A Tell-Tale Birthday

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore....

-first lines of "The Raven," by Edgar Allen Poe

The Hyperion Chronicles

“Thistle be one of your favorite columns”

#334 A Tell-Tale Birthday

Friends; we’re going to try something a little different here this week. I feel so strongly about #335 that I have gone to the unprecedented step of sending out an entire column of prologue and background material. I know it’s a lot to wade through, but the two news items are short, the story is by a master, and all of it is needed to understand what’s coming.

What I have for you today is a brief background on the death of Poe and a news report from the Associated Press about the remembrance of Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday. After that, I have one of Poe’s short stories, “The Cask of Amontillado,” including a link to a website that discusses the story and helps you make sense of it if you’re having trouble, and a brief explanation of the two Latin terms in the story.

All of this is interesting in its own right. The death of Poe is mysterious. the story about the anniversary of Poe’s birth is creepy and sexy at the same time, and Poe’s story is one of the best ever written. But like I told you, all of this is set-up so you can understand what’s coming. I hope you enjoy.


January 25, 2005

From www.crimelibrary.com (I have taken out quite a bit on theories of Poe’s death, for which there are several. If you’re interested please feel free to go there and read them yourself.):

As the autumn of 1849 began, Poe was in top form: sober, earning praise on his lecture tour, and engaged to marry his childhood sweetheart. Poe left Richmond on September 27, 1849, probably feeling that some of his dark clouds had passed and that he was soon to reap the benefits of his hard work. Friends who saw him onto the boat that day stated that he was in good spirits and he promised that he would be back in Richmond very soon.

Poe's happiness at that point makes the events of the following days all the more extraordinary and inexplicable.

His itinerary called for him to leave Richmond on September 27 and arrive in Baltimore the following day to catch a train. It is certain that he did take the boat to Baltimore and did arrive there on September 28th. From there he was to journey to Philadelphia where he had a business appointment, and then on to New York City to meet Maria Clemm. They would both travel back to Richmond for Poe’s upcoming wedding.

But Poe never showed up for his appointment in Philadelphia.

Maria Clemm never saw him alive again.

After stepping off the boat in Baltimore on September 28th, no clear record of his movements or activities is known until Joseph Walker on October 3rd stopped to speak to a man "rather the worse for wear" and who was "in need of immediate assistance..." .

Dr. Moran, the doctor who attended Poe at his deathbed, wrote a letter to Maria Clemm that obviously presumed that Maria would already know that Poe had drank himself to death:

"Presuming you are already aware of the malady of which Mr. Poe died, I need only state concisely the particulars of his circumstances from his entrance until his decease.

When brought to the hospital, he was unconscious of his condition…to this state succeeded tremor of the limbs, and at first a busy, but not violent or active delirium—constantly talking—and vacant converse with spectral and imaginary objects on the walls. His face was pale and his whole person drenched in perspiration. We were unable to induce tranquility before the second day after his admission.

Having left orders with the nurses to that effect, I was summoned to his bedside as soon as consciousness supervened, and questioned him in reference to his family, place of residence, relatives, etc. But his answers were incoherent and unsatisfactory. He told me, however, he had a wife in Richmond [a reference, most probably, to Elmira Shelton, and not Virginia Poe], which I have since learned was not the fact, that he did not know when he left that city or what had become of his trunk or clothing."

Dr. Moran didn't mention to Maria Clemm Poe's cryptically calling out for "Reynolds" on his death-bed. Nobody has ever determined who "Reynolds" was.

Regarding the trunk mentioned in Dr. Moran's letter, John Evangelist Walsh, in his book Midnight Dreary - The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allen Poe, reports that the trunk was later recovered from a local hotel. But it revealed nothing about Poe's activities during his last days.

The fact that Poe had apparently checked the trunk at a Baltimore hotel deepens the mystery: if Baltimore was merely the place Poe was going to catch a train, why and when did he leave his luggage at a local hotel?

How did Edgar Allan Poe die?
Who was the mysterious "Reynolds"?
Where and how did he spend those five "lost" days?

To this day, nobody knows the answers.

Days after his death he was buried in an unmarked grave in a Baltimore cemetery -- before many of his friends and family had even heard he was dead. It would not be until 1875 that a marker would be placed over Poe's remains, and later the remains of his wife Virginia and Maria Clemm were added to the site.

