Columns > Published on January 20th, 2014

Footnotes: The Clues Poe Left Behind

Footnotes examines the cultural impact of fiction and its creators.

After leaving Richmond, Virginia, on September 27, 1849, a man, on his way home to New York, disappears. The next five days of his life are not accounted for.

On October 3, the man is found wandering the streets of Baltimore, Maryland, in a state of delirium reserved only for the most serious of artists (think a Hemingway-, Belushi-, Cobain-like stupor).

The man who finds him, Joseph W. Walker, sends a letter to Dr. Joseph E. Snodgrass, an acquaintance of the delirious street walker. Walker says he found the man outside a local polling place at a neighborhood tavern looking "rather the worse for wear," appearing "in great distress," and "in need of immediate assistance."

Snodgrass answers the message, takes in the delirious street walker, and then turns him over to his attending physician, Dr. John Joseph Moran, at Washington College Hospital in downtown Baltimore.

No one sees the delirious street walker for four days — only Moran — and he dies on October 7. Cause of death: Unknown.

Imagine a world where Sherlock Holmes didn't exist.

Imagine a world where Stephen King never sat down at a typewriter. Or a world where H.P. Lovecraft never picked up a pencil and wrote a letter to a pulp magazine, a letter that would launch the career of one of the best writers in the history of fiction.

This is a world without Edgar Allan Poe. A world without mystery.

When Poe created C. Auguste Dupin, the intellectual and imaginative detective-that-wasn't-a-detective, and published "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" in 1841, he not only created a character that was the first of its kind in fiction, he created a genre that would go on to be populated by the likes of Holmes and Hercule Poirot, Philip Marlowe and Ellery Queen, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.

Poe's contributions to fiction are endless. Aside from inventing the detective fiction genre, he's widely considered the master of mystery and the macabre. He dabbled in science fiction before sci-fi was cool. He's a pioneer of the short story format. And he was the first mainstream writer to earn his living through nothing but the words he put on paper.

Poe's contributions to fiction are endless. Aside from inventing the detective fiction genre, he's widely considered the master of mystery and the macabre.

As if Poe could contribute more — well, he did. Consider this: There's been a renewed interest over the past two decades in codebreaking, ciphers and cryptography, the science or study of the techniques of secret writing.

No, Poe didn't invent these things — cryptography has been around since the days of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, for example — but he did popularize them. He placed ads in Alexander's Weekly Messenger, a weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, challenging — daring — readers to submit codes and ciphers for him to solve. They did submit them, by the dozens, and he solved them without fail.

Shortly after he started solving ciphers in the newspaper, Poe wrote "The Gold-Bug", a short story about three men that decipher a secret message that leads to buried treasure. It's the first story of its kind, as Poe not only popularized yet another offshoot of the mystery genre — the treasure hunt — but also incorporated a cipher of his own into the story.

"The Gold-Bug", combined with Poe's writings and codebreaking in Alexander's Weekly, ignited a cryptographic fever that even the average person couldn't help but catch. Ciphers popped up in publications across the country. Newspapers and magazines with codes that needed solved were flying off the shelves, with promises of rewards to those who could solve them.

You don't see that much anymore, ciphers in newspapers or magazines and rewards offered to the first to solve them. I guess the shine wore off on that over time, what, when the type of technology capable of deciphering even the most difficult of codes in a matter of seconds is more readily available than an inebriated co-ed at (insert random university name here).

But the premise and spirit of "The Gold-Bug" lives on. The treasure hunt has captivated authors and explorers and common folk since that story's publication in 1843. It's easy to understand why: We all crave the exuberant wealth a buried or lost treasure promises, and we all want to be the person that solves the mystery — we all want to break that unbreakable code — that leads us there.

That's why cryptography and treasure hunting — forbidden or secret knowledge, rather — is big business in the entertainment industry. It plays on our desires to know the unknown. Countless books have been published, and movies and television shows produced, that glorify these premises, bringing to colorful life the legends of the Templar treasure, the ciphers of Thomas Beale, coded maps on the back of famous historical documents and books of presidential secrets.

To be fair, these things may have come into popular culture regardless of Poe. In that fantasy world without him and Holmes and King and Lovecraft, sure, it's plausible. But in our world, with Poe and his absurd amount of contributions to American letters and imagination and culture, you'd be hard-pressed to argue that these things would be of any relevance to us.

Consider this, too: William Friedman was such a huge fan of Poe and "The Gold-Bug" that he went into the business of cryptography, eventually taking over the U.S. Army's Signals Intelligence Service in the 1930s. Years later, when World War II broke out, Friedman's team solved Japan's infamous "Purple" cipher machine used for secret communications before and during the war. The intel gathered by Friedman and his team from the machine helped lead the U.S. to victory over the Japanese.

Friedman is widely considered the preeminent cryptoanalyst in American history. And if it wasn't for his childhood interest in "The Gold-Bug", who knows, I might be typing this in Japanese right now.

Poe would have been 205 years old on January 19 had he found a way to physically live forever. Sadly, he had to settle for making lasting contributions to fiction, culture and society.

No one knows what caused the death of that delirious street walker, Edgar Allan Poe, 165 years ago. It remains one of the more fascinating real-life stories in the history of fiction — and one of the most discussed and disputed unsolved mysteries of all-time.

Given his penchant for the mysterious and his love for codebreaking, it's hard to believe this is simply coincidence. Somewhere, Poe is waiting, in a house or a pit or a casket, for his last cipher to be solved.

About the author

Ryan is currently at work on his first novel while also prepping the launch of a podcast called "the 45 minute radio hour."

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