A True Story of Edgar Allan Poe and Baltimore City Public Schools
by Fred B. Shoken
Have you ever applied for a job and didn’t get it? Did you wonder who got the job in your place? Did you ask WWPD (What Would Poe Do) if that happened to him? This is a true story about a job that Edgar Allan Poe wanted and didn’t get, and the story of the person who got the job in Poe’s stead.
Help Wanted: Public School Teacher
Among the writings of Edgar Allan Poe are two letters he sent to his friend and benefactor, John Pendleton Kennedy, on March 15, 1835 (the Ides of March). At the time, Poe was living in Baltimore with his aunt Maria Clemm and cousin, soon to be his bride, Virginia Clemm. Although he had won a $50 prize a year and a half earlier from the Baltimore Saturday Visiter for his short story, MS. Found in a Bottle, he was barely eking out an existence. Kennedy was one of the judges that awarded Poe the prize, and he took a keen interest in Poe’s budding writing career. Yet, by 1835 Poe was in desperate financial straits. Upon seeing a newspaper advertisement, he wrote the following letter to Kennedy:
Sunday —— 15th March
In the paper which will be handed you with this note is an advertisement to which I most anxiously solicit your attention. It relates to the appointment of a teacher in a Public School, and I have marked it with a cross so that you may readily perceive it. In my present circumstances such a situation would be most desirable, and if your interest could obtain it for me I would always remember your kindness with the deepest gratitude.
Have I any hope? Your reply to this would greatly oblige. The 18th is fixed on for the decision of the commissioners, and the advertisement has only this moment caught my eye.
This will excuse my obtruding the matter on your attention to day.
Very respy [Very respectfully]
E A Poe
Thanks to research of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, we know more about that job since they uncovered the following advertisement in the Baltimore Patriot of Thursday, March 12, 1835, page 3:
“A Teacher Wanted — At male Public School No. 3 Aisquith St. The commissioners of Public Schools will appoint on Wednesday next, the 18th inst. a Teacher to supply a vacancy which has occurred at Male School No. 3. Satisfactory recommendations as to character, with testimonials of capacity for conducting a School on the Monitorial System, will be required. Salary one thousand dollars per annum, payable quarterly. Applications addressed to the commissioners, may be left with either of them or the Secretary, No. 8 Courtland Street [a list of the commissioners then follows].”
While we do not have Kennedy’s specific reply to Poe’s letter, it is obvious the he invited Poe to dinner to discuss the matter. Poe sent a second letter that day in reply to Kennedy revealing his desperate state:
Your kind invitation to dinner today has wounded me to the quick. I cannot come — and for reasons of the most humiliating nature in my personal appearance. You may conceive my deep mortification in making this disclosure to you — but it was necessary. If you will be my friend so far as to loan me $20 I will call on you to morrow — otherwise it will be impossible, and I must submit to my fate.
E A Poe
J. P. Kennedy Esqr
Poe did not have proper clothing to wear for a dinner invitation. After Poe had won the short story prize by the Baltimore Saturday Visiter, J H B Latrobe, another of the judges, describes Poe’s attire on the one and only time he personally met him:
He was dressed in black, and his frock-coat was buttoned to the throat, where it met the black stock, then almost universally worn. Not a particle of white was visible. Coat, hat, boots and gloves had very evidently seen their best days, but so far as mending and brushing go everything had been done, apparently, to make them presentable. On most men his clothes would have looked shabby and seedy, but there was something about this man that prevented one from criticizing his garments …
With his prospects no better in March 1835, it is likely that his attire was even worse than when described by Latrobe a year and a half earlier. There is no documentation on Kennedy’s reply to Poe’s second letter of March 15th, but it is likely that he met with Poe the following day or soon after. Shortly after these events, Kennedy recommended Poe for a job with the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond. By August Poe was off to Richmond to start his career as a paid writer, critic and assistant editor. In another letter to Kennedy in September, Poe thanked him for his assistance in securing him employment:
Sep: 11th 1835
I received a letter yesterday from Dr Miller in which he tells me you are in town. I hasten, therefore, to write you — and express by letter what I have always found it impossible to express orally — my deep sense of gratitude for your frequent and effectual assistance and kindness. Through your influence Mr. White has been induced to employ me in assisting him with the Editorial duties of his Magazine [the Southern Literary Messenger] at a salary of $520 per annum. The situation is agreeable to me for many reasons …
The above correspondence is known to Poe scholars, but these documents don’t answer some key questions. Did Poe actually apply for a job as a teacher with Baltimore City Public Schools? Would he have been a good candidate for the job? What would have happened to him if he had become a public school teacher? Who got the job in his stead?
