About Names: “Cleveland Evans: Why Edgar was once the king of baby names”

Edgar Allan Poe (Photo: Public Domain)

Dr. Cleveland Evans writes about names for the Omaha World-Herald. In his January 1st column, he looks at the name Edgar.

Perhaps Jan. 1 should be Founders Day at the FBI.

J. Edgar Hoover, appointed director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation at its creation in 1935, was born on New Year’s Day 1895. He remained director until his death on May 2, 1972. During his lifetime, Hoover was lauded as a crime fighter who promoted forensic laboratories. Since his death, his reputation has fallen as his use of abusive means to maintain influence have been revealed. However, he remains one of the 20th century’s most famous law enforcement leaders.

The first famous Edgar (943-975) became king of England at age 16. Though at first a frivolous womanizer, Edgar later promoted justice and religion. There was so little violence during his reign, he’s called Edgar the Peaceful. He was venerated as St. Edgar soon after his death.

Despite that, his name almost disappeared after the Norman Conquest in 1066. Shakespeare surely chose Edgar for the Duke of Gloucester’s honest son in “King Lear” (1606) because it was fit for a character from Britain’s legendary past.

Famous author Edgar Allan Poe’s parents were actors who’d performed in “King Lear” shortly before his 1809 birth. They may have also read “Edgar Huntly” (1799), a Gothic tale of sleepwalking and murder by American Charles Brockden Brown, making Edgar apt for the writer of macabre tales like “The Pit and the Pendulum.”

The hero of Sir Walter Scott’s tragic “The Bride of Lammermoor” (1819) is Edgar Ravenswood. Poe’s fame along with Scott’s and Brown’s characters made Edgar more popular in the United States than England. The 1850 U.S. census found 7,730 Edgars, while Britain’s 1851 census included only 2,273, though total populations were about equal.

In 1880, when Social Security’s yearly baby name lists start, Edgar ranked 61st. It slowly receded along with other Victorian favorites, leaving the top 100 in 1926 and bottoming out at 310th in 1965.

“Spoon River Anthology” poet Edgar Lee Masters (1868-1950) and psychic Edgar Cayce (1877-1945) are famous Edgars born during its Victorian heyday.