Written and directed by Scott Cooper, Netflix’s The Pale Blue Eye gazes on the young poet Edgar Allan Poe, played by Harry Melling, who would go on to invent the detective mystery with his short story “Murders at the Rue Morgue.” Based on Louis Bayard’s 2006 novel, The Pale Blue Eye is set in 1830 at the West Point Military Academy where the body of Cadet Leroy Fry (Matt Heim) is found hanging from a tree with his heart cut out of his chest.
Poe entered West Point as a cadet on July 1, 1830. By October he had enough of the regiment and got himself purposely court-martialed, refusing to attend formations, classes, or church services. Poe was tried for gross neglect of duty and disobedience of orders on Feb. 8, 1831. Knowing he would be found guilty, Poe pled not guilty to ensure the final verdict would get him kicked out.
At this precarious time of Poe’s matriculation, the academy around him was rife with folktales. Locals believed in ghosts and demons as part of commonplace superstition. And the isolated gloom of the Hudson Valley surroundings inspired Washington Irving’s short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” which was published 10 years before Poe arrived at West Point.
The Pale Blue Eye mentions that Poe was already a published poet by the time he was a cadet at West Point, with a 40-page collection of poetry titled Tamerlane and Other Poems, and Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems credited to his name. What the film does not mention is he already served in the United States Army. Poe enlisted as a private under the name Edgar A. Perry, on May 27, 1827. He was only 18 but claimed he was 22, and earned $5 a month. He served with the 1st United States Artillery Regiment at Fort Independence on Castle Island in Boston Harbor.
According to the National Register of Historic Places, no shot was ever fired in anger by U.S. forces from Fort Independence. Angry shots from inside the fort is another story, however… One which Poe learned from reading a monument at the fort. It would later inspire him to write “The Cask of Amontillado.”
“The Cask of Amontillado” may very well be the most flawless short story in literature (and in the mind of some readers, Poe’s scariest). “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge,” the narrator, Montresor, announces at the beginning of the tale. Poe served his vengeance with the perfect wine.
Amontillado is a light Spanish sherry. It goes down easy and is apparently a remedy for an aggravated cough. In Poe’s short story, it renders an oblivious victim prone to the well-planned revenge of the slighted storyteller. Montresor happens to have a rare vintage of Amontillado in a cellar beneath the family home. He leads Fortunato through the deep vaults, which are full of the dead bodies of the Montresor dynasty. Once in a secluded, forgotten spot, Montresor walls his intoxicated competitor in a secret dungeon beyond the tombs. Fortunato is still alive when Montresor plasters the last stone into position in the dampness, and the darkness, of the catacombs.
This nightmarish scenario appears to have been inspired by real events.
While Poe was stationed on Castle Island, he learned of a fatal duel which occurred beneath the fort on Christmas Day in 1817. The rumor held that Lt. Gustavus Drane killed Lt. Robert Massie in a sword match over a card game. The bout was held within the inner walls of the fort. The bullying and bragging Drane had ignored repeated entreaties for a non-violent resolution from the compatriots of the apparently well-liked fallen soldier.
In the version Poe heard, Massie’s friends took revenge by getting Drane drunk and sealing him alive behind a wall in the fort. Drane reputedly vanished, never to be seen again. Parts of the story are true, the duel was confirmed, but records indicate Lt. Drane lived to be promoted to captain and died on active duty in 1846, long after the date of his mythic murder. Massie’s death is also documented. He was buried at the fort where Poe saw the tombstone which fired his imagination.
Poe served in the army for two years, rising to the highest rank a non-commissioned officer could achieve: Sergeant Major for Artillery. When he wanted to get out of the five-year enlistment early, he told the truth about faking his identity to enlist. After much official wrangling, Poe was discharged on April 15, 1829. Part of his bargain for early release was a promise to attend West Point. It was almost a matter of honor.
Edgar is never challenged to a duel in The Pale Blue Eye, but he makes enemies among his military brethren, and is physically assaulted because he threatens another cadet’s pride without even realizing it. The narrator opens “The Cask of Amontillado” by saying the victim never had a clue he had caused offense. The short story ends with the narrator saying the body had not been discovered for half a century.
When Poe left all military service behind, finished his works and his life, the story of the duel at the fort was just a tall tale. That folklore remained in place for a little over a half century.
The story of the duel’s creepy aftermath was considered an urban legend until 1905. Workers repairing the fort broke through walls of the old cellar and found a small dungeon, according to The Complete Illustrated Guidebook to Boston’s Public Parks and Gardens. Within it was a skeleton shackled to the floor.
Today Fort Independence is a historic monument. The original fort, Castle William, was destroyed on March 17, 1776, after the Siege of Boston. When rebuilding was completed on Dec. 7, 1797, it was renamed Fort Independence. It was designated as a state prison from 1785 until 1805. The corpse could have been a former prisoner. However, according to reports, the bones of the man shackled behind the walls were covered with scraps of an old-styled standard issue uniform.The Pale Blue Eye can be streamed on Netflix.