By Brad Dison
E.A. Perry was born on January 19, 1809. Later that same year, Perry’s father abandoned the family. In November 1811, Perry’s 24-year-old mother contracted tuberculosis and died on December 8, 1811. Perry’s 27-year-old father, still estranged from the family, died from an unknown cause just three days after Perry’s mother. Perry, his brother, and sister were split up. Perry’s brother lived with his paternal grandparents in Baltimore, Maryland. His sister lived with family friends in Richmond, Virginia. Mrs. Frances Allan convinced her reluctant husband, John, a wealthy merchant in Richmond, to foster Perry.
Living in the Allan household afforded Perry a good education. Frances, unable to have children of her own, adored and protected young Perry. Frances introduced Perry to the genteel life which came with being a member of the Allan family. Despite the high standing of the Allan family, however, Perry could not escape his status as a foster child. To John, Perry was a drain on his finances. As Perry grew older and more independent, he and his foster father clashed. John was strict with Perry and was stingy with his money. Perry longed to be on his own and to become a member of genteel society.
In February 1826, Perry enrolled at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. John begrudgingly paid Perry’s tuition, but failed to provide him enough money to live on. Perry excelled in his studies but struggled with his newfound freedom. He drank and gambled away what little money he had to cover his expenses. By the end of his first year at the university, Perry had accumulated debts nearing $2,500.00, which adjusted for inflation, would be just over $40,500 in today’s money. John refused to help Perry cover the debts and their relationship worsened. Unable to repay his debts, Perry abruptly left the university.
On May 26, 1827, using an alias to escape his creditors, Perry enlisted in the United States Army at Boston, Massachusetts. In addition to lying about his name, Perry also lied about his age. He gave his age as 22 years old, when in reality he was 18. Whether he gave a false age as another way to keep his creditors from tracking him down or for some other advantage can only be speculated upon. His enlistment paperwork showed that Perry agreed to serve for a period of five years “unless sooner discharged by proper authority.” Perry listed clerk as his occupation.
Perry prospered in the army. In just nineteen months, Perry rose from the rank of private to Regimental Sergeant Major, a meteoric rise which was uncharacteristic, especially in peacetime. Perry became the company’s clerk, which brought him into constant contact with the company’s officers and relieved him of participation in more rigorous duties. By December of 1828, however, Perry decided he wanted out of the army because he was unable to secure commission without having been educated at West Point. He still owed the army three and a half years. Perry spoke with Lieutenant Howard, who said he would agree to his discharge upon reconciliation with his foster father and if he provided an acceptable replacement to serve in his stead at no cost to the army. Perry wrote to his foster father, but John refused to answer his letters. Only after Perry told John of his plans to enter West Point did John agree to aid in Perry’s resignation from the army.
On February 28, 1829, Frances Allan died. For a short time, Perry’s and John’s relationship improved. John provide Perry with money along with a new suit of clothes and all of the necessary accessories for a young man of status. In addition, John provided the required permission for Perry to resign from the army along with funds for Perry to hire a substitute soldier. Perry left the army with several recommendations from his commanding officers in support of his application to West Point.
In May of 1829, Perry hand-delivered his application to Washington and delivered it to the Secretary of War. He returned to his residence in Baltimore and anxiously awaited news of his appointment. When, in July 1829, he had received no word, he walked the forty miles from Baltimore to Washington to check on the status of his appointment. Perry’s impatience did him no good. Perry had no choice but to walk the forty miles back to Baltimore. Finally, in March of 1830, Perry received his appointment at West Point.
The other cadets looked up to Perry because he was slightly older and because of his previous university and military training. In his spare time, Perry wrote poetry. His fellow cadets enjoyed his writings and many of them agreed to share the cost of publishing a book of his poems. The treasurer of the academy withheld $1.25 from each participating cadet’s $28.00 monthly check until the amount reached $170.00.
Perry’s reputation grew and he confidently boasted that, with his previous educational background and military experience, he would complete the four-year program at West Point in only six months. However, Perry was stunned to learn that his previous experiences and his rank as Sergeant Major would not enable him to complete the program at West Point in a shorter timeframe.
Perry learned other disappointing news as well. While Perry was at West Point, John had remarried and had fathered twins. Perry would no longer inherit any of John’s wealth. Perry was distraught and was determined to resign from West Point. If he abandoned West Point without John’s permission, he would not receive his backpay. Perry wrote to John and requested his permission, but John refused to reply. In his own notes, John commented “I do not think the boy has one good quality.” In January 1831, Perry abandoned his duties at West Point. During the court martial, Perry was charged with “gross neglect of duty,” and “disobedience of orders.” On March 6, 1831, the court found Perry guilty of both charges and dismissed him from West Point. The academy withheld Perry’s last paycheck but forwarded a check to him for $170.00, the money the cadets had raised for Perry’s book of poems. In May 1831, a publisher delivered 136 copies of Perry’s book, one for each cadet who had raised money for its publication. Perry dedicated the book “to the U.S. Corps of Cadets.”
Perry continued to write poetry and short stories. His works were published in various journals and periodicals in the United States. He also continued with his old habits of drinking and gambling, a combination which usually led to disaster. On October 7, 1849, Perry died destitute at the young age of forty from an unknown cause which has been debated ever since. He failed to achieve the status of a gentleman, which he had witnessed while a part of the Allan family, and was not accepted into polite society. Since his death, however, Perry has been praised for his works such as “The Black Cat,” “The Raven,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and a host of other tales of horror and suspense. E.A. Perry was the alias of Edgar Allan Poe.
- Russell, J. Thomas. Edgar Allan Poe: The Army Years. West Point, New York: United States Military Academy, 1972.
- National Archives Catalog. “Enlistment Papers for Edgar A. Perry [Poe].” Accessed September 9, 2020.
3. National Archives Catalog. “Trial of Cadet E. A. Poe.” Accessed September 9, 2020.