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Exquisite Wickedness: Two Murders and the Making of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”: An Interview with author Andrew Amelinckx Pt 2
The Tell-Tale Heart,” one of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous short stories, has inspired artists, filmmakers, and writers since its first publication in 1843. But it was two murders a decade apart that helped inspire Poe to write his macabre masterwork of psychological fiction. In Salem, Massachusetts, in April 1830, the ruthless murder of an old and wealthy sea captain rattled the city’s rich, sullied Salem’s reputation, and helped launch America’s obsession with true crime. A decade later, in December 1840, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, a wealthy banker mysteriously disappeared. The discovery of his mangled corpse and the demeanor of his alleged killer made for great headlines in New York’s new Penny Press and planted the seeds for Poe’s masterpiece. Poe’s life during the period of these murders went from idealistic poet to soldier to struggling writer, set adrift by family rifts and his stubborn nature. Exquisite Wickedness examines these two crimes, Poe’s life during this period, the circumstances of the writing of his famous story, and an unbelievable betrayal whose effects have lasted far beyond the grave.
"ANDREW K. AMELINCKX is an award-winning crime reporter, freelance journalist, and visual artist. His work has appeared in Business Insider, Men’s Journal, Smithsonian.com, Modern Farmer, and many other publications. Andrew is the former crime and courts reporter for The Berkshire Eagle newspaper. He holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and an MFA in painting from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY. Exquisite Wickedness is his third book. Andrew lives in New York’s Hudson Valley where he’s working on his next book. He is represented by Jeff Ourvan of the Jennifer Lyons Literary Agency."
Andrew. Welcome back to Crime Capsule. We're delighted to have you back with us.
[00:00:04.390] - Andrew
Great to be back. Thanks.
[00:00:07.090] - Ben
Where we left off last week, the murder of Joseph White had been investigated, tried, murder was convicted, sentences were pronounced, and bodies were hanging from the gallows and things went quiet. Catch us up to where Edgar Allan Poe is at this time, though. So in the 1830s, up until kind of the moment of 1840 when our next murder takes place.
[00:00:52.470] - Andrew
Sure. At the time of the murder and Salem he PO was on his way to West Point. I guess we need to sort of describe briefly his relationship with his not quite adoptive father, John Allen. Both post parents who were actors died relatively close to one another when he was very young. And John Allen and his wife took in Poe and raised him, but strangely never formally adopted him. And that sort of comes into play later on as Poe gets older. And John Allen's relationship really just sort of integrates and like, Allen does everything by half measures. He's like, yeah, but I'm going to send you to UVA. So he sends it to the University of Virginia without providing any of the things that Poe needs in order to.
[00:02:28.910] - Ben
Room and board to survive.
[00:02:32.890] - Andrew
And Poe eventually runs up a bunch of debts trying to survive and then has to quit school. And John Ellen's like, I can't believe you ran up all his debts. Poe runs off and joins the army under an assumed name, and then when his adoptive mother dies, he goes back. At the time, you could pay someone else to take your place in the army. So that's what he did. And he comes back and realizes that his relationship with John Allen just broken. So he thinking that this is what Allen wants. He joins with he goes to military academy at West Point, and it's pretty much a fiasco. And eventually he figures out a way to get kicked out.
[00:03:55.540] - Ben
It's not easy, I guess you have to work to do that for sure.
[00:04:00.790] - Andrew
Like sit around and not do anything for months after that. He sort of makes his own way as a journalist and editor. And by 1840s, he's in Philadelphia and he's married to his young cousin, Virginia Clem Poe. And he is already starting to he's always considered himself a poet and then sort of realized that he could make a better living writing these short stories. In the 1840s, that's what he was focused on. He was editing different he was the editor for several different magazines and writing short stories and was starting to make a name for himself.
[00:05:15.640] – Ben
Okay, so he's made a little money as writer. It's not enough, but he kind of keeps going, and he's trying to do editing work that doesn't pan out exceptionally well for him, but he's keeping his head up and trying to do what he can. But his awareness of this particular case, this murder in 1840, it would have been limited at best. Is that fair to say?
[00:06:00.060] - Andrew
Yeah. I mean, he probably was aware of it just through the New York newspapers that he was, and Philadelphia newspapers as well. But he was very interested in everything that was going on in both the literary world and journalistic world. So he was probably aware of it, but it wasn't like he wrote down details of it and was like, oh, I'm going to use this. That's the one thing about this is that he never clearly stated, I use these two murders as inspiration for this story. It's more like, over the years, Porce figured out where, based on their research, where this were the two things that helped inspire the story.
