Edgar Allan Poe

The Man of the Crowd

Ce grand malheur, de ne pouvoir etre seul.


IT WAS well said of a certain German book that "er lasst sich nicht lesen"–it 
does not permit itself to be read. There are some secrets which do not permit 
themselves to be told. Men die nightly in their beds, wringing the hands of 
ghostly confessors, and looking them piteously in the eyes–die with despair of 
heart and convulsion of throat, on account of the hideousness of mysteries which 
will not suffer themselves to be revealed. Now and then, alas, the conscience of 
man takes up a burden so heavy in horror that it can be thrown down only into 
the grave. And thus the essence of all crime is undivulged.

Not long ago, about the closing in of an evening in autumn, I sat at the large 
bow–window of the D-–Coffee-House in London. For some months I had been ill in 
health, but was now convalescent, and, with returning strength, found myself in 
one of those happy moods which are so precisely the converse of ennui-moods of 
the keenest appetency, when the film from the mental vision departs–achlus os 
prin epeen- and the intellect, electrified, surpasses as greatly its everyday 
condition, as does the vivid yet candid reason of Leibnitz, the mad and flimsy 
rhetoric of Gorgias. Merely to breathe was enjoyment; and I derived positive 
pleasure even from many of the legitimate sources of pain. I felt a calm but 
inquisitive interest in every thing. With a cigar in my mouth and a newspaper in 
my lap, I had been amusing myself for the greater part of the afternoon, now in 
poring over advertisements, now in observing the promiscuous company in the 
room, and now in peering through the smoky panes into the street.

This latter is one of the principal thoroughfares of the city, and had been very 
much crowded during the whole day. But, as the darkness came on, the throng 
momently increased; and, by the time the lamps were well lighted, two dense and 
continuous tides of population were rushing past the door. At this particular 
period of the evening I had never before been in a similar situation, and the 
tumultuous sea of human heads filled me, therefore, with a delicious novelty of 
emotion. I gave up, at length, all care of things within the hotel, and became 
absorbed in contemplation of the scene without.

At first my observations took an abstract and generalizing turn. I looked at the 
passengers in masses, and thought of them in their aggregate relations. Soon, 
however, I descended to details, and regarded with minute interest the 
innumerable varieties of figure, dress, air, gait, visage, and expression of 

By far the greater number of those who went by had a satisfied, business-like 
demeanor, and seemed to be thinking only of making their way through the press. 
Their brows were knit, and their eyes rolled quickly; when pushed against by 
fellow-wayfarers they evinced no symptom of impatience, but adjusted their 
clothes and hurried on. Others, still a numerous class, were restless in their 
movements, had flushed faces, and talked and gesticulated to themselves, as if 
feeling in solitude on account of the very denseness of the company around. When 
impeded in their progress, these people suddenly ceased muttering; but redoubled 
their gesticulations, and awaited, with an absent and overdone smile upon their 
lips, the course of the persons impeding them. If jostled, they bowed profusely 
to the jostlers, and appeared overwhelmed with confusion. There was nothing very 
distinctive about these two large classes beyond what I have noted. Their 
habiliments belonged to that order which is pointedly termed the decent. They 
were undoubtedly noblemen, merchants, attorneys, tradesmen, stock-jobbers–the 
Eupatrids and the common-places of society–men of leisure and men actively 
engaged in affairs of their own–conducting business upon their own 
responsibility. They did not greatly excite my attention.

The tribe of clerks was an obvious one; and here I discerned two remarkable 
divisions. There were the junior clerks of flash houses- young gentlemen with 
tight coats, bright boots, well-oiled hair, and supercilious lips. Setting aside 
a certain dapperness of carriage, which may be termed deskism for want of a 
better word, the manner of these persons seemed to be an exact facsimile of what 
had been the perfection of bon ton about twelve or eighteen months before. They 
wore the castoff graces of the gentry;–and this, I believe, involves the best 
definition of the class.

The division of the upper clerks of staunch firms, or of the "steady old 
fellows," it was not possible to mistake. These were known by their coats and 
pantaloons of black or brown, made to sit comfortably, with white cravats and 
waistcoats, broad solid-looking shoes, and thick hose or gaiters. They had all 
slightly bald heads, from which the right ears, long used to pen-holding, had an 
odd habit of standing off on end. I observed that they always removed or settled 
their hats with both bands, and wore watches, with short gold chains of a 
substantial and ancient pattern. Theirs was the affectation of respectability–if 
indeed there be an affectation so honorable.