Poe's grave is also the location for yet another mystery. On the night of Poe's birthday in 1949, a man entered the cemetery in the dark of night and left three roses and a half-full bottle of cognac on Poe's tombstone and then vanished. Many assumed that the three roses were in honor of Edgar, Virginia, and Maria but the cognac was a mystery.

But 1949 was just the beginning: every year on the night of January 19th, a hooded man has entered the cemetery in the dead of night and has left the same tribute of roses and cognac at Poe's grave. Poe enthusiasts have gathered to watch the mysterious visitor, but nobody has ever tried to communicate with the cloaked figure or to learn his identity. On January 19, 1993, along with the roses and liquor, the man left a note saying "the torch will be passed," and it is believed that the first man passed the tradition onto another before his death, because the annual visitations continue.

Scholars, historians, biographers, and the medical community continue to present theories about what happened to Poe from September 28 to October 3, 1849, but nobody has conclusively proven whether one of America's premier writers died by his own foolish behavior or at the hands of a cold-blooded killer.

The mystery continues. Poe would be delighted.

The tradition continued even this year, if you care to read about it: http://www.wtopnews.com/index.php?sid=393937&nid=25

Next, we have two phrases which appear in the story:

In pace requiescat: Rest in Peace.

This is fairly simple to understand. The next has a bit more history:

Nemo me impune lacessit: No one provokes me with impunity.

Basically, what this means is, you mess with me and I’ll mess you up. Interestingly, this is the official motto of a group in Scotland. From wikipedia.org:

The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle is an order of chivalry associated with Scotland. While its original date of foundation is unknown, James VII (also King of England as James II) instituted the modern Order in 1687. The Sovereign alone grants membership of the Order; he or she is not advised by the Government, as occurs with most other Orders. The Order's primary emblem is the thistle, the national flower of Scotland. The motto is Nemo me impune lacessit (Latin for "No-one provokes me with impunity.")

Finally today, we present Poe’s story itself. It’s not too long but is quite chilling. It may be a little bit difficult for some of you to understand, and if you’re having trouble I encourage you to go to http://www.poedecoder.com/essays/cask/ for an explanation. And tomorrow, we’ll begin to make sense of what all of these pieces have in common. See you then.

The Cask of Amontillado

Edgar Allan Poe

THE thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat. AT LENGTH I would be avenged; this was a point definitively settled -- but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish, but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.

It must be understood that neither by word nor deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. I continued as was my wont, to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile NOW was at the thought of his immolation.

He had a weak point -- this Fortunato -- although in other regards he was a man to be respected and even feared. He prided himself on his connoisseurship in wine. Few Italians have the true virtuoso spirit. For the most part their enthusiasm is adopted to suit the time and opportunity to practise imposture upon the British and Austrian MILLIONAIRES. In painting and gemmary, Fortunato, like his countrymen , was a quack, but in the matter of old wines he was sincere. In this respect I did not differ from him materially; I was skilful in the Italian vintages myself, and bought largely whenever I could.

It was about dusk, one evening during the supreme madness of the carnival season, that I encountered my friend. He accosted me with excessive warmth, for he had been drinking much. The man wore motley. He had on a tight-fitting parti-striped dress and his head was surmounted by the conical cap and bells. I was so pleased to see him, that I thought I should never have done wringing his hand.

I said to him -- "My dear Fortunato, you are luckily met. How remarkably well you are looking to-day! But I have received a pipe of what passes for Amontillado, and I have my doubts."

"How?" said he, "Amontillado? A pipe? Impossible ? And in the middle of the carnival?"

"I have my doubts," I replied; "and I was silly enough to pay the full Amontillado price without consulting you in the matter. You were not to be found, and I was fearful of losing a bargain."


"I have my doubts."


"And I must satisfy them."


"As you are engaged, I am on my way to Luchesi. If any one has a critical turn, it is he. He will tell me" --

"Luchesi cannot tell Amontillado from Sherry."

"And yet some fools will have it that his taste is a match for your own."

"Come let us go."


"To your vaults."

"My friend, no; I will not impose upon your good nature. I perceive you have an engagement Luchesi" --

"I have no engagement; come."

"My friend, no. It is not the engagement, but the severe cold with which I perceive you are afflicted . The vaults are insufferably damp. They are encrusted with nitre."

