In addition to it’s beautiful architecture and graveyard, the historic Unitarian Church is home to one of the most popular legends in Charleston.
Few realize that Edgar Allan Poe lived in Charleston during the 1800s – and that’s mainly because he did everything he could to hide that fact. To cover up his teenage years, he fabricated stories of foreign adventures in Greece and Russia, because his reality was much less intriguing. In truth, when Poe was only 18 years old, he was flat broke and resorted to lying about his age and enlisting in the Army.
Immediately after enlisting in 1827, Poe was sent to Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island for a little over a year. However, he was no war hero or esteemed officer. All he had to offer was his ability to read and write, which many young men in the Army could not do. He was not proud of his desperation, so he enlisted under the name “Edgar A. Perry” and worked as a clerk.
Although Poe did well in the Army and was eventually promoted to Sergeant Major, his shortcomings during his teenage years in Charleston were amplified by a romance with an upper class teenage girl.
Poe is believed to have befriended Dr. Edmund Ravenel, who owned a house on Sullivan’s Island. Dr. Ravenel was very successful in medicine, but also had a passion for natural history and eventually devoted fulltime to the research of conchology (local conchs and seashells). It is even believed that Dr. Ravenel inspired Poe’s character William Legrand in his most famous story, “The Gold Bug.”
Legend has it that Dr. Ravenel had a young daughter named Anna. Poe and Anna fell in love – but Dr. Ravenel did not approve. It even prompted the doctor to shut down his Sullivan’s Island house and work exclusively from his office at 52 Meeting Street (which is still standing). When Dr. Ravenel realized that Poe was still secretly seeing his daughter in Charleston, he essentially grounded her.
In reality, the Ravenel family name has always been a popular one in the Charleston area. In fact, when the Cooper River Bridges were demolished 2005, the massive replacement bridge was named the “Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge.” There’s also a town named for the Ravenels, a variety of Ravenel businesses, and a local reality TV show member named Thomas Ravenel.
Whether or not there was a definitive relationship between Dr. Ravenel and young Poe is hard to pin down. In the “Ravenel Records” – it is noted that Dr. Ravenel had an enthusiasm for the study of local conchs and shells which gave him "a wonderful power of attraction and could interest even young children in his science." It is believable that a teenage, literate Poe might have admired Dr. Ravenel’s studies on Sullivan’s Island, too – especially since Dr. Ravenel would’ve been only 30 years old at the time that Poe was stationed on Sullivan’s Island.
Both of these young men may have hit it off, but this means that Dr. Ravenel was too young to have a daughter that could be a viable age to date Poe. In fact, Dr. Ravenel did not get married and have his first child (Mary Louisa) until 1827 – the very year Poe moved to Sullivan’s Island. Additionally, none of Dr. Ravenel’s later children were named Anna.
However, Dr. Ravenel did have four brothers and four sisters. Any of his older siblings might have already had a teenage daughter named Anna or something similar. If Dr. Ravenel or his siblings didn’t want his niece to be with a broke, teenage soldier – the family may have done everything they could to separate them.
Posts are a combination of my own research, visits, and conversations, plus various information found around the web. I try to provide sources, but if you have specific questions, feel free to ask!