There were many individuals of dashing appearance, whom I easily understood as 
belonging to the race of swell pick-pockets, with which all great cities are 
infested. I watched these gentry with much inquisitiveness, and found it 
difficult to imagine how they should ever be mistaken for gentlemen by gentlemen 
themselves. Their voluminousness of wristband, with an air of excessive 
frankness, should betray them at once.

The gamblers, of whom I descried not a few, were still more easily recognizable. 
They wore every variety of dress, from that of the desperate thimble-rig bully, 
with velvet waistcoat, fancy neckerchief, gilt chains, and filagreed buttons, to 
that of the scrupulously inornate clergyman, than which nothing could be less 
liable to suspicion. Still all were distinguished by a certain sodden 
swarthiness of complexion, a filmy dimness of eye, and pallor and compression of 
lip. There were two other traits, moreover, by which I could always detect them: 
a guarded lowness of tone in conversation, and a more than ordinary extension of 
the thumb in a direction at right angles with the fingers. Very often, in 
company with these sharpers, I observed an order of men somewhat different in 
habits, but still birds of a kindred feather. They may be defined as the 
gentlemen who live by their wits. They seem to prey upon the public in two 
battalions–that of the dandies and that of the military men. Of the first grade 
the leading features are long locks and smiles; of the second, frogged coats and 

Descending in the scale of what is termed gentility, I found darker and deeper 
themes for speculation. I saw Jew pedlars, with hawk eyes flashing from 
countenances whose every other feature wore only an expression of abject 
humility; sturdy professional street beggars scowling upon mendicants of a 
better stamp, whom despair alone had driven forth into the night for charity; 
feeble and ghastly invalids, upon whom death had placed a sure hand, and who 
sidled and tottered through the mob, looking every one beseechingly in the face, 
as if in search of some chance consolation, some lost hope; modest young girls 
returning from long and late labor to a cheerless home, and shrinking more 
tearfully than indignantly from the glances of ruffians, whose direct contact, 
even, could not be avoided; women of the town of all kinds and of all ages–the 
unequivocal beauty in the prime of her womanhood, putting one in mind of the 
statue in Lucian, with the surface of Parian marble, and the interior filled 
with filth–the loathsome and utterly lost leper in rags–the wrinkled, 
bejewelled, and paint-begrimed beldame, making a last effort at youth–the mere 
child of immature form, yet, from long association, an adept in the dreadful 
coquetries of her trade, and burning with a rabid ambition to be ranked the 
equal of her elders in vice; drunkards innumerable and indescribable–some in 
shreds and patches, reeling, inarticulate, with bruised visage and lack-lustre 
eyes–some in whole although filthy garments, with a slightly unsteady swagger, 
thick sensual lips, and hearty-looking rubicund faces–others clothed in 
materials which had once been good, and which even now were scrupulously well 
brushed-men who walked with a more than naturally firm and springy step, but 
whose countenances were fearfully pale, and whose eyes were hideously wild and 
red; and who clutched with quivering fingers, as they strode through the crowd, 
at every object which came within their reach; beside these, pic-men, porters, 
coal-heavers, sweeps; organ-grinders, monkey-exhibitors, and ballad-mongers, 
those who vended with those who sang; ragged artizans and exhausted laborers of 
every description, and all full of a noisy and inordinate vivacity which jarred 
discordantly upon the ear, and gave an aching sensation to the eye.

As the night deepened, so deepened to me the interest of the scene; for not only 
did the general character of the crowd materially alter (its gentler features 
retiring in the gradual withdrawal of the more orderly portion of the people, 
and its harsher ones coming out into bolder relief, as the late hour brought 
forth every species of infamy from its den), but the rays of the gas-lamps, 
feeble at first in their struggle with the dying day, had now at length gained 
ascendancy, and threw over every thing a fitful and garish lustre. All was dark 
yet splendid–as that ebony to which has been likened the style of Tertullian.

The wild effects of the light enchained me to an examination of individual 
faces; and although the rapidity with which the world of light flitted before 
the window prevented me from casting more than a glance upon each visage, still 
it seemed that, in my then peculiar mental state, I could frequently read, even 
in that brief interval of a glance, the history of long years.

