Edgar Allan Poe happily called his time the “epoch of the hoax.” He contributed six hoaxes. But did he prank a city on April Fool’s Day?
For over a century there’ve been tantalizing hints that Edgar Allan Poe perpetrated a seventh, lesser-known hoax.
He may have pulled off an April Fool’s Day prank while living in Baltimore in his early twenties.
The Story of the Hoax
Supposedly, in late March, around 1831, Edgar Allan Poe placed a notice in a local Baltimore paper announcing that on April 1st a man would leap off the top of the new Phoenix Shot Tower.
Then off he would fly to the Lazaretto Point Lighthouse in a newly invented flying machine.
That’s a distance of two-and-a-half miles.
At the time, the Shot Tower was the tallest building in the United States, standing 234-feet high.
Naturally, a large crowd gathered to see the spectacle of a man flying from the top of the tower.
However, no aeronaut ever appeared, causing the crowd to grow upset and unruly until they realized what day it was and left.
Poe reportedly published a piece in the afternoon’s paper, regretting that the aeronaut had been unable to keep his engagement because one of his wings had gotten wet.
True or false?
There’s one piece of evidence that might connect Poe to the hoax. On May 6, 1831 he wrote to William Gwynn, owner of the Baltimore Gazette, asking for a job. His letter read:
DEAR SIR — I am almost ashamed to ask any favour at your hands after my foolish conduct upon a former occasion — but I trust to your good nature.
I am very anxious to remain and settle in Baltimore, as Mr. Allan has married again and I no longer look upon Richmond as my place of residence. This wish of mine has also met with his approbation. I wish to request your influence in obtaining some situation or employment in this city. Salary would be a minor consideration, but I do not wish to be idle. Perhaps (since I understand Neilson has left you) you might be so kind as to employ me in your office in some capacity. If so I will use every exertion to deserve your confidence.
Very respectfully yr. ob. st.,
EDGAR Allan Poe.
When Poe mentions his “foolish conduct upon a former occasion” was he referring to the April Fool hoax? Maybe.
But then again, probably not because it’s not clear when Poe could possibly have pulled off the hoax.
If Poe was apologizing for the hoax in May 1831, this means that the hoax must have been pulled off in either 1829, 1830, or 1831.
In April 1829 Poe was in Virginia; in 1830 Richmond.
The biggest stumbling block is that there are no printed references to the hoax at all until 1889.
That’s almost sixty years after it supposedly happened.
The Pittsburgh Hoax
The Baltimore story is similar to a flying machine hoax that did happen in Pittsburgh in 1846.
Perhaps the Pittsburgh hoax inspired the Baltimore legend?
A notice appeared in the Pittsburg Dispatch announcing that the inventor of a “pair of wings” would demonstrate his device by leaping from the top of the Holland Street bridge, flying over the Allegheny River, and then back again.
A large crowd gathered, and at the appointed hour a mysterious man appeared, walked to the center of the bridge, and with a flourish released a goose from a cloth bag.
The goose flew honking up into the air.
A real Baltimore legend
Baltimore has another legend involving the Shot Tower.
In 1880 Baltimore resident Jim Horney made a $5 bet that he could jump off the top of the Shot Tower and survive.
Horney was a horse-cart driver, so he removed the large sun umbrella that shaded him on the front of his cart, climbed the tower, opened the umbrella, and jumped off.
The umbrella, acting like a parachute, didn’t do much to stop his fall.
Somehow, though, the combination of the umbrella and his slenderness allowed him to land, shaken, but alive, on the roof of an Exeter Street house, nearly a block away.