E. A. Poe: Teacher vs. Writer
Obviously Poe did not get the teaching job. From the scant evidence available it is doubtful he even submitted an application. In his first letter of March 15th, he asks Kennedy to obtain the job for him – not to write a letter of recommendation. While Kennedy would soon embark on a political career, he was not on the Board of School Commissioners and there is no evidence that he had the level of influence at the time to help Poe get the job as a school teacher.
In his dire circumstances, a job paying an annual salary of $1,000 would have been fantastic for Poe – after all, he accepted a job that same year with the literary magazine in Richmond for about half that amount. But, did Poe have any hope of getting a teaching job with Baltimore Public Schools? He had no previous teaching experience, plus Poe had dropped out of both the University of Virginia and West Point. His only steady job at that point in his life was the time he served in the US Army. While highly educated, what testimonial could he provide to the Board of School Commissioners of his capacity for conducting a school as the advertisement required?
Poe was a writer, not a teacher. He would soon be known for his caustic critiques of other writers in literary journals he edited. If employed as a teacher, could he resist making similar comments on the work of young students under his charge? How would his macabre and fantastic imagination played out in a classroom setting? Considering the erratic behavior he displayed at times, did he have the temperament to be a teacher of young children?
On the other hand, a teaching job could have provided Poe with steady pay, allowing him to pursue his writing in a level of comfort rather than despair. A young Albert Einstein took a civil service job as a mundane patent examiner, allowing him to pursue his scientific theories on his own time. Would a public school job have allowed Poe’s genius to develop in relative comfort or would it have taken the edge off his writings?
It is likely that Kennedy dissuaded Poe from applying for the teaching position and instead helped him to find a job in the literary world to further his writing career. In order for Poe to advance his career he needed to be in contact with other writers, editors and publishers and to become acquainted with key players in the literary field. Spending his days with school children would provide him with a comfortable livelihood, but do nothing for his career as a writer. If that meant leaving Baltimore for Richmond, so be it.
The Job Left Behind: Baltimore Public Schools in 1835
In 1835, the job of a school teacher in Baltimore Public Schools was quite rare. The city’s public school system was only six years old at the time. There were only eight schools – four for boys and four for girls. Baltimore Public Schools had a total of eight teachers, one for each school.
The Seventh Annual Report of the Commissioners of Public Schools covering the year 1835 describes what happened to the job that Poe was seeking:
In male school No. 3, Mr. Carter, a gentleman whose credentials in reference to moral worth and scholastic attainments, were such as to cause him to be selected to succeed Mr. Roszel, presides in a manner which must ensure to him the continued esteem of the commissioners, as well as of the parents whose offspring are under his care, and constitute him a worthy successor to Mr. Roszel, whose professional views had deprived the friends of public education of his valuable services.
So who was this Mr. Carter who was hired to fill the teaching vacancy? The only clue in school annual reports is an accounting chart which shows quarterly payments of $250 to J. P. Carter at M. N. 3 [Male school No. 3]. In the school report for the following year, teachers described what instructions they provided their students. Mr. Carter provided a plan of instruction which included: reading, writing, arithmetic, geography and grammar, as well as geometry, philosophy, algebra and book keeping for more advanced boys. There were a total of 88 students on his roll, the smallest number for a boys schools in the city, probably because the opening of McKim’s Free School in the immediate neighborhood drew away some of his students.
Mr. Carter’s career as a Baltimore City Public School teacher would not last long, the following statement can be found in the school annual report covering the year 1837:
In consequence of the resignation of Mr. Carter, as teacher of male school No. 3, it became necessary to make a new appointment, which was done by electing Mr. R. Connolly to fill the vacancy occasioned by Mr. Carter’s resignation.
So J. P. Carter who got the teaching job that Poe desired only stayed in that position for two years, not much longer than the amount of time that Poe remained with the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond. By 1837 Poe had married Virginia, resigned from his job and moved to New York to seek his literary fortune. After completing a single novel, Poe moved to Philadelphia in 1838 still in dire financial straits. J. P. Carter, on the other hand, had found a higher calling.
John P. Carter, Clergyman and Educator
Bernard C. Steiner’s “History of Education in Maryland” written in 1894 provides additional biographical information on Mr. Carter. In 1834 Franklin College was chartered in Baltimore County, but it was never organized due to a lack of funding. The college was an outgrowth of a school started in the town of Franklin by John P. Carter in the early 1830s.
According to Steiner's history and newspaper accounts, Carter was born in Plymouth, England in 1811 (two years after Poe was born in Boston). He came to the United States as a young child with his parents (around the same time that Poe moved with his foster parents to England for his early education). Carter’s family settled in Washington, DC, and he was educated at the Washington Catholic Seminary, a branch of Georgetown College. At the age of 21 he married Martha Webb of Baltimore. He was already an experienced teacher, but when his plans to open Franklin College did not materialize, he accepted the position of teacher (some sources state principal) of Male School No. 3 in Baltimore. He also worked with older students after school hours since there was no high school at the time in Baltimore. Steiner credits Carter’s work with higher education at Male School Number 3 with the beginning of Baltimore City College.
