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The house of Poe -- mystery solved!

Posted by Joshua Glenn  April 9, 2007 12:55 PM

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Back in January, a Boston Globe article noted that the 198th anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe was celebrated in other parts of the country, but not in Boston, where Poe was born in 1809. Now, I've read plenty about Poe's relation to Boston -- I've written about the subject for Ideas -- so I just skimmed the essay, from which I learned only that

the house where most scholars think he was born no longer stands; the plaque commemorating his birth on Carver Street, outside Green's Luggage Shop at the fringe of the Theater District, suggests his birthplace is now an alley full of trucks servicing the State Transportation Building.... The house where many scholars believe he was born, at 62 Carver St., was torn down in the 1960s....

Carver Street was renamed Charles Street South in the 1970s, and the State Transportation Building is on the right-hand side of Charles Street South (if you're walking towards the Common), above Stuart Street. See map:


OK, so that's where Poe's house used to be... But then, in February, I noticed a letter to the editor written by David C. Van Hoy of Dorchester, who lived on Carver Street in the 1960s and '70s, and who wrote:

It is important to note that 62 Carver St. would not have been on the part of the street where the plaque is now.... Any structure at 62 Carver would have been on the other side of Stuart Street....

That is to say, 62 Carver was below Stuart, not above it. So is the Poe plaque -- on Boylston, between Tremont and Charles Street South -- in the wrong place? This morning, I finally got around to doing some armchair detective work. I contacted Historic Map Works, a company that offers Geographical Information System-linked digital maps of 19th- and early-20th-century North America. Historic Map Works is a subscription service, but they were nice enough to give me a guest log-in.

Here's what I discovered: According to the 1803 "Carleton Survey," around the time that Poe was born, Carver Street started at the southwestern corner of the Common, at the intersection of the streets we now know as Charles Street South and Boylston (then called Frog Lane, in 1803; note that Poe derisively referred to Boston as "Frogpond"), and was bisected by Elliot (also spelled Elliott and Eliot on other maps from the era; the latter spelling stuck) before merging with Pleasant (later renamed Broadway). No street numbers on this map, so I jumped ahead to the magnificently detailed "Boston 1938 Proper and Back Bay" published by G. W. Bromely & Co.

It turns out that Poe wasn't always snubbed by Boston. In '38, Carver Street -- now also bisected by Stuart, just below Eliot -- terminated at a square formed by the intersection of Broadway and Fayette. The square was called "Edgar Allen Poe Square." Here's a map, created by Boston-based historian Charles Swift, showing where Edgar Allen Poe Square used to be:

And what of no. 62 Carver? Was it above or below Stuart? Van Hoy is right; it was below. According to the 1938 map, if you walked toward the Common from E.A. Poe Square, you'd pass about seven residences on your right, before reaching the Hotel Stuart at nos. 76-82. Next up on your right would be a Boston Edison Co. Power House (nos. 70-72), and then what appears to be an Edison parking lot. Followed by residences whose addresses seem to begin at 60. Huh? Where's 62? A mystery within a mystery!

Oh, wait, maybe the mapmakers left every other number off. The residence immediately after the parking lot, belonging to a Lena Hanlon, seems to be unnumbered. So was Ms. Hanlon's building on Carver no. 62? How to find out whether, in the 1930s, no. 62 Carver abutted a parking lot? (Without leaving my chair, I mean.) Aha! The Boston Historical Society has a 1933 photo of 62 Carver on its website. Indeed, the building does abut a parking lot:


Mystery solved. Boston's Poe plaque should be moved from Boylston to Charles Street South, below Stuart. Get with it, Frogpondians!

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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