A policeman must solve a murder of a famous writer in 1849.
The Man in the Oblong Box
By Adam P. Lewis
Early morning of October 8, 1849, the police made a surpised visit. Their fist poundings upon the front door buckled hinges and cracked the oaken frame. An officer yelled, “Doctor Talbot, come quick!”
I hurried to the door and opened it. Standing before me was Chief Inspector Littleton. He was a tall and thin man with a messy beard. He was worried. His crinkled brow drew together between his eyes and his upper jaw bit into his lower lip.
Accompanying him was five subordinates, all of which looked frightened. One in particular, Officer Norton, couldn’t stop his hands from shaking and his teeth from chattering. Gripped in the officers’ hands was a coffin. By its shine and clean appearance, I could tell it was constructed within the past few hours. And by the strain on the officers’ faces, the coffin was heavy and occupied by either something heinous or someone important.
Chief Inspector Littleton, whose anxiety became more apparent from perspiration beading across his forehead said, “Before I explain invite us in. We don’t wish to draw curious onlookers to your home. This is an investigation and we need your help!”
I felt uncomfortable agreeing to work with the police as my face was unshaven and I was still dressed in my nightclothes. I didn’t want to disrespect the law. Also, I hadn’t bathed in days and my house smelled like sulfur because of an experiment I was conducting. Nevertheless, I motioned the officers inside and led them to my laboratory. There they set the coffin upon the floor and opened it. The instant I set eyes on the poor soul resting inside, I stepped forward, knelt by the side of the coffin and looked up at the officers. “Are you aware of whom you’ve brought to me?”
“We are, Doctor, this man is the writer, Edgar Allan Poe!” said Inspector Littleton.
“Why hasn’t be been buried yet?” I asked.
Inspector Littleton cleared his throat and said, “We didn’t want to send him to his grave without knowing his exact cause of death. A mystery surrounds it and we were unable to garner any information from Mr. Poe. He was babbling on his deathbed. He died without speaking a coherent sentence.”
“Why have you brought him to me? It is obvious that he’s dead!”
“We’re aware of your experiments. We’ve heard rumors of your claims of talking to the dead. If this is true then we would like you to perform that very experiment on Mr. Poe. We need to find out first hand from him the events leading to his death,” Inspector Littleton said, kneeling by the coffin and pointing an open hand to Edgar’s body.
The experiments the inspector mentioned referred to are my research with electricity. Several years ago, I received an English translation of the scientific manuscript, An Account of the Late Improvements in Galvanism, written by the Italian physicist, Giovanni Aldini. I began reading and four pages into the book; I began studying, taking extensive notes, and pondered the author’s horrific yet exciting claims. The explanations of his experiments with galvanism captured my imagination and influenced my course of studies.
The illustrations of decapitated human and animal heads connected to electrodes acting as conduits for electricity were fascinating. The descriptions of how their eyes twitched and their facial muscles distorted into pain-stricken expressions as the electric current stimulated their muscles was bewildering and exciting. I had to perform these experiments to view firsthand the effects of electricity on the human body. Unlocking any and possibly all mysteries could benefit humanity.
I began performing many experiments with various voltages on different ages, races and sexes of human subjects. I published my findings in medical journals describing in detail of how their limbs kicked up and fingers gripped objects while the current transverses the muscles. I noted how the eyes, jaw and nostrils flare and quiver at the moment the electrodes are connected to the body.
I proclaimed that I could speak to the dead if were able to obtain a corpse within twenty-four hours after death. At the right voltage, the lips can move and vibrate the larynx to create words and string together sentences via intelligent thought processes. I also claimed that a corpse could experience revivification and resume normal life if the corpse had been stimulated minutes after death. Both instances, revivification and the cognitive processes of thinking and remembering, I experienced numerous times.
To my disbelief, these latter claims led the scientific community into blackballing my name and findings. My work for the good of man came close to getting me banished from the city of Baltimore. By chance however, when I developed a method to revive a human who collapsed from sudden and suspected heart failure, I, Doctor Matt Talbot, became to my colleagues, a pioneer in the field of the healing arts.
Of all my experiments and breakthroughs with galvanism however, none prepared me for the night I obtained the corpse of the most profound poets and macabre storytellers of my generation, Edgar Allan Poe!
“How long has he been dead?” I asked, checking Edgar’s pulse making sure he was indeed deceased.
“Only a matter of hours,” Inspector Littleton responded.
