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VISIT HOUSE WHERE EDGAR ALLAN POE LIVED

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Sssshhh! Did you discern a faint thumping sound beneath those creaky wooden floorboards? Listen! Why, it sounds like ... could it possibly be ... a beating heart?

And there, when you tapped upon that bleak gray wall, how could you fail to hear the blood-curdling screech of a black cat perhaps sitting on a corpse entombed behind the plaster?You can have great fun with your imagination during a visit to Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site.

Nothing is overtly spooky about this red brick house with butter yellow trim that is our national shrine to the famous 19th century American writer.

Going to the house is a fine way to get better acquainted with Poe.

You may be surprised to learn this low-profile place even exists. The house gets about 16,000 visitors each year. Independence National Historical Park, about 1 mile south, gets nearly 2 million visitors a year.

Poe lived in five places, all rented, during the six years he lived in Philadelphia. The house facing Spring Garden Street is the only one still standing.

"Some of his happiest and most productive years were here," said ranger Jean-Lorre Smith, one of the guides.

What's most unusual about these modest quarters is they are empty. No furniture, no carpets, no paintings or mirrors are in the rooms. The stark walls of rough, bare plaster seem to symbolize the poverty that haunted Poe for much of his life.

Some might imagine up to 17 layers of paint and wallpaper were scraped off the walls to remove grisly evidence of some ghastly deed that occurred in the house. There does seem to be a thin line between fact and fiction here.

Did this house influence "The Tell-Tale Heart," Poe's story of a dismembered body hidden beneath the floorboards? Did the "false fireplace" in the cellar inspire his climactic scene in "The Black Cat"?

"The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Black Cat," two of Poe's best-known stories, were published while he lived here. So was "The Gold Bug," a less well-known treasure hunt adventure with a happy ending.

But no one knows whether Poe actually wrote those stories while living here. It's not even certain in what room he did his writing.

"The Raven," Poe's most famous poem, was published a year after he moved out of this house. Because Poe kept no diaries, it's not known if he wrote any of "The Raven" while living here. But a black bird sculpture with wings spread perches on a column outside the front of the house.

Poe left no large estate and few personal possessions. Whatever furniture was in the house is long gone, without a trace. One of the most common visitor complaints is that the house is unfurnished. Someone signing the register wrote that furniture would help a person "feel the presence" of Poe and his family. But another wrote "the building should be left just as it is."

The park service deliberately decided not to furnish it. "We call this our above-ground archaeological dig," explained Smith. He added that the park service hopes to restore the interior someday, if it can find information explaining exactly how the house looked when Poe lived in it.

Rangers who give tours make the place come alive, through their entertaining presentations and detailed knowledge of Poe.

One of the greatest myths about the writer is that he was a drug-crazed madman, said Cahn.

Some critics implied opium was the source of Poe's creativity and inspiration. Research has shown no evidence of opium abuse, according to the park service.

"Poe won $100 for `The Gold Bug,' the most he ever got for one story," said Cahn. "He was hopelessly underpaid." She said even "The Raven" brought Poe fame, but not fortune.

Ranger Mark Cosgrove said Poe also wrote a comedy called "Spectacles," which was published while he lived in this house. "I recommend anyone who wears glasses read it," said Cosgrove.

A reading room, just off the visitors' reception area, is furnished, based on a poem Poe wrote called "The Philosophy of Furniture." You also can watch a short slide presentation about Poe.

Inside the Poe house, only white smoke detectors on the drab gray-white ceilings remind you that you've not stepped back in time. The spider webs, especially in the cellar, are real.

On a tour, you may hear Poe called a genius who maintained: "I don't bring fear or terror to anyone. I just touch on the fear or terror that's already there."

Poe's contemporaries knew him primarily as an editor and literary critic. Visitors will learn poetry was his passion, though it did not sell as well as his short stories. Cahn described him as a generous man who wrote poems and gave them to friends as gifts.

He's also called the father of the modern detective story, one of the first writers to sprinkle clues throughout each yarn. "They have some gore in them all," said Cahn.

Born 185 years ago in Boston, Poe faced economic hardship and ill health through much of his life.

Poe secretly married Virginia Clemm, his 13-year-old cousin, when he was 27.

In the late 1830s, Poe came to Philadelphia because it had a large publishing industry. He worked for two magazines here. During his six years in Philadelphia, Poe attained his greatest successes as an editor and critic and published some of his most famous tales. Other well-known works published while he lived in this city include "The Fall of the House of Usher," and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue."

No one knows exactly how long Poe lived in this house. He moved in between the fall of 1842 and June 1843 and moved out in April 1844, when he left for New York City.

He resided here with his wife, his mother-in-law, Maria Clemm (who also was his aunt), and their cat, Catterina (its coat was tortoise shell, not black).

Three years after Poe left Philadelphia, 24-year-old Virginia died of tuberculosis, after a long illness.

While traveling from Richmond to New York, he died of "acute congestion of the brain" in Baltimore several days after he was found lying unconscious in a street, wearing someone else's disheveled clothes. The precise circumstances of his death, and the cause, remain mysterious.

Poe was only 40 when he died.

The house, lived in by many others after Poe, was preserved in 1929 and turned into a museum by Richard Gimbel, a member of the family that owned Gimbel's Department Store. It opened as a national historic site 14 years ago.

Cahn, who's worked at this national historic site almost three years, said the house is getting more visitors and they're coming all year round.

"There's no off-season anymore," she said. "We get visitors from around the world, people who will walk to the ends of the Earth for something about Poe."