J. W. Ocker, the author of Poe-Land: The Hallowed Haunts of Edgar Allan Poe, out now from Countryman Press, discovered a surprising array of sites and artifacts connected to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” in his year-long trek to visit all things Poe in the many places the poet lived.

article-imageIllustration by Édouard Manet for a French translation by Stéphane Mallarmé of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" (1875) (via Library of Congress)

You know the image. A lone man sits in his chamber one midnight dreary pondering over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, when his reverie is interrupted by a grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore that perches on a pallid bust of Pallas just above his chamber door.

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” was published in January 1845 in New York’s Evening Mirror. This was less than four years before Poe died, and 15 years since he last published a full volume of poetry. Its 18 stanzas represent the peak of his fame in life. It probably still does, but that’s two very different peaks, like Bunker Hill and Olympus Mons different.

Today, “The Raven” is as relevant, well-known, and popular as, well, whatever the kids are listening to and watching these days. Sorry. I’m old. Artists and storytellers, even the National Football League, have tried to wrestle the image of the raven away from Poe’s death grip, but all have failed to even rustle a single ebon feather. Perhaps the strangest thing about this poem that started in one man’s imagination and expanded into the collective cultural consciousness is how many physical artifacts related to it have survived.

For my new book, Poe-Land: The Hallowed Haunts of Edgar Allan Poe, I spent more than a year visiting memorials, mementos, monuments, and more dedicated or connected to Edgar Allan Poe in the places he lived and visited. That meant traveling from Massachusetts all the way down to an island in South Carolina, as well as across the Atlantic, seeing amazing Poe sites and artifacts and meeting the people responsible for maintaining his physical legacy. By far, some of my most favorite sites were directly related to “The Raven,” most in surprising ways. 

Once Upon a Midnight Dreary

article-imageW. 84th Street in Manhattan (all photographs by the author unless noted)

It seems like a normal Upper West Side Manhattan street. People cram the concrete, cars cram the asphalt, the kind of thick bustle of humanity you either love or hate. Until you look up and see the shiny green sign that says "Edgar Allan Poe St." It’s a short stretch of West 84th Street, from West End Avenue to Broadway, a mere block, but the sign doesn’t honor Poe randomly. It hints at something significant related to Poe in the area. You have to lower your gaze to discover what that is.

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Lonesome George at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC (all photographs by Michelle Enemark) 

With a neck that stretches for days, the taxidermy of the late, last Pinta Island giant tortoise Lonesome George went on display Friday at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York. Standing proud in his own gallery encircled with windows, the symbol of lost biodiversity is on view through January.

Atlas Obscura paid Lonesome George a visit this past Sunday, joining the small throng of a crowd with their cameras angled over the weathered skin and saddle-backed shell of what was arguably the world's most famous tortoise. Lonesome George — named as such for being the last known member of his subspecies of Chelonoidis nigra abingdonii, as well as totally uninterested in mating with female tortoises — passed away on June 24, 2012, at an age estimated over a hundred years old, in the Tortoise Breeding and Rearing Center. He'd lived at the Galápagos Islands center since he was discovered in 1971, which was after scientists had believed the Pinta Island giant tortoise extinct. 


Now, although his loss was mourned as yet another tragedy in human-spurred extinction, it's hoped by preserving him in taxidermy he can be a continued icon of conservation awareness. It's believed there were between 14 and 15 giant tortoise subspecies on the Galápagos prior to human arrival. With the destruction of available flora by feeding pigs and goats introduced by voyagers, not to mention the travelers themselves taking the hardy tortoises along for their own food source on the ships, their populations were wrecked. 

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article-imageOld postcard of Paris sewer workers (19th century) (via Claude Shoshany/Wikimedia)

When the sewers of Paris get clogged with putrid waste, they're sometimes cleaned the same way they were over a century ago: with a giant, rolling ball.

Models of these iron and wood "boules de curage" are on display at the Paris Sewer Museum (Musée des Égouts de Paris), which is a working sewer station that lets visitors explore the evolution of this hidden infrastructure. The museum is accessed through a rather unassuming stairwell at the Quai d'Orsay, something which almost vanishes into the waterfront not far from the Eiffel Tower and the Jean Nouvel-designed Musée du Quai Branly with its pristine gardens by the Seine. 