“When is his funeral?”
“Then I’ll have to work fast. Place him on the table. There isn’t time to spare!”
The officers lifted Edgar from his coffin and laid him upon a wooden table in my laboratory. I examined him for further vital signs making sure none were apparent. While doing so, I thought about his macabre story, “The Premature Burial”, and how his own fear of death turned the narrator mad as he obsessed over being buried alive. I wanted to make sure Edgar did not foreshadow his own demise through his written words and suffocate within a coffin buried beneath the soil.
After examining Edgar’s body, I constructed a voltaic pile consisting of a series of individual elements comprised of a silver plate, blotting paper soaked in saltwater, and a zinc plate stacked respectively atop each other creating segments. Each element had a hole drilled in the center allowing them to be held in place with a copper rod. The top end of the pile produced a negative charge while the bottom end produced a positive charge. At first, I placed only five of the segments down over the copper rod and wrapped copper wire around the charges and then to two metal prods.
I wet Edgar’s ear canals and inserted the electrodes. Upon completing the circuit, a small electric current raced through his nerve endings and stimulated the facial muscles. The electric current distorted his face as if he was experiencing extreme pain. His eyelids began to spasm, lips quivered, and larynx began twitching as if he were about to speak.
Shocked, the policemen jumped and gasped. Officer Norton screamed, “He’s coming back from the dead!” He then fainted and fell back into the empty coffin.
I however was not shocked. My mind was elevated into excitement and I couldn’t hide the grin upon my face. I removed the electrodes and added ten more segments to the voltaic pile. I connected the copper wire to the top of the pile and reinserted the electrodes back into Edgar’s ear canals.
The current jolted open Edgar’s eyelids and his gaze darted about the room. The facial muscles flickered creating even more disturbing and queer expressions upon his haggard face. His undulating lips wiggled his mustache like a caterpillar inching across grass. His fingers twitched and drummed rhythms upon the wooden table. His toes curled up and his feet wiggled back and forth as if his corpse was anxious to spring off the table and walk about after the experiment concluded. Snapping back, his neck stretched over the edge off the table as his back rose and dropped. Then, without warning, all movement ceased. The eyelids closed, facial muscles relaxed and the head drooped to the right.
“What happened, Doctor?” Inspector Littleton asked in a worrisome tone.
I spoke soft and apologetic. “I fear the voltage was too intense. His body may be too frail to handle the electricity. I may have burned him internally and beyond any ability to revive him.”
One of the subordinates raised his finger. It was shaking as he pointed it down at Edgar’s face. “His…eyes…they…are…open!”
I looked down at Edgar and smiled. His eyes moved about as if they were examining the room. They affixed onto mine and stared. I crept around the table and watched as his eyes follow my every step. My heart pounded in my ears as my excitement heightened. Edgar was controlling his eye movements; he was alive!
His mouth opened and his chest heaved as he took in his first lungful of air in hours.
The police officers shook in fright. Officer Norton woke and looked up only to catch site of Edgar’s chest expanding as he breathed and blinked his eyes.
“Zombie, it’s a zombie!” Officer Norton shrieked. He ran up the staircase screaming and bolted through the front door.
I bent down and spoke into Edgar’s ear, “Edgar, can you hear me?”
“Yes,” he said. His voice was weak and scratchy.
Goosebumps popped across my body and I shivered in awe. At that moment, I thought of his tale, “Some Words with a Mummy”, in which he spoke to a seven-hundred-year-old Egyptian through a similar experiment with electricity. This story was indeed another foreshadow bringing Poe’s personal fears and dreams to fruition, eternal life.
I continued my questioning and the more Edgar spoke the less raspy his voice sounded and the more fluid his talking became.
“Do you know who I am, Edgar?” I asked, speaking loud and direct.
“I am Doctor Matt Talbot and the gentlemen around you are policemen. They brought you to me to find the true cause of your death. Can you assist them?”
“I can assist the policemen. It would be my pleasure and duty considering the circumstances at hand,” Poe said, cracking a faint smile.
I stepped back from Edgar’s body and spread my hands part with the palms up. “He is yours now, Inspector; ask him whatever you wish to help determine his cause of death.”
Inspector Littleton cleared his throat and said, “Mr. Poe, my name is Chief Inspector Littleton. I have a few questions regarding your mysterious death.”
