Pondering weak and weary: the mysterious death of Edgar Allan Poe.

death of poe

One hundred and sixty-four years ago today, on October 7, 1849, Edgar Allan Poe died in Baltimore, Maryland. Poe is arguably the tallest giant in the field of American literature, the Lord Byron of the United States, and certainly a fascinating historical figure in his own right. Not unlike his life, Poe’s death remains shrouded in mystery. It’s not clear why he died or what happened to him in the days before his death, but whatever it was, it was strange.

What we know happened is this. Poe had been living in Richmond, Virginia, but left there on September 27 to return to New York. On October 3 he was found in the street outside Ryan’s Tavern in Baltimore. He was delirious, unkempt, unshaven and wearing strange clothes that looked like they didn’t belong to him. A passer-by, Joseph Walker, helped Poe and delivered him to a doctor named John Joseph Moran. He also wrote a letter to one of Poe’s friends advising him of the writer’s condition and urging that someone do something for him post-haste.

Poe was taken to Washington College Hospital and confined in a prison-like room usually reserved for drunks. Dr. Moran was the only person to have contact with him in his final days. Poe could not explain what had happened to him or how he came to be in his strange condition. For the rest of his life Moran gave conflicting accounts of Poe’s last days, the various accounts not even agreeing on when the writer was admitted to the hospital. His last words were also disputed. He may have called for his wife Virginia (who was dead), or someone called Reynolds (we’re not sure who that is), or he may have spouted poetry. All we know is that he died on October 7. There was no death certificate filed and no hospital records kept; that was not unusual for 1849.

poe original gravesite

Poe’s grave has been moved several times. This is the original one, where he was laid to rest on October 9, 1849. He was moved from this spot in 1875.

The usual interpretation is that Poe was drunk when he was found in front of Ryan’s Tavern and that his death had something to do with his severe alcohol abuse. Indeed, that Poe was a raging alcoholic is taken as an article of faith today. In reality there is no evidence that Poe was found drunk, and in fact he may not have been an alcoholic at all; certainly he binge-drank at various points of his life, but at the time of his death he was a member of a temperance society. Dr. Moran insisted Poe didn’t smell of alcohol and there was no indication that he was intoxicated on October 3. The drunk-Poe theory was pushed heavily in later years by Rufus Wilmot Griswold, Poe’s literary executor, who for complicated reasons seems to have deliberately sought to portray Poe as a drink-sodden, drug-addled lunatic.

So if he wasn’t drunk, what did he die of? We have no idea, and I for one am very wary of modern observers, even those with extensive medical knowledge, “diagnosing” historical figures they cannot examine. (How many different causes of death have been attributed, for example, to Mozart?) I’m more interested in what happened to Poe between September 27 and October 3, a period about which we know nothing. How did he get to Baltimore? Who interacted with him there? How did he come to be wearing someone else’s clothes? Was he attacked by someone, forcibly drugged perhaps? If so, why?

These questions will likely remain unanswered forever, but they are part of the enduring fascination with Edgar Allan Poe, his dark and amazing mind and talents, and his tumultuous life. The mystery will probably never be solved, but it’s interesting to think about.

historyscool3

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4 Comments

  1. Someone once told me that he might have been infected with rabies. However, I used the drunk theory as part of a novel (unpublished) I wrote years ago. Poe had another great mystery that happened after his death, which is his mysterious annual visitor.

  2. The rabies theory has been debunked. It was all based on some doctor misinterpreting something that Moran had written about Poe.

    It’s true, we’ll never know exactly what killed Poe, but from the little evidence we have, it seems likely that he died of a chronic ailment, not some sudden illness or (the most popular guess) delirium tremens. Poe had episodes of severe sickness for some years before his death (his aunt/mother-in-law Maria Clemm described them as his “bad spells.”) My best guess is that he fell prey to one of these “bad spells” during his trip back to New York, and collapsed. A combination of exposure (the weather in Baltimore was very bad at the time) and what I suspect was very poor medical care all combined to finish the poor man off. Alcohol may or may not have had a role in his final illness, but I doubt it was the direct cause.

    As for what this illness was, who knows? What little we know of his symptoms doesn’t really fit any particular disease. It’s a fascinating, but ultimately frustrating puzzle.

  3. I am stuck helping my son with a report wherein he must select and argue a theory on how Poe died… this is maddening. I have been doing research for days to help him come up with something. I guess I am going to go with the brain tumor theory.

  4. There is a theory he was caught by a political gang, drugged or made drunk, and made into what was called a “repeater” voter (one used to vote frequently in the same election as several different voters) in the current Baltimore elections. John Evangelist Walsh wrote a book (one of two on Poe) in which he argued that Poe was supposedly planning to marry an old flame of his who was now a wealthy widow, but her brothers caught up to him in Baltimore, and did the number on him to get rid of him from getting their sister’s money. I think the title of the Walsh book (which I read) was “Midnight Dreary”. He also was yelling the name of “Reynolds” as he lay dying – it may be anyone, but it might be a sea captain and explorer who was pushing a theory about a hollow earth connected at the Poles (remember this is 1849 – Amundsen would not reach the South Pole, followed by Scott, until 1911-12, and Peary and Cook would claim to reach the North Pole in 1908-09). Poe had been influenced by the explorer Reynods when he wrote his extant novel, “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket”.

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