The Mysterious Death of Edgar A. Poe
Still Haunts Us
by William Weger
“The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins.”
-The Premature Burial, Edgar A. Poe
On a “dark and gloomy day, not raining but just kind of a raw and threatening,” Edgar A. Poe was buried on October 8, 1849.
Only a handful of people attended the funeral at Westminster Church and Burial Ground in Baltimore, Maryland. Presided over by the Reverend W.T.D. Clemm, cousin of Poe’s wife, Virginia, the ceremony lasted just three minutes.
It was a sad goodbye to the gifted poet and master of the macabre. Poe was just 40 years old. With the publishing of The Raven in January 1845, he had only begun to earn international recognition.
Poe didn’t get a headstone and only decades later in November 1875, with his grave site disappearing into the weeds, did the neglected writer and poet finally get a monument worthy of his fine contributions to American literature.
Today, more than 170 years later, Poe’s death remains unsolved. Strangely the more light that’s shed on Poe’s last days, the more his death remains shrouded in mystery.
Father of the detective genre, Poe couldn’t have plotted a more baffling mystery than his own death. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie’s Herule Poirot, eccentric characters influenced by Poe, would likely be clueless. Poe’s own sleuth, the distinguished C. Auguste Dupin introduced in the 1841 short story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” would be challenged to find the truth.
On September 27, less than two weeks before his death, Poe had left Richmond, Virginia. He was bound for Philadelphia to edit a collection of poems for Marguerite St. Leon Loud, a minor poet of the day.
The next day, it’s believed that Poe arrived by steamboat in Baltimore Harbor. He then vanished into the growing city’s crowded and dangerous streets.
On October 3, a rainy Election Day, Joseph W. Walker, a Baltimore Sun compositor, found Poe incoherent inside or near Gunner’s Hall, a tavern and hotel that doubled as a voting place for Fourth Ward denizens.
Alarmed by Poe’s shocking condition, Walker penned a letter to Dr. Joseph Evans Snodgrass.
“Dear Sir: There is a gentleman, rather the worse for wear, at Ryan’s 4th ward polls, who goes under the cognomen of Edgar A. Poe, and who appears in great distress, & he says he is acquainted with you, he is need of immediate assistance.
Yours, in haste,
JOS W. WALKER
To Dr. J.E. Snodgrass.
Dr. Snodgrass observed that Poe wore shabby, ill-fitted clothes, not his own. His motley attire, including a tattered palm leaf hat and coarse boots, was a stark departure from his customary black suit of wool, white shirt, and somewhat loosely tied cravat.
Poe was taken to Washington College Hospital on the afternoon of October 3, where his attending physician was John Moran. For days Poe swayed from delirium to unconsciousness and never managed to explain how he had arrived in such a horrible state. At some point, Poe started calling loudly for “Reynolds” whose identity remains a mystery.
In the early morning hours of October 7, Poe uttered a simple prayer, “Lord, help my pour soul,” and died. No autopsy was performed.
The cause of death was recorded as “phrenitis,” or inflammation of the brain. The archaic medical term was later changed to “delirium.” The symptoms, including confusion and stupor, now are commonly associated with tubercular meningitis.
Many theories abound over Poe’s untimely death. All unproved. He was beaten and robbed. Death by drinking. Carbon monoxide poisoning. Rabies. Heavy metal poisoning. Murder. Flu. Heart disease. Epilepsy. Tubercular meningitis. Others.
“Scholars are still debating theories that keep us hooked on the mystery of Poe’s death,” says Chris Semtner, curator of the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia.
Some of the 26 different published theories about Poe’s death are more plausible than others, Semtner says. What vexes scholars most is the often contradictory, fragmented evidence. And keep in mind that doctors in Poe’s time knew little about internal medicine, he says.
A popular explanation of the beloved author’s death centers on cooping. Another recent theory involves a brain tumor.
Did Poe fall victim to cooping? The shady practice involved gangs kidnapping victims who were held captive for days, stupefied with liquor, beaten, disguised, dragged out multiple times to cast votes for favored candidates, and then set adrift to die.
Voter fraud was rampant in Baltimore in the 1800s and the polling place where Poe was found was among the establishments where “coopers” brought their victims. This theory might explain why Poe was not wearing his own clothes or why his whereabouts were unaccounted for since he left the docks on September 28.
Another recent theory suggests that Poe succumbed to a brain tumor, which might explain his erratic behavior in his final days. In 1875, Poe’s grave was dug up when he was moved to a new place of honor. A worker observed a mass rolling around inside the poet’s skull. Newspapers at the time claimed it was his shriveled brain. Matthew Pearl, author of The Poe Shadow, contacted a coroner who told him the mass might be a brain tumor, which can calcify over time.
"With no realistic scenario in which Poe's body will ever be exhumed, I think the observations from the witnesses who were present when the coffin was moved give us the closest thing we have to physical evidence. But I would emphasize that even if Poe did suffer from a brain tumor, that would not clear up all the mysteries surrounding his last days and death," Pearl said.
“There are some secrets which do not permit themselves to be told.”
- The Man of the Crowd, Edgar A. Poe
Copyright © 2021