“Mysterious?” Poe chuckled. Another smile bunched up his cheeks. His voice turned jovial to serious. “Mysterious isn’t the word when describing the circumstances surrounding my demise. Simply put, gentlemen, I was a victim of murder!”
The room let out a collective gasp upon hearing his claim.
Eager to find out how Edgar died, Chief Inspector Littleton grabbed Poe’s shoulders to give his undivided attention. The inspector yelped and jumped back in pain. The current running through Edgar transferred into the Inspector.
The Inspector shook off the jolt. After the electic tingle subsided, he leaned over and spoke inches from Edgar’s face. “Murdered? By whom? Please, Mr. Poe, tell me his name!”
“A man named, L_____…sorry…Inspector; I cannot recall his name at the moment. I can however, tell you what my murderer looked like and what he wore!”
“That would be helpful in our investigation, please do.”
Edgar licked his lips and cleared his throat. “He was taller than I, by only a few inches. His skin was pale and his face was long and emaciated and was covered in crimsoned pockmarks. He fashioned a salt and peppered goateed beard, which he kept untidy. His hair was short and black with strands of grey throughout that curled up from under a black derby with a white band encompassing the bottom edge of the crown. He wore an oversized grey cloak with a white dress shirt underneath that was embroidered with a floral design. Around his neck, keeping his shirt clasped shut was a black bowtie that was frayed along the edges. Stretched over his hands were tight, leathery gloves, which grasped a wooden walking cane with a gold bug ornamenting the hilt. His pants were black as well and his shoes were brown.”
Chief Inspector Littleton turned to his officers, “Go out and detain every male in the city with even the slightest resemblance. We must find this man for Mr. Poe to identify!”
I shouted, “Hurry, the electric charge will not keep him alive forever. The murderer must be found within the hour!”
The officers hurried up the staircase and out of my house.
Chief Inspector Littleton directed his attention back to Edgar. “Please, Mr. Poe, start from the beginning and describe every last detail of your murder.”
Edgar said, “Considering the mystery my death has created, I present to you fine gentleman a testimonial pertaining to my murder!
“I was indulging in drink at Ryan’s Fourth in Baltimore after I voted in the election. The man I described approached the table I was sitting at. He asked if I were thee Edgar Allan Poe, the writer, the poet, and the editor. I stood and nodded yes and asked him with whom I had the pleasure of meeting. He introduced himself as, L_____, a name I still cannot recall, and asked if I had read any of his work. I said I had not but I expressed great interest in reading his manuscripts as I was preparing to upstart my own literary magazine.
“He interrupted and said, ‘I haven’t the slightest interest in submitting to your rag.’”
“I took no offense to him insulting my magazine. I receive business offers on a regular basis. I figured this encounter to be such. I simply sipped my drink and asked him, ‘Then what may I ask, sir, has brought us together this night?’”
“A scowl grew across his face that drew his eyebrows together and he tightened his lips. ‘You’ve already read one of my stories.’”
“Perplexed, I raised my brows and tilted my head to the side while tapping my index finger on my lips trying to recall any pieces written by him. ‘I have? I do not recall your name heading a manuscript. When would I have read one of your tales then?’”
“‘Not only have you read one of my manuscripts but you plagiarized it word for word and published it as your own piece!’ he said, slamming his fist upon the table making my drink topple over and spill upon my lap.”
“‘Preposterous!’ I yelled, jumping to my feet. I had no inkling in striking him; my actions were in defense of my writing integrity.”
“He rose to his feet as well, whipped his cloak over his shoulders and raised his fists to his face in defense shouting, ‘Tis some visitor,’ I muttered, ‘tapping at my chamber door- Only this, and nothing more.’”
“I defended myself. ‘The Raven, I did not plagiarize one stanza from you or another man. That poem is of my own creation, from my own madness and from my own soul. Therefore, how could I have ever stolen it from you?’”
“He scowled. ‘You were the editor of the, Southern Literary Messenger, to which I sent in my poem, The Evermore, on October 14, 1846.’”
“I sat down, grabbed my stomach and started laughing when I heard the date of his submission. His arms lowered and his back straightened. He became very bewildered as I sat having myself and enjoying a laugh.”
“His posture straightened and he said, ‘This is funny to you?’”
“‘Please, sit down, pull up your chair and share a drink and laugh with me!’ I said, through my laughter.”
“He sat down but still garnished a scowl as I explained, ‘Sir, I left the Messenger in 1836 and my poem, The Raven, was published in 1845. There was no way I could have plagiarized your poem, The Evermore, a year after mine was published. Quite perhaps, sir, you have confused me with another writer!’”
