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The Tell-Tale Corpse begins as Poe pays a visit to his old friend P. T. Barnum, who implores the wordsmith to travel to Boston to secure for Poe’s wife an ...
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The Tell-Tale Corpse begins as Poe pays a visit to his old friend P. T. Barnum, who implores the wordsmith to travel to Boston to secure for Poe’s wife an urgent medical cure–and to acquire some particularly garish crime-scene evidence for Barnum’s popular cabinet of curiosities, the so-called American Museum. The crime in question is the recent butchery of a beautiful young shopgirl. Once in Boston, Poe makes an immediate deduction: The sensational murder is only one in a string of inexplicable killings–the center of a single, shadowy pool of deceit and ghoulish depravity.
Several deaths later, Poe finds himself leading a frantic investigation, with the assistance of a highly unusual girl named Louisa May Alcott, who has literary ambitions of her own–and whose innocence belies her own fascination with the dark side. As his wife’s health falters and a city panics, Poe pursues a strange circle of suspects. He must now see what others cannot: the invisible bonds that tie together seemingly unrelated cases–and the truth that lies behind a serial murderer’s ghastly disguise.
From a cameo by the narcoleptic Henry David Thoreau to a charming portrait of the four Alcott sisters at home in Concord, The Tell-Tale Corpse brings to life nineteenth-century New York and Boston and a world of intellectuals, charlatans, discoverers, dupes, daguerreotypists, and amateur morticians. As Poe comes closer to unraveling the fiendish riddle, the poet must admit at last that he is up against a fellow genius–a genius not of words but of death.
It has often been observed that the smallest, most trivial accident may, on occasion, produce momentous consequences. Who has not heard the story of the falling apple which--landing by chance upon the brow of the scientific genius reposing in the shade--led him to unlock the very secrets of the universe? However apocryphal this tale may be, it possesses a core (so to speak) of profound truth: namely, that matters of the utmost importance have, at times, been the direct result of the merest bits of happenstance.
These remarks may serve as a preface to the following adventures, which occurred in the latter months of 1845.
In New York City, on a gusty October evening, I was making my way through the bustling streets of the great metropolis, toward the rooms I shared with the two beings dearest to my soul. I refer, of course, to those angelic creatures I called by the fond soubriquets of "Sissy" and "Muddy"--i.e., my precious wife, Virginia, to whom I was bound by the double ties of cousin and spouse, and her mother, my darling Aunt Maria Clemm. I was returning from the office of my business partner, Mr. Charles Briggs, publisher of the Broadway Journal, a magazine which--thanks largely to my own editorial innovations--had enjoyed a steep rise in circulation in recent months.
The growingsuccess of our enterprise was due in no small part to a highly popular series of articles I had been contributing to the past several issues. The title of this series was "The Secrets of Word-Mysteries." Each article was devoted to a different form of linguistic puzzle--acrostics, anagrams, ciphers, and codes of various kinds. After providing a concise history and explanation of each species of riddle, I would present an example devised by myself and challenge the reader to solve it. Those who sent in the correct answer would receive a free subscription to the Broadway Journal. My cryptograms had proven so ingenious, however, that, to date, I had not been obliged to hand out a single prize.
On the afternoon in question, I had applied myself to the composition of the latest article in the series. The subject was the rebus. As always, I had begun by explaining the origins of the term, tracing its etymology to the Latin word for "things" and describing its relationship to such symbolical forms of writing as Egyptian hieroglyphics and ancient Chinese pictographs.
I had then defined the most commonly recognized modern meaning of the term--i.e., a type of riddle which relies on the device of the visual or linguistic pun. In its simplest form, I explained, the rebus employs graphic representations of objects as a substitute for words or syllables. The word "equal," for example, might be depicted in the following manner:
Because of the amusing ingenuity displayed in such a construction, this elementary form of the rebus was highly popular among children, and it was possible to find entire books of fairy legends and nursery rhymes composed in this charmingly pictorial form. There was also, however, a more complex and sophisticated variety of rebus. This latter type depended not on pictures but solely on letters and words, whose size, relative arrangement, and placement pointed to the answer to the puzzle. A comparatively simple example would be:
Here, the word "man" appears inside the word "moon." Thus, the correct answer to this riddle is: "man in the moon."
After providing several more such examples, I had concluded my article with a rebus of my own invention. It had required several minutes of intensive concentration to contrive a suitably cryptic puzzle, but at length I had constructed a riddle of such sheer--such diabolical--cleverness that it would, I felt certain, prove impossible for my readers to decipher.
By the time I had completed this article, the sun had set. Throwing on my coat, I had departed for home.
No sooner did I find myself out on the street, however, than a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. For many months, I had been living under an almost unendurable emotional strain. Writing had been my only respite and nepenthe. Once freed of the distraction of work, however, my mind instantly reverted to the subject that filled my soul with despair.
