Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru (hardback edition) is released today, 8 May, in the USA, an interesting launch date choice as it is also the anniversary of the 1844 burning of St. Augustine Church in Philadelphia, which is a key location in the novel.
The story takes place just before Edgar Allan Poe, his wife Virginia, and his mother-in-law Maria Clemm moved to New York in early April 1844. In the preceding months, nativists or 'native Americans' — settlers born in the U.S.— were stirring up resentment towards the largest group of new immigrants to the city: Irish Catholics. Philadelphia had a public education system in place at the time and children would begin the school day with readings from the Protestant Bible. When Bishop Kenrick asked the Board of Controllers of public schools for permission for Catholic children to read the Douay version of the Bible and to abstain from religious activities at school, the Board agreed that children should be allowed to read whichever version of the Bible their parents preferred. To fan hostility against the Catholics, nativists claimed that Bishop Kenrick had spoken against the Protestant Bible, hence the riots of 6 - 8 May 1844 are sometimes called the Bible riots.
I chose St. Augustine Church as a location because it had a school, St. Augustine Academy, and an impressive library, which I felt would interest Poe. Further, when Poe lived in Fordham, New York, he would socialise with the Jesuits at the nearby seminary as he thought them cultivated and they smoked, drank and played cards, but didn't preach about religion. Perhaps he found similar acquaintances at St. Augustine's.
St. Augustine Academy later evolved into Villanova University, but its large library of rare books was lost when the church burned. I imagined it included 'treasure books' like these, which again are key elements in my mystery.
Another place that inspired Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru was Loddiges nursery in Hackney, London. I lived in Hackney for thirteen years and never would have guessed that it once was home to one of the largest plant nurseries in Europe. In its heyday it was also a tourist attraction with the biggest hothouse in the world, filled with exotic plants. The nursery's founder was Joachim Conrad Loddiges (1738–1826) who expanded a seed business set up by fellow German émigré John Busch.
George Loddiges (1786–1846) made the nursery a real success, building the hothouse and filling it with an impressive collection of palms and orchids.
He did have a daughter named Helena, but it is unlikely she was anything like the fictional Helena Loddiges who is Poe's benefactress in Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster and features also in this novel. I made her an amateur ornithologist and taxidermist because her father was an avid plant and bird collector. George Loddiges employed Andrew Mathews who called himself "a traveling collector of natural objects" to travel primarily to South America to collect for him.
Mathews wrote an account of his travels to Peru entitled: "A Cursory Notice of Objects, Natural and Otherwise, Observed in the Course of a Journey in the Interior of Peru." I could not find all that much information about Andrew Mathews. He did, however, marry a Peruvian woman; is said to have had a son; and died in Chachapoyas, Peru in 1841. Plants collected by Andrew Mathews in Peru were also grown in Bartram's Botanic Garden in Philadelphia, another location in my novel.
As for the nativist riots of 6 - 8 May 1844, Poe must have been relieved that he and his family relocated to New York in early April as they lived within walking distance of St. Augustine Church and the violence. When a nativist mob went on the march, gunfire broke out then the Hibernia fire station, thirty homes and a market were set on fire. On 8 May, St. Michael's Catholic Church, the Seminary of the Sisters of Charity, and more homes were burned down. The Mayor tried in vain to calm the mob that gathered that same evening in front of St. Augustine Church—they responded by pelting him with rocks, then a boy sneaked inside and set the church a-light.
St. Augustine Church, the Academy and its library of rare books were all destroyed by fire. Further riots occurred in July 1844. At least fourteen people were killed during the nativist riots, about fifty were injured, and two hundred people had to flee their homes. A very sad page in history from the city of Brotherly Love.