Edgar Allan Poe,   x class of 1834

Boston, January 19, 1809 -  Baltimore October 7, 1849

Edgar Allen Poe was a cadet at West Point from July 1830 until 19 February 1831. Thus he completed only one semester at USMA. During the first year the cadets studied algebra, geometry and trigonometry, but I believe that the trigonometry was done in the second semester. The textbooks used in these courses, from 1823 to 1839, were the Geometry of Legendre and the Algebra of Lacroix, both in the French editions (there would have been several editions --- reprintings, really --- during this period). The only other subject studied in the first year by the plebes or 4th class cadets was French. The cadets went to class from 8 AM to 1 PM and then from 2 to 4 PM. Most of this time was spent on mathematics. I believe that the classes met six days per week, but would have to check out this detail.

On January 4, 1831,  the Academic Board (which was made up of the professors and other invited faculty) met "for the purpose of the semi-annual examination." Sylvanus Thayer, the Superintendent, as well as Charles Davies, Professor of Mathematics, were there. At the time the remainder of the mathematics faculty consisted of Lieutenants Edgar C. Ross, Albert E. Church, Joseph B. Smith, Charles W. Hackley, Miner Knowlton, and O. M. K. Mitchell. [Ross translated Bourdon's Algebra in 1832, Church became department head after Davies and wrote a number of textbooks, and Hackley wrote a nice algebra book --- I have the 1849 edition.]

"The 1st section of the 4th class was examined in Algebra by Lieut. Ross." from 8AM till 1PM on January 4, 1831. From 2 to 4 that afternoon he examined them in geometry. The next day, January 5, Lieut. Hackley examined the second section of the fourth class in Algebra. Thus it seems reasonable that Poe was orally examined by either Ross or Hackley (if he was in the third section he did exceptionally well on the exam). There were 87 4th class cadets on the roll and they were divided into 5 sections in mathematics and 6 in French. These 87 cadets are listed "according to merit." Poe is third in French, 17th in mathematics.

This information comes from the United States Military Academy. Staff Records. No. 1. 1818 to 1835. This is the title on the spine of the "Records of the Academic Board", as they are usually called. This is a large handwritten volume in the USMA Archives. The 4 January 1831 Academic Board meeting begins on p. 459; Poe's ranking is on p. 466.

Perhaps it is interesting to note that the cadet who ranked first in mathematics during his first semester was Robert T. P. Allen (Cullum # 754 --- this is the master list of all USMA graduates). He was Professor of Mathematics and Civil Engineering at Allegheny College, PA, 1838-1841, and in Transylvania College, KY, 1841-1845. Then he was Superintendent, with the rank of Colonel, of the Kentucky Military Institute, Franklin Springs, KY, 1847, 1849, and 1851-1854.

There is a vertical file in the archives marked "Poe, Edgar A.   x Class 1834" which contains photocopies of articles about Poe.

From an article in the Winter Issue, 1980, of the Virginia Cavalcade there is an article by Jack Kaufhold entitled "The humor of Edgar Allen Poe." There it is said that David E. Hall, a fellow cadet, wrote that Poe "is thought a fellow of talent here but he is too mad a poet to like mathematics."" (p. 138).

There is another article, this one from The American Mercury, v. 29, no. 116, August 1933, by Carlisle Allan entitled "Cadet Edgar Allan Poe, USA." Allan got an MA in the Faculty of Philosophy in 1925 at Columbia University. A typescript of a paper in support of that degree (his MA thesis?) is entitled The Military Services of Edgar Allan Poe. I did not have time to read this. From the article in the American Mercury one reads that Cadet Thomas Pickering Jones, Poe's probable roommate at USMA, "said that Poe was a brilliant student, but had an aversion to mathematics, and that his inability to do well in that subject made him decide to leave West Point." This article by Allan is quite scholarly written. After this quote he remarks that Cadet Jones is undoubtedly mistaken in his opinion, and to this I would agree.

Perhaps I should have commented that 27 of the 73 cadets who took the exam with Poe were "found deficient, and turned back, to recommence the studies of their respective classes."  Poe was far ahead of this group of rocks (to use the West Point slang for a cadet who lacks intellectual prowess).

The reasons for Poe leaving USMA are unclear. There is a letter in J. Thomas Russell's Edgar Allen Poe. The Army Years,  USMA Library Bulletin No 10, 1972 that indicates that Poe decided that he wanted to leave by December 1830, but no reason is stated. "After 6 months Poe apparently contrived to be dismissed from West Point for disobedience of orders." --- this is what is said at
    http://bau2.uibk.ac.at/sg/poe/Bio.html .
The story is that the cadets were to report for a drill "with cross belts and under arms." Poe appeared with the cross belts (for cartridges), his gun, and nothing else. There is no truth to this legend according to a current historian of West Point, George S. Pappas (To the Point, p. 198), but it is a juicy story --- well, it would have been a juicy story before our current political upheaval. In fact, Poe missed various formations and refused to attend chapel and class and was court martialed. I did not have time to read the papers on the court martial in the vertical file.

So this is what a few hours in the Archives yielded. I think it is a fairly full report on his mathematical adventures. To get a better idea of what he might have learned one would have to read Legendre and Lacroix (and the later English editions would suffice nicely for this). Curiously, I doubt he learned anything about cryptography while here. But perhaps Brian Winkel (yes, he was previously at Rose Hullman) will clarify that when he brings in his reprint tomorrow.
Robert P. T. Allen was a classmate.


Thomas Dence, Ashland University, "The Mathematics of Edgar Allan Poe," paper presented at the Ohio Section of the MAA, fall meeting, 9 October 1998, Columbus State Community College.

Abstract:          EQOGC  PFNKU  VGPVQ  VJKUV  CNMQP
                        VJGHC  OQWUC  OGTKE  CPPQX  GNKUV
                        GFRQG  CPFJQ  YJGGO  RNQAU  ETARV
                        QITCR  JAVQH  KPFVJ  GTKEJ  GUKPJ
                        KUIQN  FDWIU  VQTAF  GEKRJ  GTVJK
                        UOGUU  CIGCP  FAQWY  KNNYK  PCRTKBG

Keiger, Dale, "A Sleuth in the Garden of Forking Paths," Johns Hopkins Magazine, April 1995. This essay review of John T. Irwin, The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytic Detective Story (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994) is available at http://www.jhu.edu/~jhumag/495web/sleuth.html .

Winkel, Brian, "Poe Challenge Cipher Finally Broken," Cryptologia, Volume I, Number 1 (January 1977), pp. 93-96. Have photocopy. 

Winkel, Brian, "Poe Challenge Cipher Solutions," Cryptologia, Volume I, Number 4 (October 1977), pp. 318-325. Have photocopy.