"Let us go, nevertheless. The cold is merely nothing. Amontillado! You have been imposed upon; and as for Luchesi, he cannot distinguish Sherry from Amontillado."

Thus speaking, Fortunato possessed himself of my arm. Putting on a mask of black silk and drawing a roquelaire closely about my person, I suffered him to hurry me to my palazzo.

There were no attendants at home; they had absconded to make merry in honour of the time. I had told them that I should not return until the morning and had given them explicit orders not to stir from the house. These orders were sufficient, I well knew, to insure their immediate disappearance , one and all, as soon as my back was turned.

I took from their sconces two flambeaux, and giving one to Fortunato bowed him through several suites of rooms to the archway that led into the vaults. I passed down a long and winding staircase, requesting him to be cautious as he followed. We came at length to the foot of the descent, and stood together on the damp ground of the catacombs of the Montresors.

The gait of my friend was unsteady, and the bells upon his cap jingled as he strode.

"The pipe," said he.

"It is farther on," said I; "but observe the white webwork which gleams from these cavern walls."

He turned towards me and looked into my eyes with two filmy orbs that distilled the rheum of intoxication .

"Nitre?" he asked, at length

"Nitre," I replied. "How long have you had that cough!"

"Ugh! ugh! ugh! -- ugh! ugh! ugh! -- ugh! ugh! ugh! -- ugh! ugh! ugh! -- ugh! ugh! ugh!

My poor friend found it impossible to reply for many minutes.

"It is nothing," he said, at last.

"Come," I said, with decision, we will go back; your health is precious. You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy as once I was. You are a man to be missed. For me it is no matter. We will go back; you will be ill and I cannot be responsible. Besides, there is Luchesi" --

"Enough," he said; "the cough is a mere nothing; it will not kill me. I shall not die of a cough."

"True -- true," I replied; "and, indeed, I had no intention of alarming you unnecessarily -- but you should use all proper caution. A draught of this Medoc will defend us from the damps."

Here I knocked off the neck of a bottle which I drew from a long row of its fellows that lay upon the mould.

"Drink," I said, presenting him the wine.

He raised it to his lips with a leer. He paused and nodded to me familiarly, while his bells jingled.

"I drink," he said, "to the buried that repose around us."

"And I to your long life."

He again took my arm and we proceeded.

"These vaults," he said, are extensive."

"The Montresors," I replied, "were a great numerous family."

"I forget your arms."

"A huge human foot d'or, in a field azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel."

"And the motto?"

"Nemo me impune lacessit."

"Good!" he said.

The wine sparkled in his eyes and the bells jingled. My own fancy grew warm with the Medoc. We had passed through walls of piled bones, with casks and puncheons intermingling, into the inmost recesses of the catacombs. I paused again, and this time I made bold to seize Fortunato by an arm above the elbow.

"The nitre!" I said: see it increases. It hangs like moss upon the vaults. We are below the river's bed. The drops of moisture trickle among the bones. Come, we will go back ere it is too late. Your cough" --

"It is nothing" he said; "let us go on. But first, another draught of the Medoc."

I broke and reached him a flagon of De Grave. He emptied it at a breath. His eyes flashed with a fierce light. He laughed and threw the bottle upwards with a gesticulation I did not understand.

I looked at him in surprise. He repeated the movement -- a grotesque one.

"You do not comprehend?" he said.

"Not I," I replied.

"Then you are not of the brotherhood."


"You are not of the masons."

"Yes, yes," I said "yes! yes."

"You? Impossible! A mason?"

"A mason," I replied.

"A sign," he said.

"It is this," I answered, producing a trowel from beneath the folds of my roquelaire.

"You jest," he exclaimed, recoiling a few paces. "But let us proceed to the Amontillado."

"Be it so," I said, replacing the tool beneath the cloak, and again offering him my arm. He leaned upon it heavily. We continued our route in search of the Amontillado. We passed through a range of low arches, descended, passed on, and descending again, arrived at a deep crypt, in which the foulness of the air caused our flambeaux rather to glow than flame.

At the most remote end of the crypt there appeared another less spacious. Its walls had been lined with human remains piled to the vault overhead , in the fashion of the great catacombs of Paris. Three sides of this interior crypt were still ornamented in this manner. From the fourth the bones had been thrown down, and lay promiscuously upon the earth, forming at one point a mound of some size. Within the wall thus exposed by the displacing of the bones, we perceived a still interior recess, in depth about four feet, in width three, in height six or seven. It seemed to have been constructed for no especial use in itself, but formed merely the interval between two of the colossal supports of the roof of the catacombs, and was backed by one of their circumscribing walls of solid granite.

