Edgar Allan Poe had a sad life, losing every woman he ever loved. Of course, he’s famous for his macabre stories, but it’s his very last poem that is truly fascinating. Who was Poe’s Annabel Lee? Was she his wife or some secret love who’s been lost in history? There’s a legend in Charleston, South Carolina that you may find compelling. We know a lot about Poe’s dark mind, but in this episode, we’ll explore a lesser known side of him—his heart.
Charleston, South Carolina --- the epitome of southern graces and dubbed “the most polite and hospitable city in America” by Southern Magazine. It’s a place of elegance and slow, poetic speakers—the heart of the American South. But beyond the rainbow-colored row houses, the huge city market, and the horse and buggy tours---there’s a secret few know about.
Once upon a midnight dreary, the infamous Edgar Allan Poe had his heart broken by a beautiful southern belle. Or so the story goes.
But it wasn’t she who broke off the romance but her father. And she’s still around to tell the tale. Well, sort of.
Legend goes that Charleston’s most seen ghost—the lady in white—just may be Poe’s Annabel Lee.
Before I tell you the truth, allow me first to tell you a story. One that came to me after visiting the graveyard where Anna’s grave is said to be.
My husband and I walked the overgrown cemetery with our guide and a small group of people one dark night this past August. The air was thick with humidity and more than a little fear. You see, the Unitarian Church in Charleston is the second oldest church in the city, built in 1772. Old church = old graves. And one other thing… because of their beliefs, Unitarian’s do not upkeep their cemetery grounds. So, among the darkness, overgrown trees, creeping vines, and tall grass surrounding us… our guide whispered tales of the most popular ghost in Charleston. And to add even more creep factor to the scene, he said she was seen only a few days ago by a group he’d brought in.
You have to understand, I’m no newbie to ghost tours. In fact, I’ve done so many that I’ve lost count. But this one was different. Our guide spoke with such confidence that we’d actually see something, that I started to worry that we would.
I’m one of those people who love a good ghost story, but I never want to see anything. I’m in it for the thrill, not the reality.
So, from the moment we stepped foot into the cemetery, I was ready to bolt. But we couldn’t, you see. We were fenced in—a tall gate separating us from the city. The dark keeping us huddled together closely, trusting our guide to help us maneuver around the resting souls beneath.
The church only allows one ghost tour into its cemetery at night. And that night… it was us.
My heart thump, thumped in my ears, and I had a hard time concentrating. The guide went on to tell us of three possibilities the ghost may be, but it wasn’t until he began telling us the story of a young soldier who fell in love with a woman named Anna Revenel. The two fell madly in love and saw each other every chance they got. But Anna’s father didn’t think the soldier was good enough for his well-bred daughter. No, he wouldn’t have any part of it. He forbade it. But the two continued seeing each other in secret at the cemetery. When her father found out, he arranged for the soldier to be transferred out of Fort Moultrie to a fort near Baltimore.
While he was away, Anna became depressed and then fell ill. Edward came back to be with her when he found out about her illness, but she had already died. Her father—blaming the soldier for his daughter’s death—refused to allow the soldier to mourn at her grave. He had six graves dug and never put up a headstone, so the young man wouldn’t know which one contained his beloved.
The soldier, who had enlisted under an assumed name was never really suited for the army and eventually became known for his real talents. He wrote under his real name, Edgar Allen Poe.
Then our guide began reciting the “Annabel Lee” poem, and all of us froze.
It was many and many a year ago,
As he spoke the words, we saw movement in the pitch-black cemetery. A white foggy image emerged. At first, I thought I was seeing things—wondering if my imagination was playing tricks on me. But then I saw the people next to me pointing and whispering, clinging closer to each other. Then my husband leaned in and asked, “Do you see that?”
Goosebumps, y’all. My breath caught as the figure swayed to the rhythm of our guide quoting the poem from memory.
I couldn’t believe my eyes, and even as I’m saying it right now, I wonder if it was real. How could it be? It seems like such a strange event that my mind has mentally cataloged it as “can’t be true.”
Afterward, our guide escorted us out of the cemetery, but many of us stopped to photograph where we believed we saw her—the lady in white—remembering her lost love. I have an iPhone, and it took a live photo—for those who don’t know what that is, it’s a photo that records movement while you’re taking the picture. The flash was on, so you can see the flash brightening in the photo and eventually snapping. There was no one in front of me or beside me. My husband was behind me. And the picture looks like nothing unusual—Spanish moss hanging in a tree. A gravestone. Darkness. But the live shot caught something else. A dark figure—the body black but the head almost fazes out. So strange. I saw it on my phone as I took it and then nearly ran out of the cemetery, not wanting to stay in there another minute.
I’ll post the live photo on our social media so you can be the judge. I don’t know what or who it is or even if it’s an anomaly at all. But I will tell you this, the feeling of sadness and terror were definitely present that night in the cemetery. I’ve always had a strong sense of discernment and am an empath. I don’t think I’ll ever return to that place again. And not just because I know I saw something, but because my heartbreak at the thought that the story is real. The sadness there most definitely is.
Poe’s life was riddled with turmoil and death. He survived the death of his mother, foster mother, and wife. The common theme of the death of women in his works likely points to these losses.
“Annabel Lee” was the last complete poem written by Poe and was published after his death in 1849.
Critics have often pondered who Annabel Lee was—the most believed candidate being his wife who died two years prior. But the poem says that she was a “maiden” therefore unmarried. Some believe he was speaking of a childhood sweetheart, Sarah Royster. But then there’s our Annabel story. We know historically that Poe was stationed in Charleston in 1827.
Or perhaps, the poem served as Poe’s longing for love and how it felt so lost for him—losing so many he cared for. He’s once stated, “the death, then, of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.”
Or maybe he’d been carrying this secret love in his heart all those years and sensing his own near-death decided it was a tale that needed to be told. If Anna of Charleston really was who the poem was about, I can’t help but wonder what other strange and sad events Poe must have lived through. Was he not only a man of deep thought, macabre works—but also a man of secrets and brokenness?
If you ever have the pleasure of visiting Charleston, I hope you’ll take a little ghost tour in the Unitarian Cemetery.
Whoever Annabel is, she’s not lost in some unknown grave anymore. Poe made certain she’d live on—their love forever immortalized by his words.