Edgar Allan Poe

The Oblong Box

SOME YEARS ago, I engaged passage from Charleston, S. C, to the city of New 
York, in the fine packet-ship "Independence," Captain Hardy. We were to sail on 
the fifteenth of the month (June), weather permitting; and on the fourteenth, I 
went on board to arrange some matters in my state-room.

I found that we were to have a great many passengers, including a more than 
usual number of ladies. On the list were several of my acquaintances, and among 
other names, I was rejoiced to see that of Mr. Cornelius Wyatt, a young artist, 
for whom I entertained feelings of warm friendship. He had been with me a 
fellow-student at C- University, where we were very much together. He had the 
ordinary temperament of genius, and was a compound of misanthropy, sensibility, 
and enthusiasm. To these qualities he united the warmest and truest heart which 
ever beat in a human bosom.

I observed that his name was carded upon three state-rooms; and, upon again 
referring to the list of passengers, I found that he had engaged passage for 
himself, wife, and two sisters–his own. The state-rooms were sufficiently roomy, 
and each had two berths, one above the other. These berths, to be sure, were so 
exceedingly narrow as to be insufficient for more than one person; still, I 
could not comprehend why there were three state-rooms for these four persons. I 
was, just at that epoch, in one of those moody frames of mind which make a man 
abnormally inquisitive about trifles: and I confess, with shame, that I busied 
myself in a variety of ill-bred and preposterous conjectures about this matter 
of the supernumerary state-room. It was no business of mine, to be sure, but 
with none the less pertinacity did I occupy myself in attempts to resolve the 
enigma. At last I reached a conclusion which wrought in me great wonder why I 
had not arrived at it before. "It is a servant of course," I said; "what a fool 
I am, not sooner to have thought of so obvious a solution!" And then I again 
repaired to the list–but here I saw distinctly that no servant was to come with 
the party, although, in fact, it had been the original design to bring one–for 
the words "and servant" had been first written and then overscored. "Oh, extra 
baggage, to be sure," I now said to myself–"something he wishes not to be put in 
the hold–something to be kept under his own eye–ah, I have it–a painting or 
so–and this is what he has been bargaining about with Nicolino, the Italian 
Jew." This idea satisfied me, and I dismissed my curiosity for the nonce.

Wyatt's two sisters I knew very well, and most amiable and clever girls they 
were. His wife he had newly married, and I had never yet seen her. He had often 
talked about her in my presence, however, and in his usual style of enthusiasm. 
He described her as of surpassing beauty, wit, and accomplishment. I was, 
therefore, quite anxious to make her acquaintance.

On the day in which I visited the ship (the fourteenth), Wyatt and party were 
also to visit it–so the captain informed me–and I waited on board an hour longer 
than I had designed, in hope of being presented to the bride, but then an 
apology came. "Mrs. W. was a little indisposed, and would decline coming on 
board until to-morrow, at the hour of sailing."

The morrow having arrived, I was going from my hotel to the wharf, when Captain 
Hardy met me and said that, "owing to circumstances" (a stupid but convenient 
phrase), "he rather thought the 'Independence' would not sail for a day or two, 
and that when all was ready, he would send up and let me know." This I thought 
strange, for there was a stiff southerly breeze; but as "the circumstances" were 
not forthcoming, although I pumped for them with much perseverance, I had 
nothing to do but to return home and digest my impatience at leisure.

I did not receive the expected message from the captain for nearly a week. It 
came at length, however, and I immediately went on board. The ship was crowded 
with passengers, and every thing was in the bustle attendant upon making sail. 
Wyatt's party arrived in about ten minutes after myself. There were the two 
sisters, the bride, and the artist- the latter in one of his customary fits of 
moody misanthropy. I was too well used to these, however, to pay them any 
special attention. He did not even introduce me to his wife–this courtesy 
devolving, per force, upon his sister Marian–a very sweet and intelligent girl, 
who, in a few hurried words, made us acquainted.

Mrs. Wyatt had been closely veiled; and when she raised her veil, in 
acknowledging my bow, I confess that I was very profoundly astonished. I should 
have been much more so, however, had not long experience advised me not to 
trust, with too implicit a reliance, the enthusiastic descriptions of my friend, 
the artist, when indulging in comments upon the loveliness of woman. When beauty 
was the theme, I well knew with what facility he soared into the regions of the 
purely ideal.

