill. When the Great Fire devastated Baltimore's business district in 1904 Edgar Allan Poe, a young lawyer then, was serving in the City Solicitor's Office. That was during the very short mayoral administration of Robert Milligan McLane. Whether Lawyer Poe had a poetic bone in his body is anyone's guess.

Contacting living survivors of those families is driven by a fantastic hope — they may have special knowledge about their 1904 ancestors! Stories that escaped the microfilm records of Baltimore's old newspapers: The Sun, The American, The Herald, The News; or the vertical files at the Pratt Library. Details not preserved in the land records at the Courthouse or the boxes of family documents at the Maryland Historical Society.

Besides eating lunches and digging archives, I've been several times in old Greenmount Cemetery, not that far from our home; in fact, so close I can glimpse the stone markers when I recoat the roof of our row-house. What draws me to Greenmount has nothing to do with the controversy over the Booth family lot (i.e. whether the assassin is really buried there). Rather it's another kind of contact with the story-rich families. The burial mounds I've lingered at include those of the Turnbulls. ** And also the McLane family lot.

It was Mayor McLane's mysterious death in 1904 that really got me started on this. And he's buried there beneath a modest headstone, squeezed in among his parents, grandparents, and those siblings who died in the first years of their lives. Baltimoreans — most of them spent much of their lives at home in a row of brick houses, plastered party walls separating them from neighbors' secrets on both sides — buried now in a tight row of plots wholly separated from their own secrets but less durably from neighboring remains. They'd lived at a time when the aristocracy was initiating the first stage of the flight to the suburbs. Relatives managed to resettle in horsy valleys off upper Falls Road, but these died too soon and remain stuck in the city.

Where on earth is the Mayor's widow, Mary, a widow twice over? Her sons, Ralph and John, where did they end up? (I lose track of her somewhere in New York City around 1910.) Her first husband, Dr. John Van Bibber, had been dead over a decade when she became Mrs. Robert McLane, a fresh status she held for just about two weeks till her second husband's death in his 37th year. It's a single lethal bullet that fired my interest in the whole period. Surely Ralph — his mother, within minutes of the gun shot, sent the boy running to find a doctor — surely Ralph told the story of that afternoon again and again. Are Ralph's great grandchildren retelling the story somewhere as I write?

You may be asking: "But what will you do with this information about these people? It's not like they're even your people. They're Episcopalians, Presbyterians, riding ritzy carriages when your grandparents, just immigrated to this country from villages in the Carpathian mountains — reputed to have been the most backward section of all Europe — they were riding when your people, badly shod, were hoofing it to work (when there was work) busting their backs in the mines and mills owned by these very families."

Well, there's a story. Actually, I figure, a program of stories. Could turn into traveling soap opera. There'd even be room in the meandering plot for several Carpatho-Rusyns and Ukrainians. Hah, a storyteller's sort of documentary. A bit of festival. Some readers' theatre. Who knows what else!

If time doesn't run out. ***

  • I was a child and she was a child,
  • In this kingdom by the sea.
  • But we loved with a love that was more than love —
  • I and my Annabel Lee;
  • With a love that . . . . . .


* Earlier Version.

This lunch-with-Poe piece originally appeared in The Plot Thickens, Summer 1995; excerpted here with 2004 edits.

** Lawrence Turnbull.

A lawyer with wide interests in music, poetry. He invested in the development of our side of John Street, twelve-hundred block, nine new row-houses, put on the market in 1881.

*** An Afterword (February 2004)

  1.  How's the Baltimore-1904 project going? What're the prospects for cranking up the show upon settling back in the USA? Before departure for Tashkent in 1998 I managed to generate three pieces for several literate and gracious audiences. Since then there hasn't been much chance to develop the material further.
  2.  On a break in the USA, I heard the Pratt staff say my library card had not only expired, its format was no longer congruent with their latest technology. "Where've you been?" they seemed to want to know. Heavens knows what new library innovation will ambush me in the autumn of 2004.
  3.  If you're in possession of lore touching on some of these very public persons of that time — end of 19th, beginning of 20th centuries — please let me know and we'll stay in touch.

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