Reading museum placards while you walk on grates above a river of sewage (the smell isn't as bad as you might think) may seem unusual, but people have been touring the Paris sewers since the 19th century, including during the Exposition of 1867 when boats rode through the tunnels. This municipal-sponsored tourism wasn't just a pungent curiosity — the city really wanted to show off its subterranean half. Baron Haussmann, the city planner so influential with the broad boulevards we know Paris for today, worked with engineer Eugène Belgrand in the 1850s to modernize the formerly haphazard array of tunnels into something that would accommodate the city's booming population. (A similar problem was being addressed at the same time in London to combat its "Great Stink" of 1858.)

Sewers of Paris (1861) (photograph by Nadar)

article-imageDifferent shapes of sewer tunnels (1906) (via Internet Archive Book Images)

But despite the vast improvements, the over 2,100 kilometers of centuries-old sandstone tunnels were far from uniform, and while dredging boats, and even people who raked the muck, helped to keep the flow, sometimes it was out of their reach. Enter the sewer balls, an idea dating to Belgrand's day. Sort of like a drain snake for a kitchen sink clog, the metal and wood balls of varying sizes to fit the assorted old tunnels would be given velocity and then bowled through the blocking sludge.

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article-imageGerman U-boat with its crew (1918) (via SMU Central University)

The German Unterseeboot, or U-boat, was a submarine that appeared seemingly out of nowhere to destroy both military and commercial ships. Despite their prevalence during WWI and WWII, only four U-boats exist today. Preserved as museum vessels, these "undersea boats" are the last reminders of the Battle of the Atlantic, and the thousands of men who died in these “Iron Coffins.”

Museum of Science and Industry
Chicago, Illinois

article-imageBoarding party from the USS Pillsbury on the U-505 (1944) (via United States Navy)

The USS Chatelain made sonar contact with the U-505 on June 4, 1944. Supported by two other destroyers, the Chatelain began firing Hedgehog anti-submarine weapons. Two fighter jets launched off a nearby aircraft carrier spotted the U-boat and fired their guns into the water to mark its position. Additional depth charges forced the U-505 to surface.

The command was given to abandon ship, but the crew was unable to finish scuttling the U-505. A team of American sailors was able to board the U-505, and secure multiple charts and codebooks which proved useful in breaking the Nazi’s Enigma code. This made the U-boat the first warship captured on the high seas by United States forces since the war of 1812. The U-505 was then towed to Bermuda, where she was studied by U.S. Navy intelligence and engineering officers.

In 1954, with no further use for the U-505, the Navy donated her to Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. She was authentically restored and remains on display at MSI.

The U-505 today (via Museum of Science & Industry)

Woodside Ferry Terminal
Birkenhead, England

article-imageU-534 under attack on May 5, 1945 (via Australian War Memorial Collection Database)

Accurate weather reports were vital for both Allied and Axis forces in the North Atlantic. Because the jet stream flows west to east, Allied forces received weather information from the United States, but Axis forces relied on weather reports from U-boats throughout the Atlantic.

The U-534 served on weather reporting patrols from June 1943 to May 1945. She never served in combat, though she shot down two RAF bombers during skirmishes.

By May 5, 1945, all U-boats were ordered to surrender, but the commander of the U-534 refused to raise the black flag. She was intercepted by three RAF planes, who dropped depth charges and breached the hull. The commander ordered his crew to abandon ship.

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article-imageSt. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome (photograph by Dnalor 01/Wikimedia)

The Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome has seen its share of destruction. Since 340, it’s been struck by lightning, damaged in an earthquake, accidentally burnt to the ground, and sacked by pirates. It seems nothing shy of the apocalypse will keep this church down. But according to local legend, the four horsemen might be riding in sooner rather than later. The collection of papal portraits here are linked to the end of the world.

article-imagePapal portraits (photograph by ho visto nina volare/Flickr)

Every pope is depicted in a large mosaic installed in a niche around the perimeter of the church. They're all exactly the same size and neatly laid out in a single-file line under the windows. The only problem is, there’s a finite number of niches. A second row would certainly throw the aesthetic off so the legend says that when the niches run out, the world ends.

