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Synopsis of Grim Legion

by Jack Alcott

It’s a little known fact that Edgar Allan Poe was kicked out of West Point in 1831 after only six months as a cadet. To this day, the reasons for the 21-year old’s court martial are sketchy at best; Grim Legion fills in the missing pieces.

The first chapter opens with a sophomoric prank involving a decapitated human head, a practical joke actually pulled at the Point in 1830. To young Poe’s dismay, a local tavern owner is soon murdered in a way that is eerily reminiscent of the stunt.

While at the murder scene, Poe finds a bloodied page of poetry overlooked by inept local constables. He realizes immediately that the page is from a book of his own verse published two years earlier, when he was 19. Horrified to find his name associated with the murder, he hides the clue. But an investigator at the Point, one Lieutenant John Gant, has also made the connection between the murder and the prank. Convinced that Poe is the killer, Gant and his sadistic sidekick, Sgt. Arthur Ridley, pursue him relentlessly. Meanwhile, Poe finds himself falling in love with the dead man’s daughter, Eleanor. Her Uncle Zebulon, a former West Pointer himself, is not fond of Poe and lets him know it in no uncertain terms.

Into this mix walks Poe’s older brother (by two years), the brilliant, alcoholic and often violent William Henry Poe. A womanizer, gambler and raconteur with a taste for opium, he’s on the run from thugs he fleeced in a card game in Richmond, Virginia. He’s also slowly dying from a smoldering case of tuberculosis.

Edgar Poe looks up to Henry with both envy and admiration. Besides being a world traveler, Henry has already published two dozen short stories in Southern literary magazines, while Edgar has yet to pen a single tale.

From the start, there’s tension between the brothers and in short order, Edgar Poe begins to suspect Henry might be the killer. But another cadet, Boston blueblood William Wilson — Poe’s rival for Eleanor’s affections — also comes under suspicion.

The murders continue with the death of a West Point instructor, and then a prostitute at a local brothel frequented by both brothers. Bloody pages torn from Poe’s book are found on the victims.

When another West Pointer is slain, Gant’s hatred for Poe becomes even more rabid. Only the intervention of Sylvanus Thayer, the superintendent of the Point, keeps Gant from arresting Edgar. (According to historical record, Thayer knew and liked Poe but didn’t think he was cut out to be an officer).

All this is set against the Gothic crags of the Hudson River Valley, when West Point was a lonely, windswept place atop the cliffs, and cadets were alternately overworked and bored. Drinking was rampant, and the pleasures of opium were available to those in the know.

In 1830-31, the Industrial Revolution was just beginning to rumble to life in America after already making an appearance in England and Scotland. In terms of new technologies and innovations, West Point — the first engineering school in the U.S. — was at the epicenter of the new machine age and was the “Silicon Valley” of its time.

It is against the backdrop of this impending new age that Poe soon finds himself drawn into a conspiracy involving a secret military society that takes a dim view of machines — and of Sylvanus Thayer. The secret society is based on a group of actual West Point rebels who rioted at the Academy in 1828.

Meanwhile, the mysterious killer continues to play a cat- and-mouse game with Poe and even threatens the woman he loves, Eleanor. As the evidence mounts, Poe is finally able to convince Thayer that there is a conspiracy, and the superintendent assigns Lieutenant Robert E. Lee (he was 26 at the time) to investigate the allegations.

Together, Poe and Lee are able to gather enough intelligence to convince Thayer that the foundry and his post as superintendent are in danger. But Poe has missed so many classes and maneuvers while trying to unravel the murders that he now faces the inevitable court martial.

While on the steamboat that is to take him away from West Point forever, Poe opens a farewell gift that instantly reveals who is behind most of the murders. Stunned, he stands alone and forlorn on the deck as footsteps come up behind him — footsteps that will lead to other revelations and a bloody dénouement.

Copyright © 2006 by Jack Alcott

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