Edgar Allan Poe’s Sinister Inspiration For “The Cask Of Amontillado”

Most readers will be familiar with Edgar Allan Poe’s macabre tale The Cask of Amontillado.  It is a dark tale of revenge, in which one man deliberately intoxicates a hated enemy and then walls him up alive in a crypt.  Like most writers, Poe took his inspiration from his life experiences, and then mixed those with the creative power of his imagination.  Was The Cask of Amontillado based on an actual incident?  The answer appears to be yes, at least in part.

Poe was born in Boston but had spent his early years in Virginia.  As a young man, he had made a reputation for himself as a hell-raiser, and was a source of constant anguish for his father.  He gambled, drank, got into fights, and generally lived a dissolute life.  By 1827 he had racked up large gambling debts, had dropped out of the University of Virginia, and literally had nowhere to go.  So, after giving a false name and age to recruiters (probably to dodge creditors who might try to find him), he joined the army in May of that year under a five-year enlistment.  He was stationed at Fort Independence on Castle Island in Boston Harbor.  Military life actually agreed with Poe, as it often does to young men of ability who are looking for discipline and structure in their lives.

It was while he was at Castle Island that Poe, after reading some of the burial plaques and markers at the fort, learned of a violent episode that had occurred there many years before.  A duel had taken place between two lieutenants, Robert Massie and Gustavus Drane, on the grounds of the fort on Christmas day in 1817.  According to the story, Drane was a bragging, hateful bully who had already killed several men in duels based on trumped-up pretexts.  Drane had focused on Massie as a victim, and had accused him of cheating at cards; based on this false accusation, he “demanded immediate satisfaction.”  Massie unfortunately complied, not wanting to look like he was backing down from a fight.  Swords were named as the weapon.

Attempts at last-minute reconciliation failed.  So within the inner walls of the fort, the duel actually took place.  Massie was not able to hold his own against Drane, and was killed.  Massie had been a popular officer and his brethren mourned his loss bitterly; he was buried him on the grounds with ceremony, and a marker was erected to his memory.  According to legend, Drane vanished soon after this and was never seen again; his fellow officers had supposedly abducted him and walled him up alive in the fort.

But is this story true?  No, not entirely.  Gustavus Drane did not die in 1817:  he was promoted to captain and later died in 1846.  Massie’s grave was moved several times in the many decades following his death. For many years the Massie-Drane duel on Castle Island was considered just another tall tale of Boston Harbor that may have had some grains of truth, but had been wildly exaggerated by the unfortunate credulity of the locals.

But a new twist to the old tale came to light in 1905, eighty-five years after the duel had taken place.  When Boston workmen were repairing parts of the old fort, they came across a section of the old cellar that their original diagrams showed was a small dungeon, but in reality was entirely walled off.  Why had the dungeon been sealed up?  No one seemed to know.  The workers secured permission to explore the area further, and the wall was broken down.  It was thick with layers of brick and mortar.  Shining a light within the dank and fetid recess, the workmen made a strange discovery.  Within was a skeleton shackled to the floor of the dungeon, with ragged scraps of an ancient US army uniform still draped over its bones.

Who this was, no one could tell.  But if it was not Drane, then who was it?  Some speculated that it may have been a convict or prisoner, since the fort had once been used as a prison.  But if so, why had the person been chained to the floor and left there?  Why had not the body been removed?  And why would the dungeon cavity have been sealed up so completely?  The more one thought about it, the more it seemed that only one conclusion could be possible:  the occupant had been deliberately left there to die, with all evidence of his existence obliterated by sealing up the tomb.  There must have been some truth to the old stories Poe had been told, after all.  But after all this time, it is unlikely we will ever learn the details of how this sinister murder took place.

The skeleton was buried in the Castle Island cemetery in an unmarked grave.

 

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14 thoughts on “Edgar Allan Poe’s Sinister Inspiration For “The Cask Of Amontillado”

  1. Good one, Quintus. I hadn’t read this Poe-related story before

    Hell. I’ll see if I can research it some more. I’m curious to see if anyone ever found out who was the dead fellow in the dungeon wall. Man, what a horrible way to go.

    Funny how there’s always a new tale to be read about Poe, and, nearly every time, it’s a horrible one. Terror and tragedy really did cling to the poor bastard like maggots on a corpse.