Even though the tradition of the portraits was started by Pope St. Leo the Great in the 5th century, the niches and the legend are newer than you might expect. At first, the portraits were frescos. They were only added sporadically, frequently falling behind the times, until 1823 when a fire ravaged the building. During the rebuilding of the basilica, Pope Pius IX ordered the portraits to be reinstated and brought up to date, this time using mosaics. If a pope’s likeness wasn’t well-documented, artist Filippo Agricola arbitrarily assigned him a face (so even the most devout Catholics won't recognize a few). The project was completed in 1875, and since then the mosaics have been added pope-by-pope.

article-imageMosaic portrait of Pope Francis (photograph by Antoine Taveneaux/Wikimedia)

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article-imageAerial view of Prague in early morning (screenshot from Aerial Prague, via YouTube)

For three months between the hours of 4:30 am and 7 am, a group of filmmakers flew above the spires of Prague in the light of sunrise. Or at least their vision did, as they soared quadcopter drones up from the empty streets to simulate a "magic carpet ride" in the quiet of early morning.

They've compiled the footage into a video at Aerial Prague. Directed with camera work by Jeffrey Martin, produced by John Caulkins, and edited by David Nitzsche, the video backed by soaring violoncello and piano music by Geraldine Mucha takes you on a journey that's like an out-of-body experience to tourist-free streets. "Everyone dreams they can fly," they explain on their site. "So we decided to try to create a video that could simulate that feeling of floating over rooftops — with the river Vltava below and Prague's castle above."

The editing can be a little rushed, but it's just the first in what they plan will be more aerial explorations of the city at its most peaceful (you do catch a glimpse of a bridal party also taking advantage of the emptiness). Check it out below, and glimpse the sunrise of Prague from an angle usually reserved for the birds.


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article-imageKings Theatre on Flatbush (photograph by Allison Meier)

The ruins of America's great movie palaces are now almost as famous as their original splendor. Driven out of business by franchises and waning interest in one grand space showing one film at a time, the velvet curtains in their gilded interiors fell one by one. On Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, the Kings Theatre has been abandoned for nearly four decades, its roof caving in and water streaming over the sculpted faces and towering columns meant to be a 20th-century version of the Opera Garnier in Paris. 

Numerous failed restoration projects were pitched since it closed in 1977, but finally last year the Kings Theatre Redevelopment Company, with heavy backing from the city, broke ground on a $93 million restoration and modernization project. Now set to reopen in January of next year, the over 3,000-seat complex is nearing its second chance as the biggest theater in the borough.

This Tuesday, Atlas Obscura joined a hardhat tour of the Kings Theatre, where corners of the French Renaissance Revival still in their crumbled state contrasted to the meticulous reconstruction by Martinez+Johnson Architecture and Evergreene Architectural Arts with general contractor Gilbane. Chicago-based architecture firm Rapp & Rapp designed the Kings Theatre as one of Loew's five extravagant "Wonder Theatres" in the New York City area (three of these are now churches, while the one in Jersey City still screens movies and hosts music). The 1027 Flatbush Avenue location was unique when it opened in 1929 as being at the end of the silent film age, merging sound and vaudeville entertainment from the beginning with its screenings. 

article-imageIn the lobby of the Kings Theatre (photograph by Dylan Thuras)

article-imageThe Kings Theatre auditorium (photograph by Dylan Thuras)

Gary Martinez of Martinez+Johnson Architecture described the theatre as a "spatial progression of rooms," and as we moved from the lobby with its conjoined soaring spaces, into the over 80-foot-tall auditorium, it did open up in an incredible way that its terracotta façade now peaking out from behind construction boards only hints at. Each room has its own aesthetic patterns and design techniques, the only visuals repeating are the numerous sculpted faces that gaze down at you from every angle, often hidden in floral flourishes or positioned high on the ceilings.

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The foundation of Atlas Obscura is contributed by intrepid users around the world, out exploring the places no one else is noticing, or delving into history that's been all but forgotten. Here we are highlighting five of our favorite recent additions to the Atlas. Have a place we've missed? Create an account and become a part of our community.

London, England

article-imagephotograph by Amanda Slater/Flickr

Victorian London had far outgrown its sewage system, and in 1858 a hideous incident known as the Great Stink brought a wretched stench to the streets. In order to combat the smells, the city overhauled its infrastructure for dealing with human waste. Thus the gorgeous Crossness Pumping Station was born. Added to the site by Atlas Obscura user jhope, the station completed in 1865 has stunning ironwork around its four giant steam pumps. 

Cape Perpetua, Oregon

article-imagephotograph by Bill Young/Flickr

The incredible sight of Thor's Well, added to Atlas Obscura by user DCrane Photo, appears as an abyss that is pulling in the ocean like a black hole. However, all is not as it seems, and it's really a 20-foot-deep hole in the Oregon shoreline rock that creates a perpetual waterfall. 

