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The Murders in the Rue Morgue

by Edgar Allan Poe
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2504

Edgar Allan Poe's “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is prefaced by a brief quotation, from the seventeenth-century writer Sir Thomas Browne, dealing with the legends of the Sirens and of Achilles and also with matters of interpretation. This is followed by a lengthy meditation on the analytical features of the human mind. This meditation comments on the pleasures of analytical thinking and on the ways mathematical thought may invigorate such thinking. The narrator then compares and contrasts two games (chess and card-playing) at length, suggesting that card-playing involves a great deal more genuine analytical thinking than chess. In particular, an effective card-player must be a good observer of his opponents. Finally, he explains, true analysis is not mere ingenuity. The narrator then introduces a story which, he says, will be almost a commentary on the claims he has just made.

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The narrator reports that he lived in Paris for several months in a year during the 1800s—a year he does not precisely specify. During his time there he met a young man named C. Auguste Dupin, who came from a good family but who, from various causes, was not wealthy. Dupin loved books, and he and the narrator met in a Parisian bookshop and began to develop a close friendship. Eventually they decided to room together in a somewhat dilapidated house. They lived there in great privacy.

Dupin loved to walk at night, and the narrator often accompanied him. During these walks, the narrator began to notice and admire the analytical nature of Dupin’s mind. Dupin enjoyed this analytical ability and also enjoyed displaying it. Dupin boasted that he could see into the minds and hearts of most other people. The narrator felt that Dupin possessed a mind that was either excited or perhaps diseased. One night, while the two walked silently through the streets of Paris and after they had not spoken for fifteen minutes, Dupin surprised the narrator by suddenly telling him exactly what the narrator had just been thinking. The narrator was astonished by this feat. He was even more astonished when Dupin patiently explained precisely how, by using analytical reasoning, he had painstakingly come to such a startlingly precise conclusion.

One evening, as Dupin and the narrator were perusing a newspaper, they came across an extremely detailed account of shocking murders that had recently occurred in a house on a street called the Rue Morgue. The murders had been preceded by loud shrieking. A crowd, accompanied by police, had broken through the gate of the house from which the shrieking had come, only to discover the dead bodies of a woman named Madame L’Espanaye and her daughter, Mademoiselle Camille L’Espanaye. However, before the crowd was able to get into the room where the murders had occurred, they heard two voices apparently arguing. Unfortunately, by the time the crowd entered the women’s rooms, the voices had fallen silent. Inside the apartment, they discovered a chaotic scene. Furniture had been moved; a bloody razor lay on a chair; bloody gray human hair was visible, apparently ripped from someone’s head; valuables were scattered on the floor; and a small safe was found unlocked and open.

The older woman was nowhere to be seen, but the body of her daughter was discovered shoved far up into the chimney, with her head pointed downward. The corpse was badly bruised and scratched, and the marks of fingers on her neck indicated that the daughter had died from strangulation. Meanwhile, the corpse of the old lady was found in the small back yard. When her body was lifted, her head fell off, and indeed both the head and the body had been horribly mutilated. The newspaper report ended by announcing that the murders remained a complete mystery.

The next day, the newspaper reported a mass of new evidence, mainly resulting from the examination of neighbors and of numerous people who had been involved in the discovery of the crime and the bodies. Pauline Dubourg, a laundress, said that the two women seemed to live alone and to be on good terms with one another. She was sure they employed no servant, and she had heard that the old woman was a fortune teller who had saved some money. Pierre Moreau, a tobacconist, testified that the two women kept to themselves; he did not believe the claims that she told fortunes, although he did believe that she was somewhat wealthy. He had seen a doctor come to the apartment fairly often. Other neighbors confirmed these basic reports.