With my brow to the glass, I was thus occupied in scrutinizing the mob, when 
suddenly there came into view a countenance (that of a decrepid old man, some 
sixty-five or seventy years of age)–a countenance which at once arrested and 
absorbed my whole attention, on account of the absolute idiosyncrasy of its 
expression. Any thing even remotely resembling that expression I had never seen 
before. I well remember that my first thought, upon beholding it, was that 
Retszch, had he viewed it, would have greatly preferred it to his own pictural 
incarnations of the fiend. As I endeavored, during the brief minute of my 
original survey, to form some analysis of the meaning conveyed, there arose 
confusedly and paradoxically within my mind, the ideas of vast mental power, of 
caution, of penuriousness, of avarice, of coolness, of malice, of blood-
thirstiness, of triumph, of merriment, of excessive terror, of intense–of 
supreme despair. I felt singularly aroused, startled, fascinated. "How wild a 
history," I said to myself, "is written within that bosom!" Then came a craving 
desire to keep the man in view–to know more of him. Hurriedly putting on all 
overcoat, and seizing my hat and cane, I made my way into the street, and pushed 
through the crowd in the direction which I had seen him take; for he had already 
disappeared. With some little difficulty I at length came within sight of him, 
approached, and followed him closely, yet cautiously, so as not to attract his 

I had now a good opportunity of examining his person. He was short in stature, 
very thin, and apparently very feeble. His clothes, generally, were filthy and 
ragged; but as he came, now and then, within the strong glare of a lamp, I 
perceived that his linen, although dirty, was of beautiful texture; and my 
vision deceived me, or, through a rent in a closely buttoned and evidently 
second-handed roquelaire which enveloped him, I caught a glimpse both of a 
diamond and of a dagger. These observations heightened my curiosity, and I 
resolved to follow the stranger whithersoever he should go.

It was now fully night-fall, and a thick humid fog hung over the city, soon 
ending in a settled and heavy rain. This change of weather had an odd effect 
upon the crowd, the whole of which was at once put into new commotion, and 
overshadowed by a world of umbrellas. The waver, the jostle, and the hum 
increased in a tenfold degree. For my own part I did not much regard the 
rain–the lurking of an old fever in my system rendering the moisture somewhat 
too dangerously pleasant. Tying a handkerchief about my mouth, I kept on. For 
half an hour the old man held his way with difficulty along the great 
thoroughfare; and I here walked close at his elbow through fear of losing sight 
of him. Never once turning his head to look back, he did not observe me. By and 
by he passed into a cross street, which, although densely filled with people, 
was not quite so much thronged as the main one he had quitted. Here a change in 
his demeanor became evident. He walked more slowly and with less object than 
before- more hesitatingly. He crossed and re-crossed the way repeatedly, without 
apparent aim; and the press was still so thick, that, at every such movement, I 
was obliged to follow him closely. The street was a narrow and long one, and his 
course lay within it for nearly an hour, during which the passengers had 
gradually diminished to about that number which is ordinarily seen at noon in 
Broadway near the park–so vast a difference is there between a London populace 
and that of the most frequented American city. A second turn brought us into a 
square, brilliantly lighted, and overflowing with life. The old manner of the 
stranger reappeared. His chin fell upon his breast, while his eyes rolled wildly 
from under his knit brows, in every direction, upon those who hemmed him in. He 
urged his way steadily and perseveringly. I was surprised, however, to find, 
upon his having made the circuit of the square, that he turned and retraced his 
steps. Still more was I astonished to see him repeat the same walk several 
times–once nearly detecting me as he came around with a sudden movement.

In this exercise he spent another hour, at the end of which we met with far less 
interruption from passengers than at first. The rain fell fast, the air grew 
cool; and the people were retiring to their homes. With a gesture of impatience, 
the wanderer passed into a by-street comparatively deserted. Down this, some 
quarter of a mile long, he rushed with an activity I could not have dreamed of 
seeing in one so aged, and which put me to much trouble in pursuit. A few 
minutes brought us to a large and busy bazaar, with the localities of which the 
stranger appeared well acquainted, and where his original demeanor again became 
apparent, as he forced his way to and fro, without aim, among the host of buyers 
and sellers.