[00:07:12.260] - Ben
And your account opens here. Interestingly. On a boat for the second murder. And on this boat, it's a ferry from New York to New Jersey. We meet someone who is pivotal to this whole story. Who do we meet on this particular ferry crossing?
[00:07:34.030] - Andrew
It's a guy named Peter Robinson. He's sort of your average guy who runs into something from New Brunswick, New Jersey, where he's from, and asked this sort of very strange question about how you would transfer a deed without the other person being involved in the transfer. And this is just a very odd conversation. And from there it gets odder and odder. Like the Joseph White murder. This victim, Abraham sidedom well, at first, they don't know what happens to me. Just disappears off the face of the earth sky. Abraham Seden was sort of dubronswicks, sort of everybody knew him. He was heavily involved in the civic activities in the city. They also had a business where he would sell properties and also provide the financial loans to these typically poorer people in New Jersey. Or sort of barely making it as working class people.
[00:09:41.140] - Ben
Yeah, laborers. Just sort of like traditional tradesmen laborers. Right. I mean, guys who knew how to frame, or in this particular case, lay flooring, which comes into focus shortly. But it's funny, when I was reading your account aside, I didn't exactly want to call him a slim lord, but he definitely made some money off of this. He was more than that. And that's a little pejorative, but at least the kind of structure of Slum Lordism was present in how he ran his operations. And it wasn't a scam to offer houses for cheap and then put these heavy liens on the equipment and so forth. It wasn't a scam, but it was a scheme. Right? I mean, there was an angle.
[00:10:36.340] - Andrew
It wasn't like he was doing this out of the kindness was hard, for sure. No, it has a Dickensidian sort of feel to it where it's Charles Dickens character who is not who's doing something because it might appear to be, you know, out of his heart. But no, it's definitely it's a way for him to make money. And also, it seems, with what happens with Royal Robinson is awesome. He gets him to the point where he can't pay and then he's already built the house. So what happens if he can't pay? Then he gets to take the house back that's now completely built.
[00:11:52.990] - Ben
Right. And if it wasn't already clear, we do need to say that the connection between these two men is that Robinson was sideem's sort of client tenant and there was this sort of like weird relationship where the boundaries kind of like fuzzed into one another, didn't they, really? It was Sedom had a good racket going. He got all these guys to build cheap houses for them and then they couldn't afford to pay him off. He would just take the house. That's one way to do it. I suppose.
[00:12:35.890] - Andrew
So. Yeah. So Abraham item disappears suddenly one night right before, I guess actually on Thanksgiving. And so Sufficient fairly quickly falls on Peter Robinson just because he is just not the smartest cat out there. He's showing off this very expensive pocket watch that people recognize to have belonged to Seidel. He's soon accused of the murder and eventually confesses and they discover that he had invited him over to the house, allegedly to pay his loan to him and then murders them and then buries them in the seller under the floor boards. Yeah.
[00:13:46.800] - Ben
Can we do one thing before we get to that exact moment, Andrew? Because you have an exceptional amount of detail as we were discussing last week with respect to the Joseph White murder. You have an exceptional amount of detail with respect to the inquest and the investigation. And again, the whole town of New Brunswick sort of turns out to start tromping around looking for evidence. And it's, again, one of these sort of comical scenes where everybody's suddenly putting their gum shoe hat on, that sort of thing. There's one or two things I want to draw out. Number one, you have an extraordinary amount of dialogue preserved in your account of as they're walking around talking to one another and as people are interrogating Robinson. And I mean, where did this material come from? Because typically this kind of very detailed conversational level of information is not often preserved. Where did you find that?
[00:14:58.420] - Andrew
A lot of it comes from, interestingly, in newspaper accounts, but not in the sense of a traditional newspaper account. But at the time, a lot of newspapers would just have these you know, like somebody involved in the case would just send a letter to the newspaper and they would just print the entire letter. Sorry about that. They would print a letter. And a lot of these letters were people involved in the case who at the time or later on, letters that were written. I found some letters that were written between people involved new breads with townspeople who shared their recollections with a friend. And wherever New York had there's a letter, a lot of dog also comes from the trial where people would say, oh, this is I remember this is what he said, or whatever. So a lot of it, yeah, just sort of having to pick through all these different sources to sort of re constitute the dialogue.
