The last time I posted to my Classic Crime series, it was to share a relatively unknown Edgar Allan Poe murder mystery. Today, I’m sharing a tale that might be one of the inspirations for one of my favorite Poe stories.

Joel Headley (1813 - 1897)
Joel Headley (1813 – 1897) Source: Wikimedia

“The Cask of Amontillado,” first published in 1846, has inspired countless readings and presentations. The one I like best is Vincent Price’s recital from An Evening with Vincent Price (1970). I also recently discovered this interpretation by Lou Reed, featuring Steve Buscemi (Fortunato) and Willem Dafoe (Montresor), which is worth a listen. It probably doesn’t make as much sense if you don’t already know the story, but I doubt that’s an issue with most people who come across it.

I’d never given much thought to where Poe might have gotten the idea — he’s Poe, after all; but, then, I stumbled on a reference to Joel Headley‘s anecdote, “A Man Built in a Wall,” from his travelogue Letters from Italy, and its possible influence on “Cask.” In 1843, Headley wrote of viewing a skeleton immured in the wall of the Church of San Lorenzo, in the town of San Giovanni. The skeleton had been discovered during renovations of the church, and left in place.

Headley visited the church in the company of an English doctor, who was positive that the man in the wall had been murdered — buried alive! This idea started Headley off on an imaginary reverie of what might have happened on that terrible night. Because of course, it must have been night.

Is it obvious that this story is the inspiration (or one of them) for the “The Cask of Amontillado”? The scenario is certainly similar, and “Cask” does seem to take place in Italy. There’s a strong undercurrent of gloating and cruelty in both stories, as the murderer contemplates his victim. In addition, the first publication of Headley’s letter appeared in the August 1844 issue of Columbian Magazine, which also contained a piece by Poe, called “Mesmeric Revelations.” So it’s not unlikely that Poe was aware of Headley’s anecdote.

This is a mystery tale in the full sense of the word; we will likely never know the real story behind the walled-in skeleton. But Headley’s imaginative reconstruction is an evocative read. I’ve excerpted the relevant part of the letter, here:

  • A Man Built in a Wall: What is the secret of the skeleton found immured in the wall of the Church of San Lorenzo?

If you are further inspired to re-read “The Cask of Amontillado,” here’s the version given in the The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (1978, Ed. T. O. Mabbott), fully annotated and prefaced by Mabbott’s discussion of the story and its possible inspirations.

Oh, and the header image for this post is a photo of The Church of San Lorenzo, a 14th century church in San Giovanni Valdarno, that seems to be the church in question. However, I don’t see any mentions of a skeleton found in the walls in any description of the church that I’ve found via a brief search online, either in English or Italian (the Italian page has a more extensive discussion of renovations to the church). Of course, I could be wrong that this is the church that Headley visited.


Part of the Classic Crime series.

Featured Image by Sailko; Source: Wikimedia

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