Today, a cask of Amontillado in Boston Harbor. The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
When Edgar Allen Poe was eighteen he managed to run up
a gambling debt, drop out of college, and see the love of his life marry another
man. It was not a good year. In 1827, Poe took refuge from himself by joining the
US Army under another name, Edgar A. Perry.
Poe was sent to Ft. Independence on Castle Island in Boston Harbor. He
served two years and rose to the rank of an artillery sergeant major. He
wrote The Cask of Amontillado twenty years later, and some people
claim that the idea came from a Castle Island incident. Soldiers had taken
revenge on a comrade who'd killed their friend in a sword duel on Christmas
Day, 1817. They'd got the fellow drunk, chained him to a wall, and bricked
Literary scholars write of other inspirations for Poe's grim story, but the
seed could well have been sown right there. The fort certainly has its ghosts.
It might be the oldest fortification in the United States. Guns and earthworks
were first set there in 1643, shortly after Pilgrims landed in nearby Plymouth.
The fort was rebuilt many times after that. Poe's fort was the seventh one
on that spot. It'd been a safe haven for British loyalists during the American
Revolution. Then it was used to keep the Brits out of Boston during the War of 1812.
Construction of the eighth and last fort was begun five years after Poe left.
And its home, Castle Island, is now an island in name only. It's been connected
by landfill, and the landfill holds a loading dock for containers. A scant 4000
feet away from the fort is Logan Airport's nearest runway.
The present fort is a superb example of defensive fortifications as they'd evolved
during the century before the Civil War. It's a perfect pentagon, lying low against
the horizon. That way it offers a minimal profile to enemy naval guns. Now it's
unmanned and silent. The bastions on each of its five points make it look like a
large snowflake on the winter landscape.
This last Fort Independence would be the last gasp of the medieval castle. Coastal
forts were about to be made hopelessly obsolete. The long-range rifled naval guns
that appeared in the Civil War would be more effective against forts than against
other ships, easily reducing them to rubble. That's how Union forces destroyed Fort
Sumter in 1863 when they tried to retake it with their new guns.
A seven mile ferry ride out into Boston Harbor takes us to Fort Warren, built the
same time as the last Fort Independence -- twice the size, but otherwise very similar.
And its only military service was as a prison for Confederate soldiers during the
Poe was still firing smoothbore guns as he thought his Gothic thoughts in his Gothic
fort. "For the love of God, Montresor," the victim cries. "For the love of God, indeed,"
says Montresor sliding the last brick in place. Now the fort itself is only a skeleton
chained to its island in a world that's moved on to other things.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
For more on these ideas, see the Wikipedia articles on
Edgar A. Poe
and on Castle Island.
See also the Fort Independence
and Fort Warren
tour pages and Episode 870 on fortifications.
Photos above by J. Lienhard. Aerial map image below courtesy of Google Earth.
Click here for the full text of Poe's short story, The Cask of Amontillado.