[00:17:02.140] - Ben
Well, there's this incredible scene, which may have been my absolute favorite scene in your entire book, in which everybody is downstairs in Robinson's house, this house that he had built ostensibly for himself and for his family, but which Abraham Sydham was about to repossess. And everybody is there, right? You've got the mayor, you've got the town council, you've got sort of the constables. And there's this, of course, I have to say that, like, in the age of Internet sleuths, I can just hear, like, all of these citizen journalists salivating over the thought that they would actually get to help solve the crime right in that moment. But no, my favorite scene is that you've got the entire investigatory body downstairs in Robinson's house and they are arguing passionately about how hard it is to take up a floor. And Robinson is sort of saying, oh, no, no, the walls will come down if you take up these floorboards. And I just have to say so I do some carpentry. And I have just laid a floor in my house about 5ft away from where I am currently sitting. And I can assure you, for anyone out there who doesn't know the trade, that is not how floors or walls work.
[00:18:35.510] - Ben
And there's this sort of hilarious, surreal scene where everybody's downstairs, they're coming almost to blows about, well, if you take this down this way, all the beams are going to collapse. And Robinson is desperate for them not to take up this very suspicious, freshly laid floor. And you can't make it up. You absolutely can't make it up. I was totally and permanently charmed by that moment. So thank you for including it very.
[00:19:08.800] - Andrew
Funny that he was obviously just anything he could think of to prevent them. He's like, the whole house will come crashing down on us.
[00:19:23.290] - Ben
On us, right? It's going to happen right now if we do this. No, it was fantastic. Absolutely amazing. So, Andrew, I'm going to ask you to read a section of your book here, because we do actually need to pivot very sharply from the sort of the amusing, the funny, the comic moment, you know, where they're all sort of standing around doing this. We actually do need to pivot to the grizzly, the macabre, the horrific, because in our series on Holiday Horror, which we're about to experience some, we need to know what they found. And I was wondering if, because this was real, this is not the Post story. This is what actually happened to a man who was innocent of crime and who was murdered. Right? I mean, he might not have been morally innocent, but he had committed no crime. He was murdered. Would you just read the paragraph? It's on page 107 of your book. It's the two paragraphs that begin, Smith picked up a spade, which is just sort of like that phrase alone. Does kind of a lot for the imagination, doesn't it? Just that paragraph and the next paragraph that ends at the top of 108.
[00:23:15.810] - Andrew
Smith picked up a spade and shoved it into the soft earth. About 15 inches down. He felt something. He pushed his hand deeper and grabbed hold of some cloth. His fingers grasped and searched with a leg, continued hunting around with his hand. I take a note that there's a body down there, he told the other man. Van Mary shoved his hand in his felt, we believed was a theme of a man's pantaloons. Randolph did the same in his turn, in greed. It was a body. They began to dig, each taken a turn with a shovel. About 4ft down. They could make out the shape of a body at this depth. The earth was muddy and boglike. Randolph shoved his hand in again, caught hold of something. He yanked out, popped an arm and he grabbed by cold, claw like hand. They cleared more dirt until they had completely revealed the corpse. It was on its left side with the leg drawn up in a fetal position. The three foot long space had been too short for the body to be stretched out. It was still dressed except for a hat, and someone had tossed a coat over it.
[00:24:27.810] - Ben
And that's Abraham Sedam.
[00:24:29.630] - Andrew
[00:24:33.590] - Ben
So Robinson is escorted fairly quickly off to jail. I mean, there's a little bit of investigative work which looks at blood spatters and sort of brings in a couple of other carpenters to serve as forensic detectives, which I thought was also kind of kind of great. But, you know, Robinson is basically thrown straight into jail for this but what's interesting is that he for at least a little while, doesn't he maintain his innocence? He actually says, oh, there was a mysterious visitor, there was somebody else. I mean, he sort of he puts up a little bit of a front as he's awaiting his actual court date.
[00:25:23.090] - Andrew
Yeah. It's about as believable as the if you pull up the floorboards, the house will collapse. This mysterious guy paid me to do it and he said, go ahead and keep all of items, things, keep his watch and all the paperwork you need to make the house yours. I only want him dead. The sheriff is like, kind of just to COVID his bases, like, well, he sets up a trap for this mysterious character who Robinson claims is going to come visit him in the jail. And of course, nothing comes of it.
[00:26:18.060] - Ben
[00:26:19.860] - Andrew
Yeah. Robinson was not the smartest criminal by any means.
