Home Arts and Leisure Edgar Allan Poe Writes A Story Based on a Boston Harbor Legend

Edgar Allan Poe Writes A Story Based on a Boston Harbor Legend

by
14 comments

Edgar Allan Poe based the macabre short story, The Cask of Amontillado, on a legend he heard while serving in a fort in Boston Harbor. Fifty years after he published the story, evidence surfaced that it wasn’t just a legend.

Edgar_Allan_Poe_daguerreotype_crop

Edgar Allan Poe

Poe joined the army in 1827 because he was flat broke. He had quarreled with his aristocratic foster father, dropped out of the University of Virginia and taken a coal vessel to the city of his birth, Boston. He worked as a clerk and a newspaper reporter for two months.

By May 26, 1827, he was desperate, so he enlisted for five years as a common soldier. He gave his name as Edgar Perry and his age as 22, though he was only 18. Why did he lie? Possibly to avoid paying gambling debts, or possibly because he needed his father’s permission to enlist if he was only 18.

Sgt. Edgar Allan Poe

He was stationed at Fort Independence on Castle Island. Castle Island today connects to South Boston by a narrow strip of land. There had been a fort on Castle Island since 1634, and Fort Independence was named by President John Adams.

fort

Fort Independence

Poe served with Battery H of the First Artillery and earned $5 a month. He was reasonably content, a brief departure in a life marked by dissolution, poverty and troubles with women.  His days were structured, he got promoted to sergeant-major and his clerical duties were not unpleasant.

While serving on Castle Island he published 50 copies of his first volume of poetry, Tamerlane, ‘By a Bostonian.’

He also learned of a legendary duel that had taken place outside the fort on Christmas Day in 1817.  Two lieutenants, Robert F. Massie and Gustavus Drane, had argued over a card game. Drane, who nobody liked, killed the popular Massie in the duel.

Massie’s friends were so angered, the legend went, that they got Drane drunk and sealed him up in a vault within the fort.

Cask of Amontillado

The legend wasn’t true. Military records show Drane was promoted to captain and died in 1846.

But Edgar Allan Poe kept the legend alive. In 1846, he published The Cask of Amontillado in Godey’s Lady’s Book. He set the story in a nameless Italian city in an unspecified year. The owner of a wine cellar wants revenge for the murder of a relative. He suspects a friend committed the crime. So he invites the friend into the cellar to taste the wine. The friend gets drunker and drunker until they reach the final cask — the cask of Amontillado — and the friend collapses, drunk. The owner then bricks him up in a niche in the wall and leaves him to die.

Fort Independence today.

The legend got a boost in 1905 during the renovation of the old fort. A skeleton, reportedly wearing scraps of an old military uniform, was found chained to the wall of an abandoned casement inside the fort.

Today, Fort Independence is a historic monument and public park.

This story about Edgar Allan Poe was updated in 2022. Fort Independence by By victorgrigas – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49988768.

14 comments

Ann Petry: Reluctant Protest Novelist - New England Historical Society April 28, 2016 - 3:41 pm

[…] tried to keep her off a beach. A teacher made her read the part of an illiterate ex-slave in the Edgar Allan Poe story, The […]

Penny Culliton October 13, 2017 - 9:50 pm

Just a couple of points: “Cask of Amontillado” does not mention the murder of a relative; the motive for the revenge is some unspecified insult. And most of Poe’s life was not marked by troubles with women, unless you mean their deaths. Poe once remarked that women had been “angels of mercy” to him, while men had “stood aloof and mocked.” Only in the last few years of his life were there any troubles with women. All in all, I’m not sure I would go along with “dissolution,” either– just alcoholism.

Elizabeth Ellet Writes Women Into the History of the Revolution, Infuriates Edgar Allan Poe - New England Historical Society October 18, 2017 - 8:57 am

[…] Elizabeth Ellet recorded the lives of the women of the American Revolution – and meddled in the life of Edgar Allan Poe. […]

6 Historic Haunted Houses in New England - New England Historical Society October 21, 2017 - 8:29 am

[…] witches, devils and monsters in human shape have populated the novels of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson and Stephen King. There’s even a name for the region’s special […]

Murderous Joseph Knapp Inspires Poe, Hawthorne - New England Historical Society March 2, 2018 - 8:39 am

[…] events that unfolded would inspire both Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel […]

Margaret Fuller Dies in a Shipwreck While People Watch - New England Historical Society May 24, 2018 - 7:59 am

[…] edited his transcendentalist magazine, The Dial. Nathaniel Hawthorne based Hester Prynne on her.  Edgar Allan Poe called her a ‘high genius’ – also a busybody. She was bitchy and witty; also poor and often […]

Get a taste of a lobster boat tour in Boston and Maine – Gossipify June 15, 2018 - 10:56 am

[…] marching song “John Brown’s Body” was written in 1861, and about how Edgar Allen Poe was once stationed on Fort Independence on Castle […]

Married to a Murderer, H.W. Mudgett - New England Historical Society September 25, 2018 - 5:49 am

[…] was a mama's boy who spent a lot of time reading Edgar Allan Poe and Jules Verne. He also liked to invent […]

A Haunted Murder Scene in Each New England State - New England Historical Society October 20, 2018 - 9:44 am

[…] ghosts, witches, devils and monsters in human shape populate the novels of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson and Stephen King. There’s even a name for the region’s special […]

When Fears of Premature Burial Stalked the Land - New England Historical Society October 24, 2018 - 7:30 am

[…] Edgar Allan Poe in 1844 took advantage of the raging taphophobia in the short story The Premature Burial about a man terrified of being buried alive.  He had such a hit on his hands he wrote four more stories about premature burial, including The Fall of the House of Usher and The Cask of Amontillado. […]

Adrian, The Hatmaker's Son Who Dressed America - New England Historical Society June 10, 2019 - 7:29 am

[…] he would graduate from Yale Law School, but he had more interest in fashion and art. He illustrated Edgar Allan Poe stories when at the age of five, and he helped out at the hat shop after high […]

6 Historic Haunted Houses in New England - New England Historical Society October 17, 2019 - 4:50 pm

[…] witches, devils and monsters in human shape have populated the novels of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson and Stephen King. The region's special brand of horror even has a […]

John C. Colt, Samuel Colt’s “Bad” Brother, Commits a Macabre Murder - New England Historical Society October 30, 2019 - 7:40 am

[…] transpired on Sept. 17, 1841 was worthy of an Edgar Allan Poe story. In fact, Poe did modify a version into a story, The Oblong Box. And Herman Melville […]

Married to a Murderer, H.W. Mudgett - New England Historical Society September 3, 2020 - 6:23 am

[…] was a mama’s boy who spent a lot of time reading Edgar Allan Poe and Jules Verne. He also liked to invent […]

Comments are closed.