    However, I wonder – if you’ll pardon my playing devil’s advocate here – if it’s fair to judge Poe so harshly. Yes, he was an alcoholic, a gambler, a ruffian (though not a criminal) and a dissolute man. Nobody can deny that, nor make it better. Much of it was his own fault; no matter how much crap life throws at you, it is still up to you, in the end, to take it on the chin and be a Man (with a capital M, yeah).

    Consider, though, the absolute lack of father figures in his life. His biological father abandoned him and his mother when he was barely a year old. Little over a year later, his mother died of tuberculosis right before his eyes.

    After that he was adopted and, though the foster mother loved him, the father despised the young Poe from the very moment he laid eyes on him. All the provision and support his adoptive father gave were given out of love for his wife, not for Poe. I doubt he ever cared to take the time to stop and try to mold Edgar into a man, as he grew up, as a loving father would. Was Poe a source of anguish for him? Sure, but, from the very beginning, it was mutual.

    A life filled with fathers that either loathed or abandoned him and with mothers that died (and all the women he loved died nearly in the same fashion as his biological mother). It’s no wonder that he became such a wretch, that he died screaming in a hospital… and that he was one of the best horror writers we ever had.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Pedro:
      I don’t think I’m “judging” him, but just stating the facts of his life. I love Poe’s work and think he was the greatest writer our country ever produced. The fact that he overcame his serious personal background only makes me admire him even more.
      Let me know if you find out anything more on this story.

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      • Ah, my bad, Quintus. I got the wrong impression from that bit of your post, and I apologize.

        But yes, there’s much to admire about Poe. Even with all his failings, it takes a singular strength of will to still keep fighting. Considering all the tragedy he went through, it’s impossible not to admire him. It concerns his career, too. Even though he faced setback after setback, he still kept trying, kept writing. And one thing nobody can take away from him is the fact that he loved his will (…).

        While things aren

        i couldn’t find out much about the story, though. The only thing new I discovered is that the whole thing about the man buried inside the walls might not have happened at all, but was, instead, (…)

        Liked by 1 person

        • Ah. What the hell? My keyboard went a bit crazy there and sent the reply out before I was finished. My bad.

          I was just going to say that it could be that the story about the man in wall never actually happened.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Cask_of_Amontillado

          “A report of a skeleton discovered on the island may be a confused remembering of Poe’s major source, Joel Headley’s “A Man Built in a Wall” in his “Letters from Italy” (1844), which recounts the author’s seeing an immured skeleton in the wall of a church in Italy.”

          It’s a Wikipedia source, and poorly worded, too. So it might be wrong.

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          • The skeleton discovered in 1905 may not be related to the Massie–Drane duel from the 1820s. That is possible, and I acknowledge that in the article. However, that doesn’t explain how the old skeleton got to be there in the first place. Who locked the person in that dungeon, and buried him alive? If it is not Drane, who is it? We don’t know.
            To me, that makes the whole story even more disturbing. Someone was murdered there, it seems, and the whole dungeon was deliberately sealed up.

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          • What disturbs me most is that someone (or perhaps it was more than one person) actually did that. It takes a particularly sick mind to bury someone alive. Even as a form of punishment for crimes committed, it still goes too far.

            Since the corpse was chained up, it makes sense to conclude that the victim was buried in there alive. If it had been Drane trying to hide someone he killed, or something of the sort, I don’t think he would’ve gone to such unnecessary lengths. The thing was done either out of revenge or out of pure sadism, which, to me, is what makes it disturbing.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent post, QC. I’ll share this one with my US History students, and pass it along to my colleagues in my school’s English Department. Very interesting–and chilling!

    Like

  3. OK, if I were to write that story, I’d plot it out thusly; first Massie did not die in the duel, then Drane was to be promoted and leave for a new posting, lastly most of the junior officers in the fort hated Drane and several were related to his previous victims.

    His friends report Massies’s death, but secretly nurse him back to health. On the night that Drane is to leave for another post, he is seized and brought to the small dungeon and walled in. Alive.

    In the morning the man that leaves the fort and who continues to live as Drane is actually Massie.

    Like

  4. Poe was a one of a kind individual…. he was a theoretical physicist of the highest degree…. an original “Big Bang Theory” Sheldon Cooper if you will. Expressing concepts and theory we only now are comprehending.

    Liked by 1 person

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