The brooding moods. The macabre tales and poems. The dark circumstances of his life and death. There are many reasons Edgar Allan Poe is revered as one of the world’s most intriguing scribes. Though he was born in Boston and died in Baltimore, South Carolina lays solid claim to the beloved writer who spent a year on Sullivan’s Island – not a great deal of time, but enough to inspire some of his most famous works and earn Poe local legend status. Flocks of “Poe Folks” show up daily in the Lowcountry to feel connected to the author in a place he once called home.
Though misfortune was his calling card, the time he spent here was perhaps one of the most stable periods of his short life. Poe died at age 40 on a Baltimore street, heartbroken and impoverished. Visitors to Sullivan’s Island can pay tribute, visit former haunts and explore the infectious lore surrounding the fabled bard who famously pined for the lost Lenore and Annabel Lee.
Poe was a student at University of Virginia for almost a year, but was given the boot after gambling left him saddled with extreme debt. Only 18 years old and using the assumed name of Edgar A. Perry, the young poet enlisted in the US Army in 1827 to serve a five-year stint. On Oct. 31 of that year, he and his brigade set sail for Charleston, where he would be stationed for the next year at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island.
Poe’s “The Balloon Hoax” and “The Oblong Box” are two stories in which he references the barrier Island. The most descriptive, however, is “The Gold-Bug,” written in 1843 years after Poe left South Carolina. The story, about a man who is bitten by a gold-colored scarab, is set on Sullivan’s Island, described by Poe in detail:
“This island is a very singular one. It consists of little else than the sea sand, and is about three miles long. Its breadth at no point exceeds a quarter of a mile. It is separated from the mainland by a scarcely perceptible creek, oozing its way through a wilderness of reeds and slime, a favorite resort of the marsh-hen …”
As you drive through Mt. Pleasant on your way to Sullivan’s Island, keep your eye out along the Intracoastal Waterway for signs advertising “Gold Bug Island,” a slip of land used as an event venue and named after Poe’s award-winning story. It is believed by some Poe aficionados to have served as the inspiration for the site of buried treasure in the story.
Once you arrive on Sullivan’s, Poe’s Tavern is a tasty first stop. This hopping little cafe on Middle Street pays full tribute to Poe with its menu and motif. Inside and out, images of the writer and snippets of his writings make for mesmerizing wall art. Glinting in the sun on the entrance walkway is a Gold Bug mosaic by local artist Sonya Sterling. Snag a seat, order a cold drink and one of several Poe-themed sandwiches like the Annabel Lee, Black Cat or Pit & Pendulum. Don’t leave without hitting the restroom, where whimsical wallpaper carries out a Poe literary theme.
Once your belly’s full, take a short drive down the street to Fort Moultrie, now part of the National Park System. For a modest fee, you can tour the site and stroll the grounds Poe walked as a young soldier. For sweeping aerial views of the property, climb to the rooftop observatory of the Fort Moultrie visitor center. Inside the center, pick up a copy of “The Gold-Bug and Other Stories” for a souvenir.
Just a few blocks from Fort Moultrie is the Edgar Allan Poe Library. Housed in a battery used during the Spanish-American War, this public library has a small Poe exhibit and the librarians are always eager to tell visitors about the island’s most famous former resident.
Of course, no trip to Sullivan’s Island is complete without a walk on the beach. Some Poe followers claim he developed such a strong island connection that his spirit continues to tread the shores.
Other Poe Places
Wild Dunes Resort, a private community on nearby Isle of Palms, is said to be named after a reference in one of Poe’s poems. Some of its earliest built structures were names for stories Poe wrote, as well. But it’s a large live oak on the 13th hole of the Links Golf Course that is of most interest to Poe’s fans as it is thought to be the one that inspired the “Gold-Bug” tree from the famed story. Some say they’ve seen the ghost of Poe beneath it, sitting with pen and paper as if he were busy writing.
In Downtown Charleston, visit the eerily beautiful graveyard at the Unitarian Church on Archdale Street. Legend has it that Poe’s beloved Annabel Lee is buried there in a secret grave, though there’s no evidence to support the theory. For a spine-tingling reading of Poe’s tragic love poem, take the Ghosts of Charleston tour departing from Buxton Books – the only ghost tour with access to the churchyard at night. The bookstore also has a nice selection of Poe’s books and other themed gifts, so take a few minutes to look around and find the perfect memento of your day in search of Poe.