It was in vain that Fortunato, uplifting his dull torch, endeavoured to pry into the depths of the recess. Its termination the feeble light did not enable us to see.

"Proceed," I said; "herein is the Amontillado. As for Luchesi" --

"He is an ignoramus," interrupted my friend, as he stepped unsteadily forward, while I followed immediately at his heels. In an instant he had reached the extremity of the niche, and finding his progress arrested by the rock, stood stupidly bewildered . A moment more and I had fettered him to the granite. In its surface were two iron staples, distant from each other about two feet, horizontally. From one of these depended a short chain. from the other a padlock. Throwing the links about his waist, it was but the work of a few seconds to secure it. He was too much astounded to resist . Withdrawing the key I stepped back from the recess.

"Pass your hand," I said, "over the wall; you cannot help feeling the nitre. Indeed it is VERY damp. Once more let me IMPLORE you to return. No? Then I must positively leave you. But I must first render you all the little attentions in my power."

"The Amontillado!" ejaculated my friend, not yet recovered from his astonishment.

"True," I replied; "the Amontillado."

As I said these words I busied myself among the pile of bones of which I have before spoken. Throwing them aside, I soon uncovered a quantity of building stone and mortar. With these materials and with the aid of my trowel, I began vigorously to wall up the entrance of the niche.

I had scarcely laid the first tier of my masonry when I discovered that the intoxication of Fortunato had in a great measure worn off. The earliest indication I had of this was a low moaning cry from the depth of the recess. It was NOT the cry of a drunken man. There was then a long and obstinate silence. I laid the second tier, and the third, and the fourth; and then I heard the furious vibrations of the chain. The noise lasted for several minutes, during which, that I might hearken to it with the more satisfaction, I ceased my labours and sat down upon the bones. When at last the clanking subsided , I resumed the trowel, and finished without interruption the fifth, the sixth, and the seventh tier. The wall was now nearly upon a level with my breast. I again paused, and holding the flambeaux over the mason-work, threw a few feeble rays upon the figure within.

A succession of loud and shrill screams, bursting suddenly from the throat of the chained form, seemed to thrust me violently back. For a brief moment I hesitated -- I trembled. Unsheathing my rapier, I began to grope with it about the recess; but the thought of an instant reassured me. I placed my hand upon the solid fabric of the catacombs , and felt satisfied. I reapproached the wall. I replied to the yells of him who clamoured. I reechoed -- I aided -- I surpassed them in volume and in strength. I did this, and the clamourer grew still.

It was now midnight, and my task was drawing to a close. I had completed the eighth, the ninth, and the tenth tier. I had finished a portion of the last and the eleventh; there remained but a single stone to be fitted and plastered in. I struggled with its weight; I placed it partially in its destined position. But now there came from out the niche a low laugh that erected the hairs upon my head. It was succeeded by a sad voice, which I had difficulty in recognising as that of the noble Fortunato. The voice said --

"Ha! ha! ha! -- he! he! -- a very good joke indeed -- an excellent jest. We will have many a rich laugh about it at the palazzo -- he! he! he! -- over our wine -- he! he! he!"

"The Amontillado!" I said.

"He! he! he! -- he! he! he! -- yes, the Amontillado . But is it not getting late? Will not they be awaiting us at the palazzo, the Lady Fortunato and the rest? Let us be gone."

"Yes," I said "let us be gone."


"Yes," I said, "for the love of God!"

But to these words I hearkened in vain for a reply. I grew impatient. I called aloud --


No answer. I called again --


No answer still. I thrust a torch through the remaining aperture and let it fall within. There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells. My heart grew sick -- on account of the dampness of the catacombs. I hastened to make an end of my labour. I forced the last stone into its position; I plastered it up. Against the new masonry I reerected the old rampart of bones. For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them.

In pace requiescat!


Thanks to crimelibrary.com, wikipedia.org, and the Associated Press

Thanks to E.A.P.

Thanks to Koz for helping me arrange everything and for giving me a better title to the column than I originally had

Motto Explanation

It’s a simple play on words with the Order of Thistle. If you really had to ask, you’re probably not up for tomorrow’s revelations

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