The truth is, I could not help regarding Mrs. Wyatt as a decidedly plain-looking 
woman. If not positively ugly, she was not, I think, very far from it. She was 
dressed, however, in exquisite taste–and then I had no doubt that she had 
captivated my friend's heart by the more enduring graces of the intellect and 
soul. She said very few words, and passed at once into her state-room with Mr. 

My old inquisitiveness now returned. There was no servant–that was a settled 
point. I looked, therefore, for the extra baggage. After some delay, a cart 
arrived at the wharf, with an oblong pine box, which was every thing that seemed 
to be expected. Immediately upon its arrival we made sail, and in a short time 
were safely over the bar and standing out to sea.

The box in question was, as I say, oblong. It was about six feet in length by 
two and a half in breadth; I observed it attentively, and like to be precise. 
Now this shape was peculiar; and no sooner had I seen it, than I took credit to 
myself for the accuracy of my guessing. I had reached the conclusion, it will be 
remembered, that the extra baggage of my friend, the artist, would prove to be 
pictures, or at least a picture; for I knew he had been for several weeks in 
conference with Nicolino:–and now here was a box, which, from its shape, could 
possibly contain nothing in the world but a copy of Leonardo's "Last Supper;" 
and a copy of this very "Last Supper," done by Rubini the younger, at Florence, 
I had known, for some time, to be in the possession of Nicolino. This point, 
therefore, I considered as sufficiently settled. I chuckled excessively when I 
thought of my acumen. It was the first time I had ever known Wyatt to keep from 
me any of his artistical secrets; but here he evidently intended to steal a 
march upon me, and smuggle a fine picture to New York, under my very nose; 
expecting me to know nothing of the matter. I resolved to quiz him well, now and 

One thing, however, annoyed me not a little. The box did not go into the extra 
state-room. It was deposited in Wyatt's own; and there, too, it remained, 
occupying very nearly the whole of the floor–no doubt to the exceeding 
discomfort of the artist and his wife;–this the more especially as the tar or 
paint with which it was lettered in sprawling capitals, emitted a strong, 
disagreeable, and, to my fancy, a peculiarly disgusting odor. On the lid were 
painted the words–"Mrs. Adelaide Curtis, Albany, New York. Charge of Cornelius 
Wyatt, Esq. This side up. To be handled with care."

Now, I was aware that Mrs. Adelaide Curtis, of Albany, was the artist's wife's 
mother,–but then I looked upon the whole address as a mystification, intended 
especially for myself. I made up my mind, of course, that the box and contents 
would never get farther north than the studio of my misanthropic friend, in 
Chambers Street, New York.

For the first three or four days we had fine weather, although the wind was dead 
ahead; having chopped round to the northward, immediately upon our losing sight 
of the coast. The passengers were, consequently, in high spirits and disposed to 
be social. I must except, however, Wyatt and his sisters, who behaved stiffly, 
and, I could not help thinking, uncourteously to the rest of the party. Wyatt's 
conduct I did not so much regard. He was gloomy, even beyond his usual habit–in 
fact he was morose–but in him I was prepared for eccentricity. For the sisters, 
however, I could make no excuse. They secluded themselves in their staterooms 
during the greater part of the passage, and absolutely refused, although I 
repeatedly urged them, to hold communication with any person on board.

Mrs. Wyatt herself was far more agreeable. That is to say, she was chatty; and 
to be chatty is no slight recommendation at sea. She became excessively intimate 
with most of the ladies; and, to my profound astonishment, evinced no equivocal 
disposition to coquet with the men. She amused us all very much. I say 
"amused"–and scarcely know how to explain myself. The truth is, I soon found 
that Mrs. W. was far oftener laughed at than with. The gentlemen said little 
about her; but the ladies, in a little while, pronounced her "a good-hearted 
thing, rather indifferent looking, totally uneducated, and decidedly vulgar." 
The great wonder was, how Wyatt had been entrapped into such a match. Wealth was 
the general solution–but this I knew to be no solution at all; for Wyatt had 
told me that she neither brought him a dollar nor had any expectations from any 
source whatever. "He had married," he said, "for love, and for love only; and 
his bride was far more than worthy of his love." When I thought of these 
expressions, on the part of my friend, I confess that I felt indescribably 
puzzled. Could it be possible that he was taking leave of his senses? What else 
could I think? He, so refined, so intellectual, so fastidious, with so exquisite 
a perception of the faulty, and so keen an appreciation of the beautiful! To be 
sure, the lady seemed especially fond of him–particularly so in his absence–when 
she made herself ridiculous by frequent quotations of what had been said by her 
"beloved husband, Mr. Wyatt." The word "husband" seemed forever–to use one of 
her own delicate expressions–forever "on the tip of her tongue." In the 
meantime, it was observed by all on board, that he avoided her in the most 
pointed manner, and, for the most part, shut himself up alone in his state-room, 
where, in fact, he might have been said to live altogether, leaving his wife at 
full liberty to amuse herself as she thought best, in the public society of the 
main cabin.