[00:26:27.060] - Ben
Sharpest tack in the box. Yeah. During the trial. It's interesting, Andrew, because you had actually quite a quite a stark contrast to the trial of Dick Crown and Shield and the Nap brothers from ten years earlier. Because this trial, you had a parade of witnesses, including some of the sort of characters that you'd introduced us to in the opening section, like Sym's Jeweler and his banker and so forth. And even Robinson's brothers come in and they just don't they don't help his case. Nothing is helping Robinson here. But what was interesting was the contrast between the Nap brothers and Crown and Shield trial and this trial, because there's no shenanigans here. I mean, there's no sort of hung juries, there's no extorted confessions from ministers who are deceiving their pastoral charges. I mean, it's just this is actually fairly open and shut, isn't it?
[00:27:27.470] - Andrew
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. There was no doubt in anyone's mind, including mine, that he was the guilty party and did it all on his own. The earlier case, there was as you mentioned, there was a lot of prosecutorial shenanigans, you might say. But this one was pretty clear that Robinson had done it, that he had done it because he thought that there was no other way, no way to get out of losing his house but to kill the guy who owns money. To.
[00:28:25.190] - Ben
Which is there's this interesting moment in the story where I've said many times on crime capsule, that we don't seek to glorify killers, we seek to or sensationalize them, we seek to understand them. And when you look at Robinson's case, there is an element of actual tragedy to it. Because even though he was underwater in debt, I mean, there is this moment in the sort of the pretile proceedings and so forth where someone comes to him and says, if you had just asked for a chance to renegotiate the loan so that you and your family would not have to be evicted. Right. That sort of thing. There's a chance that SAITAM would have gone along with that. That was not some sort of money grabbing slum lord after all. But maybe he could have found a new arrangement to keep Robinson inhouse and home at the onset of this brutal winter, the holiday season, and maybe Sideham would have made it out alive and maybe Robinson wouldn't have killed a guy. I mean, there's just this kind of like that. The story could have gone either way at that moment.
[00:29:34.750] - Andrew
Absolutely. Yeah. That was sort of the saddest part of it, was that none of that had to happen.
[00:29:44.990] - Ben
Yeah, well, the verdict does not take very long to be rendered, does it?
[00:29:55.840] - Andrew
No, it was very quick.
[00:30:01.190] - Ben
About half an hour, as I recall, from your book. And what's interesting is that bringing this back to the bird's eye view and pulling back the lens as we get back to Edgar Allen Poe, there is this fascinating moment as Peter Robinson is sitting in jail awaiting his execution. That another one of these reporters from the New York Press comes down and who'd been following this the whole time and sits with him for days and days and days before his execution and actually forms just like a genuine human bond with Peter Robinson. And what comes out of that, and I'd love for you to tell us about this, is Robinson comes to trust this reporter enough and confidence in him that he offers a full, detailed confession that he'd given to nobody else.
[00:30:58.450] - Andrew
Yes, which is pretty amazing that it was the reporter who was sitting there taking down the confession and not anybody with the state or related to the thing. He very clearly describes the gruesome details of this murder. And William Atri, the reporter, actually has another connection to Poe because it was William Atri that covered the Mary Rogers story top to bottom, which is where how Poe ended up discovering this Salem murder. And reading, because of his involvement and trying to uncover who had killed Mary Rogers. There's all these little connections like that that are super interesting to me.
[00:32:26.050] - Ben
Yeah. And you also have the one where ATRY, the reporter in the 1840 murder, he had been the protege of this now senior reporter Barrett, James Barrett, who had reported on the 1830 murder. So they're like passing the torch almost, I did want to say, listeners who really do love the macabre and the grizzly. I exhort you to read Andrew's account of Robinson's full confession, because Robinson does give I'm just going to have to use the phrase a blow by blow of how he killed Saidam. And I'm sorry, I'm not trying to be cute, but like, it really is. And to understand the mind of someone who is so clearly driven by desperation and fear and rage all at once in that moment I mean, it is an extraordinary read. And there's sort of a few particular horrible details that are not interestingly in Edgar Allan Pose short story, The Telltale Heart, but that are in Robinson's confession. One of which was this is not a spoiler, was that SAITAM was actually still alive when Robinson threw him in the pit. I mean, he was barely alive, but he was alive. And that just really chilled me.
[00:33:55.880] - Ben
I have to say, Andrew, that really kind of got me that moment.
[00:33:59.110] - Andrew
Yeah, it was disturbing for sure.
[00:34:04.040] - Ben
But we will let our listeners seek out that particular account for themselves. What was interesting, though, with respect to those last days before Robinson's execution, and we're going to come back to Poe here in just a second, was that Robinson was deeply concerned about what was going to happen to his body. Wasn't he sort of like begs them, don't let them do anything to my corpse?
