This week’s prompt for the Sturgis Library Writing group was to write a story/memoir/poem using the photo of the alley shown above. My tale of mayhem follows.
Sergeant-Major Poe stood at the parapet of Fort Moultrie, jotting down his observations of Sullivan’s Island in a notebook. Shortly after his arrival at the Fort, the local inhabitants told tales that the pirate, Captain Kidd, had buried a substantial treasure somewhere along its shores. The tales had given Poe an idea for a short story and he had begun to create a plot line. To help potential readers develop an image in their minds of the story’s setting, he wanted to provide a description of Sullivan’s Island. Poe stopped writing for a moment and gazed off to the west across the wide expanse of Charleston Harbor at the city of Charleston itself. In the setting sun, he could just make out the stately homes on Battery Street and the tall spire of St. Philip’s Church. His line of concentration was interrupted by the approach of one of the post’s orderlies. He snapped Poe a crisp salute and pulled a folded piece of paper, sealed with wax, from his leather messenger bag. “Lieutenant Griswold’s compliments Sergeant Poe, he asked me to pass this order to you.” Poe thanked and saluted the orderly. Breaking the seal and folding open the note, he read that he was being ordered to Charleston the following morning to oversee the unloading of munitions from a supply ship and to ensure their delivery to Fort Moultrie. He would be met at the docks by Monsieur Paul Douxsaint and would be a guest at his house. Poe signed the log book acknowledging receipt of the order and proceeded to his quarters to prepare for the trip.
The unloading of the supply ship began mid-afternoon and ceased at dusk. As Poe stepped from the gangplank on to the dock, a rather well dressed man in top hat and carrying a bejeweled cane approached and introduced himself as Monsieur Douxsaint. Gregarious and possessing a delightful French accent, he invited the sergeant to dine with him at a private club called the Vendue. By the time they completed their dinner, darkness had fallen and the streets were illuminated by flickering gaslights. Walking along Queen Street on the way to the Douxsaint house they had reached the intersection of Philadelphia Alley when their conversation was cut short by a horrible scream that made the hairs on the back of their necks stand up. It was a woman’s scream and it came from somewhere in the Alley. As they stared into the darkness, a second scream made them jump. Poe started to make his way into the Alley but Douxsaint grabbed his arm.
“Sergeant Poe, please, do not enter they Alley, it is dangerous.”
“But it sounds like a woman is in trouble Monsieur, she needs our help.”
“It could be a ruse to lure us in, Sergeant Poe. We will be discovered in the morning with our skulls bashed in, our money and valuables taken.”
Women’s screams and the hoarse shouts of men disrupted the darkness of the Alley.
Poe retrieved a pistol from his valise and drew his sword. “Tell me what’s down this Alley, Monsieur. Someone is in desperate need of help.”
“A few apartments, the entry to the church cemetery on the left. The Barnwell Mortuary on the right.”
Poe disappeared into the darkness. Douxsaint uttered a curse, and began to shout for the police. He gave the jeweled head of his cane a twist and pulled it, extracting a short sword from its hollow body. “Wait for me Sergeant!”
The two of them crept slowly along Philadelphia Alley, listening. The shrieks and shouts had stopped for the moment. A door swing open and slammed against the wall, making them retreat a few steps. A shaft of light from the other side of the door broke through the darkness in the Alley. They gasped as a man staggered from the door, the handle of a knife protruding from his neck. Falling to the ground, blood from his severed jugular sprayed the Alley. Poe and Douxsaint ran to the fallen man, but they saw he was beyond help. Douxsaint stood and began to shout as loudly as he could for the police, anyone, “Murder! Murder!” he yelled.
Readying his sword and pistol, Sergeant Poe went through the open door. What he saw revolted him, his dinner gave a huge roll in his stomach. On the floor lay the body of another man, mouth open, empty eyes facing the ceiling. It appeared he had been stabbed in the heart. On a table was the body of a third man, but it was clear he was being prepared for burial. “The morgue,” thought Poe.
“Oh Mother of God!” exclaimed Douxsaint when he came through the door.