My conclusion, from what I saw and heard, was, that, the artist, by some 
unaccountable freak of fate, or perhaps in some fit of enthusiastic and fanciful 
passion, had been induced to unite himself with a person altogether beneath him, 
and that the natural result, entire and speedy disgust, had ensued. I pitied him 
from the bottom of my heart–but could not, for that reason, quite forgive his 
incommunicativeness in the matter of the "Last Supper." For this I resolved to 
have my revenge.

One day he came upon deck, and, taking his arm as had been my wont, I sauntered 
with him backward and forward. His gloom, however (which I considered quite 
natural under the circumstances), seemed entirely unabated. He said little, and 
that moodily, and with evident effort. I ventured a jest or two, and he made a 
sickening attempt at a smile. Poor fellow!–as I thought of his wife, I wondered 
that he could have heart to put on even the semblance of mirth. I determined to 
commence a series of covert insinuations, or innuendoes, about the oblong 
box–just to let him perceive, gradually, that I was not altogether the butt, or 
victim, of his little bit of pleasant mystification. My first observation was by 
way of opening a masked battery. I said something about the "peculiar shape of 
that box-," and, as I spoke the words, I smiled knowingly, winked, and touched 
him gently with my forefinger in the ribs.

The manner in which Wyatt received this harmless pleasantry convinced me, at 
once, that he was mad. At first he stared at me as if he found it impossible to 
comprehend the witticism of my remark; but as its point seemed slowly to make 
its way into his brain, his eyes, in the same proportion, seemed protruding from 
their sockets. Then he grew very red–then hideously pale–then, as if highly 
amused with what I had insinuated, he began a loud and boisterous laugh, which, 
to my astonishment, he kept up, with gradually increasing vigor, for ten minutes 
or more. In conclusion, he fell flat and heavily upon the deck. When I ran to 
uplift him, to all appearance he was dead.

I called assistance, and, with much difficulty, we brought him to himself. Upon 
reviving he spoke incoherently for some time. At length we bled him and put him 
to bed. The next morning he was quite recovered, so far as regarded his mere 
bodily health. Of his mind I say nothing, of course. I avoided him during the 
rest of the passage, by advice of the captain, who seemed to coincide with me 
altogether in my views of his insanity, but cautioned me to say nothing on this 
head to any person on board.

Several circumstances occurred immediately after this fit of Wyatt which 
contributed to heighten the curiosity with which I was already possessed. Among 
other things, this: I had been nervous–drank too much strong green tea, and 
slept ill at night–in fact, for two nights I could not be properly said to sleep 
at all. Now, my state-room opened into the main cabin, or dining-room, as did 
those of all the single men on board. Wyatt's three rooms were in the after-
cabin, which was separated from the main one by a slight sliding door, never 
locked even at night. As we were almost constantly on a wind, and the breeze was 
not a little stiff, the ship heeled to leeward very considerably; and whenever 
her starboard side was to leeward, the sliding door between the cabins slid 
open, and so remained, nobody taking the trouble to get up and shut it. But my 
berth was in such a position, that when my own state-room door was open, as well 
as the sliding door in question (and my own door was always open on account of 
the heat,) I could see into the after-cabin quite distinctly, and just at that 
portion of it, too, where were situated the state-rooms of Mr. Wyatt. Well, 
during two nights (not consecutive) while I lay awake, I clearly saw Mrs. W., 
about eleven o'clock upon each night, steal cautiously from the state-room of 
Mr. W., and enter the extra room, where she remained until daybreak, when she 
was called by her husband and went back. That they were virtually separated was 
clear. They had separate apartments–no doubt in contemplation of a more 
permanent divorce; and here, after all I thought was the mystery of the extra 

There was another circumstance, too, which interested me much. During the two 
wakeful nights in question, and immediately after the disappearance of Mrs. 
Wyatt into the extra state-room, I was attracted by certain singular cautious, 
subdued noises in that of her husband. After listening to them for some time, 
with thoughtful attention, I at length succeeded perfectly in translating their 
import. They were sounds occasioned by the artist in prying open the oblong box, 
by means of a chisel and mallet–the latter being apparently muffled, or 
deadened, by some soft woollen or cotton substance in which its head was 