[00:34:31.110] - Andrew
Yeah, well, you know, at the time it was not unheard of for convicted murderers to their bodies to be sent to various institutions who would study their head or their skulls and their brains, and to try to sort of discover whether there was a sort of whether murderers had a certain brain shape or skull shape. So his fears were not unfounded, for sure.
[00:35:15.810] - Ben
Yeah. There's this amazing quote, direct quote from Robinson where he says, don't let them make medicine of me.
[00:35:23.740] - Andrew
But then he allows this two guys from New York City to come and take a mold of his head because these guys have this collection of famous people, including famous murderers. So there were phrenologists and it's like this racist pseudo study of pseudoscience, of being able to determine things about personality based on the shape of your skull.
[00:36:35.390] - Ben
Yeah, clearly. Totally sound investigatory principle there, right? And there's this kind of one kind of shocking moment where the gallows doesn't work and they have to do it again, which is awful. But take us to the moment then that was all sort of 1840. It's a couple of years later. Take us to the moment when Poe takes these threads that have taken a decade right. To appear before him, 1830, 1840, and here he is. Help us to understand the moment at which he is weaving these threads together into what is arguably one of the most famous short stories of all time.
[00:37:26.760] - Andrew
So in the later part of 1842, around November, he's still trying to get out from this mountain of debt and he has this idea of creating a short story that this part was actually came straight from him. He wrote it down, the letter, about what he was trying to create with his story, which was this tale of a cold blooded murderer who told from the killer's perspective and that didn't, like many of his other stories, didn't rely on sort of the fantastic or in.
[00:38:44.530] - Ben
Fantasy or supernaturalism and that sort of thing.
[00:38:49.070] - Andrew
He wanted it to be more naturalistic. I think that's probably why it has such remains such a powerful story, because, you know, he sort of forces you to end in perspective of this killer and why this killer makes these choices for these two murders. It's obviously the details of what he does with the body comes from the Robinson cases. They're so closely connected. But it's really Daniel Webster's description of the Cold Blood and killer from The Trial that really you can really see the connections that Poe took from that and incorporated into the story.
[00:39:54.440] - Ben
You write near the end of your book that Poe actually had multiple legacies. I mean, he had, as is commonly known, a very tragic end to his own life, which we can read about in many different places. But you write that he actually had a legacy which went far beyond just the kind of spooky fiction or the gothic horror, that sort of thing. You write that he made a contribution to a new genre of writing altogether, which is crime fiction, detective fiction, that he in his portrayals of Augusta Pan and so forth, there's this sort of sense of a new emergent kind of storytelling that was not, in fact, there before. And for all of those crime buffs out there, you know, in the world today, I mean, they owe their love of the genre in part to what Poe created, for sure.
[00:40:59.240] - Andrew
Yeah, he really did pave the way for not just the detective fiction, but just sort of incorporating true crime into the details or using them as a basis to create his powerful short stories. Pretty incredible how far reaching and his work was. You're not going to have who done it, you're not going to have crime fiction in general without him.
[00:42:11.610] - Ben
What would Agatha Christie have been doing otherwise, we wonder. Let me ask you this. Are there any for crime junkies listening today who would like to revisit their roots? Say, are there any stories of pose that come sort of directly to mind as you would want to recommend this one or that one to them to say, this is really where the genre was born.
[00:42:39.060] - Andrew
It's The Mystery of Marie Rose that really not just important because it's the beginnings of detective fiction, but it's amazing because he actually was trying to solve a murder through the fictionalizing of the story and using sort of logic to try to discover who actually murdered Mary Rogers in New York. Definitely. The mystery of Marie Roche is super important for that.
[00:43:46.260] - Ben
Well, now that it's in public domain, anyone can just go ahead and grab a copy. And very easy to find and accessible in the extreme. Andrew, one last question for you. First of all, thank you so much for taking us through this incredible journey. There are moments which are both high and low through it. But just to see how that fabric of poe's story comes together over so many years is really remarkable. And I couldn't have seen such a successful account of a biography of a short story before I held this book in my hands. So I really appreciate what you've done. Last question for you is where can listeners find you and your work if they want to read some of your other books or learn about murder and mayhem and the Hudson Valley, or all these other kinds of bits of mischief and misdoing that you get up to in your free time?
[00:44:53.050] - Andrew
Andrewamblinks.com, that's where you'll find everything about me.
[00:45:02.610] - Ben
All right, well, good luck with the new book on the satellites, and we just are so appreciative of your time. Thank you for joining us here on the show.
[00:45:12.250] - Andrew
It's been a real pleasure and super fun. Really, really great. Thank you.