Portrait of American author Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849) against a green background and under an embossed presentation of his last name, probably taken from a cigar box, 1900. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images).
From the “Beware the Ides of March” Soothsayer in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to Merlin’s many pronouncements in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, prophecies abound in great literature. But when Edgar Allan Poe wrote a prophecy, it was spot-on but purely unintentional. And it concerned actual events and people, not legendary fictional characters. Considered a founder of Southern Gothic literature, Poe’s one stray into novel-writing uncannily played out as a real-life horror story. Lest anyone think Poe had some inside information before he wrote what he did, note the event occurred some 35 years after Poe had died. Here’s how the accidental prophecy came to life.
Poe spins a tale the Bonner Party could relate to
Already known for heart-pounding fiction like high-school English favorite “The Telltale Heart,” Poe had stuck to short stories and poems until 1838. He published his first novel that year, an eerie tale of a sea voyage. The main character was Richard Parker, and while Poe seemed to pick that name so he could be an “everyman” character, that name choice ended up as the basis for the Poe prophecy.
In The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Poe did himself proud with a dark, twisted plot. Parker is part of the crew of a ship with the undignified name of the Grampus. The seafarers go up against a storm and lose. They have to cope with a broken mast, ripped sails, and no food or water. They get a brief reprieve when they’re able to catch a turtle to devour, but the full feeling only lasts a short while before they’re back to looking for their next sustenance.
Here’s where the plot gets ugly, even for the author who once had a guy (spoiler alert for those who haven’t read “The Cask of Amontillado”) suffocate an enemy by mortaring him into the wine cellar wall. Poe may have called his novel’s storyline “very silly,” but still. He had his crew of characters draw for a “death straw.” The one who got it was promptly killed and eaten by the others. Cheery. And as it turns out, prophetic. Because the sailor/character who gets cannibalized is none other than Richard Parker.
Another Richard Parker fulfills the Poe prophecy
Poe went on to die in 1849, knowing his book was a horror story, but never realizing it foreshadowed another death. It’s sad for the 1884 real-life Richard Parker that Poe’s inadvertent predictions didn’t involve something more savory, like getting to be king if he pulled a sword out of a stone. Instead, this Richard Parker joined a crew intent on sailing a yacht from England to the Land Down Under. (It had a better name than Grampus, the Mignonette, so don’t look for more Poe links there.)
This crew was also battered by a storm and confined to a lifeboat. And, yes, food and water were not furnished. It would be so great to say, “And this is where the real-life story parted ways with Poe’s creepy novel.” But that didn’t happen. Instead, these guys too landed a turtle and ate it. And then they ate one of their crewmates.
The demise of the latter-day Richard Parker
Mignonette crewman Richard Parker did hasten his own death, but the actions of his crewmates were still unconscionable. Like so many other stranded sailors before him, he got so thirsty he drank a little seawater. Even a bit of the salty stuff combined with exposure on the open seas will make a man crazy. But the other sailors went a little crazier, deciding to stab Parker before he got sick and, uh, eat his remains. The story might never have come to light, but they were rescued three days later.
The real-life Richard Parker’s killers were tried in England, originally receiving death sentences but later getting a reduction to six months in jail. As for Poe, he had died 25 years earlier and presumably never intended to make a prophecy. But other Poe namesakes like Bartleby or Raven or Annabel Lee might want to be careful just in case.