We know of Poe from his popular works of horror and the macabre like The Pit and the Pendulum, Fall of the House of Usher, and The Tell-Tale Heart. Many are also familiar with his prose, like the famous poem, The Raven. However, most people are not aware that Poe was very good at perpetrating a hoax.
From the start, in 1839, Poe wanted to convince the readers of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine that a man named Julius Rodman had crossed the Rocky Mountains some fifteen years before the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1807, thus making Rodman the first “Civilised Man” to cross the Rockies. Keep in mind that to the people of early Boston, the Rocky Mountains were still considered a mysterious and sublime place in the Far West.
Poe’s account was titled The Journal of Julius Rodman and was fed to Burton’s in serial form to make for a more convincing tale. The Journal relates how, in 1792, Rodman departed from Mills’ Point along the Missouri River, travelled to the ‘Far North’, and crossed over the Rocky Mountains. Poe interspersed actual accounts lifted from French trappers and seamlessly wove his own narrative into the text. To people familiar with Poe’s writing style, the Rodman narrative was different from his other writings and therefore more convincing as an authentic account.
After six installments, Poe was fired as editor of Burton’s over a dispute, thus the Journal ends abruptly with Julius having survived a ferocious attack by a bear. Many historians consider the abrupt ending as adding yet another layer of authenticity to the account. The Journal of Julius Rodman was so convincing that it was noted in a session of the United States Senate in 1840: “It is proper to notice here an account of an expedition across the American continent, made between 1791 and 1794, by a party of citizens of the United States, under the direction of Julius Rodman, whose journal has been recently discovered in Virginia, and is now in course of publication in a periodical magazine at Philadelphia.”
No one knows what Edgar Allan Poe’s motives were in writing the Journal but it fits neatly into his literary oeuvre and somehow seems fitting to a writer who was as out of the ordinary as his stories.
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