While serving as a teacher, Carter also studied for the ministry with Reverend Robert J. Breckinridge of Second Presbyterian Church at Baltimore and Lloyd Street (located near to Male School Number 3 on Aisquith Street). Upon completing his studies, he was ordained a pastor. He left Baltimore City Public Schools to become a pastor in Taneytown and New Windsor where he established an academy that grew into New Windsor College. Carter later worked as a general agent and corresponding secretary for the Maryland Bible Society. He also became a principal of schools in Ellicott City and Hagerstown.
In 1857, John P. Carter was installed as the first President of the Ashmun Institute, the first college for African Americans in the United States, better known today as Lincoln University. Lincoln would become famous for educating future civil rights leaders and luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Thurgood Marshall and Langston Hughes. When founded prior to the Civil War, Carter was the sole teacher of the first four students enrolled at the school – where three went on to missionary work in Africa. At a time when slavery was a major political issue dividing the country, Ashmun Institute walked a fine line of providing higher education for African Americans, but taking no stand on the issue of slavery.
During his installation address Carter stated, “It is not, therefore, our purpose … to preach a crusade against the institution of domestic Slavery, as it exists at the South; nor to render this establishment a hotbed of fanaticism, to cultivate the passions of one race of men against another; but … to promote between the two races, every feeling of kindness and respect, we shall sedulously guard against offending a single prejudice which keeps those races distinct.” Before the outbreak of the Civil War, Carter left his position at the college and returned to Baltimore to start a girl’s school, the Maryland Collegiate Institute, where he stayed until 1869.
At that time he retired from teaching, but continued his work with the Baltimore Presbytery serving in an administrative position, Stated Clerk, for nearly two decades. The Reverend Doctor Carter also published several educational text books including, “The Elements of General History” in 1871. Carter lived twice as long as Poe. He died in Washington DC in 1892 at the residence of his son-in-law. He left behind several children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He is buried at Green Mount Cemetery, Baltimore.
Poe and Baltimore City Public Schools
When Poe wrote to Kennedy in 1835 about the teaching job with Baltimore City Public Schools, he asked, “Have I any hope?” Considering John P. Carter’s qualifications at the time, as well as his academic accomplishments long after Poe died, the answer is a resounding no. Poe had no chance beating out Carter for that job.
Kennedy did the right thing to help Poe secure employment in literary circles rather than as a school teacher. Yet, due to his own eccentricities, Poe would never hold a steady job. He would work for a few literary journals and make enough money to survive through his writings and lectures, but he never earned a comfortable living. Poe would gain scant praise and accolades during his life for some of his poetry, most notably, The Raven, and a few of his short stories. After his death, he would be lauded as a literary genius, the inventor of the modern detective story and the emerging genre of science fiction. His tales of macabre and horror, The Black Cat, Tell Tale Heart, Cask of Amontillado and Pit and the Pendulum are among the best know short stories of their kind.
When Poe died in Baltimore in 1849, he was buried in a family plot in the rear of Westminster Cemetery. He grave was unmarked. Strangely enough, it was Baltimore Public School teachers that came to his rescue. Led by Sara Sigourney Rice, a teacher at Western High School, the Public School Teachers Association, organized efforts to provide for a memorial to mark Poe’s grave. She and other teachers encouraged public school students to contribute “pennies for Poe” in a fund raising campaign. In 1875, Poe’s remains were removed to a more prominent location in the cemetery and a proper monument was placed at his grave. The Baltimore City Public Elementary School located directly across the street from his resting place was named the Edgar Allan Poe School in his honor (although the building was last used as a high school for unwed mothers before being renovated into the headquarters of the Baltimore Bar Association). A plaque honoring Poe was placed at the building.
Did Poe know who got the job he sought in 1835? Like many things about Poe in Baltimore, that remains a mystery. Poe had not left for Richmond until the summer of 1835, after Carter had already begun his teaching assignment. While Poe lived on the western outskirts of the city, he was familiar with the neighborhood where Male School Number 3 was located, having previously lived in the vicinity of Eastern Avenue and Central Avenue prior to moving to Amity Street. Unfortunately, we will never know if Poe ever encountered Carter.
However, it is an interesting curiosity that the middle name of the Reverend Doctor John P. Carter, happened to be Pym. Poe’s only novel published in 1838 was the Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, a character Poe subjected to ship wrecks, mutinies and a series of horrors on both land and the high seas. Perhaps Poe did take his revenge on John Pym Carter albeit in a work of fiction.