Edgar Allan Poe based the macabre short story, The Cask of Amontillado, on a legend he heard while serving in a fort in Boston Harbor. Fifty years after he published the story, evidence surfaced that it wasn’t just a legend.
Poe joined the army in 1827 because he was flat broke. He had quarreled with his aristocratic foster father, dropped out of the University of Virginia and taken a coal vessel to the city of his birth, Boston. He worked as a clerk and a newspaper reporter for two months.
By May 26, 1827, he was desperate, so he enlisted for five years as a common soldier. He gave his name as Edgar Perry and his age as 22, though he was only 18. Why did he lie? Possibly to avoid paying gambling debts, or possibly because he needed his father’s permission to enlist if he was only 18.
Sgt. Edgar Allan Poe
He was stationed at Fort Independence on Castle Island. Castle Island today connects to South Boston by a narrow strip of land. There had been a fort on Castle Island since 1634, and Fort Independence was named by President John Adams.
Poe served with Battery H of the First Artillery and earned $5 a month. He was reasonably content, a brief departure in a life marked by dissolution, poverty and troubles with women. His days were structured, he got promoted to sergeant-major and his clerical duties were not unpleasant.
While serving on Castle Island he published 50 copies of his first volume of poetry, Tamerlane, ‘By a Bostonian.’
He also learned of a legendary duel that had taken place outside the fort on Christmas Day in 1817. Two lieutenants, Robert F. Massie and Gustavus Drane, had argued over a card game. Drane, who nobody liked, killed the popular Massie in the duel.
Massie’s friends were so angered, the legend went, that they got Drane drunk and sealed him up in a vault within the fort.
Cask of Amontillado
The legend wasn’t true. Military records show Drane was promoted to captain and died in 1846.
But Edgar Allan Poe kept the legend alive. In 1846, he published The Cask of Amontillado in Godey’s Lady’s Book. He set the story in a nameless Italian city in an unspecified year. The owner of a wine cellar wants revenge for the murder of a relative. He suspects a friend committed the crime. So he invites the friend into the cellar to taste the wine. The friend gets drunker and drunker until they reach the final cask — the cask of Amontillado — and the friend collapses, drunk. The owner then bricks him up in a niche in the wall and leaves him to die.
The legend got a boost in 1905 during the renovation of the old fort. A skeleton, reportedly wearing scraps of an old military uniform, was found chained to the wall of an abandoned casement inside the fort.
Today, Fort Independence is a historic monument and public park.
This story about Edgar Allan Poe was updated in 2020.