Ravenna, Italy

article-imagephotograph by Terry Clinton/Flickr

The crypt below San Francesco in Ravenna, Italy, contributed by user Nikel, was constructed between the 9th and 10th centuries, and over time the marshes in the area have gradually retaken the ground. Now a steady level of seawater covers the mosaic floors in the burial chamber, while goldfish and sometimes even ducks swim below the vaulted ceilings. Visitors now have a tradition of tossing in coins to this curious wishing well of the dead. 

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From August to September, Eames Demetrios, Geographer-at-Large for Kcymaerxthaere, is serving as the Geographer-in-Residence at Atlas Obscura. His Kcymaerxthaere explores the lines of a world parallel to our own with historic markers around the world. 

I have always been interested in the idea that in any culture that makes representations of its stories, religious and otherwise, one can often see very different depictions of the same character or story, and yet everyone who sees these images knows they are the same person. It is true of the Ganesh (the god with the elephant head) who is seen in myriad, but clearly expressed, ways all over India. It is true of Christian saints like St. Sebastian — who despite many differences in the individual person's physical features from painting to painting — were often recognizable because of talismanic items in their presentation (for St. Sebastian it was the martyrdom in arrows). It is even true today, when James Bond has been played by six different men, and yet we accept that each is the same character.

Here are Andrea Mantegna and El Greco's depictions of St. Sebastian as examples:

article-imageAndrea Mantegna, "St. Sebastian" (1457-59), oil on wood (via Kunsthistorisches Museum); El Greco, "El martirio de San Sebastian" (1577-78), oil on canvas (via Museo Catedralicio, Palencia)

What I think that means is that there is part of the human programming that permits our visualizations to be clusters of understandings, not literal representation.

So as Kcymaerxthaere began to expand, and I wanted to share such visualizations, I realized that I wanted to be sure there was this kind of visual richness and ambiguity. I wanted to create a story and a universe, but I wanted it to be conjured up fresh in each reader's imagination and experience. From this came the notion of a disputed likeness — something looked like the character or creature, but did not have to be a photographic representation.

Rather than one official version, I liked the notion that the image would start with the story — whether right after a talk of mine, or from reading the text. Because remember (from an earlier post), these stories are new stories, created by me for Kcymaerxthaere, not based on local stories at all. So the visual track record is thin! Though I do some drawings, I have to be careful. After all, if I draw an animal, then people will say, of course he knows what they look like — he wrote it!


So I just started doing it: asking people to draw what they thought I was talking about. One of the first creatures we did this with was the gnacien, a seven-legged, deer-like creature whose prime numbered legs are very nutritious, but whose non-prime-numbered legs are poisonous unto death. Its story was first told here, outside Pedraza in Spain.

Here are four different versions of the beloved gnacien from four continents. One painted on a wall in Spain:


Another embroidered by a woman from the collective known as Penduka in Namibia:


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article-imageInside Brazil's Caverna da Torrinha (photograph by Coen Wubbels)

Stalagmites and stalactites are common calcium salt formations in caves. But have you ever heard of helictites? Needles of gypsum? Aragonitas? Bolas?

Each of these formations can be found elsewhere in the world, but Caverna da Torrinha is one of Brazil's most complete limestone caves considering the richness and diversity of its speleothems (cave formations), making it a fascinating place to visit. It is also one of the world's largest caves.

Gruta da Torrinha, as it is also called, lies just north of Chapada da Diamantina National Park, 450 kilometers west of Salvador da Bahia. Until 1992, only one cave of the Caverna da Torrinha complex was known to the surrounding inhabitants. Rock paintings near the entrance of that cave are testimony to indigenous people who once inhabited the area.

When a French speleologist with Meanders Speleological Group investigated this chasm, she set down her lantern to take a rest. The flame flickered, betraying a current of air coming from a narrow passage between fallen blocks. It gave access to a much vaster underground area, of which only some 14,000 meters have been mapped.

article-imageSign for Caverna da Torrinha (photograph by Coen Wubbels)

Rock painting at the entrance (photograph by Coen Wubbels)

article-imageView underground (photograph by Coen Wubbels)

By clambering over the same boulders as the French speleologist once did, and wriggling your way through the narrow passage, you will get to the two adjacent caves — together with a mandatory guide who will bring a lantern and provide you with a helmet. The caving requires physical fitness and a moderate degree of limberness. The four-hour tour includes quite a bit of walking, often with bent heads for those taller than 1.70m (about 5.6 feet). It is most certainly no trip for claustrophobics.

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