As I strolled along Maiden Lane, my attention was suddenly drawn to the warm yellow light issuing from the window of a saloon called Hoffman's. I had passed by this establishment on many previous occasions as I wended my way home from work, though without ever having ventured inside. Contrary to the malicious rumors spread by my enemies, I had long maintained an unwavering abstemiousness in regard to the consumption of liquor. For many years--apart from those very rare occasions when the dictates of social etiquette required that I partake of small amounts of alcoholic drink--nothing stronger than coffee had passed my lips.
On this fateful autumn evening, however, the awful burden of worry I had been made to endure for so long became more than I could bear. My resolution wavered--my resistance collapsed--and, frantic for release, I succumbed to temptation. With a wild cry of abandonment, I plunged through the swinging doors of the saloon.
An hour later, I emerged once again onto the street, having imbibed several tumblers of brandy toddy. Far from improving my mood, however, the drink had only made me feel worse. In addition to my melancholia, I was now filled with an acute sense of shame, having managed to spend every coin in my purse--a meager enough sum, but far more than I could afford in view of my miserably straitened circumstances.
With a bowed head, I bent my steps (somewhat unsteadily) toward home. Though night had fallen, Broadway still teemed with people, and as I walked--or rather, staggered--along the sidewalk, I kept colliding with other pedestrians, a number of whom responded in the most uncivil way: with cries of "Watch where you go, you fool!"--"Filthy sot!"--and other, even more offensive comments.
Though I bristled at these insults, I could not pretend, even to myself, that they were unjustified. To be sure, I had not consumed an inordinate number of drinks. There could be no doubt, however, that--owing to my acute susceptibility to even small quantities of alcohol--I was thoroughly inebriated. Before long, I had completely lost track of precisely where I was. Pausing beneath a streetlamp, I lifted my head to get my bearings.
At that very instant, something crashed into me with such force that I was thrown onto the pavement. It was a relatively minor mishap of the sort that frequently occurs on the crowded thoroughfare. How could I know that it marked the beginning of an adventure replete with events of the most startling and unprecedented character?
Sprawled on my back, I had the peculiar sensation that I was lying prostrate on the deck of a storm-tossed frigate. At length I opened my eyes. The world was spinning madly. By slow degrees my dizziness subsided, and I became aware that someone was bending over me--a figure who appeared to be garbed in a hooded monk's habit. His visage being obscured by the shadows of his cowl, I could not, at first, discern his features. When I did, a gasp escaped my lips.
My initial thought was that the liquor had so wrought upon my senses as to derange my vision. How else explain the fellow's three eyes, two noses, and weirdly bifurcated mouth?
The answer came when he addressed me in a strange, gurgling manner, as though he were attempting to communicate while simultaneously retaining a mouthful of liquid: "Mr. Poe! That really you?"
"Otis?" I said, struggling to raise myself to an upright posture.
"Here. Let me help you," said the other. Reaching down, he clutched me by one arm and hauled me to my feet.
"Sorry for knocking you down," he continued. "Didn't see you. It's this damned hood."
"Perfectly all right," I said, my words sounding strangely slurred to my ears. "No need to apologize."
As I stood there on wobbly legs, I saw that we were standing before the garishly adorned façade of an all-too-familiar edifice: P. T. Barnum's world-renowned American Museum.
"You okay, Mr. Poe?" asked the hooded fellow.
Assuring him that I was fine, I bid him good-night and began to walk away. I had taken only a step, however, when my knees buckled. Had Otis not reached out instantly and caught me in his arms, I would have gone tumbling back onto the pavement.
"Oh, Otis," I cried. "What I said is untrue. I am not fine at all. On the contrary, I am in a most pitiable state."
"Then come with me," the other said gently. "Mr. Barnum will know what to do."
That my friend P. T. Barnum had few, if any, qualms about committing the most audacious frauds was a fact known to all the world. Indeed, he took positive pride in his reputation as the "Prince of Humbugs," filling his wildly popular showplace on the corner of Broadway and Ann Street with countless articles of highly dubious authenticity, from the beaded headband allegedly worn by Pocahontas when she rescued Captain John Smith from her father's war club to the silver dagger purportedly used by Brutus when he delivered the coup de grace to Julius Caesar on the floor of the Roman Senate.
Still--in spite of the evident joy he took in playing the public for "suckers"--the showman was by no means a complete charlatan. A great many of his exhibits were bona fide wonders, among them his unparalleled assemblage of human curiosities--"freaks," in the common parlance.
The grotesquely disfigured being in whose company I now found myself--Mr. Otis Throgmorton, the Astonishing Split-Faced Man--was a spectacular case in point. There was nothing of the fraudulent about his bizarre congenital defect. This malformation--so inconceivably frightful that grown visitors to Barnum's museum, men as well as women, had been known to swoon at the sight of it--bore a physical kinship to a common harelip, albeit only in the sense that the Grand Canyon of the Far West resembles an ordinary riverbed. Beginning at the tip of his chin and extending upward nearly to his hairline, a ghastly fissure bisected his countenance, dividing his mouth completely in half--separating his nose into two seemingly individual organs--and leaving his left eye at a level more than two inches above the right. His appearance was that of a man who had been struck squarely in the face with a woodchopper's axe or butcher's cleaver and whose sundered visage had subsequently fused itself together in the most shocking manner imaginable.