During the hour and a half, or thereabouts, which we passed in this place, it 
required much caution on my part to keep him within reach without attracting his 
observation. Luckily I wore a pair of caoutchouc overshoes, and could move about 
in perfect silence. At no moment did he see that I watched him. He entered shop 
after shop, priced nothing, spoke no word, and looked at all objects with a wild 
and vacant stare. I was now utterly amazed at his behavior, and firmly resolved 
that we should not part until I had satisfied myself in some measure respecting 

A loud-toned clock struck eleven, and the company were fast deserting the 
bazaar. A shop-keeper, in putting up a shutter, jostled the old man, and at the 
instant I saw a strong shudder come over his frame. He hurried into the street, 
looked anxiously around him for an instant, and then ran with incredible 
swiftness through many crooked and peopleless lanes, until we emerged once more 
upon the great thoroughfare whence we had started–the street of the D---Hotel. 
It no longer wore, however, the same aspect. It was still brilliant with gas; 
but the rain fell fiercely, and there were few persons to be seen. The stranger 
grew pale. He walked moodily some paces up the once populous avenue, then, with 
a heavy sigh, turned in the direction of the river, and, plunging through a 
great variety of devious ways, came out, at length, in view of one of the 
principal theatres. It was about being closed, and the audience were thronging 
from the doors. I saw the old man gasp as if for breath while he threw himself 
amid the crowd; but I thought that the intense agony of his countenance had, in 
some measure, abated. His head again fell upon his breast; he appeared as I had 
seen him at first. I observed that he now took the course in which had gone the 
greater number of the audience but, upon the whole, I was at a loss to 
comprehend the waywardness of his actions.

As he proceeded, the company grew more scattered, and his old uneasiness and 
vacillation were resumed. For some time he followed closely a party of some ten 
or twelve roisterers; but from this number one by one dropped off, until three 
only remained together, in a narrow and gloomy lane, little frequented. The 
stranger paused, and, for a moment, seemed lost in thought; then, with every 
mark of agitation, pursued rapidly a route which brought us to the verge of the 
city, amid regions very different from those we had hitherto traversed. It was 
the most noisome quarter of London, where every thing wore the worst impress of 
the most deplorable poverty, and of the most desperate crime. By the dim light 
of an accidental lamp, tall, antique, worm-eaten, wooden tenements were seen 
tottering to their fall, in directions so many and capricious, that scarce the 
semblance of a passage was discernible between them. The paving-stones lay at 
random, displaced from their beds by the rankly-growing grass. Horrible filth 
festered in the dammed-up gutters. The whole atmosphere teemed with desolation. 
Yet, as we proceeded, the sounds of human life revived by sure degrees, and at 
length large bands of the most abandoned of a London populace were seen reeling 
to and fro. The spirits of the old man again flickered up, as a lamp which is 
near its death-hour. Once more he strode onward with elastic tread. Suddenly a 
corner was turned, a blaze of light burst upon our sight, and we stood before 
one of the huge suburban temples of Intemperance–one of the palaces of the 
fiend, Gin.

It was now nearly daybreak; but a number of wretched inebriates still pressed in 
and out of the flaunting entrance. With a half shriek of joy the old man forced 
a passage within, resumed at once his original bearing, and stalked backward and 
forward, without apparent object, among the throng. He had not been thus long 
occupied, however, before a rush to the doors gave token that the host was 
closing them for the night. It was something even more intense than despair that 
I then observed upon the countenance of the singular being whom I had watched so 
pertinaciously. Yet he did not hesitate in his career, but, with a mad energy, 
retraced his steps at once, to the heart of the mighty London. Long and swiftly 
he fled, while I followed him in the wildest amazement, resolute not to abandon 
a scrutiny in which I now felt an interest all-absorbing. The sun arose while we 
proceeded, and, when we had once again reached that most thronged mart of the 
populous town, the street of the D-–Hotel, it presented an appearance of human 
bustle and activity scarcely inferior to what I had seen on the evening before. 
And here, long, amid the momently increasing confusion, did I persist in my 
pursuit of the stranger. But, as usual, he walked to and fro, and during the day 
did not pass from out the turmoil of that street. And, as the shades of the 
second evening came on, I grew wearied unto death, and, stopping fully in front 
of the wanderer, gazed at him steadfastly in the face. He noticed me not, but 
resumed his solemn walk, while I, ceasing to follow, remained absorbed in 
contemplation. "The old man," I said at length, "is the type and the genius of 
deep crime. He refuses to be alone. He is the man of the crowd. It will be in 
vain to follow, for I shall learn no more of him, nor of his deeds. The worst 
heart of the world is a grosser book than the 'Hortulus Animae,'<1> and perhaps 
it is but one of the great mercies of God that "er lasst sich nicht lesen."

<1> The "Hortulus Animae cum Oratiunculis Aliquibus Superadditis" of Grunninger.