In this manner I fancied I could distinguish the precise moment when he fairly 
disengaged the lid–also, that I could determine when he removed it altogether, 
and when he deposited it upon the lower berth in his room; this latter point I 
knew, for example, by certain slight taps which the lid made in striking against 
the wooden edges of the berth, as he endeavored to lay it down very gently–there 
being no room for it on the floor. After this there was a dead stillness, and I 
heard nothing more, upon either occasion, until nearly daybreak; unless, 
perhaps, I may mention a low sobbing, or murmuring sound, so very much 
suppressed as to be nearly inaudible–if, indeed, the whole of this latter noise 
were not rather produced by my own imagination. I say it seemed to resemble 
sobbing or sighing–but, of course, it could not have been either. I rather think 
it was a ringing in my own ears. Mr. Wyatt, no doubt, according to custom, was 
merely giving the rein to one of his hobbies–indulging in one of his fits of 
artistic enthusiasm. He had opened his oblong box, in order to feast his eyes on 
the pictorial treasure within. There was nothing in this, however, to make him 
sob. I repeat, therefore, that it must have been simply a freak of my own fancy, 
distempered by good Captain Hardy's green tea. just before dawn, on each of the 
two nights of which I speak, I distinctly heard Mr. Wyatt replace the lid upon 
the oblong box, and force the nails into their old places by means of the 
muffled mallet. Having done this, he issued from his state-room, fully dressed, 
and proceeded to call Mrs. W. from hers.

We had been at sea seven days, and were now off Cape Hatteras, when there came a 
tremendously heavy blow from the southwest. We were, in a measure, prepared for 
it, however, as the weather had been holding out threats for some time. Every 
thing was made snug, alow and aloft; and as the wind steadily freshened, we lay 
to, at length, under spanker and foretopsail, both double-reefed.

In this trim we rode safely enough for forty-eight hours–the ship proving 
herself an excellent sea-boat in many respects, and shipping no water of any 
consequence. At the end of this period, however, the gale had freshened into a 
hurricane, and our after–sail split into ribbons, bringing us so much in the 
trough of the water that we shipped several prodigious seas, one immediately 
after the other. By this accident we lost three men overboard with the caboose, 
and nearly the whole of the larboard bulwarks. Scarcely had we recovered our 
senses, before the foretopsail went into shreds, when we got up a storm 
stay–sail and with this did pretty well for some hours, the ship heading the sea 
much more steadily than before.

The gale still held on, however, and we saw no signs of its abating. The rigging 
was found to be ill-fitted, and greatly strained; and on the third day of the 
blow, about five in the afternoon, our mizzen-mast, in a heavy lurch to 
windward, went by the board. For an hour or more, we tried in vain to get rid of 
it, on account of the prodigious rolling of the ship; and, before we had 
succeeded, the carpenter came aft and announced four feet of water in the hold. 
To add to our dilemma, we found the pumps choked and nearly useless.

All was now confusion and despair–but an effort was made to lighten the ship by 
throwing overboard as much of her cargo as could be reached, and by cutting away 
the two masts that remained. This we at last accomplished–but we were still 
unable to do any thing at the pumps; and, in the meantime, the leak gained on us 
very fast.

At sundown, the gale had sensibly diminished in violence, and as the sea went 
down with it, we still entertained faint hopes of saving ourselves in the boats. 
At eight P. M., the clouds broke away to windward, and we had the advantage of a 
full moon–a piece of good fortune which served wonderfully to cheer our drooping 

After incredible labor we succeeded, at length, in getting the longboat over the 
side without material accident, and into this we crowded the whole of the crew 
and most of the passengers. This party made off immediately, and, after 
undergoing much suffering, finally arrived, in safety, at Ocracoke Inlet, on the 
third day after the wreck.

Fourteen passengers, with the captain, remained on board, resolving to trust 
their fortunes to the jolly-boat at the stern. We lowered it without difficulty, 
although it was only by a miracle that we prevented it from swamping as it 
touched the water. It contained, when afloat, the captain and his wife, Mr. 
Wyatt and party, a Mexican officer, wife, four children, and myself, with a 
negro valet.

We had no room, of course, for any thing except a few positively necessary 
instruments, some provisions, and the clothes upon our backs. No one had thought 
of even attempting to save any thing more. What must have been the astonishment 
of all, then, when having proceeded a few fathoms from the ship, Mr. Wyatt stood 
up in the stern-sheets, and coolly demanded of Captain Hardy that the boat 
should be put back for the purpose of taking in his oblong box!

