The Mystery Begins
On the night of October 3, 1849 a man described as “delirious,” and “in great distress…in need of immediate assistance,” was found wandering the streets of Baltimore, Maryland. He was taken to Washington College Hospital, where he died 4 days later. This began an American mystery: What killed Edgar Allan Poe?
Poe was an author, poet, and editor, one of America’s earliest writers of the short story and the inventor of detective fiction. He wrote mystery and macabre tales and contributed greatly to the growing popularity of science-fiction. He was the first well-known writer in the nation to try to make a living only on his writing. He married only once, to his cousin Virginia Clemm who died from tuberculosis in 1847.
Speculation of Death Cause
Speculation about the cause of death included suicide, murder, cholera, rabies, syphilis, and influenza, and something called “cooping.” None were ever proven, but what is cooping? See the definition on Wikipedia at this link: Cooping
Obituary Was Unflattering
Edgar Allan Poe was an author and poet of some renown. His work was critiqued, talked about and examined throughout literary circles, plus being read by the public. Rufus Wilmot Griswold wrote the obituary of Edgar Allan Poe. But Griswold was a literary rival and it was evident that the obituary was deliberately unflattering of Poe and his work. Griswold later published a posthumous character assassination of Poe, picturing him as a depraved, drunk-addled madman. This portrayal made a lasting impact on the public, casting an ugly impression for future readers. Poe’s relatives and others who knew him discounted this biography as nothing more than the envy and bitterness of a less talented writer.
What Led To The Death
From September 27 when Poe left Richmond, Virginia to return to his New York home, it was as though he disappeared, until the fateful night he was found. His whereabouts during that period of time is not known to this day. After his discovery, a letter was sent to Dr. Joseph E. Snodgrass, a Poe acquaintance, requesting help. Snodgrass later claimed the letter said Poe was “in a state of beastly intoxication,” but upon examining the original letter there was no statement of that kind.
Poe’s Unusual Appearance
In Poe’s life, his normal physical appearance was neat, clean and though not wealthy, well-dressed. When he was found, he was dressed in clothes that did not belong to him, ill-fitting and shabby, totally out of character for the author. He was disheveled, unkempt and unwashed with “vacant and lusterless” eyes. Many felt he was drugged, but the use of alcohol didn’t seem to be a factor.
While in Washington College Hospital, Dr. John Joseph Moran was the attending physician. Poe was allowed no visitors and was confined to a room with barred windows in the section reserved for drunks. Poe repeatedly called out the name “Reynolds.” Theories are that he was referring to one of the judges named Harry R. Reynolds, who oversaw the voting polls at the tavern near where Poe was found, or Jeremiah N. Reynolds, a newspaper editor with whom Poe was acquainted. But why would he call out a name of someone like that? No one will ever know.
No Records Found
Edward Allan Poe’s medical records and death certificate have never been located. Perhaps they never existed. Dr. Snodgrass, a proponent of the temperance movement, wrote that Poe died of alcoholism. But his writing has been largely discounted by Dr. Moran who said Poe “had not the slightest odor of liquor upon his breath or person.” Since Poe was a member of The Sons of Temperance , he was not known as someone who drank to excess. He was known to drink more than he could handle only rarely, and did not drink at all for months at a time. Other associates spoke of an early, nearly disastrous experience with laudanum for a headache, that kept Poe from using drugs.
So what’s YOUR theory on the death of Edgar Allan Poe? Leave a comment on what you believe happened to him.
- Suicide by overdose of drugs.
- Poisoned by someone who robbed him.
- Poisoned by someone jealous of him.
- Disease such as cholera, rabies, syphilis, influenza.
- Cooping to such an extent that he died of it.
- Something else, and here’s my theory.
Here’s a bit of fitting macabre trivia: There was no headstone for Poe’s original grave because the headstone donated by his cousin Neilson Poe was destroyed before it could be moved to the grave. A train derailed, plowed through the monument yard and smashed the headstone to pieces. Instead his grave became marked with a sandstone block that read “No. 80.”
Poe was reburied on October 1, 1875 and attendees included Neilson Poe who said Poe was “one of the best-hearted men who ever lived.” Though several leading poets of the day were invited to attend, only Walt Whitman accepted. Alfred, Lord Tennyson contributed a poem to the ceremony that read:
“Fate that once denied him,
And envy that once decried him,
And malice that belied him,
Now cenotaph his fame.”
The word “cenotaph” means a memorial for someone who was formerly buried elsewhere.
If you’re a fan of Edgar Allan Poe, or if you’re curious about his work, here are a few books you might want to try.