“Upon hearing the timeline, his scowl turned into a smile and shared a laugh with me. We exchanged apologies and concluded the matter was all a misunderstanding. After laughing off our quarrel, our tone turned businesslike as our colloquy engaged in topics pertaining to politics and economics. Eventually our conversation turned drollery, most likely influenced by the drinks we consumed. Neither of us insulted the other outside of jovial banter thereafter.”
“The clocked ticked into the morning hours and I rose to my feet. ‘It has been a great pleasure having your company tonight, L_____, I do wish you success with your writings and your health. I bid you a fond farewell!’”
“‘Please, Edgar, allow me to buy you one last drink. A nightcap for the long walk home to keep you warm.’”
“I smiled and accepted. ‘That is very kind of you. Another drink in my belly, however, I fear will send me to my grave!’”
“He laughed. ‘Nonsense, Edgar, God created wine to warm the soul and make men merry!’”
“I smiled, nodded and sat back down at the table. L_____ rose, went up to the barkeep and ordered two glasses of Port. He returned to the table with the drinks and after a few sips, I felt lightheaded. I stood up and fell back into my chair.”
“He noticed my inebriated state and said, ‘Seems this last glass of Port has started to impair your ability to stand. So now, I shall allow you to bid me a final goodbye!’”
“I extended my hand in farewell, shook his and we exchanged goodnights.”
“I staggered from the entrance and looked down the tavern steps to the street below. I heard a man behind me, who sounded like the man I drank with. He said, ‘Allow me, my good man, to escort you down the steps!’”
“I turned to smile and thank the kind man but before I caught eyes with his, I felt his hands slam onto my back and propel me head over heels down the steps. I tumbled down the entire flight. My back absorbed the majority of the tumbling as I folded my arms over my head cushioning the repeated blows upon it.”
“My body came to a dead stop at the landing. I looked up the staircase through groggy eyes and saw a man dressed in a cloak skipping steps as he charged towards me. When the man came to the landing, I realized it was the very man inside Ryan’s Fourth. He pulled my head up and stuck his finger in my mouth. From his cloak, he pulled a vial and with his teeth he removed the cork. He then poured an almond-tasting liquid into my mouth and held my jaw shut until I swallowed. Minutes later, I found myself hallucinating and talking in a delirious manner. Four days later I was dead.”
“Cyanide,” the Inspector said. It tastes and smells of almonds. Edgar, you think it was this man whose name starts with the letter L, the very man that poisoned you?”
Edgar’s speech began to slow and mumble, “I do not think…I know without a shadow of doubt…he poisoned me. The poison…didn’t work…he tried…to kill me…he pushed…me down…steps. I survived…he poisoned me…a second….time. He succeeded.”
I raced over to the voltaic pile and added more segments to keep the voltage high and racing through his body.
“Quick, Inspector,” I said, “get the name of the man that poisoned Edgar!”
The Inspector lowered to Edgar’s ear and shouted, “Please, you must give me your murderer’s name, you must remember!”
Poe’s eyes flickered closed and as he drew his last breath, he said in a slow breathy tone, “Lud…” His body went limp and further attempts to revivify his body failed.
The Inspector looked up at me in confusion and spoke in great regret. “We failed Doctor, we failed. Mr. Poe, he couldn’t give me the cloaked man’s identity, just ‘Lud’, a partial syllable of the murderer’s full name. Whoever this man is shall remain a mystery for some time to come.”
That night around nine o’clock, I read Edgar’s obituary by candlelight in the evening edition of the New York Tribune on October 9, 1849, which portrayed him in an unfavorable manner. The obituary stated:
Edgar Allan Poe is dead…This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it…He was at times a dreamer…He walked the streets, in madness or melancholy…He seemed, always to bear the memory of some controlling sorrow…We have not learned of the circumstance of his death.
The obituary was signed, “Ludwig”. The name Edgar was trying to remember. The name of the man Edgar believed to have poisoned him not once, but a second time after pushing him down a flight of steps. Unfortunately, this name was a pseudonym and the true author was not revealed until years later. His name was Rufus Wilmot Griswold. Edgar was never able to identify his murderer and bring him to justice. If even Mr. Griswold is indeed the culprit, an arrest cannot be made as the only witness to the murder is buried beneath the soil of a Baltimore cemetery.