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Isidore Muset, a policeman, testified that he had arrived at the gates of the apartment at about 3 a.m. and found many people already there. He had heard loud shrieking until he was able to force the gate open, then, as he had approached the apartment, he had heard two voices loudly arguing. One was a gruff voice; the other was an odd, shrill voice. The gruff voice had belonged to a Frenchman; the shrill voice could have belonged either to a man or a woman but seemed to be speaking in Spanish. Henri Duval, another neighbor, testified that he believed that the shrill voice had spokes Italian, and he agreed that it could have been the voice of either a man or a woman. Although Duval did not know Italian, he believed that the intonation of the shrill voice had sounded Italian. He was confident that the shrill voice had belonged to neither of the women, with whom he had often talked.

A Dutch restaurant owner agreed with the previous reports but was positive that the shrill voice (which he considered harsh rather than shrill) had belonged to a Frenchman. The gruff voice had continually said “sacre” and “diable” and had even once said “mon Dieu.” A banker and his assistant reported that three days before her death the old lady had withdrawn 4,000 francs from her account and that the money had been delivered to the apartment. An English tailor testified that he had heard the arguing; that the gruff voice had spoken French; that the shrill voice had been louder than the gruff voice; and that the shrill voice had not spoken English but had seemed to speak German (a language the tailor did not comprehend).

Four of the previous witnesses testified that the door of the apartment had been locked from the inside. Windows in the apartment were tightly shut. The doors seemed undisturbed, and there was no other evidence of forced entry. Alfonzo Garcio, a Spanish undertaker, testified that the gruff voice had spoken French but that the shrill voice had spoken English, although he does not speak or understand English. Another witness, a confectioner, also testified that the gruff voice had spoken French, but he believed the shrill voice had spoken Russian, although he too does not speak Russian himself.

The newspaper report continued by noting that various witnesses agreed that the chimneys of the house were too small to allow humans to enter or exit and that no back entrance to the house existed. The body inserted into the chimney fit there so tightly that it had taken a handful of people to dislodge it. A doctor who had examined the bodies said that both were in horrible shape, with signs of severe strangulation of the girl and severe beating of the mother. The beatings were so bad that the doctor concluded that the assailant could only have been an extremely strong man and not at all a woman. According to the doctor, the mother’s head had been sliced from her body, apparently by a razor, and had also been badly battered. Another doctor agreed with this assessment. The newspaper report ended by asserting that no clues about the identity of the killer(s) could be found. A later paper reported that a suspect had been arrested on slight evidence.

Dupin was intrigued by the case and, upon hearing of the arrest, asked the narrator for his thoughts about the crime. The narrator agreed that there seemed no solution. Dupin, expressing deep skepticism about the methods and talents of the Parisian police, also philosophized about the nature of Truth and the means of discovering it. He said it might be amusing to investigate the case. After winning approval from the police to inspect the scene, Dupin, accompanied by the narrator, entered the apartment where the killings had occurred, although they had first studied the adjacent neighborhood. They stayed in the apartment until darkness fell, examining the crime scene (which had been left intact) as well as the corpses, which were still there. That evening, Dupin remained silent, but at noon the following day he asked the narrator if the latter had noticed anything “peculiar” about the crime scene. When the narrator said that he had not, Dupin suggested that the crime had been even more horrific than the newspapers had described. The sheer brutality of the murders, he felt, made them peculiar. Nevertheless, Dupin expressed strong confidence in his ability to solve the crime.

Indeed, Dupin told the narrator that he was now expecting a person involved in the crime to appear very soon at their house. Although he did not expect that that person was a murderer himself, he did think it might be prudent to have pistols at the ready in case the visitor resisted being detained. In the meantime, Dupin explained that because the older woman could not have killed her daughter and then killed herself, someone else must obviously have been involved. Although everyone deposed had agreed that the gruff voice belonged to a Frenchman, there was great disagreement about the ethnicity of the person with the shrill voice, and most persons had found the voice highly unusual. Dupin also patiently explained why it would have been difficult to escape from the apartment. Both windows seemed to have been securely fastened from the inside, but Dupin, on closer inspection, had noticed that one was less securely fastened than the other. That window, he reasoned, may have allowed entry at the time of the crime. The external window shutter, if swung open, reached close enough to a lightning rod outside the building to make it possible for someone who was unusually strong and agile to climb up the rod and enter the window.

