Edgar Allan Poe: A Mystery Even in Death

An 1848 daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe

An 1848 daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe

One of the largest misconceptions about Edgar Allan Poe is that he was a supposed drug addict and alcoholic which led to his untimely and mysterious death.

On a chilly October afternoon in Baltimore, Poe was seen spending time in a bar room before being found in a delirious state wearing ragged clothes – that were not his mind you – that led to a one-way trip to the hospital. While this has lead to many theories about what happened to Poe that afternoon, and in the following days, it has always been assumed that Poe was drunk and died of alcohol poisoning. Even though this has been popular theory for well over 100 years, it is now thought that there were other contributing factors, many different factors actually.

If it is a misconception that Poe was a drug user and alcoholic, where did the rumors originate from? While living in Richmond, VA, Poe worked as a book critic for The Messenger and he was certainly not shy in his reviews, creating a slew of enemies in the process. One of those enemies was Rufus Griswold who would later go on to write Poe’s obituary, as well as the very first biography on Poe.

Griswold’s purpose was to give Poe a bad name by naming him as a drunk, a womanizer, an addict, and an immoral crazy man who left the world with no friends. Unfortunately, Griswold’s plans backfired and instead of slandering Poe he drove the sale of Poe’s work by making him more interesting than he actually was.

Griswold’s obituary of Poe included such statements as: “He was little better than a carping grammarian”, “He walked the streets, in madness or melancholy, with lips moving in indistinct curses”, and “his shrewd and naturally unamiable character”. The biography would depict a much harsher view of Poe’s personal life.

The feud between two rivals resulted in Poe’s literary success but what about the mysterious circumstances of his death?

It all began on October 3, 1849 when Poe was found delirious while wearing soiled clothes what were allegedly not his own in Baltimore. He had left the home of his former mother-in-law (and aunt) in Richmond, Virginia a week earlier and was supposed to be traveling to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but his destination would never be reached.

A painting of Virginia Poe, nee Clemm, posthumously

A painting of Virginia Poe, nee Clemm, posthumously

A side note about the relationship with his former mother-in-law and aunt. in 1836 at the age of 27, Poe had married his cousin, Virginia Clemm. She died of consumption in 1847. The apparent scandal was not only that Poe married his cousin but she was 15 years his junior, making her 13 at the time of their marriage.

The most common belief is that Poe was found passed out in a gutter but even that simple part of the mystery cannot be proven to be true. Some reports claim that he was found in the bar room of a public house that was being used for polling while other reports claim that he was wandering the streets in a delusional state in the vicinity of that same public house. Earlier reports claimed that he had died in the gutter but we know today that he did have a brief stay at Washington College Hospital after being found.

The following days would be spent between periods of hallucinations, confusion, heavy sweating, brief awareness, and utter belligerence before finally succumbing to death on October 7, 1849. At the hospital, Poe refused any food or alcohol that was offered to him and only drank water in small quantities with great difficulty.

The cause of death? I will list all the possible sources that have been researched or claimed since Poe’s death and will discuss the ones that may not seem clear. Beating, cooping, alcohol, carbon monoxide poisoning, heavy metal poisoning, rabies, flu, brain tumor, and finally murder.

Since most reports agree that Poe was in or near a polling house when he was originally found (one claim says he was found under the steps of the Baltimore Museum) this is not a far-fetched idea. Cooping is when a person is kidnapped, disguised, and taken to a polling house to vote multiple times under many different disguises. Prior to prohibition in the United States voters were given alcohol after they voted as an incentive to vote, so if Poe was part of a cooping scheme, he would have been dressed in someone else’s clothes, and probably completely drunk depending on how many times he was forced to vote. This was the popular belief in the late 1870s of what happened to Edgar Allan Poe on October 3rd.

Carbon Monoxide and Mercury Poisoning:
Carbon monoxide really needs no mentioning as the tests that were conducted in 1999 were inconclusive to this poisoning. The test did reveal mercury in his system which would make sense considering Poe had been exposed to Cholera earlier in the year and mercury was prescribed to treat Poe. Mercury poisoning can lead to hallucinations but the amounts found were 30 times below the mercury poisoning level.

Dr. R. Michael Benitez was tasked with examining Poe’s case in 1996 without having been told who the case belonged to. He found that all the signs had pointed to rabies as the cause of death. According to Benitez, Poe exhibited all the features of rabies including sweating, hallucinations, aversion to food and drink, confusion, periods of calm followed by periods of belligerence. A victim can live with rabies for years with showing no signs of being bitten but once the symptoms appear the patient dies within a few days. However, rabies patients usually suffer from a condition known as hydrophobia, the fear of water, and it has been documented that while at the hospital Poe did drink water.

Brain Tumor:
Poe was moved from an unmarked grave to a formal grave that had a statue dedicated to him. When the body was moved it fell apart which isn’t unusual as it had been 26 years since his death. The interesting part is that one of the workers who moved the body said there was a hard ball rattling around inside of Poe’s skull which was dismissed as his brain. Brains are one of the first parts of the body to decay after death and so it is thought to have been a brain tumor that calcified after death. Apparently a doctor whom Poe had seen while living in New York told Poe that his aversion to alcohol could be the result of a tumor of the brain.

To explain the doctors diagnosis above it is important to note that Poe did drink when he was young, probably in excess at times. As Poe grew older, he drank less and less and some believe he stopped altogether by the time of his death. A tumour could also explain his mood swings, the apparent “rambling” to himself, and the appearance of being drunk.

At the time of the his death, Poe had been engaged to Elmira Shelton. The two had been childhood sweethearts but Elmira ended up marrying another man and having his children. By the time of Poe’s own wife’s death, Elmira had become a widow and the two became engaged after reconnecting. The murder allegation is that three of Elmira’s brothers beat Poe and forced him to drink in excess which they knew would make him extremely sick. This story does differ from others in that Poe did make it to Philadelphia but upon meeting her three brothers there who were threatening him, Poe disguised himself and fled but the brothers intercepted him in Baltimore.

It is fitting that the writer of such macabre work would die in such a manner, a death so shrouded in mystery that it is still unsolved after 166 years.