The Events Around Edgar Allan Poe’s Death

A death that remains a mystery

smithsonianmagazine.com

Edgar Allan Poe, a great American born author who mastered macabre and mystery. His name alone evokes the soul and leaves an eerie chill. Tragically but fitting, Poe’s death has long been cloaked in mystery. Each legend and rumor of how he passed more ghastly than the next.

Poe’s experience with tragedy starts at a young age…

Poe was born in 1806 in Boston and his experience with tragedy starts from there. Both his parents were actors, but he hardly knew them. David Poe Jr, his father was an alcoholic who had abandoned the family soon after Poe’s birth. While his mother, Eliza Poe, had died when he was just shy of three years old.

Little Poe was sent to live in Richmond, Virginia, with a tobacco merchant named John Allen and his wife who had given him the formal name Edgar Allan Poe. He fought bitterly with Allan and was forced to drop out of college due to the lack of funds, allegedly owing his foster father’s refusal to cover Poe’s gambling debt. After spending some time in the military and sabotaging his second shot at college, Poe moved just north of Baltimore, at the time a third-rate city of graverobbers and squalor that would prove to be the perfect inspiration for the man who would eventually become the inventor of American macabre and horror.

Poe ran as a literary critic and author but his time in the chair was relatively short, the time he did have, he showed his brilliance. He bounced around the east coast, with stops in New York, Richmond, and Philidelphia, and wrote some of the era's biggest magazines. He published some of his greatest works like the poem “ the raven” in 1845 and created the mystery genre in 1841 with his stories about C. Auguste Dupin, a fictional French detective. He created a career and was so prolific during his time.

His personal life, however, was a bit spotty. He married his then thirteen-year-old cousin, Virginia Clamm, though he claimed they never consummated their marriage before her death a dozen years later. He ended up a heavy drinker shortly after — at least according to some.

Mr.Poe ended up missing a week before his death…

Much of what we think of Poe is actually at least somewhat fabricated. Several people had agendas that used Poe to either their advantage or simply to taint the author’s name. One of those people being a man named Rufus Wilmot Griswold who was a rival, the executor of his literary estate, and a major figure in the mystery that surrounds Poe’s death all these years later.

Things looked great for Poe in October of 1849. He was a star author who commanded great audiences for his readings and he was about to marry his first love, Elmira Royster Shelton, Following a short trip to Richmond to Philidelphia and then New York. Poe got as far as Baltimore before suddenly going off of the grid, just disappearing. Disappearing for nearly a week before turning up on October 3rd in what was said a state of delirium outside of a tavern known as Gunner’s Hall.

Poe was found by a man named Joseph Walker, who recognized the famed author, deduced that he shouldn't be dressed in someone else's threadbare, ill-fitting clothes or convulsing in a gutter, and offered to help. Walker asked Poe if he knew someone nearby that he could contact for help and shelter, Poe mentioned an editor named Joseph Snodgrass. Walker wrote to Snodgrass and urged his assistance, the letter reads as follows:

“ 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 in need of immediate attention.

Yours, in haste,

JOS. W. Walker

To Dr. J.E. Snodgrass.”

From there, Poe was taken straight to Washington College Hospital, at which points things got murky both for the patient and the history books. Poe was concealed in a windowless room with only one attendant physician, Dr. John Moran, to watch over him through what would be considered his final days. The week that he spent missing, the hysterical and haggard condition in which he was found, and the unreliability of the witnesses to his final moments and keepers of his legacy all contribute to the over a century and a half of speculation and uncertainty.

Poe passed on October 7th, supposedly after uttering the last words that haunt us today “ Lord, Help my pour soul.” The theories about Poe’s death began cropping up almost immediately after the death of ours truly was announced.

There are no medical records left, and even if there were, the records were so irrelevant due to the lack of information at that time. Poe was supposedly listed as succumbing to Phrenitis or congestion of the brain, which was a polite way of saying overdoes due to alcohol or drugs at the time. There is much suspicion that hangs around the cause of death, both due to the era’s less-than-precise medical treatment as well as the motivations of people involved.

Character assassination shaping Poe’s reputation after departing this Earth.

Poe was, by many accounts, a lightweight when it came to liquor. In fact, he was not remembered by his family and friends as a heavy drinker or alcoholic. It seemed that he would go long stretches without even taking a sip of his alcoholic beverage in fact, but when he did decide to consume alcohol, it did not take much to get him drunk off of his feet. The death of his wife caused by tuberculosis did send him into a downward spiral, he eventually recovered. After experiencing some close-calls and receiving advice from a doctor, Poe pledged to sobriety and joined the Sons Of Temperance just a few months before his death.

The man Poe said he knew nearby before locating to the hospital, Snodgrass, was a major advocated for the temperance movement and toured the country using Poe as an example of the dangers of booze; Snodgrass wrote that when he found Poe at the bad in Baltimore, the author was “ utterly stupified with liquor” and could only produce “mere incoherent mutterings” in place of actual speech.

The on-again-off-again rival of Poe’s, Griswold, slandered Poes name after death by using his position of the executor of his estate to write a cruel, libelous, and unfortunate authorized biography that suggested the legendary author was an opium addict and drunkard.

Moran saw this slander of Poe’s name and decided to clarify the circumstances surrounding Poe’s death. He published a book titled Edgar Allen Poe: A Defense. which describes a sober, steady Poe reciting poetry on his deathbed.

The conspiracy theories that are most credible…

Some speculate that Poe died of rabies, the symptoms recorded match perfectly, the delirium and pattern of his decline in the hospital. In 1996, a researcher and professor at the University of Maryland Medical Center, Dr.R. Michael Benitez, earned national attention for his theory, which was worked out for a medical conference.

Poe resembled ups and downs of madness followed with a fever and at times he was coherent and viable, these symptoms would flow and simply switch from time to time. Poe was also recorded as reluctant to drink water, which Benitez said also matched the symptoms of rabies.

Although Moran wanted to be faithful to his friend, his stories of the illness that took Poe had a few inconsistencies, a lot of people question his motive and his information as reliable.

Another theory says that it could have been the flu that advanced into pneumonia; before his trip that was tragically shortened, the author visited the doctor, complaining of an illness. It was noted by a museum that the doctor had told Poe not to travel because he was too sick.

His soon to be wife explained that he had a weak pulse, fever and that she did not think he should take the journey to Philidelphia.

Other theories include Carbon monoxide or heavy metal poisoning, however, these two theories have been largely discounted. There were also theories of someone beating Poe to death but this sounds more like something out of a Poe story than reality.

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