Dupin also noted that the murderer had failed to take any valuables from the apartment. Moreover, both the viciousness of the killings and the disposal of the daughter’s body in the chimney made it unlikely that a typical killer had been involved. Nor would a typical killer have been able to tear out, by the roots, so much of the old woman’s hair, as had been done. After reviewing all the odd features of the crime, Dupin asked the narrator who he thought might have committed such murders. The narrator suggested that an insane person might have been responsible, but Dupin replied that an insane person would at least have spoken some recognizable language. He also explained that an insane person would not have had the kind of hair that Dupin had found grasped in the old woman’s fingers. When Dupin showed this hair to the narrator, the latter exclaimed that it did not look human. Similarly, when Dupin next produced a sketch he had made of the finger marks found on the daughter’s neck, both men agreed that the marks had been made by fingers too large to be human.

At this point, Dupin produced a scientific description of an East Asian orangutan. The narrator immediately recognized that both the grip on the neck and the peculiar kind of hair belonged to such a beast. Dupin then theorized that a Frenchman had spoken in the gruff voice and that the shrill voice had belonged to an ape. Perhaps (Dupin speculated) the Frenchman had followed the ape to the crime scene, although obviously he had been unable to prevent the killings. In any case, Dupin now revealed that he had already placed an advertisement in a Parisian newspaper announcing that an orangutan had been captured and that it could be retrieved at his home. From the knot in a ribbon he had found near the lightning rod, Dupin theorized that the owner of the ape must be a French sailor working on a vessel sailing from Malta. For various reasons, Dupin was confident that the Frenchman would come to retrieve the orangutan.

Sure enough, the French sailor now appeared and politely introduced himself. Dupin greeted him warmly and praised the orangutan, telling the sailor that the animal was confined nearby. When the sailor offered Dupin a small reward for finding the ape, Dupin replied that he would consider himself repaid if the sailor merely explained the murders in the Rue Morgue. At this point he locked the door and showed the sailor his pistol, which he placed upon a table. The sailor, shocked, rose for a moment but then fell back into his chair. Dupin tried to calm the man, telling him that he was guilty of no crime but was obligated by honor to tell what he knew, especially since an innocent man had now been jailed because of the killings.

The sailor now began to explain the circumstances of the murders. He had brought the orangutan back to Paris from a voyage in Asia, concealing it in his home until he could sell it. Returning to his place one evening, he found the ape in his bedroom, before a mirror, holding a razor, and attempting to shave—as it had obviously seen its owner do. When the sailor had grabbed a whip, the orangutan had fled the home. The sailor had pursued it through the dark, now-empty streets of early morning Paris until he saw it climb up the lightning rod next to the home of the two women. It had then swung itself, by means of the open shutter, into the bedroom. The sailor, a skilled climber, had also ascended the rod, only to look through the window and see the ape attacking the old woman with the razor. The young woman had fainted. When the old lady resisted, the ape slit her throat. It now strangled the daughter but then noticed the Frenchman’s horrified face at the window. Terrified of being whipped, the ape had tried to hide the daughter’s corpse in the chimney and then had tossed the old lady’s corpse out the window. The Frenchman, meanwhile, slid down the lightning rod and ran home, but his shouts of disgust—as well as the shrieks of the ape—had been heard by the approaching crowd. The orangutan must also have escaped down the lightning rod.

Later, after the discussion with Dupin, the sailor did in fact succeed in capturing the ape. Meanwhile, the jailed suspect was released, and the police were somewhat irritated that Dupin, rather than they, had solved the crime. Dupin, however, seemed untroubled by their opinions.

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