"Sit down, Mr. Wyatt," replied the captain, somewhat sternly, "you will capsize 
us if you do not sit quite still. Our gunwhale is almost in the water now."

"The box!" vociferated Mr. Wyatt, still standing–"the box, I say! Captain Hardy, 
you cannot, you will not refuse me. Its weight will be but a trifle–it is 
nothing–mere nothing. By the mother who bore you–for the love of Heaven–by your 
hope of salvation, I implore you to put back for the box!"

The captain, for a moment, seemed touched by the earnest appeal of the artist, 
but he regained his stern composure, and merely said:

"Mr. Wyatt, you are mad. I cannot listen to you. Sit down, I say, or you will 
swamp the boat. Stay–hold him–seize him!–he is about to spring overboard! 
There–I knew it–he is over!"

As the captain said this, Mr. Wyatt, in fact, sprang from the boat, and, as we 
were yet in the lee of the wreck, succeeded, by almost superhuman exertion, in 
getting hold of a rope which hung from the fore-chains. In another moment he was 
on board, and rushing frantically down into the cabin.

In the meantime, we had been swept astern of the ship, and being quite out of 
her lee, were at the mercy of the tremendous sea which was still running. We 
made a determined effort to put back, but our little boat was like a feather in 
the breath of the tempest. We saw at a glance that the doom of the unfortunate 
artist was sealed.

As our distance from the wreck rapidly increased, the madman (for as such only 
could we regard him) was seen to emerge from the companion–way, up which by dint 
of strength that appeared gigantic, he dragged, bodily, the oblong box. While we 
gazed in the extremity of astonishment, he passed, rapidly, several turns of a 
three-inch rope, first around the box and then around his body. In another 
instant both body and box were in the sea–disappearing suddenly, at once and 

We lingered awhile sadly upon our oars, with our eyes riveted upon the spot. At 
length we pulled away. The silence remained unbroken for an hour. Finally, I 
hazarded a remark.

"Did you observe, captain, how suddenly they sank? Was not that an exceedingly 
singular thing? I confess that I entertained some feeble hope of his final 
deliverance, when I saw him lash himself to the box, and commit himself to the 

"They sank as a matter of course," replied the captain, "and that like a shot. 
They will soon rise again, however–but not till the salt melts."

"The salt!" I ejaculated.

"Hush!" said the captain, pointing to the wife and sisters of the deceased. "We 
must talk of these things at some more appropriate time."

We suffered much, and made a narrow escape, but fortune befriended us, as well 
as our mates in the long-boat. We landed, in fine, more dead than alive, after 
four days of intense distress, upon the beach opposite Roanoke Island. We 
remained here a week, were not ill-treated by the wreckers, and at length 
obtained a passage to New York.

About a month after the loss of the "Independence," I happened to meet Captain 
Hardy in Broadway. Our conversation turned, naturally, upon the disaster, and 
especially upon the sad fate of poor Wyatt. I thus learned the following 

The artist had engaged passage for himself, wife, two sisters and a servant. His 
wife was, indeed, as she had been represented, a most lovely, and most 
accomplished woman. On the morning of the fourteenth of June (the day in which I 
first visited the ship), the lady suddenly sickened and died. The young husband 
was frantic with grief–but circumstances imperatively forbade the deferring his 
voyage to New York. It was necessary to take to her mother the corpse of his 
adored wife, and, on the other hand, the universal prejudice which would prevent 
his doing so openly was well known. Nine-tenths of the passengers would have 
abandoned the ship rather than take passage with a dead body.

In this dilemma, Captain Hardy arranged that the corpse, being first partially 
embalmed, and packed, with a large quantity of salt, in a box of suitable 
dimensions, should be conveyed on board as merchandise. Nothing was to be said 
of the lady's decease; and, as it was well understood that Mr. Wyatt had engaged 
passage for his wife, it became necessary that some person should personate her 
during the voyage. This the deceased lady's-maid was easily prevailed on to do. 
The extra state-room, originally engaged for this girl during her mistress' 
life, was now merely retained. In this state-room the pseudo-wife, slept, of 
course, every night. In the daytime she performed, to the best of her ability, 
the part of her mistress–whose person, it had been carefully ascertained, was 
unknown to any of the passengers on board.

My own mistake arose, naturally enough, through too careless, too inquisitive, 
and too impulsive a temperament. But of late, it is a rare thing that I sleep 
soundly at night. There is a countenance which haunts me, turn as I will. There 
is an hysterical laugh which will forever ring within my ears.