Shouts and screams from two women came from somewhere else in the building. They pushed through a set of doors into a wide hallway. To their left was a staircase leading to an upper floor. The sounds seemed to be coming from there. Bolting up the stairs they stopped to listen. A struggle could be heard from a balcony behind them, in the front of the building. Racing out to the balcony, they saw a woman gripping another woman by the throat with one hand, while trying to plunge a knife into her chest with her other hand. The second woman was using both of her hands to keep that from happening. Poe could hear the sounds of police whistles from the street below.
“Madame, please, put down the knife,” Douxsaint said softly.
The quiet French accent had an effect on the knife wielding woman. She looked at Poe and Douxsaint, blinked and dropped the knife. “They killed my husband,” she sobbed, “they cut him open down in that room.” Looking at her blood stained hands and clothing, she gasped, “What have I done?”
Police officers boiled out on to the balcony. Quickly assessing the situation they escorted the knife wielding woman away. From the woman who had been attacked they learned the knife wielder’s husband had died of consumption the previous day. The morticians were in the process of preparing his body for burial when the distraught wife burst in. Seeing her dead husband displayed on the table made her go berserk. She grabbed a dissecting knife and stabbed one of the morticians in the heart then jammed the knife into the neck of the second mortician. Then she grabbed another dissecting knife and came after her. Gesturing at Poe and Douxsaint, she said, “The gentlemen arrived in time to save me.”
Before giving their version of what they witnessed to the police, the gentlemen were asked to provide their full names and occupations.
“Monsieur Paul Douxsaint, shipping merchant.”
“Edgar Allan Poe, Sergeant-Major, Company H, 3rd United States Artillery.”
The police completed their questioning and allowed Poe and Douxsaint to leave. Sipping brandy in the parlor of his home, Douxsaint shuddered. Looking at Sergeant Poe he said, “My dear Edgar, this has been a truly horrific night. I don’t know if I will ever see another restful night of sleep. God, I will forever rue the night we came upon the murders at the morgue.”
Edgar Allan Poe looked at the brandy in his glass and swirled it once. “Murders? Rue? Morgue? Hmmm…” he thought.
I took some creative license in writing this story, what is factual follows:
- Edgar Allan Poe was a member of Battery H, 3rd U.S. Artillery at Fort Moultrie S.C. from 1827 to 1828. He wasn’t promoted to Sergeant-Major until after his transfer to Fort Monroe in Virginia in December, 1828.
- For some some reason, Poe enlisted in the army using the name Edgar A. Perry, perhaps to disguise his age? He said he was 22, but was really 18 when he enlisted. He resigned from the service near the end of 1828, at which time he revealed his real name and age.
- Poe did use the setting of Sullivan’s Island and the rumors of Captain Kidd’s treasure as the inspiration for his short story, “The Gold Bug”.
- St. Philip’s Church was built in 1836, 9 years after the time line of my story.
- Paul Douxsaint was a real person, his home still stands, two blocks from St. Philip’s Church & Philadelphia Alley. He built his home in 1725, so he would never had met Poe.
- The Vendue is a boutique hotel on Queen Street in Charleston, but didn’t exist at the time my story takes place. I thought it was a cool name to use.
Ernie Stricsek, The Sturgis Library Writers Group, March 15, 2023
6 thoughts on “Philadelphia Alley”
Very, very creative!
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Thank you my friend! I am glad you enjoyed it. I’ve another scary story I wrote for the Monday group.
Good work. Ernie. Poe was an intriguing figure. I think he’d have liked your story a lot.
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Thank you Neil! I am pleased you liked my story. It was fun writing it. We had just returned from an extended stay in the Charleston area and I submitted the Philadelphia Alley photo for the writing group prompt. But I had no idea what I was going to write about until two days before our meeting. Thanks again.
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Hi Ernie, I absolutely loved reading this piece. You had me with “Poe”. I am fascinated with rhe historical references in your work. Nancy
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Thank you Nancy! I am delighted you enjoyed my story. I wanted to insert Poe in it somehow, but didn’t hit on a story line until Sunday night. I provided the photo for the prompt, it would be bad form if I didn’t write something! Thanks again.