In addition, there existed in the very middle of his brow a small fleshy protrusion shaped uncannily like a third Cyclopean eye. Altogether, this singular being possessed a physiognomy that was difficult to view without feeling overcome by a sensation in which awe, terror, and revulsion were equally commingled.
Owing to the intense emotions he induced in observers, Otis--like most of his fellow freaks--rarely ventured out in public. The museum was not merely his place of employment but his home, Barnum having supplied his company of human curiosities with a spacious and comfortably appointed dormitory on the third floor of his establishment, where his Hall of Oddities was located. Even so, there were times when these physically anomalous performers felt the need to leave the shelter of the museum, whether to run an errand or merely to enjoy an invigorating stroll in the open air (if the noisome atmosphere of the metropolis can be described in such terms).
Now, having allowed Otis to lead me into the museum entrance, I followed him across the marble-floored lobby. Owing to the lateness of the hour, few visitors were to be seen. Making our way around a large wooden platform that supported an enormous scale-model tableau depicting the destruction of ancient Pompeii, we proceeded to a stairwell situated at the far end of the lobby, then descended to the basement where Barnum's office was located.
With Otis in the lead, we made our way along a narrow, labyrinthine corridor until, turning a corner, we came in sight of Barnum's office. The light from the open doorway cast a warm yellow glow in the gloom of the hallway, and I could clearly discern the showman's inimitable voice issuing from within as he addressed an unknown interlocutor.
"Got to hand it to Moses," he remarked with an appreciative chuckle. "The old scoundrel knows a good thing when he sees it. Imagine--getting his mitts on every last possession belonging to that young brute. The whole kit and caboodle, down to the fellow's skivvies! Of course, he'll keep the really prime stuff for himself--the bloody dress, the scalpel, and so forth. Well, who can blame him? Can't fault a man for putting his own interests first, eh, Fordyce? I'd do the very same in his position. Still, there's plenty to go around, especially if I make it worth the old rascal's while. Oh, it'll be a sensation, I tell you--one of the greatest things in the world! We'll have to keep the place open till midnight just to accommodate the crowds! It's a pity the poor woman's skin never turned up. Now, that--that would be something! Why, just a square inch or two would be worth--Good heavens, is that you, Otis? And who is that with you? Lord bless me, can that be you, Poe m'boy?"
We had by then arrived at the office and stood framed in the doorway. "It's us, all right," said my companion, drawing back his hood to reveal his remarkable countenance, while I stood mutely at his side.
"Well, come in, come in, no need to stand on ceremony," cried the showman as he rose from behind his desk, accompanying this invitation with an emphatic wave of the hand.
Stepping to one side, Otis allowed me to precede him into the room.
Excerpted from The Tell-Tale Corpse by Harold Schechter Excerpted by permission.
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Posted October 25, 2008
This fourth installment of the Edgar Allan Poe Mysteries is in keeping with the previous three. It's a perplexing mystery filled with an unforgettable cast. Harold Schechter sure has an appetite for the macabre! This is a very enjoyable series I highly recommend.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 9, 2008
Edgar Allan Poe is despondent because his wife, who is also his cousin, is very ill and in danger of dying. Poe¿s friend PT Barnum recommends he take her to see Dr. Farragat in Concord, Massachusetts. The physician uses homeopathic remedies concentrating on botanicals that provide amazing results. Barnum offers to fund the trip from New York if Poe will stop in Boston to pick up items from a killer who hung himself. --- Poe agrees and with his spouse Sissy stay at the home of the sister-in-law of a friend of Barnum, Mrs. Randall. While there Poe helps prove to the police that Elise Belton, whom he met at a show given by dentist Dr. Marston, was murdered instead of accidental drowned. In Concord, Dr. Farragut accepts Sissy as a patient, but his medicines are stolen by he believes his enemy Dr. Cassidy, who calls him a quack. Poe returns to Boston where he becomes embroiled in a series of murders that include the deaths of the dentist Dr. Marston, as well as Mrs. Randall, her maid, Ms Belton and daguerreotypist Herbert Ballinger. Poe assumes a serial killer is at work, but to prove it before returning to Concord is impossible. --- Harold Schechter portrays Poe as a person who believes in his own genius as he has a high opinion of himself. His love for his wife which means risking his life for her keeps Poe from being totally insufferable. There is some graphic violence in some scenes as Poe¿s tales are not for the faint of heart. The complexity of the murders and Poe¿s subsequent investigation make THE TELL-TALE CORPSE an entertaining historical who-done-it. --- Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.